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7.62x39mm: In Depth
During the brutal eastern-front battles of WWII, the Soviet Union’s armed forces were forced to pursue every approach they possibly could in order to beat back the invading Nazis. Roughly a year into the invasion, the Soviets found themselves increasingly at a disadvantage in terms of small arms fire: specifically the kind of fire that hit harder than a pistol while recoiling less than a full-sized rifle cartridge.
The Germans had this capability – a prime “intermediate” package for the unpredictable ranges and chaotic urban encounters that came to define modern warfare in the 1940s. The 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge, accompanied by the Sturmgewehr 44 – now considered the first successful assault rifle – was just the right mix of power, portability, and controllability under automatic fire, and could effectively engage targets from point blank range out to 300m.
Leading up to the German invasion, the Soviets did have a fantastic submachine gun, and a limited stock of semi-automatic SVT-40 rifles, but the venerable old bolt-action Mosin Nagant 91/30 was still the mainstay of the infantry, and it was a poor choice for close-in fighting. The 91/30 not only lagged behind with its fifty year-old cartridge technology (7.62x54R), but it was also bolt action, too long, and just “too much gun” for short-range enemy encounters.
It’s possible that the Soviets simply took the 7.92x33 Kurz’s design and outright copied it during the war. Or, perhaps the desire to supplement their submachine gun cartridge (7.62x25 Tokarev) with something more powerful had already sent them down a similar development line a few years prior. In any case, by late 1943 the Russians were rolling out a cartridge known thereafter as M43, which used a .30 caliber, 123-gr. jacketed flat-base bullet in a roughly 41mm case – 7.62x41mm. This cartridge would be paired with the new RPD light machine guns and SKS rifles before the war’s end.
In an effort to increase penetration at long distance, the Soviets began to experiment with a boat tailed, steel-core bullet for use in the M43 cartridge. It was found that these longer bullets required the 7.62x41mm M43’s case to be shortened slightly in the neck area, leading to this modification becoming a permanent feature. The improved round retained the original Soviet M43 designation, but became more commonly known the world over as 7.62x39mm. Though M43-chambered weapons first saw action starting in 1943, the boat tail bullet and shorter 39mm case wouldn’t arrive until the late 40s.
With the introduction of the 7.62x39mm cartridge came an iconic (and notorious) firearm that continues to be a battlefield fixture after many decades. This AK47 rifle, so named for its firing characteristic (Automat), its designer (Kalashnikov) and the year of its acceptance (‘47), resembled the earlier German Stg. 44 in form but not precisely in function. Leaning on the expertise of the Germans, particularly in the area of stamped parts, the Soviets would perfect and streamline the gun’s manufacture over the next decade, exporting vast numbers of AKs to other Warsaw Pact nations until domestic production in these countries eventually took over. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, production of AK-pattern rifles in Russia and other former satellite countries went on for generations (and still goes on).
Starting in the 50s, the AK47s began to show up at various conflicts around the world in large numbers and immediately made a good impression on the troops that used them; they were/are known to function dependably in adverse weather conditions, to perform well in the hands of novice shooters, and to run happily on a diet of all steel-cased ammo. US troops would soon face the business end of these rifles, along with SKSs, and other weapons that chambered 7.62x39mm in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Africa. Though not known for their accuracy, the AKs in particular proved to be fearsome foes on the battlefield.
For the Soviets and their allies, the newer AK-74 and its 5.45x39mm ammunition began to take over for the AK-47 and 7.62x39mm beginning in the mid 1970s. By this time, most large militaries were shifting to higher velocity / lower caliber intermediate cartridges, though the larger caliber ammunition remained in production. However, many Americans had to wait until the 1980s before they could partake in the cheap influx of foreign 7.62x39mm ammo and firearms that would eventually come to the US. That decade saw the beginning of mass importations of SKS rifles and semi-auto AKs (and variants thereof), along with low cost surplus and newly-manufactured 7.62x39mm ammunition. Also, Ruger released the Mini-Thirty in 1987, giving US shooters a chance to shoot inexpensive Com-Bloc ammo through a well-made American firearm. It wasn’t long after that before bolt-guns were offered in the chambering, which gave rise to a fair amount of hunting with the round starting in the 90s.
While the dirt cheap spam cans of the 80s and 90s are long gone, as are the $80 sporting goods store SKSs, this cartridge is still pretty cheap to shoot, overall. The average shooter enjoys this cartridge for plinking and mag dumps rather than precision work, so steel-cased ammo is where it’s at. This ammo, for the most part, is still imported, but the US has blocked its importation from certain countries over the years. Demand being what it is, domestic production in this country has yet to catch up. But, regardless of the situation in the US, the cartridge is still incredibly plentiful and active around the globe even today; knowing the durability and longevity of just the AK platform alone, this will be true generations into the future.
