Buying SKS Rifles: The Gun Tests Smart Shopper Checklist
Looking to buy a bargain-priced surplus rifle from China, Russia, or Romania? Here's what you need to know to find that gem.
[IMGCAP(1)] The SKS has been a true bargain in recent years, with zillions of them having been imported from China, Russia, and lately, from Romania. Its strongest drawing point has been its low cost, for which you get a rifle with adequate power for most deer hunting. The rifle also makes a fine defensive weapon for those who feel a need for one, but don’t want to put out ten times the cost for a good .308 rifle, or for one of the AK-47 variants that look fiercer but may not be as useful as the SKS.
So many SKSs have appeared on these shores that many accessories have been made available for them, such as synthetic stocks and scope mounts that replace the bolt cover. These items can quickly turn a military dog into a good-looking, useful rifle, and do it for not a lot of money.
The SKS design originated with the Russian designer Simonov. Like Kalashnikov’s AK-47 design, the SKS has a vent hole in the top of the barrel that bleeds gas onto a plunger, which in turn is driven rearward to move a second, spring-loaded rod, which kicks the bolt carrier rearward. The bolt is a tipping-locking design. It is driven into battery by a constrained (so it won’t fly apart when you take it out) spring located behind the bolt. The non-detachable magazine holds ten rounds. Aftermarket magazines were once easily available for the SKS. They resembled the curved AK magazine, and may or may not work to perfection, and may or may not be legal anymore. The standard SKS magazine generally works very well. It can be charged via stripper clips, and emptied out the bottom via a hinged floorplate.
Takedown is quite simple. Clear the rifle and close the bolt. Apply forward pressure onto the top of the smooth rear end of the action and rotate the lever on its right side upward 90 degrees, and pull it out to the side. This releases the action cover, the bolt spring, the bolt and its carrier. The gas tube may be removed by rotating another lever located at the rear sight. Rotating that lever still farther forward ultimately releases the spring-loaded plunger housed in the rear sight base. Be sure to catch it so it won’t fly across the room and impale someone.
In recent past, brand-new Chinese SKS rifles sold for under a C-note, sometimes with a bunch of ammunition thrown in to sweeten the deal. Those days are gone. The discriminating SKS buyer now has a somewhat more costly menu of rifles from which to choose. We acquired four SKS rifles and tried to discover what, if anything, would make any one of them a better buy than the others.
Three of our rifles were Romanian, and the fourth was Russian. All the rifles were arsenal refinished. As such, they had all-matching numbers. All but the Russian had chromed bores and chambers. The stocks had varying degrees of nicks and dings. The best-looking of them was the Russian, and it had some gloss to its stock. It also had some blackened spots from oil or powder staining. The worst-looking stock was on Rifle 3. It was pretty beat-up looking, with scratches into the wood, scuff marks, numerous surface irregularities, and lots of dirt underneath a spotty finish. Yet it didn’t have the worst bluing. That dubious honor was held by Rifle 2.
The rifles all had bayonets. These were nearly all identical blades, chrome-plated and quite dull. If the bayonet were deployed and then thrust into the ground, it served to keep the rifle out of the dirt, visible and handy. One could sharpen the bayonet and thus be sure of having a knife with you whenever you had the rifle, but the knife’s “handle”—the rest of the rifle—makes it into a pretty clumsy tool. You could do yourself a favor and take the thing off the rifle.
The fact that some of today’s SKS rifles have bayonets makes them slightly rarer than the previously imported Chinese rifles, which were not permitted to have bayonets. The Chinese rifles all originally had bayonets, but they had to be removed for importation. The importers also brought in the triangular-section bayonets, and offered them as tent pegs, letter openers and the like, just to get rid of ‘em. We don’t believe that an SKS rifle with a bayonet is worth a heck of a lot more money than one without, with the exception of a few rare and outstanding collector’s samples that should be kept as-issued. Most of these rifles will end up altered in one way or another, so why pay a premium for a bayonet? We believe the whole idea of the SKS is in having an inexpensive, reliable, fun-gun.
For purposes of discussion, we designated our selections as Rifle 1 through Rifle 4. The first three were the Romanians; the fourth, the Russian. The first two were purchased earlier this year, and the second two arrived just recently. All of them were marked CAI, for Century Arms International, the original importer, (800) 527-1252. Missing from three of these rifles were the cleaning kits, normally carried in a hole in the butt plate, and secured by a spring-loaded door. The Russian had one. All but Rifle 3 had a cleaning rod secured under the barrel by the bayonet.
