Introduced in 1943, the 7.62x39mm cartridge was originally chambered in the RPD Light Machine Gun as well as the SKS Rifle. Soon after its development, the entry of the iconic AK-47 into the Soviet military ensured the 7.62x39 would have a place for many years to come. The cartridge has been employed in militaries around the globe, and is used by many police officers and civilians.
The round is also known as the 7.62 Soviet and sometimes as the .30 Russian Short, though the latter of these is somewhat archaic. Thanks to its use in the AK-47, a semi-automatic rifle virtually everyone in the world has heard of, 7.62x30 ammo is used across the globe.
Because it was a round preferred by the Soviet Union in combat, it needed to be able to be fired in extremely warm and extremely cold climates in every region. Thus, a rifleman can use the 7.62x39mm in anything from the poles to the equator.
The Iconic AK-47
What the AR-15 is to the United States, the AK-47 is to Russia and the Eastern Slavic countries. The original design work began in 1945, but the AK-47 didn’t reach the Red Army until a year later in a fixed stock version. Seventy years later, the AK-47 (or “Kalashnikov”) is one of the most widely used weapons in the world both for civilian and military use. Indeed, of the 500 million firearms in the world in 2004, 100 million were Kalashnikovs and 75 million of these were AK-47s.
One of the hallmarks of the weapon is its service life. This can be as little as 6,000 or as much as 15,000. The difference is because there are so many variations on the weapon, made both with the utmost craftsmanship or cranked off of assembly lines in impoverished post-Soviet nations, that it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Indeed, the weapon is so iconic in Russia that it is the subject of a popular joke about the future as regards the rivalry between the United States and the People’s Republic of China for world dominance: “Optimists learn English, pessimists learn Chinese, realists learn Kalashnikov.”
The History of the 7.62 Soviet Round
There’s actually a fascinating history to the development of this cartridge. Like virtually everything else manufactured in the Soviet Union, the 7.62x39 round was the result of central planning. Unlike virtually everything else in the Soviet Union, central planning managed to get this one right.
It all started on July 15, 1943, when the Soviet Union was in the throes of its battle with Nazi Germany. This was the day that the Technical Council of the People's Commissariat for Armaments met to discuss an intermediate Soviet cartridge, something that the Red Army sorely needed.
As dictated by the Soviet central planners, the new cartridge was to be the backbone of the Soviet military. It would be used in a light machine gun, a semi-automatic carbine and a selective fire rifle. The cartridge was designed by (what else?) a committee in conjunction with the Soviet Union’s top weapons designers. The committee considered 314 designs before narrowing the field down to eight that were actually manufactured, then tested. By December 1943, the 7.62x41, the forerunner of the 7.62x39, began production. In March of 1944, the first 7.62x39s rolled off the line.
The Men Behind the 7.62x39
Some of the weapon designers who worked on this round deserve mention in their own right:
- Vladimir Grigoryevich Fyodorov: At a certain point, the Soviet Union realized it needed military men from the old Tsarist regime. At the same time, aristocrats of the Tsarist era began to see the Soviet Union as a means of national cultural resurgence. Vladimir Grigoryevich Fyodorov was just such a man. A graduate of the Mikhailovskaya Artillery Academy, he designed a prototype of one of the earliest assault rifles, the Avtomat Fyodorova. After the revolution, he headed up the first Soviet weapons plant. He was awarded several of the USSR’s top honors, including the Hero of Labor, two Orders of Lenin, Order of the Patriotic War (First Class) and Order of the Red Star.
- Fedor Tokarev: Tokarev is also known for having designed the Tokarev TT-30 and T-33 self-loading pistols, as well as the Tokarev SVT-38 and SVT-40 self-loading rifles. These were used extensively in the Soviet war against Germany. He received the Hero of Socialist Labor award, as well as the USSR State Prize for his efforts. His son was also a firearms designer who worked at the world famous plant at Tula.
- Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov: One of the many fathers of the modern assault rifle, his projects include the AG-043, AKS-53, AKS-91, AO-35 assault rifle and AO-63 assault rifle. In many ways, he was the very picture of the Soviet dream. He started working in a foundry immediately after completing elementary school. By 1927, he was working directly underneath Fyodorov in the Soviet Design and Development Department. He received a large number of Soviet awards including the Stalin Prize (twice), the Order of the Red Banner of Labor (twice), Order of the Red Star, Order of the Patriotic War (First Class), Order of the October Revolution, Order of the Red Star, Hero of Socialist Labor and a whopping three Orders of Lenin.
