May 02, 2023
On May 10, 1969, ten Allied Infantry battalions launched Operation Apache Snow into the A Shau Valley in Vietnam’s Thura Thien-Hue Province west of the city of Hue. Friendly combat elements included portions of the ARVN 1st Division, the 9th Marine Regiment, and the 187th, 501st, and 506th Infantry Regiments of the 101st Airborne Division.
The storied 101st Airborne Division has deep historical roots reaching all the way back to the Second World War. The 506th Infantry Regiment, as an example, was the unit depicted in the powerful miniseries Band of Brothers. In Vietnam, the VC and NVA referred to 101st sky troopers as the “Chicken Men” based upon their distinctive Screaming Eagle shoulder patch. Enemy commanders were said to have avoided combat with the “Chicken Men” whenever possible due to their legendary fierceness in battle.
The mission of Operation Apache Snow was cold and calculating. The A Shau Valley was a conduit for troops and supplies infiltrating into South Vietnam from Laos. American forces had little use for terrain. With hundreds of helicopters at their disposal American commanders could seize most any piece of dirt they wished. Apache Snow was about corpses. The overarching plan was to block escape routes into Laos as well as to find, fix, and destroy enemy combat units in the valley.
This operation involved some of the fiercest ground combat of the war. American artillery, helicopter gunships, and close air support worked synergistically with the ground elements to crush NVA units when and where they could be found. Over a ten-day period the 3d Battalion of the 187th Infantry Regiment made eleven assaults up Hill 937, destroying NVA fortifications and grappling with enemy units at close range. The men involved in this grueling pitiless fight came to refer to this often hand-to-hand conflict as the Battle for Hamburger Hill. After roughly four weeks of bitter combat American forces withdrew and abandoned their hard-fought territorial gains. American forces lost 113 killed while the ARVN 1st Division lost another 31. On the other side of the balance sheet American forces recovered the bodies of 977 NVA regulars and took five prisoners.
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Mike was a typical American teenager. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at age eighteen in search of adventure, camaraderie, and relief from the drudgery of rural Michigan. In late 1968, as an Infantryman in Vietnam, he found all those things and more. Mike was a rifleman with the Screaming Eagles during Operation Apache Snow. He fought in the A Shau Valley and became intimately familiar with the rich black dirt of Hamburger Hill. Some of those 113 young, strong, brave Americans lost on that forgotten hillside were his dearest friends. At one point while assaulting through a trench line Mike and his buddies came under intense small arms fire. The NVA were masterful jungle fighters, and rooting them out of fixed defensive works was a formidable task. The 101st Sky Soldiers had been fighting these particular NVA for days. Mike’s rifle platoon pinned the NVA defenders in place with murderous suppressive fire from their M60 machineguns supported by M61A1 rifles and M79 grenade launchers.
Their attention held by the platoon’s steady base of fire, Mike slipped around the periphery of the fight and crouched behind a heavy tree trunk. He retrieved an M61 frag grenade from alongside his magazine pouch, thumbed off the safety clip, pulled the pin, and tossed it over the edge of the trench. Mike ducked back behind the heavy tree and, for a pregnant moment, just waited. Four seconds is an eternity when you’re waiting on a grenade to go off. The little bomb detonated with a dirty crump and gray-black smoke billowed up from the NVA trench. Mike leapt up and vaulted over the edge, his M16 tracking for movement.
There were three figures lying jumbled on the floor of the trench, their black pajamas torn and wet with gore. Two were inert, but the third moved. Mike reflexively pivoted his M16 and triggered an eighteen-round burst on rock and roll. Suddenly everything was still. (Troops in Vietnam frequently loaded their 20-round box magazines with eighteen rounds to improve reliability.) Mike’s breath came in ragged gasps, his ears rang, and his hands shook. He swapped out his empty magazine for a fresh box containing another eighteen rounds and studied the area around the trench for any signs of enemy activity. Satisfied that the area was secure, his squad consolidated the position, took stock of the weapons, equipment, and intelligence material, and held in place while the rest of the company assaulted forward.