Rifle 1 and Rifle 2 each cost $140, plus $10 for an accessory package that included a leather sling and leather ammunition pouch. The leather was moldy, in bad need of leather-care products. Although the slings and pouches were functional, we don’t think the accessories were worth the extra ten bucks. One of the rifles had noticeably better wood and metal finish than the other.
Rifle 3, $149, was another Romanian, Rifle 4, $149, was the Russian, and was also the best-looking. It had the Russian star on top of the action cover and also on the left side of the stock. There were no accessories with these rifles.
Overall, we can say that none of this quartet was anywhere near the quality of the Russian SKS we tested in the October 1999 Gun Tests. That doesn’t mean they were not good rifles for the money. But to find out, we had to look at them one at a time.
This gun’s stock had numerous nicks and dings, but significant grain that would reward a good cleanup and rubbing with linseed oil. The bluing was very acceptable for a surplus military rifle, with a few nicked and worn areas here and there. The rifle had a solid feel, with all the parts seeming to be firmly attached. The rear sling swivel was loose. The magazine fit well, with minimal rattle.
The trigger broke at 4.5 pounds with lots of creep. That’s about what you can expect from any of these rifles. The safety lever was bent slightly forward and protruded into the guard area slightly, but didn’t interfere with function. Internally everything looked very good, clean and well made.
We test fired the rifles with three types of ammunition, Russian HP, Sellier & Bellot ball, and Winchester ball. We found Rifle 1 liked the S&B ammo the best, giving 4-inch three-shot groups at 100 yards. There were no malfunctions. The weight of the SKS makes shooting the 7.62 x 39 ammunition very pleasant. It would be easy to shoot one of these rifles all day long, or until your ammunition supply ran out. With American-made ammunition and components available, reloading for the cartridge is easy and fun and can give best accuracy, but surplus ammunition beats it for cheap shooting.
We thought Rifle 1 was a decent rifle, probably worth its cost. It would make a nice-looking sporter, especially with its bluing touched up here and there.
This gun didn’t gather a lot of praise for its looks. The stock had a very spotty finish, with a glossy patch here and a no-finish patch there. The wood was stained red, and the overall effect of the poorly applied finish was pebble-grained. It was impossible to tell the quality of the wood lurking under the finish.
The metalwork was nothing to write home about either. The central portion of the action had the bluing worn away, as from long hours of carrying with a rough hand. The bolt cover was worn closer to white than blue. The magazine bottom fit loosely, and it and the trigger guard were worn white. The edges of the ladder-sight adjustment knobs were white from wear, and so was the ladder up which it slid. Inside, the metal showed signs of the rifle having been fired many, many rounds. Then we glanced down the barrel. It was by far the best-looking of all four rifles’ barrels. It looked crisp and shiny and new. Could we be on to something?
The trigger broke at 5.5 pounds. It had very smooth creep, stacked its pressure, and then let off very crisply. It felt a lot lighter than it measured. Hmm.
At the range, our first groups with the Russian ammo made us think this was just another dog when we got 9-inch groups. Then we tried S&B ammo, and were pleasantly surprised. At 100 yards, our three-shot groups averaged 3 inches. When we tried the Winchester ammunition, our jaws bounced off the ground when we looked at the results. The worst groups were around 2.0 inches or under, and the best went into an inch.
Clearly this would be our pick of the lot. We like rifles that are fun and cheap to shoot, but we love accurate rifles. One of our shooters bought this one for himself, and we wonder what kind of wood he’ll find under the awful-looking finish when he strips it. He said he will keep it in the military stock.
This was a doggy-looking brute with a nut missing from its cross bolt. As previously noted, the cleaning rod that should have been under the barrel was gone. When we fired the rifle, we found it had a sticky pushrod in the gas tube. This caused the secondary rod, which is spring-loaded and housed within the rear sight base, to stick rearward. This did not impede the rifle’s function in any way. The returning bolt unstuck the rod, driving everything forward to where it ought to have been. The stock was in desperate need of refinishing, and before that, filing or scraping to get rid of many irregularities. It appeared to be good wood under all the grit.
The metal was loose somewhere in the stock. We could twist the rifle and feel something move. The bluing was actually quite good, with little wear. The ladder sight showed wear from use, but the bottom of the magazine and the steel of the trigger guard were nicely blued with no wear. We found lots of clean grease inside the action, and not much evidence this rifle had been fired. The barrel looked about average for a chromed bore. The trigger pull, just under 4 pounds, had uniform creep until it broke.
At the range, Rifle 3 shot way better than it had any right to. We got 3-inch groups with Winchester ammo, and the rifle averaged second-best of all four. Pity it had a sticky gas tube.
