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SKS Review: the Yugo 59/66A1

A Pair of Yugo 59/66 SKSs

A Pair of Yugo 59/66 SKSs

Since its introduction to American shooters in the early ’80s, the SKS has become one of the most popular semi auto rifles ever to hit the American gun buying consumer. Low cost, extremely reliable rifles coupled with equally low cost imported ammunition assured that the SKS would become a favorite. Once the budget-minded shooter has laid down his hard-earned cash for the SKS, he’s rewarded with a rifle whose quality is very disproportionate to its cost. If for some reason some manufacturer decided they were going to go into the business of building SKS rifles, new ones would undoubtedly be 6-8 times the price of what we’re buying now. Simply put, this kind of quality costs money.

Some Yugo SKS History

After the smoke had cleared from WWII, it was all too clear that the automatic rifle had positively supplanted the bolt action as queen of the battle field. The Soviets took the automatic rifle lessons to heart more than anyone. They began development of the rifle that would fight WWIII before WWII was even over. After WWII the Soviet military began an all out program to develop a new standard infantry rifle for the entire Eastern Bloc.

It’s claimed that even before the war, the Soviets were working on the ubiquitous cartridge we now know as the 7.62x39mm M43, because they recognized that the battle rifle cartridges of the day were much more powerful than what was needed. Others say that the 7.62x39mm is a direct result of Soviet engineers seeing the 7.92 Kurtz cartridge of the MP-44. Personally, I think there’s enough evidence that points to the fact the Soviets were onto the assault rifle concept years before WWII.

Development of the 7.62x39mm was halted because of the German invasion, but once the Russians got back on their feet, they resumed their work, and designers Nikolai M. Elizarov and Boris V. Semin completed the project in 1943. The cartridge was designated the M43 and was ready to go; only there were no rifles for the new intermediate cartridge. To the rescue were two rather talented small arms designers, Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov and Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov.

It is the work of Sergei Simonov that we’ll be concerned with for this article, as he is the man responsible for the Samojadnyi Karabin Simonov (self-loading carbine Simonov) 1945, or SKS-45 for short. As designed, the SKS was a great leap forward in the area of infantry rifles in the days following WWII. Unfortunately, Simonov’s rifle came at time when tactics were rapidly changing, and the SKS-45 would have the shortest service life of any standard Soviet military rifle.

When the SKS went into full production in 1949, the AK-47 was already well into the development stage and would replace the SKS by 1955. Regardless, millions of SKSs were built in the Soviet Union and surrounding satellite nations. When the Soviets adopted the AK-47, many of the Communist Bloc nations who couldn’t afford such a quick change, stuck it out with the SKS, and continued production for years to come.

Good Enough

The SKS follows the Russian tradition of being good enough. There’s an old saying in Russia, “Perfection is the enemy of good enough,” and the SKS was good enough. In fact, the SKS was a downright excellent rifle even though it was guilty of being built for the last war instead of the next war. The SKS had the right blend of accuracy and power to be a most competent military rifle. For us civilians, the same holds true. Although the SKS will never win any rifle matches, its accuracy is on par with what the average shooter is capable of with the issue open sight at reasonable ranges. As for power, the 7.62x39mm is on par with the .30-30 Winchester, itself a capable short range deer cartridge.

Of those many nations that built the SKS, Yugoslavia managed to turn out some of the best of the bunch (keeping in mind that “best” is almost always a subjective term). The Model 59/66A1 of this article is a good example of how seriously Yugoslavia took its small arms production; the quality of the rifle in question easily rivals the manufacturing quality of anything produced in the west.

The 59/66 is simply a model of 1959 Yugo SKS that was arsenal upgraded to the 59/66A1 standards which were considered necessary for the militaries of the 1960s. The most obvious of these is the NATO standard 22mm grenade launcher on the end of the barrel, and the accompanying flip up grenade launcher sight.

Yugo 59/66 Rifle Grenade Sight & Launcher

Yugo 59/66 Rifle Grenade Sight & Launcher

Now why would a Com-Bloc weapon have a NATO standard grenade launcher? I’ve never seen a definitive answer, but we can make some speculation. Although Yugoslavia was a Socialist state, it wasn’t a true member of the Communist Bloc, choosing instead to straddle the fence a bit between east and west. Yugoslavia had always intended to export the 59/66 and it could be that they chose the NATO standard grenade launcher to make it more attractive for export… Just a theory, of course.

Rifle grenades helped bridge the gap between hand thrown grenades and light mortars. The grenade launching sight is regulated up to 240 meters for anti-personnel (denoted with a “T” on the left side) and 150 meters for anti-tank (denoted with a “K” on the right side). Rifle grenades were slipped over the muzzle of the gun and were launched with a special blank round made specifically for this task (meaning not just any blank round will work). To launch the grenade, the gas system had to be turned off. The Yugo engineers developed a clever device that turns the gas system on and off, and it’s even idiot proof. You can’t raise the grenade launcher sight without shutting the gas system off. Unfortunately, you can lower it without turning the gas system back on, and if you do, you have a manual action rifle. The grenade launcher is a relic of the past, and should be treated as such – although you can get your hands on practice grenades, grenade launching blanks are not easy to find. If you find blank 7.62×39 ammo, chances are it’s not safe for grenade launching, so common sense would say don’t go there.

Yugo 59/66, Front Sight Post

Yugo 59/66, Front Sight Post

Some additional features of the Yugo 59/66 that deviate from the standard SKS are the ½” rubber butt plate and the flip up night sights front and rear. Actually, there are two types of night sights, one with luminescent paint and the other uses tritium inserts like the night sights of today. Since these rifles have been sitting in a warehouse for decades, the night sights are no longer operable.

