As covered in the first paragraph of AK-47
, by the beginning of WW2 it was apparent that the heavy, accurate, long-range rifles of yore were no longer suitable as general infantry arms. Smaller, lighter designs were needed, firing lower-powered cartridges, preferably with the capacity for controllable, fully-automatic fire. Rather than modify their existing rifles, the Russians decided to start afresh, basing their research around a new cartridge, the M1943
. It is a tenet of firearms design that rifles tend to be designed around their cartridges, and not the other way around; the Russians put this into practice.
By the time of the German invasion three new weapon systems were envisaged, each firing the new cartridge, each one mirroring developments in the principal combatants in the Second World War. The first project looked to England's Lee-Enfield, and consisted of an old-style bolt-action rifle, a project presumably intended both as an emergency measure in case of a Russian collapse and the necessity of guerilla warfare, and to placate conservative elements in the Soviet military. This idea died a death and was quickly abandoned; the Lee-Enfield was the finest military bolt-action rifle of all time, but it had clearly had its day.
The second project called for a semi-automatic carbine for general issue, similar to the American M1 Garand, but cheaper to make and hopefully superior, as it was never expected that the allies would remain allied after the war. The third project was for an innovative new category of weapon that didn't yet have a name, but mirrored the German MP-42 - a select fire design half-way between a sub-machinegun and the aforementioned infantry carbine. This latter project eventually became Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK-47. The semi-automatic carbine was to become the SKS.
It was designed by a man called Sergei Simonov, a designer at the Soviet Union's arsenal in Tula, where he worked with Feodore Tokarev, the veteran mind behind the Tokarev TT and SVT rifle (Mikhail Kalashnikov was meanwhile at Izmash in Izhevsk, one and a half thousand miles to the east). For Simonov the SKS was something of an obsession; his other designs - the Ptrs 41 anti-tank rifle and an unproduced sub-machinegun - being variations of the same basic mechanism. His prototype - originally called the AVS36, later 'Samozariadnyia Karabina Simonova', or 'Self-loading Carbine, Simonov' - dated as far back as 1931, but was hampered by being chambered for the 7.62x53mmR cartridge, a cartridge too powerful for the basic design, the force of the recoil causing mechanical failure during testing. Also against Simonov's design was the Tokarev SVT-38, a larger, more powerful and more complicated design which had been approved for general issue over the prototype SKS. The introduction of the 7.62x39mm M1943 cartridge gave the project a new lease of life, conversely dooming the unfortunate SVT, although the latter was to prove extremely influential on the design of post-war battle rifles. Whether Simonov and Tokarev's relationship suffered after that is lost to history.
Life and Times
Mechanically the SKS is gas-operated, with propellant gas bled from the barrel used to force a piston backwards, pushing open the bolt whilst extracting and feeding rounds. Whereas the AK-47 bolt rotates out of alignment with the chamber, the SKS bolt tilts, although neither design is overly complicated. In common with rifles of the period, the ten-round magazine remains fixed to the rifle whilst cartridges are loaded into the breech from above, either singly or via clips. Most versions had an integral bayonet that folded through 180 degrees downwards when not in use; this could also be used as a makeshift monopod when half-folded.
Even in 1945 the SKS was something of an anachronism. With a barrel four inches longer than the AK-47 the SKS was marginally more accurate and had greater range, against which it was semi-automatic only, and had a smaller magazine which took longer to reload. Nonetheless, it was cheaper and easier to make than the AK-47, and with similar ballistic performance to its assault rifle cousin it made an ideal training weapon; it also equipped second-line occupation troops, military police, artillerymen and other soldiers who, although off the front lines, nonetheless needed a weapon. Even today it remains in Russian service as a ceremonial arm.
The SKS entered limited production in 1944, and was used by some units in the final assault on Berlin, where it received glowing reviews from the troops. By 1945 production was in full swing, although the SKS never quite became the Soviet Union's main infantry arm. War surplus rifles continued in service for a few years, and the AK-47 started to replace the SKS from the early 1950s onwards. In 1955 Russian production was halted, although the next year production moved to China, with the result that the majority of SKS rifles in the world are Chinese. China used the rifle (the 'Type 56 Carbine') in parallel with their AK-47 (the 'Type 56 Assault Rifle') much as Russians had done, although from 1968 the SKS was replaced by the Type 68, an rifle which resembled the SKS but had AK-47 internals and a detachable magazine. Yugoslavian, East German and Romanian production started up in the late 1950s, with production continuing in various countries right up until the 1980s.
As with the AK-47 the SKS was produced and exported to regimes the Soviet Union supported, initially moreso than the AK-47, as the Soviet Union wished to retain an edge by keeping the AK-47 for themselves. During the Korean War, the SKS was issued to the best and brightest North Korean units, and it remained common in Vietnam, where it was much prized by US forces as, being semi-automatic, it could be legally posted home as a war trophy. More recently, irregular forces in the former Yugoslavia took advantage of domestic SKSs, as well as large quantities of ex-East German SKS rifles sold to Croatia after German reunification. As with the AK-47 it is popular amongst terrorists and guerrilla forces, although not to the same extent as a semi-automatic rifle requires more skill to use effectively; it is not possible to spray a car with bullets, the user has to aim as well. The continuing popularity can largely be put down to three things - reliability, cheapness, and the extreme proliferation of the M1943 cartridge.
SKS rifles are popular amongst civilian shooters in the United States, not least because prices rarely rise about $150; an SKS and a thousand rounds of ammunition can be had for $200, which from the perspective of a British writer is heartbreaking. Ammunition is cheap, the rifle's ten-round magazine and semiautomatic action fall within most legislation, and, on a psychological level, its old-fashioned appearance - a wooden stock, no pistol grip - does not conform to negative media stereotypes of an assault rifle. Much debate is conducted as to whether Russian or Chinese versions were better made, although the smart money appears to be on the 'Sino-Soviet' models - made in China during the years 1955-1956 in China by Russian engineers, as part of the technology transfer deal behind the shifted production.
Apart from those mentioned in my writeup on the AK-47, which used the same cartridge and historical background:
http://www.gunsamerica.com/ (for prices)