The Return of the Sako

Big news in the Finnish small arms industry this week, as Sako and the Finnish Defence Forces announced that they have signed a letter of intent “regarding research and development of a family of rifles and preparation of the procurement of a rifle system. The rifle system is intended to consist of two different system configurations including a sniper rifle for sniper use and a semi- automatic rifle for the squad’s designated marksman.” Ruotuväki then got some further details, while Seura got a comment from Sako.

The first obvious thing to note is that Sako is back to producing (semi-)automatic military rifles for the first time in more than twenty years, Sako having exited that market segment following the delivery of the last batch of the 7.62 Rk 95 TP assault rifles to the FDF in the later half of the 90’s. Since, Sako has built up quite a reputation in the defence field with the TRG-family of high-end bolt-action sniper rifles. These have proved especially popular in the form of the .338 LM chambered TRG 42 found in Finnish service as the 8.6 TKIV 2000. However, the weapon is far from the only scoped firearm in Finnish service.

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A marine sniper from Nyland Brigade taking part in the currently ongoing sea warfare exercise Lotta 20. The weapon is the 8.6 TKIV 2000, a Sako TRG 42 in .338 LM. Source: Finnish Navy Twitter

Two weapons that relatively seldom are seen but still feature in the FDF firearms guide are the SVD (7.62 TKIV DRAGUNOV) and the 7.62 TKIV 85, chambered in the closely related calibres of 7.62×54 R and 7.62×53 R respectively (the later being a Finnish derivative of the former). The Dragunov is in many ways closer to a designated marksman rifle, even if in Finnish service the designation ‘TKIV’ for sniper rifle is used. Part of the reason behind this designation is likely that until recently regular Finnish squads did not sport designated marksmen. The 7.62 TKIV 85 is a rather basic no-frills bolt-action sniper rifle, sporting an adjustable wooden stock and relatively nice optics (either the Zeiss Diavari 1.5-6 x 42 or the Schmidt & Bender 4 x 36). It’s main (sole) claim to fame is that the receivers are refurbished Mosin-Nagant ones, potentially making some of the metal rank amongst the oldest in regular service anywhere on the globe. It is these two that will be replaced by the new K 22, the Dragunov being completely phased out while the TKIV 85 is “mostly” replaced. And yes, as the designation indicates, the weapons should be ready for delivery by 2022.

The current job description of the Finnish designated marksman, locally known as tukiampuja (supporting rifleman), is:

The designated marksman is a rifleman whose assault rifle is equipped with magnifying optics. He/she is able to perform accurate fire at longer ranges than other riflemen (300-500 m), as well as being able to better discover and identify targets compared to others. The designated marksman can function as a pathfinder, assistant machine gunner, or close-in anti-tank gunner.

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Internationally, the idea that at least some members of the squad need longer range fire power has quickly grown in popularity during the last two decades, with the weapons usually being either older scoped battle rifles chambered in 7.62×51 (.308 WIN) or assault rifles more or less moded to fit the purpose (in some cases this is just a case of putting a scope on an accurate rifle, in other cases free-floating handguards, bipods, and heavier barrels can be included). As the versatility of the designated marksman on the modern battlefield has become ever more obvious, the weapons have also evolved and become more tailored to the mission. While few are completely clean-sheet designs, weapons such as the M110 differ quite significantly from the run-of-the-mill ARs seeing more widespread use.

Crucially, the designated marksman is not a sniper, and that’s not only because the ranges are shorter. The designated marksman might lack the particular training associated with the things a sniper does besides shooting, but on the other hand the designated marksman is supposed to be able to travel and fight as a part of the squad. This means also being able to e.g. fight at close quarters in urban operations, making the semi-auto action more or less a must.

Going back to the description of the letter of intent, the reference to a “family” is interesting, as that easily can give the picture of two different weapons sharing some components. In fact, the two versions will be identical when it comes to the rifles themselves, but will differ in that the sniper version will feature a dedicated long-range scope as well as more and better sniper-specific kit. The rifle will come in one calibre (at least for the time being), the venerable 7.62×51.

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A Finnish rifleman with an upgraded 7.62 RK 95 TP with magnifying optics, the current DMR in Finnish service. The K 22 will be a significant upgrade both when it comes to accuracy, firepower, and ergonomics. Source: Maavoimat FB

This has raised some eyebrows. Sniper rifles are frequently bolt-action due to their inherent better accuracy. This is however not a definite, as weapons such as the aforementioned M110 or the H&K PSG1 shows. The calibre is perhaps more of a surprise, as the combination Sako and .338 LM has proved very successful, and certainly gives the sniper added reach. At the same time, the .338 LM is overly heavy/powerful/expensive for a DMR that is supposed to shine at ranges between 300 and 500 meters. However, not too long ago the 7.62×51 was the most popular western sniper calibre, and by quite a bit. Especially when considering that the weapon it replaces is the 7.62 TKIV 85, buying a sniper rifle chambered in a medium rifle calibre isn’t as outrageous as it may sound.

From the earlier source, the Finnish sniper “can in favourable conditions take out individual targets from more than a kilometer away”, but it also deserves to be remembered that while the snipers usually are cherished for their very long range one shot-one kill engagements, the role include a number of other missions as well. Nevertheless, the quoted range is a serious requirement for anyone using the current 7.62 TKIV 85 or the future K 22, but keen readers will remember that in a podcast not too long ago major Tapio Saarelainen of the Finnish Army Academy noted that the 7.62 TKIV 85 has an effective max range of 500 to 600 meters, while shots in general are at ranges up to 350 meters due to the Finnish geography. That is partly a training issue, as Saarelainen notes that there simply isn’t money to fund the number of rounds he feels is needed to properly train a sniper. As such, while the K 22 kit and capabilities will be rather different from those of snipers equipped with the 8.6 TKIV 2000, it certainly seems like K 22 will have a slot to fill on the Finnish battlefield. Especially as the ergonomics are likely to be far superior to those found on the 7.62 TKIV 85, further aiding in hitting targets at longer ranges. In Sweden, where the more modern L96A1 AW is in service as the Psg 90, the snipers train out to 1,000 meters with the 7.62×51.

