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7.62x39 (M43)

History

 
During the 1890’s military powers of the world abandoned single shot infantry rifles in favor of new magazine fed bolt action repeating rifles and machine guns. Although the magazine fed infantry rifle was highly effective, the main cause of casualties inflicted on all sides during the First World War (1914-1918) came from artillery and secondly, a combination of machine gun fire and barbed wire barricades which slowed down and entangled troops making them easy prey. 
 
One of the first successful firearm designs to achieve sustained automatic fire was Richard Jordan Gatling’s hand cranked multi barreled Gatling gun, patented in 1861. This weapon was utilized by the Union Army during the American Civil War, adopted by the U.S Army thereafter, remaining in service for some 43 years. The Gatling design was eventually superseded by the Maxim Machine Gun.
 
In 1884, US born British resident Sir Hiram Maxim announced the introduction of his recoil operated Maxim Machine from whence the term “machine gun” is derived. The British and continental European powers were initially slow to accept the Maxim, but eventually the Maxim design was adopted in large numbers. The British first used the Maxim in colonial warfare in smaller numbers (.577/450 Martini Henry), eventually employing the Maxim chambered for the .303 British cartridge. Germany adopted the Maxim as the Maschinengewehr 08, 8x57JS while Russia employed and nominated the Maxim as the Pulemyot Maxima PM1910 in 7.62x54. The U.S military employed the Maxim design in small numbers, chambered in .30 caliber (.30-03 followed by .30-06).  Maxim was eventually bought out by the English firm Vickers and in 1912, the British Army adopted the new and improved Mark 1 Vickers .303. The U.S followed suit with the Colt-Vickers machine along with the Browning M1917.
 
The machine gun can be roughly defined as a weapon capable of sustained bursts of fully automatic fire and has a loading mechanism that uses either gas from the fired bullet or recoil from the barrel to load successive rounds. The first machine guns were what we now call heavy machine guns (HMG). On the Western front of 1914, the Maxim type machine gun was responsible for 90% of all bullet related casualties. Nevertheless, a major weakness of the tripod mounted water cooled Maxim type machine guns was the heavy weight and lack of mobility, requiring four to six men crews for operation.
 
The need for greater mobility led to lighter and more compact machine gun designs such as the Lewis, adopted by Britain in 1915, the British Bren in 1917 and the Browning BAR adopted by the US in 1918. These were highly mobile Light Machine Guns (LMG) that could be utilized by individual soldiers. Historically and generally speaking, light machine guns (LMG) came first with Medium machine Guns (MMG) such as the German MG 34 arriving later, though this is a gross generalization. Medium Machine Guns (MMG) are generally described as either belt or magazine fed machine guns that are air cooled with interchangeable barrels and spare ammunition carried by other soldiers within a military unit.
 
During the first and second world wars, all three types of machine gun utilized potent cartridges capable of engaging targets out to 1200 yards. Today the LMG may simply be an assault rifle fitted with heavy barrel and large capacity magazine however one main feature that sets the modern LMG apart from earlier LMG’s is the use of small calibers such as the 5.56 NATO (.223 Rem) for a reduction in ammunition bulk and weight.
 
Along with the medium and light machine gun another type of weapon was developed for trench warfare, the submachine gun or SMG. The SMG featured the automatic fire of the machine gun but used pistol ammunition making it a compact, light recoiling weapon effective out to an absolute maximum range of 150 yards. Prior to the SMG, German designers had experimented with fitting large capacity magazines and detachable shoulder stocks to the C1896 Mauser and Luger 9mm Parabellum pistols. These semi automatic weapons gave limited success while the 9mm Parabellum cartridge would prove more useful for future designs. 
 
In 1915 the Italian military adopted the Villar Perosa, a light but unwieldy double barreled automatic 9mm bipod mounted carbine. Like the MMG and LMG the Villar Perosa was still a defensive or supportive arm rather than an offensive weapon. In 1918 Italy adopted the worlds first true submachine gun, the Beretta 1918. Weeks later Germany adopted the Bergmann/Shmeisser MP18 (Machinen Pistol of 1918)  in 9mm Parabellum, along with strategies to utilize the SMG to it’s fullest potential. Using the strategy of General Erich Ludendorf, small units of German soldiers armed with the MP18 would test allied lines to find weak defensive positions. Upon determining a weak point the Stosstruppen (stormtroopers!) would initiate a full assault on the position, breaking allied lines before immobilizing artillery and HMG positions allowing the main body of the attacking force to advance and dominate.
 
