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16 September, 2010

How I Made my SKS Shootable (Part II)

"Man," said my friend D., shaking his head and staring at this pitiful little machine I was holding up in front of him, "somebody really did a number on that thing."
"Yeah, sure looks that way," I agreed. "I don't know anything about this rifle, so I guess I don't even know how bad it is, but it sure looks like somebody was trying to turn it into an AK-47 or something."
"How much do you know about the SKS," he inquired.
"Man," I confessed, "I don't even know how to clean it properly."
My friend is a self-proclaimed apostle of the school of Kalashnikov, designer and father of the ubiquitous AK-47. As such, he sees Simonov, designer of the SKS as a direct ancestor, philosophically speaking, of Kalashnikov. While Siminov was about 15 years the elder, the two were contemporaries, submitting designs to the Russian government, sometimes entering in the same design competitions. The SKS was adopted for use in 1945 and was replaced by the AK-47 in 1956. Please see Wikipedia for the full history of these two rifles and their designers. Entire novels have been dedicated to this subject and it would be foolish to attempt to summarize the whole thing here.
D. then proceeded to flip up the lever on the rear sight which allows the gas tube to be removed, then deftly flipped up the gas tube and removed it. He tipped the front of the tube down and out came this long, skinny stainless steel piston, looking like something from an exotic combustion engine. He stood there, gas tube and hand guard in one hand, piston in the other, grinning like he'd just found a buried treasure. In a tone approaching religious adulation he breathed, "This is where the action happens." Then he showed me, with equal enthusiasm, where some of the expanding gas from a fired round gets diverted from the barrel and into the gas tube, pushing the piston back and into a smaller tappet under the rear sight. The tappet in turn knocks the bolt carrier back, expelling your empty case. A spring behind the bolt carrier pushes the bolt carrier back forward while the bolt grabs a live round and chambers it. Holding the gas tube up again he said, "You can put like about a pound of carbon in this thing before it stops operating!" D. has a way of getting excited about firearms that reminds me I'm not alone in this fascinating pastime.
We loaded up the SKS, among other rifles and pistols, and made the trek west from the St. Louis metro area to a really great public range in a national park about 50 miles out of town. This range is a real gem, remote and unsupervised, excavated from the forest floor. Message me and I can give you the address. With ranges of 25, 50 and 100 meters, it's a great place for plinking or checking the zero on your hunting rifle. Additionally, it's a great example of firearms enthusiasts and shooters being able to effectively police themselves without need of a range master. When it's time to change targets and you get the "all clear," everyone places their weapons on the table, action open, and walks down-range. In the several years I've been going out there, I've never heard of a single "accident". It gives a lot of peace to see so many serious, safety-conscious shooters enjoying a range in the middle of nowhere.
Once on the range, the jamming issues with my SKS became glaringly apparent. It would fire a few without event and then there it would be, a single round stuck in the action at an odd angle, half out of the magazine and not quite able to make it into the chamber. A quick malfunction drill and and it was back in service, but only for another few rounds before experiencing the same maddening jam.
D. stepped in at this point after he saw what was happening and explained that this was his original suspicion upon seeing the rifle. All the SKS forums mention problems with detachable magazines and the SKS, a rifle designed to utilize a fixed 10 rnd. magazine and stripper clips. I decided then and there to take his advice and to begin my own research on the matter online.
A couple of weeks later I received my surplus fixed magazine, bought from an online merchant, with the highest of hopes. While my own rifle is of Chinese manufacture and the magazine purchased was from a Yugoslavian SKS, there were no issues fitting it to my rifle once I was finally able to get down to snapping it on. Unfortunately it's here the plot thickens.
The detachable magazines that came with the rifle could be taken off and put back on with a bit of finesse, but not the smooth consistency you would expect from something like an AR-15 or an AK-47. You had to make sure everything was lined up just right, kind of pull the front down and slide it forward, then tilt up in the back. It's hard to describe, so just trust me, it was the kind of playing with your rifle that you wouldn't want to do in a firefight. But, finicky, jamming detachable magazines be darned, because the mission was to do away with them, to take this machine back to it's reliable, 10 round, stripper clip-fed basics, the kind of basics that kept these rifles running for the VC when they were living in mud holes in North Vietnam.
I took the detachable magazine off and set it well out of the way. With the slow, trembling cautiousness of a new surgeon I approached my rifle with the fixed magazine, feeling out how the two would mate together. The answer was that they wouldn't, at least not until I took off the trigger group. The rear of the magazine has a double-claw sort of thing at the back that grabs a pin on the front of the trigger group back toward the trigger guard. The old detachable was well out of the way, but in order to get this new fixed magazine in, the trigger guard would have to be removed, the magazine inserted at the front, and then attached to the trigger group via these double claws. Then the trigger group and magazine snap back into the stock like one big lever, pivoting on the front of the magazine.
Problem was, I couldn't get the trigger guard off. Looks like the guy who Bubba'd up this rifle had put a pistol grip and a whole mess of homespun fiberglass over the release button on the back of the trigger group. Like a cartoon I used to watch as a kid, it was back to the drawing board.
I briefly considered dumping the whole rifle, junk magazines and all at a local pawn shop, just to be done with the whole headache. Call it faith in what this rifle could one day be, or call it pure stubbornness, I was hooked in a way I couldn't shake. Maybe it was the fact that I knew as a poor college student, this rifle, warts and all, was my only chance to have a capable, military-style rifle any time in the near future. It was time to plunge in headlong and once again I went to the internet and to my good friend D. He mentioned a stock by Tapco and I checked out every review I could find. Tough synthetic materials, adjustable length of pull, available in different colors, and relatively cheap, the Tapco INTRAFUSE system was what I needed. If I could only get the barrel, action and trigger group to let go of the stock.  
Fast forward a couple of weeks and my Tapco stock arrived.  I selected flat black for the color, and the blade-style bayonet cut.  I know the spike bayonet is a tougher stabbing implement but I can't use the bayonet with my muzzle brake anyway so the bayonet is more of a last-ditch knife that stays with the rifle.  Removing the original stock was a stressful affair involving a utility knife, a chisel, and a lot of hand-wringing.  In less than an hour and a six-pack of Boulevard I found what I was looking for:  the little button on the back of the trigger group that releases it.  Once free, the trigger group swung out of the way and came apart from the rest of the rifle.  The barrel and action came out of the top together, and in no time my new Tapco was secured.  Though Tapco suggests a certain amount of fitting may be necessary for some, my SKS was a quick, drop-in installation. 
The fixed 10 rnd. magazine also fit the stock without a problem and it was time for another range trip, ASAP.  Who can resist testing a new build?  What I found is that my new-old SKS can digest some Russian surplus ammo like a Sumo wrestler on a bowl of rice.  In the last three years since the stock update, the only jam I have experienced were a series of stovepipe jams I attributed to a spam can of Romanian surplus ammo that my rifle just did not like.  My friend's Russian-made SKS didn't mind that ammo a bit, but my little baby just didn't want to feed it reliably.  As long as I feed her Russian-only, she goes through FMJ, soft point and hollow point ammo without so much as a hiccup.

Tapco stock, bandoleer with 180 rnds. on stripper clips plus cleaning kit, and my .357 S&W.

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