Sweden is interesting, as the press release about the letter of intent notes that the option is available for other countries to become involved. As noted last year, Sweden is in the process of acquiring a number of new weapons, including both a sniper rifle and a DMR. As Sweden currently lacks a military small arms manufacturer, cooperation with Finland could very well be in the cards. While security of supply is one of the driving factors for the K 22 from a Finnish point of view, helping the Finnish production line stay open might certainly benefit Sweden as well in the long run.

One of the more interesting tidbits about the rifle is found in the article by Seura. Sako is owned by Beretta, and the company has relatively recently (2015) launched a DMR-variant of its ARX-series of assault rifles, designated the ARX-200. This is in 7.62×51, and you would be excused to think that a localised version of the ARX-200 might be the upcoming K 22. However, Sako denies this, and states that the rifle will be a clean-sheet design. There is one small caveat, though:

Certainly the development takes into consideration popular solutions

While this doesn’t necessarily mean much, rumours have been going around about a Sako-made AR-style rifle for some time already. I will point out that I have no idea about the source of these rumours, but an AR-patterned rifle certainly is a “popular solution”. What Seura also noted is the fact that following the rework of the old 7.62 RK 62 to the 62M-standard(s), the lifespan of the current Finnish AK-pattern rifles is expected to stretch out to approximately 2035. As the wholesale replacement of something along the lines of 200,000+ weapons will be a massive operation that takes time, a decision about the replacement will likely have to be made within the next five years. Here, a successful semi-auto K 22 might well work as a basis for a new Sako assault rifle. At the same time, waiting for the outcome of the US NGSW program would likely be a smart move, considering the impact it will have on the field. And as it just happens, 2022 is not only the year that the K 22 will start rolling off the production line, but also when the first US Army units will start taking delivery of the NGSW weapons. Funny how that works out sometimes.

7.62 KvKK 62

The Finnish-built 7.62 KvKK 62 machine-gun has recently received a hail of criticism apparently coming from a short article in the Swedish version of YLE News. This bills the machine gun as both unreliable and dangerous, and questions why the Finnish Defence Forces continues to use this dangerous weapon.

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Czech soldiers with LK vz. 26. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

It is true that the weapon has a reputation of being unreliable. In part this comes from flaws in the dated design, the weapon is based on the pre-war Czechoslovakian LK vz. 26 (Kulsprutegevär m/39 in Swedish use) via the vz. 52, but a large part of this reputation also stems from the fact that many exercises use blanks as opposed to live rounds, with the blanks having a considerably lower gas pressure than the ammunition the KvKK is designed for. The weapon does also fire from an open bolt, which means that it is susceptible to dirt entering the chamber. The open bolt mechanism could also potentially cause the gun to “run away”, meaning it will continue its cycle of fire until running out of ammunition. This is especially true for older weapons, were use and excessive cleaning have caused a large amount of wear over the years (the open bolt does however offer the advantage of not having a round chambered with the firing pin in position, which in turn diminishes the risk for accidental firings).

The KvKK employs some design decisions that seems good on paper, but has proved less than stellar in practice. It uses the same 7.62×39 mm cartridge as the AK-series of assault rifles, meaning that ammunition is interchangeable between the squad riflemen and their supporting weapon. However, this also means that it fails to provide a longer reach and/or heavier punch compared to the assault rifles. The weapon lacks a trigger guard, to allow for the operation with heavy gloves on during the winter, but this also increases the danger of a branch or similar getting caught in the trigger firing the weapon. To keep the part count down, the weapon also lacks a quick-release barrel, lowering the amount of sustained fire that can be achieved by the weapon. The simple truth is that the KvKK has never been anything but an adequate weapon at most, which is somewhat strange given that its “brothers” in the form of the Finnish AK-clones were widely seen as some of the best assault rifles in the world during their heydays.

In many ways, while it is billed a light machine gun and employed as such, it is closer in design to a pure squad automatic weapon. The fact that it is currently being replaced with the PKM is interesting in this light, as the latter is a pure general purpose machine gun, firing a full powered cartridge in the form of the venerable 7.62x54R. The PKM is in all respects a far more formidable weapon, which greatly adds to the fire power of the Finnish infantrymen. The problem, however, is the price tag, which has slowed down procurements.

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7.62 KvKK 62 in action. Source: Puolustusvoimat.fi 

So, is the KvKK a dangerous weapon that should be banned as soon as possible? Keeping in mind that I am no dedicated small-arms expert, I’d say the answer is ‘no’. Certain weapons are apparently worn out, and as with all old equipment they need to be checked carefully before being issued to conscripts. Still, the sheer number of weapons needed to train fire support dictates that it has to remain in service for some years to come (and probably for issue to 2nd line troops during wartime for quite some time in the future). My personal experience is that the absolute majority of firearms related accidents happens when people neglect the basic safety rules of always remembering where the barrel is pointed, not touching the trigger when not meaning to fire, and all in all never messing around with the weapon unnecessarily. Field exercises will always be a high-risk environment, and accidents such as the one described by YLE should always be investigated thoroughly to avoid similar tragedies in the future. However, the sad truth is that most accidental discharges happens for no other cause than simple stupidity, and for that, there is no remedy but even more safety training and observation of the way individual conscripts handle their weapons.