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The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Or maybe the Polish.

Based on a 20-year rotation schedule for military ammunition in the former Soviet Bloc countries, we may be on the verge of seeing a new wave of inexpensive surplus ammunition arrive on our shores plus some new milsurp models to shoot it in. This time though it won't be the 7.62x39 or the 7.62x54. It will be the 5.45x39, also known as the 5.45mm Soviet or 5.45mm Kalashnikov. It's the current alternative, along with the Chinese 5.8x42, to our own 5.56x45 NATO cartridge, so it deserves some attention.

There's often a bit of confusion about the 5.45x39. It is not the earlier experimental cartridge the Soviets developed in the 1960s known as the 5.56x39, also to become known as the .220 Russian. The 5.56x39 was the 7.62x39 case necked down to accept standard 5.56mm bullets. While Russia did not adopt it as a military cartridge, the 5.56x39 succeeded as a small game cartridge chambered in the Toz-23 and Vostok sporting carbines. In the United States, 5.56x39 brass produced by Sako became the base case for the highly successful .22 and 6mm PPC benchrest cartridges, which still give challengers a run for the money.

In 1974, the Soviets debuted their new small-bore round in their equally new AK-74 assault rifle and RPK light machineguns. The cartridge wasn't largely known in the West until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.


When the Soviet troops rolled across the border, it was the AK-74 they were carrying along with a basic load of 5.45x39 ammunition that weighed about half of what a similar load of 7.62x39 would weigh. Not only did the cartridge weigh less, it was more accurate than the old AK round plus, due to its streamlined bullet propelled at approximately 2,950 fps, much flatter shooting and longer ranging. The other 5.45 round adopted by the Russians was the diminutive 5.45x18 pistol cartridge designed for the equally diminutive PSM automatic, said to be capable of penetrating NATO body armor.


Tearing down a current round of Bulgarian 5.45x39 imported by Century International Arms reveals some interesting data. The military FMJ bullet actually mikes .222" or 5.63mm. Hmm, not 5.45mm. The bullet weighs 52.5 grains and measures a long, snaky 1.003" in length. It sports a strikingly streamlined, sharp-pointed contour with a boattail, reminding me of a true VLD design. Needless to say, it is ballistically efficient. What's inside is even more interesting.


Inside the copper washed, steel jacket is a lead-wrapped, steel core that stops short of filling the entire interior of the jacket. Between the pointed nose and the end of the steel core is a short lead filler and then an empty air space measuring approximately .196" long. The combined effect of this design is the center of gravity has been shifted far to the rear. When the 1" long bullet impacts, it begins tumbling, at the same time, the short lead filler in front of the steel core flows forward into the air space under the nose, creating further imbalance in the tumbling bullet. It creates a nasty, erratic wound. It's combat proofed because the Soviets are still using it. Other military loading include tracer and incendiary rounds.


Breaking down the propellant, the Bulgarian FMJ contained 21 grains of a very fine ball powder. Let's see, a 50 or so grain bullet and 21 grains of powder. Does this remind you of another famous cartridge? It does me. It's about as close as you could come to the .222 Remington in military guise.

In addition to milsurp ammunition, Wolf Performance Ammunition currently imports three loadings for the 5.45x39. There's a 60-grain HP or FMJ load rated at 2,936 fps and a 70-grain FMJ round at 2,460 fps. I'm surprised the 2008 catalog doesn't list a more standard FMJ, HP or SP bullet weighing from 51 to 52 grains, but I suppose Wolf feels there's no reason to compete against the abundant milsurp supplies offered today.

Compared to the scores of milsurp models in 7.62x39 available, there just aren't a lot of 5.45's appearing on dealers' shelves yet. That's why I was taken when I saw the Polish Tantal model currently being offered by Century International Arms. This new CIA Tantal offering is an excellent recreation of the current Polish wzor-88 assault rifle chambered in 5.45x39 and 5.56x45 NATO.


The first country to overthrow their homegrown Communist party in 1989 and to separate itself from the Soviet Union, Poland is now a member of NATO and one of the first countries to offer troops and military support for the 2003 Iraq war.

The Polish wzor-88 is essentially a Soviet AK-74 with a folding metal stock modeled after the East German pattern. The essential differences between the AK-74 and the AKM 7.62x39 are the use of a smaller bolt head, an improved extractor, a composite, fiberglass magazine and an incredibly effective and distinctive looking muzzlebrake.


Tests indicate recoil energy delivered by the AK-74 is 3.39 joules, compared to 6.44 in the M16 and 7.19 in the AKM. In short, the 5.45x39 is a sweet shooting little cartridge. The fully automatic Polish wzor-88 differs from the AK-74 in having four modes of fire: safe, semiautomatic, 3-round burst and full auto.

Century Arms' Tantal is a high-quality rifle, showing precise machining, excellent assembly and finishing. When extended, the wzor-88 folding stock is tight without any play, although the East German design seems skimpy to me. The depth of the butt is marginal for full shoulder contact and stability when shooting offhand, but it is compact! The rear sight is wzor-88 correct, showing an "S" for the battle sight setting when the slide is brought fully to the rear. Similarly, the selector or safety switch markings are Polish correct with a "P" for semi-auto and a "C" for full auto. Maybe best of all, the Tantal comes complete with a Polish wzor-88, clampon bipod--an accessory, I believe, not seen on any other Warsaw Pact model.

How does 5.45 ammunition shoot? Century had supplied some surplus Bulgarian ball manufactured by Factory 10 in 1986. Murphy's Guns in Tucson, Arizona, was the source of some commercial Wolf brand featuring the 60-grain FMJ load. Over the PACT Professional chronograph, the Bulgarian 52.5-grain FMJ surplus averaged 2,996 fps with an extreme spread of 77 fps. The Wolf loading averaged 3,002 fps with an ES of 39 fps.

Two things I've learned about group shooting AK/AKM variants. Shoot them off your hand while your hand is resting on the front rest. Hard benching the forearm on the front bag will double the size of your groups. Second, load from the magazine rather than loading rounds singly. Letting the rifle cycle rounds automatically from the magazine delivers more consistent results.

At 50 yards, the Wolf loading produced some 3-shot groups measuring as tight as 1". The Bulgarian ball had a hard time delivering less than 1-1/2". At 100 yards and having run out of Wolf ammunition, the best 3-shot groups delivered by the Bulgarian ball averaged 2-1/2" and the worst, 3-1/2". What was interesting, as the shooting progressed and the gun wore in, the groups delivered by the Tantal became progressively smaller. Recoil? Virtually none.

Keep an eye out for some good pricing on milsurp 5.45x39. I suspect we will also see M15 uppers and possibly even sporting rifles coming on line in 5.45mm. If you handload, the only current source I know for boxer primed brass and .220" SP and HP bullets, ranging from 40 to 80 grains is Schroeder Bullets in San Diego. All in all, the 5.45x39 is a very interesting milsurp cartridge to play with, and so are the guns.





TUSTIN, CA 92781

(800) 745-9714






(619) 423-8124

 (800) 527-1252

 ACTION TYPE: Gas operated semi-auto
 CALIBER: 5.45x39
OVERALL LENGTH: 29-1/2" (folded),
 37-1/4" (extended)
 WEIGHT: 7 pounds, 10 ounces
 FINISH: Parkerized
 SIGHTS: Adjustable post front,
 adjustable rear
 STOCKS: Steel folder;
 plastic fore end
 PRICE: Check with
 local dealers
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Title Annotation:SURPLUS LOCKER[TM]
Author:Bodinson, Holt
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2008
Previous Article:Production feats: American manufacturing did wonders during WWII.
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