Both Britain and the US were unable to develop an SMG before the wars end in 1918. The effectiveness of the SMG led both countries to adopt the Thompson .45 ACP SMG with Britain also adopting the 9mm Sten.  Of great interest to all parties was the effectiveness of mobile German assault units armed with fully automatic weapons compared to the static and more defensive HMG’s and LMG’s with assaults performed using bolt action rifles. The SMG did have its weaknesses though, having far lower effective range than the bolt action rifle or machine gun using full powered cartridges. The SMG also lacked the ability to produce suppressive fire for defense or supportive fire at ranges much beyond 50 yards. 
 
Between the first and second world wars, military developments were somewhat varied. By the mid 1930’s, ordnance departments of both the US and Germany had began studies into the feasibility of self-loading rifles chambered for intermediate powered cartridges that generated mild recoil for better control during semi-automatic fire. Britain, economically suffering a great deal from the previous war and in the throes of a depression was unable to fund any such research. The British also believed that a period of peace lay ahead, having no idea of (or ignoring) the fact that Germany was breaking the Versailles treaty and secretly amassing weapons. By 1936 the US army had adopted the M1 Garand self-loading rifle (SLR) but rejected an intermediate powered cartridge (7x51 / .276 Pederson) to make use of existing stocks of .30-06 ammunition.
 
Germany was committed to expanding its existing armament in secret while also suffering the effects of the depression. In 1939 Germany would once again attack her neighboring countries and by 1942 the Heeres Waffenampt (weapons department) was free to pursue further experiments. In a similar vein to the US Ordnance department, German designers produced a self loading rifle, the MKb 1942, chambered for a scaled down cartridge, the 7.92x33 Kurzpatrone. Just as MacArthur did, Hitler accepted the rifle but rejected the cartridge for logistical reasons, allowing experiments to continue based only on the full sized parent 7.92x57JS. But with the tactics of General Ludendorf now the preferred method of fighting, many German officials realized the need for a cartridge and rifle that would allow the Sturmtruppen to initiate assaults without having to typically move within enemy range before engaging targets with the submachine gun. To this end experiments with the 7.92x33 Kurzpatrone were continued in secret while prototype rifles carried submachine gun designations to disguise their existence from Hitler. 
 
The first secret prototype MP43 (Machinen Pistol 1943) was an immediate success in the field. The weapon looked very much like the famous AK47, featuring a 30 round magazine and full or semiautomatic selective fire. As popularity and demand for the weapon increased, word finally got back to a furious Hitler. Production was however allowed to continue for a further year of trial and evaluation resulting in the slightly improved Model MP44. Shortly thereafter Hitler’s bodyguards demonstrated the effectiveness of the MP44 to their superior. Immediately impressed, the Furor officially accepted the design as well as giving the rifle a fearsome new name – Sturmgewhr 44 translated, storm rifle or assault rifle. The term assault rifle is the term used today to describe a selective fire rifle firing an intermediate powered cartridge.  
 
The military assault rifle can be seen as a development based on the demands of battle versus economic limitations. Although it’s acceptance was based on a gradual evolution, the assault rifle could have been successfully adopted much, much earlier. The first weapon bearing the hallmarks of the modern assault rifle was the Cei Rigotti, created by Italian officer, Amerigo Cei in 1890. The rifle was chambered for the mild 6.5x52 cartridge and although the weapon worked well it was never adopted. The next country to produce a significant design was Russia. In 1916 Vladimir Federov produced the Federov Avtomat in the Japanese caliber 6.5x50. Federov believed the Russian military 7.62x54 cartridge to be too powerful to control in a self-loading rifle. The mild 6.5x50 fired a 137 grain .260” (not .264”) bullet at around 2200fps, ideal for his new design. Only around 3200 Avtomat rifles were built and saw limited use against the Germans in 1916 and Russia’s two revolutions of 1917. Like most countries, the economic pressures of war committed the Russian military to production of the standard infantry rifle – the Mosin Nagant caliber 7.62x54. The Avtomat was officially rejected and removed from service in 1928, not only for economic reasons but also on the grounds that it was not effective to 1200 yards.
 
While Russia struggled to arm it’s soldiers with Mosin Nagant rifles during the second world war, military arms designers were able to explore the feasibility of an intermediate powered cartridge and self-loading rifle. In the years 1938 to 1940 Russia did adopt a full powered 7.62x54R self-loading rifle, the Tokerov SVT, however reliability issues saw the SVT used in a limited capacity. Several prototype cartridges were developed resulting in the adoption of the 7.62x39 M43 in 1943, this cartridge was designed by Nickolay Elizarov and Boris Semin. The M43 used the same .311” bullet diameter as the long standing 7.62x51 Russian cartridge however the rimless case was much smaller, giving a velocity of 2300fps with a 123gr bullet from a 20” barrel. 
 