Unlike most Communist Bloc nations, the Yugos did not chrome line the bore of the 59/66. Most agree the reason for this is economic, as Yugoslavia had no indigenous resources of chromium and importing it from the Soviets was probably cost prohibitive or came with too many strings. The lack of chrome lining is undoubtedly an aid to accuracy as few chrome lined barrels of this era are plated evenly. The chroming process of the time tended to leave some spots that were thicker than others, which left high spots and low spots in the bore; something that’s never an aid to accuracy. This is not to say that the Yugo 59/66 is necessarily more accurate than other SKSs. The 59/66 offsets this potential advantage by hanging more stuff off of the barrel (grenade launcher, bayonet, grenade launcher sight, etc.) which degrades the inherent accuracy of the gun.

A Pair of Beautiful Eastern Blondes

A Pair of Beautiful Eastern Blondes

Field Stripping

Field Stripping is fairly easy with the SKS, provided you don’t take the action out of the stock – which is rarely if ever needed, outside of installing an aftermarket stock. After ensuring the rifle is not loaded, simply rotate the take down lever located at the back of the receiver cover 90° until it’s pointing straight up, then pull it straight out. At this point, the rear cover will be free and will move rearward slightly. Pull the rear cover straight back and set it aside. Now pull the captive spring assembly out of the bolt carrier and set it aside. You can now pull the bolt carrier all the way to the rear and lift it and the bolt out of the receiver.

To access the gas piston, rotate the take down lever upwards (located on the right hand side of the rear sight assembly), while gently pulling up on the upper handguard. Once you’ve rotated the take down lever far enough, the upper handguard will pull free, and the chromed gas piston will simply fall out.

Generally speaking, no further disassembly is necessary for normal use.

Loading the Yugo 59/66

Loading the Yugo 59/6

Loading and Firing

The SKS is loaded via 10-round stripper clips, which is generally a very convenient way of loading a rifle. Empty rifle in hand, simply pull the operating rod all the way to the rear and the bolt will lock open on an empty magazine. Insert the stripper clip into the integral guide on the top of the bolt carrier. There will be some forward and backward play that can bind the whole process up, so it’s recommended you push the stripper clip forward with one hand while using the other hand to strip the rounds into the magazine. Once the ammunition is in the magazine, remove the stripper clip, pull the operating rod all the way to the rear and let go. A round is now chambered and is ready to fire.

The Yugo 59/66 comes with either a Birchwood or Teakwood stock; I have samples of both and they both look great, with a nod toward the teak for aesthetics.

The SKS’s Place in History

Well it’s most certainly not an assault rifle, because it’s a semi-auto and not select fire. But then again, it doesn’t fit the typical “main battle rifle” because it lacks the full size cartridge of typical main battle rifles such as the SVT-40, Garand, or the German G43 (notice the other two are WWII guns).

To my way of thinking, the SKS fits nicely into the late to post WWII rifle realm, but the cartridge is unique in that it’s a true intermediate assault rifle cartridge. Had the SKS came along two years earlier, it could have made a real big impact on the battlefield.

So the SKS is what I call an “improved” WWII battle rifle. It is superior to any rifle made in WWII that’s for sure, yet it’s not quite an assault rifle.

OMG!! Did he just say the SKS is superior to my beloved Garand?!

Why yes I did, and I’ll say it again with some clarification. As a combat rifle, the SKS is clearly superior to the Garand.

The SKS is lighter, more reliable, has a greater magazine capacity, and easier to reload. And the 7.62×39 cartridge is a clear advantage over the Garand being lighter in weight, allowing a soldier to carry more ammunition, and recoil is a fraction of what you can expect from a Garand.

Two Fine Yugo 59/66s

Two Fine Yugo 59/66s

There are a number of us who take the subject of something like a defensive carbine very seriously and will demand nothing but the very best. In this writers eyes, “the best” means having an actual military rifle – not a civilian knock off of a military rifle, but the real thing. The SKS gives you perhaps the most advanced semi-automatic rifle that an American civilian can easily own that is still 100% the issued military rifle. There are no “compliance” parts, or US made this or that. The SKS we buy is the SKS that was issued to Com-Bloc soldiers.

Why does that matter? There are a lot of weapons out there today with far superior designs than the SKS, why would I handicap myself with a dinosaur like the SKS when I can have the latest AR iteration with all the newest accessories?

Follow the development of the M16 (I pick the M16 because there are tons of information sources about the lifeline and development of the M16, so it’s an easy example to follow; but rest assured, most military rifles have gone through very similar development) – as designed, rarely are there any real flaws with the design of a rifle, but often they will run into issues related to the manufacturing techniques of certain parts, or the materials that parts are manufactured.

When we buy the absolute latest greatest, we’re really taking it on faith that the latest and greatest is “better”. As a student of small arms and small arms development, I know from my decades of study that rarely does anyone get it 100% right the first time. Nearly all small arms parts or systems go through a phase where we learn what works and doesn’t work.

When we buy a commercial AR, we’re not getting actual military specification parts. Oh, they may meet military spec, or they may not; we’ll never know. They may even exceed military spec (that’s rare, because that’s expensive), but we will never know.

The beauty of an SKS is, there is not uncertainty; you’re getting a 100% military rifle, that’s tested and proven to be exceptionally reliable; more reliable than any US military rifle (with the possible exception of the M1 Carbine). For these reasions, the SKS is a value far beyond what most realize.

When we choose the Yugo 59/66A1, not only do we get that real military rifle quality, we’re getting an extremely cool piece of infantry history, that we can take out and use hard if we want.

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