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Will the 5.45x39mm and 7.62x39mm Survive in the U.S.?

These Russian cartridges have some big fans in the U.S., but will the lack of economical ammunition lead to their demise?

Will the 5.45x39mm and 7.62x39mm Survive in the U.S.?
While both the 5.45x39mm (L) and 7.62x39mm (R) are successful military cartridges, are they withering on the US commercial market?

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The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was an odd flightless bird which called the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius home. You may not be familiar with it because the dodo is long extinct, it disappeared around 1662. So, what does an odd bird that disappeared off the face of the globe centuries ago have in common with two Soviet era rifle cartridges? I have to wonder if one or both of these two cartridges is in danger of disappearing from the US commercial market. Both are great cartridges and will serve in various militaries for decades to come, but I have to wonder if their days are numbered here with US shooters. Let’s examine both of them.

5.45x39mm M74

545x39mm-762x39mm-still-around-02
The “Big 4” military rifle cartridges, L to R: 5.45x39mm, 5.8x42mm Chinese, 5.56x45mm NATO and 7.62x39mm.

The Russian equivalent to our 5.56x45mm, the 5.45x39mm M74 cartridge was developed by Viktor Sabelnikov and Lidiya Bulavskaya. It was officially adopted by the Soviet Union in 1974 and subsequently replaced the then standard 7.62x39mm M43 cartridge in Soviet service. The cartridge consists of a tapered 39.82mm steel case which, in conjunction with a beefy rim, ensures positive feeding and extraction in automatic weapons. The military 7N6 ball round features a very long (25.5mm) 52-grain FMJ-BT projectile, with a muzzle velocity of 2,886 fps. For reliable ignition in extreme cold a Berdan primer is utilized. In my opinion, the 5.45x39mm is very good for its intended purpose, as a military rifle cartridge. Compared to the cartridge it replaced in Soviet service, the 7.62x39mm, it has about half the free recoil, a flatter trajectory, it weighs substantially less and is more accurate. All of these help to improve the soldier’s survivability on the modern battlefield. The cartridge also uses fewer raw materials than the 7.62x39mm, so it is more economical to manufacture. It has performed well on the modern battlefield and will remain in frontline use with the Russian Army for years to come.

That said the 5.45x39mm never really took hold here in the US. While many love their AK-74 clones, they were largely fed using cheap surplus 7N6 and Russian produced commercial ammunition. Domestic American ammunition companies, outside of Hornady, never felt the urge to start producing reloadable cartridge cases, 0.220-inch projectiles and loading ammunition for it. Unfortunately, the days of cheap surplus are over, and steel core 7N6 ball ammunition is banned from importation. The value of 7N6 here in the US has spiked, and once it is gone, it’s gone forever. Russian commercial ammunition is also banned from import, so the days of cheap Russian Tula and Wolf ammunition are over as well. Currently, perhaps the best option is Hornady’s 60-grain V-MAX load. At over a dollar a round, it’s not exactly inexpensive but it works well. Reloading 5.45x39mm is not as simple or economical as reloading 5.56x45mm either. Reloadable brass is hard to find. The correct diameter projectiles are as well. Sure it can be done, but reloading large quantities for your semi-automatic rifle is a bit different than loading a couple boxes of 7.7mm for your Arisaka. Due to all this, I have my doubts as to the 5.45x39mm cartridge’s future here in the US. Many AK rifle manufacturers are producing commercial 5.56x45mm rifles instead. If I were buying an AK rifle today, I would opt for a 5.56x45mm instead of a 5.45x39mm gun simply due to ammunition availability. I love the 5.45x39mm cartridge, and hope things change in the future. Perhaps Palmetto State Armory will change the landscape. Right now though, things look a bit bleak.   

7.62x39mm M43

545x39mm-762x39mm-still-around-03
The demise of cheap surplus ammunition and Russian commercial ammunition being banned from importation has hurt both calibers.

This Soviet short sword was developed as a replacement for the old Imperial Russian 7.62x54mmR in rifles. Fielded in the SKS-45 carbine and AK-47, the 7.62x39mm took the German 7.92x33mm Kurz intermediate cartridge concept and made it hugely successful. In the decades following its introduction it was adopted around the world. Today, the 7.62x39mm is a very popular cartridge among US hunters and recreational shooters. It is available in both supersonic and subsonic loadings and its interest is not limited solely to Kalashnikov style rifles. 7.62x39mm is a popular chambering in AR-15s, other semi-automatic designs as well as bolt-action rifles. The demise of cheap surplus and economical Russian commercial 7.62x39mm ammunition has definitely hurt shooters. Looking in my notes, in 2018 a case of 1,000 rounds of Wolf Performance Ammunition 7.62x39mm cost just $200. Unfortunately, those days seem to be gone for good. 7.62x39mm is a different animal than 5.45x39mm. Many US ammunition companies manufacture it. Modern expanding loads are readily available for it. Plus, it’s an easy cartridge to hand-load. Boxer primed cases are readily available as well as a wide variety of projectiles, loading equipment and data. Even so, the demise of cheap plinking and practice ammunition hurts. The 7.62x39mm’s popularity was based around its economical nature. I do not think the 7.62x39mm is going away any time soon. However, the high cost of ammunition is definitely going to affect how much shooters can enjoy their rifles in this caliber. 5.45x39mm? I think this cartridge is on the ropes here in the US. It’s a great round, but limited availability and high prices definitely detracts from its appeal. The casual low volume shooter may get by, but I suspect high volume shooters of both calibers will be looking at the 5.56x45mm.




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