Let’s embark upon a little thought experiment. You’re perusing through your local gun store with several hundred dollars burning a hole in your pocket, when you come upon two fine examples of Soviet engineering: an SKS and an AK clone. Both fire the same inexpensive .30-caliber cartridge and are renowned for their durability and reliability—so how do you choose one to purchase?
The deciding factors are largely subjective and personal, but once a shooter identifies their needs it can be greatly simplified.When I consider buying a gun, I normally evaluate it in terms of six key aspects: reliability, accuracy, ergonomics, price, aftermarket support, and cost of ownership.
This aspect is nearly a wash between the two rifles. AK-pattern rifles are known for their ability to tolerate the most abhorrent conditions imaginable. From the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, the AK just works. It’s the reason first-run models dating from the late 40s and early 50s still pop up in conflict zones to this day. They have an unsurpassed ability to just keep running.
Not to say that the SKS rifle isn’t a reliable option, but it hasn’t earned the same reputation for reliability as its detachable magazine-fed comrade. That said, examples built both for and by China that later found their way into the hands of Vietnamese soldiers did an incredible job of tolerating the jungle humidity and abundance of thick mud of that Southeast Asian nation. A slight edge goes to the AK for reliability.
Most AK-lovers will tell you that rifles with milled receivers are more accurate than ones with stamped receivers. While on paper this is absolutely correct, in practice the difference between the two major types of AK carbine is minimal. What about the all-milled SKS rifle? It is more accurate than your average AK due to its more rigid construction, less violent action, longer barrel, and subsequently longer sight radius, but again it’s more academic than practical.
That said, the best group I’ve ever seen fired from an SKS assault rifle was around two inches at 100 yards, which is basically on par with AK-pattern guns. However, since we’re splitting hairs to come up with a superior rifle, the SKS is slightly more accurate than most AK rifles. Certainly, Molot-made Vepr carbines are able to squeeze more accuracy from the platform, but for the vast majority of shooters the SKS will be slightly more accurate. This SKS gun gains a point for its superior accuracy.
Ergonomics are a tricky thing with firearms. Rather than being simply subjective or objective, often they’re a combination of both and reflect a shooter’s past experiences. For example, I learned to shoot on a Glock 17. Even though it’s too large for my hands, I’m so accustomed to the pistol that guns with arguably better ergos can feel awkward to me.
At least in part, ergonomics are a personal issue. The concept also touches upon how easily a shooter can shoot a firearm in awkward positions, reload it, and clear malfunctions.
For this portion of the comparison, I wanted to be as practical as possible. So I looked at the challenges each gun presented when manipulated and fired from various positions. Here is where the AK’s lineage and close association with “tank desant” comes in to play. The AK’s steep stock angle, relatively short barrel, and capacious magazine capacity make perfect sense when shooter realizes it was designed to protect armored vehicles from infantry with handheld anti-tank weaponry. By this I mean it wasn’t designed for long-range combat, but more mobile suppressive fire against targets within 200 meters. The SKS is more like an intermediate Russian version of the Garand, offering more firepower to individual shooters at ranges up to 400 meters.
Why mention this? Because it explains why the AK is so awkward to fire from the prone position—it wasn’t designed for it. Which is where the SKS really shines.
The ergonomics on the SKS rifles are better for bench-shooting and prone fire, where its traditional stock and stubby fixed magazines don’t interfere with soldiers trying to keep their heads down. The safety is easier to reach on the SKS than the AK, but is far less positive and more difficult to actuate with gloved or panic-stricken hands.
The biggest difference between the two rifles is the ease of reloading. The SKS feeds from a fixed 10-round magazine that can be refreshed with stripper clips. While aftermarket removable magazines exist, they aren’t as reliable or as easy to replace as AK mags. With all this in mind, the two are nearly equal, but the faster-reloading nature of the AK gives it enough of an edge over the SKS to take the lead. Advantage: Kalashnikov.
A decade ago, the SKS had a huge price advantage over the average AK rifle. In the early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to snag a Yugoslavian SKS for under $100. Now, if shooters can even find them, they’re closer to $350 in rough condition.
That’s not to say that the price of AKs has remained static, either. Since the 2012 panic, the average price of an AK rifle has increased to around $575 for entry-level carbines.
Conclusion? The SKS is still less expensive, but the cost of both guns has increased enough that the difference is less significant than in the past. If this article was being written at the turn of the century, I would have recommended shooter buy both and a case of 7.62x39mm for under $1,000, then invest in some shop towels to clean all the cosmoline off. Today, if money is the only motivating factor, shooters should stick to the Simonov carbine. Advantage: SKS rifle.
Here’s where we separate the rookies from the rockstars. The SKS once had what was considered a robust accessory market. However, with the increasing popularity of firearms and the AK in the United States, the AK accessory business has eclipsed that of the SKS.
With no fewer than seven different railed handguard markers, and dozens of furniture builders available, the only limit when customizing an AK rifle is a shooter’s budget—especially with parts like AR-stock adapters that greatly expand the available stock options for the AK. It’s also much easier to mount modern optics to AKs with side rails using mounts like those made by RS Regulate. Gross advantage: Kalashnikov.
Cost of ownership
Ask any McLaren F1 owner what parts cost for their car, and they’ll laugh. They haven’t the faintest idea, because money doesn’t matter to them. Few gun owners have this luxury, so most of us have to figure out what it costs to maintain and keep our rifles fed.
Since both guns use the same ammunition, that portion of this comparison is void. Also, since both rifles enjoy great longevity of parts, most shooters won’t need to replace anything on either for the life of the gun. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume for whatever reason this prospective buyer assembles guns with a mallet and a grudge.
The cost of AK parts is pretty cheap, assuming the shooter buys a standard AKM-type rifle. If they opt for a milled gun, certain parts are more expensive and rare, like furniture, but the basic components are the same. Spare parts for the SKS used to be very cheap, but with its growing scarcity, the cost of replacement parts like springs and the gas tube has astronomically increased. While magazines are fairly inexpensive for both platforms, spare AK mags are infinitely more plentiful, and steel ones can often be found for around $12. Advantage: Kalashnikov.
With a markedly cheaper cost of ownership, better aftermarket support, and marginally better ergonomics, shooters looking for an inexpensive, dependable carbine should lean towards the famed AK. While either gun is equally as proficient at throwing inexpensive bullets down range, the AK is more versatile and can more easily be customized for just a few hundreds dollars more. That said, I wouldn’t feel under-armed with either of these rifles in a bugout or SHTF situation. If I had a choice, though, it’d always be an AK.
Images by Jim Grant