Although having created a cartridge suitable for controlled bursts of fully automatic fire, the first rifle to be accepted for the M43 cartridge was the semi-automatic SKS 45. Designed by Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov the abbreviation SKS 45 translates as Samozaryadnyi Karabin Sistemi Simonova 1945 or self-loading carbine system Simonov 1945. The SKS would remain in front line service for only 4 years before another design would eventually replace it, the selective fire AK-47 designed by Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov in 1947, officially adopted within the USSR in 1949. This final rifle design proved extremely robust and reliable under adverse conditions, qualities that cemented and ensured seemingly eternal popularity of the AK-47 design.
 
Both the SKS and AK-47 have been widely exported as well as being produced by former Eastern Bloc countries and China. The more popular AK-47 has been produced in various forms by at least 31 countries and has been the standard service weapon of 55 major and minor nations. An estimated 100,000,000 AK-47 type rifles have been produced as of 2013. It seems that where ever there is conflict on our planet, one party or another will be utilizing the AK-47. In Russia, the AK-47 has remained in service for over 60 years although the 7.62x39 M43 cartridge has been gradually phased out by the .22” caliber 5.45x39 based on the parent M43 case. 
 
While the AK-47 and SKS were primarily designed for military use, vast numbers of these weapons have been exported and sold to Western civilian markets as cheap alternatives to sporting rifles. Both rifles are particularly popular with military match shooting enthusiasts as well as hunters involved in culling operations while the cheaper SKS has found favor with hunters on a strictly limited budget. In its home territory, the AK-47 is often used as a basic hunting tool, employed throughout the vast expanses of Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.  
 

Performance

 
As a hunting cartridge, the M43 round is adequate for close range hunting of lighter medium game but it’s performance is generally poor to fair. Using either military FMJ or commercial sporting ammunition, kills with a chest shot are often delayed while animals shot beyond 200 yards may show no sign of being hit, in extreme cases going so far as to continue grazing (in a confused state) after moving to safer cover. 
 
Full metal Jacket ammunition generally produces pin hole wounding unless bone is struck. Fast kills can therefore only be obtained with select shot placement. 
 
Loaded with soft point (expanding) bullets, the 7.62x39 produces somewhat better performance but due to a combination of low muzzle velocities and low BC’s, bullet expansion is limited, the cartridge quickly losing the ability to create disproportionate to caliber wounding. At around 100 yards, width of wounding begins to taper dramatically. At around 200 yards, most soft point bullets have lost the ability to create fast killing wounds. Beyond 200 yards, retained energy is extremely low along with excessive wind drift. As suggested, the 7.62x39 is best suited to the hunting of lighter medium game at close ranges.
 
In more recent years China and Yugoslavia have produced bolt action rifles specifically for the 7.62x39 cartridge. Ruger have also produced runs of the bolt action M77 and semi-automatic Mini 30 in 7.62x39 although bore sizes are .308”, forcing .311” projectiles down to .308” at the chamber. Un-tuned, these rifles (scoped) often produce accuracy of between 1.5 and 3 MOA, similar to the SKS and AK-47, giving acceptable accuracy out to ranges of 100 to 200 yards.
 
As a youth training cartridge, the 7.62x39 is not completely ideal. In military rifles (eg-SKS), the heavy trigger and semi-auto function often lead to poor shooting habits. Due to the often delayed or slow killing, the 7.62 can cause disappointing experiences. But in properly tuned bolt action rifles, using soft point ammunition used at close to moderate ranges - along with optimal coaching regarding shot placement, the 7.62x39 can be used by youths in a reliable manner.
 

Factory Ammunition

 
Loaded with military surplus full metal jacket ammunition at around 2300fps, the M43 is adequate for culling but can be unethical in some respects. During the mid 1990’s hundreds of Chinese SKS rifles and Norinco ammunition were made available to Australian and New Zealand farmers with the cartridge becoming immensely popular in the outback of Australia. Out to 200 yards the FMJ M43 bullet gives clean but generally delayed kills, with speed of kills slowing even further as range increases. Unethical situations result when the culler shoots game, expects a slow kill and therefore does not follow up wounded animals to inspect whether shots have struck the chest cavity or gut, the latter resulting in cruel wounds. 
 