Rifle 3 would need some metal smoothing, or fine-tuning, or replacement parts (the problem seemed to be in the gas tube housing) that we shouldn’t have to pay for. The least you can expect for your money is that the rifle functions properly, and it actually did. Our shooting determined this rifle had the second-best overall accuracy of this group of four, and was, in fact, the most accurate with the Russian ammunition. Until we shot it, we had no idea the part was sticky. If the seller made it work without sticking, it would be okay, but as is, it’s faulty even though it worked all the time. Bottom line on Rifle 3 was that with its looseness, missing parts, and sticky innards, we would say Don’t Buy It for the quoted price. There are many good SKSs out there and it’s a buyer’s market.
The Russian looked pretty good. The bluing was matte finished, perhaps from bead-blasting to clean it up. The ladder sight appeared to be brand new, with very little use. It had no bluing. Inside was further evidence of the metal having been bead- or fine-sand-blasted, and the matte bluing was not worn anywhere. This rifle appeared to have been fired little, if at all. The bluing was not even worn from the bolt raceways. The springs, all of them, were noticeably stronger than on the other three rifles.
The barrel, which was not chromed, was rough. The rifling was clean and there was no obvious pitting, but the entire surface inside the bore appeared to have that same frosted appearance of the rest of the metal. Was it acid etched, or pickled, to clean it? Perhaps, but if so, the bore ought to have been protected.
The trigger broke, with smooth creep, at 4.5 pounds. It was the second-best pull of the lot. Unfortunately, the rough-looking barrel did nothing for the rifle’s shooting ability. Overall, it had the worst accuracy of the lot. Perhaps with lots of shooting the barrel would wear smoother, and accuracy would improve. We tend to doubt it, as one of the bullets struck noticeably tipped, indicating severe internal barrel problems. It did its best with Winchester fodder, giving 5-inch average groups.
Based on the accuracy of this rifle we’d give it a Conditional Buy rating. The fact that it was a bona-fide Russian rifle gave it some collector value over more common SKSs, but if you want to be picky, find yourself an original, non-refinished version for your collection. This one probably should not be separated from its Russian-marked stock.
So what do you do with it? If you can get it cheaply enough, it’s a good example for study or occasional fun shooting. If you have to pay a premium, say over $400, we’d pass on it no matter where it was made.
Gun Tests Recommends
As this survey of four SKS rifles shows, quality can vary wildly from piece to piece. So how do you grade one before you buy? Here’s what we would do:
Our first step in an evaluation of a bunch of similar rifles like these would be to visually inspect everything, looking for clues, such as the outstanding trigger pull and significant wear inside and outside of our best-shooting Rifle 2. We’d also look for damage, missing parts, and potentially sticky things. This might require field stripping. The stuck plunger on Rifle 3 was easy to detect, once we had the parts in our hands. Before we shot it, we had no idea there was anything wrong.
Our next-to-worst-looking rifle, Rifle 2, shot the best, and for most SKS owners, accuracy is the bottom line. Therefore, we suggest that if possible, shoot the rifle before you buy it. Some stores, notably Williams Gunsite Co. in Davison, Michigan [(800) 530-9028], commonly let buyers try before they buy.
Along the way, check for ease of manipulating all the controls, ease of loading, and of unloading. Perfect function at all times should be mandatory.
If you can’t shoot the rifle, look very carefully at the bore. We’d never buy one of these for shooting unless it had a chromed bore. But there are good and bad chromed bores. Look for razor-sharp rifling and no evidence of bending or frosting or any suspicious roughness. Be sure to clean the bore before you evaluate it.
We’d consider bluing in the evaluation as well. Cold blues can do wonders, but a nice original bluing job will make up into a better-looking rifle in the long run.
A home gunsmith could easily improve the looks of any of this quartet with sandpaper, stain and linseed oil, and maybe cold bluing. None of that, as we’ve already said, ought to be done to the Russian piece, but any of the other three would be prime candidates for the beginning gunsmith to practice on.
If you can find a laminated-stock SKS, they’re stout, and make up into attractive rifles if you refinish them. The laminated stock would be our first choice. If you can’t find one, look for sound wood with little cosmetic damage. A trained eye can peer through the murk and tell if the wood’s worth anything. Of course, if you’re planning to restock, don’t spend too much time looking at the wood.
SKSs can be lots of fun. They’re fun and inexpensive to shoot, to research, to fix up, or to take apart and put back together. They’ll probably respond to careful reloading. They’re about the cheapest and one of the best ways to get a rifle in the 7.62 x 39 caliber. An SKS might be right for you. Have fun on your search, but buy with a wary eye.