- Georgy Shpagin: A former peasant who became a carpenter at 12, Shpagin was drafted into the Russian Imperial Army and worked repairing artillery. He joined the Red Army during the Revolution, working as a gunsmith. He spent over 15 fruitless years designing the DShK heavy machine gun before it finally paid off. This weapon is still in wide use as an anti-tank, anti-aircraft and an anti-personnel gun. He designed the PPSh-41 submachine gun, which was the staple automatic weapon of the struggle against Germany during World War II. He earned the Stalin Prize (Second Class), The Order of the Red Star, three Orders of Lenin and the Order of Suvorov.
At this point, the cartridge began evaluation in actual combat and training scenarios, not just theoretical testing. Initially the designers decided against a boat tail on the round. This is because they believed that it would only make a difference at very long ranges – which proved to be false. Another change was to the bullets. The length was increased to 26.8mm and the core was redesigned as lead covered with low-carbon steel.
The 7.62x39 as a Parent Round
In addition to its performance in one of the most iconic rifles in the world, the 7.62x39 is also a parent round for military and commercial ammunition. The 7.62x39 has acted as a parent round for:
- M43: The 7.62x39 is a parent round of the M43, the original Soviet version of which comes with 123 grain boat tail bullets. The round features a Berdan primer and an extreme taper, which is what gives the AK-47 magazine its distinct curved shape. The bullets have undergone some slight changes over the years, but the rest of the round remains pretty much the same as its original manufacturing.
- M67: The M67 is the result of Yugoslavian experimentation with the M43. They were looking for a deadlier round that traveled faster and boasted greater accuracy than the M43. The result is a shorter round with a flatter base – and serious wound trauma.
- Commercial Variations: Wolf Ammunition, among other commercial brands manufactured in Russia, are known for making variations on this round. For example, you can get the 7.62x39 with a full metal jacket, soft point or hollow point, depending on your ammunition needs.
- Chinese Steel Core: Not to be outdone by the Russians, the Chinese have likewise started manufacturing a variant on the M43-style round with a steel core. These are not currently legal for commercial purchase in the United States because the law classifies them as an armor-piercing round for handguns. This classification is purely a bureaucratic one: The specs of the round make it illegal, not any proven ability to pierce armor.
This cartridge is comparable to the .30-30 Winchester, having a similar bullet diameter and weight. However, this comparison is not entirely accurate, as the .30-30 is able to fire heavier bullets at higher velocities. Even so, the 7.62x39 remains an effective cartridge for taking medium game as far out as 200 yards. The effectiveness of this round increases by using widely available soft point and hollow point bullets.
A major advantage of 7.62x39 ammunition is that it is available in nearly every corner of the globe. All major manufacturers of ammunition produce this cartridge, and it's easy to find as a military surplus item. Having been mass produced by the Soviets, the Eastern Bloc countries and even China, AK-47 rifles and SKS rifles have been employed in almost every part of the planet. This global availability has created massive demand for 7.62x39mm ammunition. 7.62x39 surplus ammo is especially popular, as they are comparatively inexpensive and are packaged in steel, airtight cases – which protect the ammo from moisture and greatly extend the storage life.
When asked to name a firearm chambered for 7.62x39 ammo, most shooters will respond by mentioning the AK-47 or SKS, but there are actually several other commercially available rifles in bolt action and single shot configurations. Firing military surplus ammunition from these civilian rifles will generally yield a better group than can be obtained from the military rifles. Ammunition manufacturers, however, know that this cartridge is also used in sporting applications, and they produce several options in their premium hunting lines. With the right rifle, the accuracy of these ammo options is reportedly sub minute-of-angle.
The round continues to see extensive use in the Russian military in AKM rifles and rifles derived from this model. However, despite what gun grabbers would have you believe, the round also has legitimate uses in sporting and is popular among hunters for that reason. It’s not quite as powerful as the .30-30 Win, but it has a very similar ballistic profile – which is why it’s popular for shooting, for example, whitetail deer.
What’s more, it’s a common round for AR builds. A number of companies produce AR builds accommodating the 7.62x39 cartridge, including Colt, Armalite, Olympic Arms, Rock River Arms and others. Likewise, custom builds and conversion kits are available that allow you to use the most prolific Soviet round on America’s favorite rifle.
7.62x39 Ballistics: Chart of Average 7.62x39 Ballistics
Note: This information comes from the manufacturer and is for informational purposes only. The actual ballistics obtained with your firearm can vary considerably from the advertised ballistics. Also, ballistics can vary from lot to lot with the same brand and type load.
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