Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the United States has been flooded with a huge amount of military surplus hardware from Eastern Europe. Among that hardware were SKS rifles and AK-47 and AKM parts kits. Those rifles, chambered in 7.62x39mm Soviet, have become a staple for many shooters in the United States and have established 7.62x39 as one of the go-to calibers for preppers.
Development of the cartridge began in 1943 with the development of the SKS rifle. The Soviets desired an intermediate-power cartridge, similar to German developments in creating the 8x33mm cartridge. The 7.62x39 cartridge is similar in shape to the 8x33, although its case is longer and narrower and its bullet is slightly smaller in diameter. Both cases share a similar severe taper to aid in extraction under less than ideal field conditions, leading to the distinctive “banana” shape of the AK-style magazine.
From an AK-pattern rifle the 7.62x39 sends a 123-grain bullet hurtling through the air at 2,300 to 2,400 feet per second, offering 1,450 to 1,575 pound-feet of muzzle energy. That’s significantly less powerful than the 7.62x54R cartridge it replaced, which featured a 150-grain bullet at over 2,700 feet per second for about 2,500 pound-feet of muzzle energy.
The 7.62x39 cartridge offers significantly more controllability than the full-power cartridge it replaced, as well as the ability to carry much more ammunition. Featuring slightly more power than the NATO-standard 5.56x45mm cartridge, the 7.62x39. features inferior ballistic performance at longer ranges than the M855 and heavier cartridges used by most NATO forces. The short, stubby bullet used in the 7.62x39 has a low ballistic coefficient and is best used within 300 meters.
Terminal performance of the 7.62x39 can vary significantly based on bullet choice and cartridge manufacturer. The original M43-style bullets were not known for their ability to do damage to soft targets, often punching small holes right through a person. The Yugoslavian-designed M67 bullets were an improvement on the M43, replacing the steel core with lead, with the result being a bullet that tumbled and yawed much sooner upon hitting soft tissue.
Current production ammunition in 7.62x39 is undertaken by numerous companies, each of whom produce their own bullets. Even within some brands the style of bullet manufacture can vary significantly, leading to differences in terminal performance. If you’re looking to stock up on 7.62x39 ammunition, it’s a good idea to peruse YouTube, Full30, and other websites to look for videos, photos, and discussion comparing various cartridges from various manufacturers.
Shooters aren’t limited just to full metal jacket bullets either, or to 123-grain bullets. Heavier softpoint bullets are available in 154-grain weight, which have been popular with deer hunters in wooded areas. Velocity on those bullets normally drops to around 2,100 feet per second. 123-grain bullets are also manufactured in hollowpoint and softpoint varieties, with the softpoint bullets showing great expansion on soft targets.
The 7.62x39 has become a popular choice in some areas as a deer cartridge, as its power and performance are not too far below the .30-30 Winchester. Coupled with what used to be cheap surplus rifles and the combination became many a poor man’s deer rifle.
Ammunition in 7.62x39 is available in both steel-cased and brass-cased varieties, with steel-cased ammunition now running 19-20 cents per round and brass-cased ammunition running around 35 cents per round. With ammunition that cheap, handloading ammunition for the 7.62x39, particularly for autoloaders such as the SKS and AK, is in most cases not economically feasible. Still, with the supply of steel-cased ammunition from Russia potentially one executive order away from being cut off, it can’t hurt for preppers to stock up on components just in case.
With its cheap cost and variety of options, 7.62x39 has become one of the most popular rifle cartridges in the United States, coming in roughly in third place behind 5.56x45mm/.223 Remington and 7.62x51mm/.308 Winchester. For preppers who like to buy it cheap and stack it deep, now’s the time to start stockpiling 7.62x39mm ammo.