Hollow pointing FMJ ammunition tends to show only limited improvement but can initiate tumbling, resulting in internal wounds of around 1.5 to 2” in diameter. It is important to understand that most 7.62x39 ammunition is designed around a steel core (light armor piercing). To this end, hollow pointing cannot cause mushrooming and instead, serves only as a means to cause instability on impact. There is also an abundunce of corrosive primed surplus ammunition in circulation. This ammunition is extremely harsh on the gas systems of military rifles and does eventually eat through chrome lined bores.
 
FMJ ammunition is capable of reasonably deep penetration on medium game by its very nature - but this does not mean that animals can be taken from all angles. If heavily raking shots are taken (rear to front), chest wounds can be extremely narrow, causing very slow killing. Furthermore, the sectional density of the 123 grain FMJ bullet is rather low and although FMJ bullets are prone to deeper penetration than soft point bullets, in this instance due to SD, there are limitations.
 
Presently Winchester, Remington and Federal produce 123 to 125 grain soft point ammunition at advertised velocities of 2350 to 2365fps, giving average velocities of 2300 to 2320fps. Norinco, a past major exporter of cheap surplus military ammunition also load a 122gr soft point bullet giving around 2320fps, traditionally available in 1000 round packs at a very low price. Performance of all these brands is very similar and although the soft point bullet causes greater wounding, faster bleeding and more humane killing than FMJ ammunition, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference in performance between these loads and FMJ ammunition as ranges are extended.
 
Russian manufacturers Barnaul and Wolf, both produce steel jacketed, lead core 7.62x39 ammunition. Of these, the 123 grain hollow points tend to produce slightly wider wounding than their 125 grain soft point counterparts. This is due to the fact that the jackets are copper washed steel which when filled with lead, tends to display limited expansion on impact. The hollow point bullets in contrast, are prone to tumbling if stability is disrupted, having the potential for broader wounding. Accuracy of these brands of ammunition (also in other calibers) is largely dependent on the individual rifle. Where one rifle will shoot 3 MOA, another will shoot inside 1 MOA. If possible, it can be worth utilizing these loads (if accuracy is acceptable) due to the potential for both fair wounding and relatively deep penetration.
 
Of all of the brands, Hornady lead the way when it comes to 7.62x39 factory ammunition. Hornady currently list two loads which include the 123 grain SST and Zombie Max (Z-Max) bullets, producing around 2350fps in 20 to 22” barrels. Both are actually the same bullet, the latter being a light hearted marketing campaign - because you know….
 
Both of the Hornady loads are assembled utilizing (probably Russian) steel cases which helps keep costs well down. The SST bullet design optimizes performance of the 7.62x39 by delivering a balance of the widest possible wounding versus optimum penetration within the limitations of this caliber. Performance is unfortunately limited however the SST / Z-Max set the bar for M43 performance. Hornady have also produced a V-Max load but this is not currently listed. Performance of all three Hornady projectiles is discussed further in the ahead hand loading text.
 

Hand Loading    

 
Hand loading does little to improve the velocity and killing power of the M43 round and most hunters using semi-automatic military style rifles do not reload simply because of the difficulty in recovering ejected brass. Nevertheless, there are a number of hunters using bolt action 7.62x39 rifles with hand loaded components.
 
Fast burning powders such as IMR4198 and H4198 (ADI 2207) through to IMR 3031 and H4895 (ADI 2206H) give best results. Correct bullet diameter is 310” to .311”, with common bullet weights running between 123 and 125 grains. However it is possible to utilize 150 grain bullets (.311 /.312’) designed for the .303 British. Average velocities with hand loads are 2350 to 2400fps with 125gr bullets and 2000 to 2150fps with 150gr bullets, the former giving similar power to factory loads.
 
The common question when reloading for Ruger rifles, is which bullet diameter to use. Ruger rifles have .308” bores, while typical 7.62x39 projectiles are of a wider diameter. The trouble is, if .308 projectiles are used, neck tension of re-sized cases is normally quite poor due to case necks being sized down to suit wider projectiles. In such instances, the hand loader may have no choice but to utilize .310” bullets. In practice, this is no different than the .303 Savage design premise (See .303 Savage text). Safe incremental load development is the key.
 
Hornady currently lead the way regarding optimum projectile designs for the 7.62x39. These include a 310” 123 soft point, 123 grain SST and 123 grain Z-Max. Hornady have in the past also produced a 123 grain V-Max bullet but this is not currently listed amongst the Hornady line up. The Zombie Max loads (Z-Max) Hornady produce are generally based on repackaged V-Max or A-Max bullets but in this instance, the Z-Max is based on the SST bullet. From softest to stoutest, the order includes V-Max, soft point, SST and Z-Max.
 