Modern domestic gun makers offer a variety of semi-auto and bolt-action guns chambered in 7.62x39mm. Ruger kicked things off for 7.62x39mm here in the US in 1987 with the Mini-Thirty, which is similar to their 5.56 NATO chambered, semi-automatic Mini-14. In addition, many ex-Soviet Bloc countries still have active armories that produce high quality AK-pattern rifles, some of which are exported to the US in semi-auto configuration. Russian and Chinese-made guns, similar to ammo imports from those countries, are hard to come by due to various bans / embargoes initiated by the US government starting in the 90s. Military surplus SKS rifles are also out there.
- Arsenal Inc. SAM7R
- Zastava ZPAP M70
- Ruger Mini-Thirty
- CMMG Resolute Mk47
- PSA Gen2 KS-47
- Chinese Type 56 SKS (Military Surplus)
- Ruger American Ranch
- Howa 1500 Mini-Action
- CZ 600 Alpha
Why Choose 7.62x39mm?
The answer to this question used to be “Because it’s cheap!” Now, not so much. Ballistically, the cartridge is nothing special; it recoils more than 5.56 NATO, and most of the rifle platforms available aren’t exactly known for precision. So, if you’re scratching your head thinking about why you’d pick this cartridge over the competition, it’s understandable. On the other hand, this is what freakin’ AKs use; it’s cool! ‘Nuff said.
Target / Plinking
- Default ammunition for mag dumps into trash.
- Steel-cased ammo is still imported, some is now domestically produced, and it’s plenty reliable for target shooting in AK and SKS platforms.
- .30 caliber bullets @ 2,400/fps are no joke. This is plenty of energy for dispatching deer or dealing with hogs.
- This round has a pretty steep downward curve (trajectory-wise) after about 200 yards so plan accordingly.
- With the proper load, this can be a good option for home defense. Any bullets featuring a steel core are liable to overpenetrate, however.
7.62x39mm: Ammo Brands and Loadings
The 7.62x39mm target ammo you’ll likely buy is steel cased with an FMJ bullet, though brass cased ammo is also common now. Supplies of the cheap stuff from Russia and China have been cut off by the US government more than once, but steel cased ammo is still imported from former eastern-bloc nations, at least when international relations permit this. If you’re hunting with this cartridge, brass cases are typically the rule, and will also feature soft point lead or hollow point projectiles. Make sure you read up on the specific load before you take it out hunting, as not all soft point bullets expand reliably.
- 123-gr. FMJ Bimetal (Copper w/ steel core) bullet @ 2,400/fps / Steel Case
- 123-gr. Jacketed Soft Point bullet @ 2,400/fps / Brass Case
- FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) - Target
- JSP (Jacketed Soft Point) - Target, hunting
- JHP (Jacketed Hollow Point) - Target, hunting
- 122-gr. to 125-gr. - Most common weights are 123-gr. or 124-gr.
- 200-gr. and up - Subsonic ammo
- 122-gr. to 125-gr. - 2,300/fps to 2,600/fps
- 200-gr. and up - 1,050/fps for subsonic ammo
- Subsonic loads are available. If you’re using these for hunting, be advised that your muzzle energy goes way down compared to normal supersonic loads.
Steel Cased Ammo / Indoor Ranges
- Some ranges might not permit steel cased ammo. Loads that feature a steel-core bullet are more likely to damage backstops when used at indoor ranges. Outdoor ranges may be more worried about sparks and fire danger.
Berdan Primers and Reloading
- If you want to reload your empty 7.62x39 cases, steer clear of Berdan primed ammo. Berdan primers are most often found in the steel cased options, which aren’t practical to reload anyway. However, it’s common to break a decapping (depriming) pin when attempting to punch the primer out of a Berdan case, since Berdan and Boxer primers don’t have their flash holes in the same places.
7.62x39mm: Frequently Asked Questions
For the most part, it doesn’t matter in an AK or an SKS: steel works just fine. Ruger recommends ammo made by American manufacturers for shooting through their firearms. You’ll likely get better accuracy in a 7.62x39mm bolt-action gun with brass cased ammo, just keep in mind that this is not a cartridge known for precision in the first place.
Absolutely. As previously mentioned, this is a .30 caliber cartridge with a muzzle velocity of around 2,400/fps. Just pay attention to proper bullet selection and keep your shots under 200 yds or so. Medium sized game can be taken with this cartridge at appropriate distances.
It’s more than adequate. Imported steel cased ammo is not a good option for home defense, however, as the steel core bullets will over penetrate.
Corrosive ammunition damages firearms, but only if you don’t clean your gun after you shoot. This is because the residue left after firing it attracts and traps moisture against metal surfaces. More info on that here.
While it used to be true that almost all 7.62x39mm ammo was corrosive, that’s not really the case anymore.
FOR US-PRODUCED AMMO - American-made 7.62x39mm ammo doesn’t use corrosive primers. While it’s still a good idea to clean your firearm after a range session, it won’t be required.
FOR IMPORTED AMMO - LOOK ON THE BOX! If the load uses non-corrosive primers, it will say so. If you see “Non-Corrosive” anywhere on the box, you’re good. If you don’t, time to clean.