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SKS rifle in the Soviet Army

Updated: Apr 6

The SKS rifle, or SKS-45 (though the name is not official) is a self loading weapon, developed in the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. It did not get a decent chance to be tested in major combat at the time, but was quickly adapted and produced in gigantic number. The carbine was never put in practical use by the Soviets, but it is still a considerable weapon today. In this article we will discover how the weapon was used by the Soviets during the Cold War. The article is a preambular to one of our upcoming book - Soviet small arms of the Atomic Age. It's release is planned for early 2025.

SKS rifle
Soviet conscripts with SKS rifles on propaganda magazine cover

Historical background on SKS in the Soviet Army

The adoption of SKS carbine to the Soviet Army was a very predictable and logical step. Based on the practice of the Second World War it was obvious that infantry units which could deliver higher firepower had much better results and survival rate.

Of course, the Red Army was not quite there yet - while they did have good numbers of SVT-40 and PPSh-41 submachine guns, the majority of infantry soldiers were still armed with regular Mosin rifles or their shortened version. At the end of the war, anticipating a new conflict in the nearest future, Soviet Army officials wanted to rearm the core of the ground troops with new weapons, capable of repeating fire.

SKS rifle
Soviet soldiers towing SG-43 machine gun on an exercise. Note the SKS rifles

The SKS was a really good solution for this request. Being a rather simple weapon, both in turns of usage and production, it was not an impossible task to equip an enormous Red Army in short time. And the task was completed - by the early 1950s there were not many regular infantry and tank units, who didn't have modern SKS and AK rifles. Mosin carbines were still in use, but mainly by very rear echelon troops, such as airbase guards or railroad convoys.

Features and combat use of the SKS

The SKS was a semi-automatic carbine, featuring a 10-round magazine, loaded with a clip and a folding bayonet. It was a precise enough weapon - a regular trained soldier could easily engage targets at the distance of up to 300 meters and it would not be the worst choice for close quarter combat. At the time many armies of the potential enemies were still armed with manually operated bolt rifles, so SKS would win in most cases.

Overall, the SKS was a great weapon... for a war that just passed. For the battlefields of the Second World War, especially for the Eastern Front, it would be a perfect option. Cheap, reliable, powerful and versatile, the carbine would be a fine choice for a big army.

SKS rifle
Soviet privates in tropical region uniforms armed with SKS rifles

The SKS was adapted just a little late and never seen any big conflict, at least with the Soviet Army. It did not make it a bad rifle - it is still a very capable weapon. It was just unlucky in terms of how the small arms were developed at the time. The carbine was very quickly shifted off by the AK rifles, which had similar if not the same range, but could deliver far more firepower.

But it should be well noted, that Soviet Army did in fact use SKS carbines in 1956, during the uprising in Budapest. at the time most infantry regiments were still armed with the mix of AK and SKS rifles and it was spotted on many photographs from the days of the events.

SKS rifle
An interesting transitional photo - soldiers are wearing both M43 and M69 uniform, all armed with SKS rifles and having signals pins

Role of the SKS in the Soviet Army

By the early 1950s, Soviet Army had a section structure which was almost ahead of its time. Couple of men were armed with SKS, couple more with AK and there was also one RPD and one RPG-2 per section. It is possible, that if the Soviet optical industry was more developed at the time, the SKS would become a marksman rifle and the Soviet section would actually be exactly the same as most NATO armies had in the GWOT era. But this is some material for a separate article on battle orders and alternative history.

SKS rifle
A very photo of an infantry section, a mix of AK and SKS rifles can be clearly seen

The SKS had a very similar lifepath to another popular battle rifle - the US made M-14. Based on the experience gathered during the Second World War, both were shifted out of service in favor of new(ish) class of weapons - assault rifles. The Soviet Union was a little bit ahead in both adoption and change of SKS, but the overall timeline is similar.

So, by the late 50s, most frontline units of the Soviet Army were rearmed with AK rifles, making SKS redundant. The carbines were still used in some parts of the forces - many rear echelon regiments, such as communications and artillery. Some of the Officer Schools had them until early 70s, but the record keepers were probably the Airbase protection garrisons.

SKS rifle
Artillery crew with SKS rifle, early 60s

Legacy of the SKS carbine

The SKS carbine remained in the Soviet Army until the very end and is still used by the post-Soviet countries today. However, apart from some very unique instances, the role of the SKS is exclusively ceremonial. While it is a very comfortable choice, the logic behind is very unclear. SKS is a weapon which was never used in any real combat by the Soviet forces.

Not having any practical military history to back it up, it seems like a very weird choice for ceremonial use, which, in its core, has to underline the heroic history of any Army. For any post Soviet Militaries using M1891 Mosin rifles would make far more sense, and there are still thousands of them - no shortage in equipment. Even using an AK-74 would be a more sensible choice, given that it was actually used on a large scale in big conflicts.

As for use in reenactment, it can be a very handy piece in your collection. While it was not used by the Soviet forces in any serious conflicts, it was still around. And the number of combat appearances outside the Soviet Union is simply to hard to count - it was used almost on every continent. We are actually trying you list them all - it will all be present in the corresponding chapter of the Soviet small arms of the Atomic Age. 

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1 Comment

In fact,SKS early models were quickly pressed into service, and saw action with troops of the 1st Belorussian Front during the final months of World War II. The SKS was still undergoing active field trial when Germany surrendered in May 1945.

When standard production began, the first pattern was fitted with a spike bayonet (dated 1949 on the receiver cover). Then in 1950, it was switched to blade bayonet.

Nevertheless, the spike model saw some action in Hungary 1956 as shown on this pic :

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