The 7.62x39 Soviet (Russian)

By Chuck Hawks

This attenuated .303 cartridge (bullet diameter is .311", not .308" like true 7.62mm rifles) has had one of the most infamous careers in the history of firearms. It was designed during the Great Patriotic War (World War II to those of us in the Free World) for use on the Eastern Front against Hitler's Wehrmacht by Stalin's Communist hoards.

After the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, every Communist dictator in the world used troops armed with 7.62x39 rifles to control their own unhappy populations and perpetuate their corrupt regimes. Today the 7.62x39 has gone on to become the preferred cartridge of virtually every international terrorist organization.

Of course, no cartridge is morally inferior to any other. This one has just had the misfortune to have been developed and used by the most despicable groups since the development of firearms.

As a military cartridge for automatic carbines (assault rifles) the 7.62x39 has been very successful. It is the international rival of the 5.56mm NATO. The standard military load for the 7.62x39 fires a 123 grain FMJ bullet (SD .182) at a muzzle velocity of 2350 fps. Some experts consider it superior to the NATO round, although I regard it as a step sideways.

The 7.62x39 offers light recoil (7.3 ft. lbs. in a 7 pound carbine) and a fatter, heavier bullet that carries more momentum and "bucks brush" better than the 5.56mm NATO round. The 5.56mm offers lighter recoil (4.4 ft. lbs. in a 7 pound carbine), superior accuracy, and a much flatter trajectory, which makes it easier to hit targets at long range; it also packs more energy when it gets there. As I said, militarily, a step sideways. Undoubtedly the 7.62x39 would serve admirably as a home defence cartridge on a farm or ranch with modern expanding bullets.

As a sporting cartridge the 7.62x39 has limited usefulness. It will reliably kill varmints, predators, and medium game animals weighing up to about 100 pounds (like pronghorn antelope and Coues' deer) at short range, but these animals are seldom encountered at short range. In a decent carbine like the Ruger Ranch Rifle, it will serve for hunting small deer at woods ranges. It would probably be an excellent Javelina cartridge. The Federal Ammunition Catalog calls it a medium game cartridge.

The 7.62x39's standard 123-125 grain bullet (SD .184) is too light and lacks sufficient penetration to make the 7.62x39 a reliable cartridge for the larger species of deer (like Columbian blacktail, the larger subspecies of whitetail, and mule deer). Certainly it will kill large deer at close range with well placed shots, but so will many cartridges deemed unsuitable for general deer hunting purposes. Rifles for the 7.62x39 are typically more expensive, less accurate, and less effective at all ranges than rifles for the classic .30-30 Winchester cartridge. For the person seeking very light recoil in a deer cartridge the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, 250 Savage, and .257 Roberts will also outperform the 7.62x39 at all ranges. There is little justification for selecting a 7.62x39 carbine for deer hunting.

The 7.62x39 is similar to the .30 Carbine in some ways. Both are at their best as self defence and plinking cartridges. The .30 Carbine and the 7.62x39 are great fun to shoot, but they are limited as hunting cartridges. This is particularly true when they are fired from the military carbines for which they were designed. In the case of the 7.62x39, that is the famous AK-47 and all of its clones, a reliable carbine of indifferent accuracy whose chief virtue was its suitability for mass production in what were essentially Third World countries.

The availability of surplus Eastern Block military ammunition makes the 7.62x39 an economical centerfire plinking cartridge. Note, however, that much of the imported surplus 7.62x39 ammunition has steel cases and/or Berdan primers. These cases are not suitable for reloading (cases can be checked for composition with a magnet). Some reloadable brass cases in 7.62x39 accept large rifle size primers, others accept small rifle primers. The reloader must sort cases by primer pocket size.

Federal, Norma, PMC, Remington, Sako, and Winchester offer civilian hunting loads for the cartridge with 123-125 grain PSP bullets at muzzle velocities ranging from 2300-2365 fps. The SAAMI mean maximum pressure for the cartridge has been established at 50,000 cup.

The Remington factory load starts a 125 grain PSP bullets at 2365 fps with a muzzle energy of 1552 ft. lbs. At 100 yards the velocity has dropped to 2062 fps and the energy to 1180 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the velocity is 1783 fps and the energy is 882 ft. lbs. The trajectory of the Remington factory load for the 7.62x39 looks like this: +1.5" at 100 yards, 0 at 150 yards, -3.8" at 200 yards, -10.4" at 250 yards.

Hornady offers reloaders a 123 grain pointed soft point bullet, while Sierra and Speer offer 125 grain PSP bullets for hunting applications. Reloaders can use these bullets to duplicate the commerical factory loads.

The Speer Reloading Manual No. 13 shows that 24.0 grains of IMR 4198 powder will drive their 125 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2246 fps. 26.0 grains of IMR 4198 will drive the same bullet to a MV of 2402 fps.

For the civilian shooter, the cartridge is available in the Ruger MINI-THIRTY, a version of their popular Ranch Rifle chambering the 7.62x39. This Ruger autoloader is designed for use with a low mounted telescopic sight, and can be had in blue or stainless steel finishes. It is a better made and much more accurate carbine than the AK-47.

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Copyright 2001, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.