The V-Max bullet is perfectly adequate for hunting lighter bodied medium game, even though it is designed for varmints. The low muzzle velocity of the 7.62x39 ensures adequate penetration, along with a cannelure which helps arrest expansion and or fragmentation. This is perhaps the very best bullet for hunting lighter medium game with the 7.62x39, however a small degree of penetration is sacrificed when using the V-Max bullet. The V-Max has a physically, noticeably lighter jacket than the SST.
 
The Hornady soft point bullet is a very basic bullet design, performance on lighter medium game is ‘adequate’ which is a typical description of the M43 in general. The SST and Z-Max, though stout, expand very quickly due to the wide hollow point behind the red (or green) tip. As a general purpose hunting bullet, this projectile offers a balance of widest possible wounding versus adequate penetration within the limitations of this cartridge design. Nevertheless, hunters should not expect the same dramatic changes that occur when adopting the SST in other cartridges - the 7.62x39 doesn’t play ball in this manner.
 
Sierra produce a stout 125gr .311” bullet while Speer offer a 123 grain .310” soft point. These are very basic conventional projectiles suitable for crossbody shooting of light medium game and should not be expected to penetrate vitals from long raking angles. These are not deep penetrating projectiles, nor are they wide wounding, especially as ranges exceed 100 yards.  
 
Sierra and Speer also produce heavier 150gr .311’ .303 British projectiles while Hornady produce a 150gr .312” .303 projectile. These heavier bullets can be used in bolt action rifles, producing deeper penetration than their lighter counterparts however wounding can be limited due to decreased velocity. Nevertheless, the higher bullet weight does help ensure penetration on mid-sized deer if raking shots are to be taken at close ranges. Of the heavier projectiles, the Hornady Interlock is the softest projectile and is capable of producing fair wounding, out to ranges of around 100 yards.
 

Closing Comments

 
Within its military role, the 7.62x39 and AK-47 rifle can be used to create effective suppressive and offensive fire. Lethality is not an issue here, only the ability to incapacitate. Outside of its military role, the 7.62x39 displays limited performance.
 
As a general hunting cartridge, the 7.62x39 is best utilized at close ranges, employing select shot placement - adequate for shooting lighter framed game across small clearings and clear cuts / fire breaks. Results can range from extremely poor to adequate depending on how the cartridge is employed and what type of ammunition is used. Accurately controlled fire, suitable ammunition and realistic expectations are the keys to success. Personally, I have used the 7.62x39 out to ranges of up to 400 yards and in my experience, results at ranges beyond 200 yards can be extremely disappointing.  
 
There are of course those who are completely reliant on the AK-47 rifle for subsistence, a tool that puts food on the table. Like any tool, the more it is used and its limitations understood, the better one becomes at achieving desirable results.

SKS web small

Above, as the bores of AK and SKS rifles become worn, groove diameter can open up to as much as .315" . At this bore diameter, .311" bullets do not yeild great stability and tend to tumble on impact (along with poor accuracy).  The above photo shows the extend of wounding with tumbling FMJ ammunition at a range of 25 yards. recovered bullet below.

SKS web small 2

 
 
Suggested loads: 7.62x39 Barrel length: 16-22”
No ID   Sectional Density Ballistic Coefficient Observed  MV Fps ME
Ft-lb’s
1 FL/HL 123gr Generic* .183 .275 2350 1508
2 HL 150gr Hornady Interlock** .220 .361 2050 1400
 
Suggested sight settings and bullet paths           
1 Yards 50 110/100M 150 200 250      
  Bt. path +.2 0 -1.8 -6.2 -13.4      
2 Yards 100 150 200 250        
  Bt. path +2 0 -4.8 -12.8        
 
No At yards 10mphXwind Velocity Ft-lb’s
1 200 6.7 1785 870
2 200 6 1648 905
 
*Sight height .5” (open sights graduated in meters)
**Sight height 1.6” (scoped bolt action rifle).
 Note extremely poor energy and wind drift at 200 yards!

762x39 drawing final
 
7.62x39 Imperial Metric 
A .447 11.35
B .443 11.25
C 17 deg 17 deg
D .369 10.06
E .337 8.56
F 1.198 30.42
G .330 8.38
H 1.518 40.18
Max Case 1.518 40.18
Trim length 1.508 39.88
 
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