The three NVA soldiers looked pitifully small. Most dead men seem small, but these were also young. The man Mike had killed with his last long burst had been carrying a Chicom SKS rifle. Mike lifted the weapon up from the chaos and filth of the trench and held it aloft. The weapon was mechanically intact, and the barrel was still uncomfortably hot to the touch. A fragment from his grenade had penetrated the side of the box magazine, and a portion of the stock was shattered. Despite this damage the weapon remained functional, a sour testament to the resilience of their foes and the firearms they wielded.
The upper handguard was literally burnt to a crisp, and the bottom of the trench was dirty with shell casings. There was no telling how many rounds this NVA soldier had fired through his weapon in the preceding few days. Mike laid claim to the gun and tagged it with the cooks for safe keeping. When his year-long tour was finally up he filled out the obligatory paperwork, begged his Company Commander for a signature, and brought the beat-up Chinese rifle home in his duffle bag, a poignant memento of the most horrible and exciting time of his young life.
The Rest of the Story
Like so many combat veterans of that generation, Mike had a rocky return to the World. In 1969, America was sick of war in Southeast Asia, and misguided activists stupidly vented their frustrations on the young men who served there. After three years on active duty Mike married and transferred to the Michigan National Guard as the NBC NCO of an Infantry unit. Military service is nothing if not a brotherhood, and Mike made new friends in his Guard unit. Over time they grew close. Eventually in the late eighties Mike’s marriage went sour, and he fell on hard financial times.
Desperate for cash during the divorce, in 1987 Mike offered the beat-up Chinese rifle to a buddy in the Guard for $200. The friend accepted with the caveat that Mike could buy it back any time he wanted for its purchase price. Two years later Mike developed cancer from his exposure to Agent Orange during the war. In 1991, Vietnam ultimately killed Mike at age 41, a continent and a lifetime away from his tour in-country.
The Phone Call
Last year, my friend and editor here at Firearms News, Vince DeNiro, let me work up an article about a Japanese Type 99 rifle damaged during the island campaigns of the Pacific War in WWII. A gentleman read that article and tracked me down at the medical clinic where I work. This man, himself a Vietnam combat veteran, was the Michigan National Guardsman who bought the SKS rifle from Mike.
As is so often the case among gun guys, what began as a transaction ended as a friendship. He related the story behind the gun and explained that there wasn’t anyone in his life with a sufficiently deep interest in the weapon to venerate it with the respect it deserved. As such, we struck a deal, and I assumed stewardship of this most remarkable treasure.
The SKS was designed in 1943 by Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov and formally entered service in 1949. A rugged and maneuverable carbine, the SKS was actually obsolete at the time of its introduction. The AK47 that entered service around the same time offered everything the SKS did and more. The Soviets still ultimately produced some 2.7 million SKS Carbines. Variations were manufactured in China, Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania, North Vietnam, North Korea, and East Germany. More than fifteen million total copies were produced.
The SKS is a self-loading, semiautomatic rifle with a tilting bolt and a short-stroke gas piston action. The weapon features an integral 10-round box magazine, and the bolt locks to the rear automatically on the last round fired. To load the piece the operator opens the bolt, sets a 10-round stripper clip into the stripper clip guide on the top of the weapon, and presses the rounds into the magazine. With a little practice reloading the weapon is quick and intuitive.
The safety is a pivoting lever on the right side just behind the trigger. Forward is safe. Back is fire. It’s easy to manipulate the safety with your trigger finger. The charging handle is an integral part of the bolt carrier and reciprocates with the action. The magazine is fixed to the chassis of the weapon but can be readily pivoted forward for service via a sliding latch just ahead of the trigger guard.
The SKS is as much a cartridge as a rifle. Early in WWII it became obvious that the full-sized rifle rounds of the day were grossly overpowered for most Infantry combat engagements. Most soldiers in the field packed bolt-action rifles capable of delivering accurate fire out to two kilometers. However, typical infantry engagements were found to be executed at three hundred meters or less. This observation sparked a sea change in military weapons design. The Germans responded with the 7.92x33 kurz round and the StG44 rifle to fire it. Every modern Infantry weapon draws inspiration from this remarkable gun. Meanwhile, the Soviets developed the M43 7.62x39mm intermediate round.
A committee of experienced gun designers came together to craft this new round in 1943. From a possible 314 cartridge designs they winnowed the field down to the 7.62x39mm. This radical new intermediate round was originally intended to feed a semiautomatic carbine, a selective-fire assault rifle, and a belt-fed light machinegun. In the SKS, AK47, and RPD the Soviets filled those requirements.
Built in the Jianshe Arsenal in 1966, this particular SKS has had a fascinating life. The Chinese began production in 1956 and referred to the gun as the Type 56 as a result. This can be confusing as the Chicom AK47 is also referred to as the Type 56 as well. The Chicom Type 56 SKS went through a variety of tweaks between 1956 and the present. Sometimes you will find two examples from the same factory that differ significantly in their details. Milled versus stamped receivers, variations in safety levers, and sundry different stocks differentiate the various strata. Most military weapons feature stocks cut from a dark wood, while the civilian counterparts are built around stocks made from a blonde material called Qiu wood.
The buttstock on this rifle appears to be a locally made replacement for the factory original. The fit is good but not perfect, and the buttstock trap for the cleaning kit was never bored out. The wood is heavily varnished but relatively soft. Chicom Type 56 rifles with serial numbers less than 9 million typically sported the Soviet-style folding blade bayonet. Most guns above that serial number cutoff were fitted with the spike-style cruciform bayonet. I’d sooner not get poked with either. The buttstock on the SKS is a bit short for many corn-fed Americans, but the gun remains nonetheless comfortable and pleasant on the range. Recoil is mild, and the trigger is good enough. The sights are optimistically graduated out to 1,000 meters.
While SKS rifles have appreciated markedly in value in the past couple of decades, they were once absolutely dirt cheap. I recall a time back in the eighties when you could walk out of an American gun show with a case of Chinese 7.62x39mm ammo and the dealer would throw in a brand-new Chicom SKS for free like a Happy Meal. In its heyday the SKS was the poor man’s Kalashnikov.
There are scads of accessories all designed to enhance and upgrade the SKS. However, I like the original milspec ambience myself. At the time of this writing, J&G Sales had a supply of early Jianshe Chicom Type 56 SKS rifles in serviceable condition at a sweet price. These guns are high mileage combat weapons with scads of character still awash in cosmoline. It is one thing to read about history from a safe, comfortable distance. Cold facts and dispassionate numbers conspire to excise the passion and emotion from some of history’s most significant episodes. However, hefting the guns that were actually there brings home the power of these events in a much more moving way.
A young man died clutching this battered old rifle. His lifeblood spilled out on the side of Hamburger Hill as he gave his last full measure of devotion for a cause he felt was just. Similarly, the young man who took his life was fighting for a cause of his own. At a certain level both men fought for their comrades alongside them. That one lived and the other died was a function of the cruel vagaries of Fate.
This rifle was fired in anger so profusely as to char the handguard. Through the fog of history there is literally no telling the mayhem it wreaked. Now it sits quietly with me, a mute testament to a most remarkable time. Want a surplus Chicom SKS rifle of your own? J&G Sales has them in stock at a reasonable price. They’re also C&R eligible. These veteran rifles show the cool stigmata of hard use and are slathered in cosmoline.
About the Author
Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He is airborne and scuba qualified and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…at the controls of an Army helicopter. After eight years in the Regular Army, Major Dabbs attended medical school. He works in his urgent care clinic, shares a business building precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989.
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