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.

Scandinavian Sniper – Finnish and Swedish Marksmen

By an interesting coincidence, both the Finnish Defence Forces’ official podcast Radio Kipinä as well as Sweidsh author/historian Lars Gyllenhaal’s Militärt med Gyllenhaal-podcast dealt with today’s snipers in their respective defence forces. As such, this felt like a good opportunity to compare and contrast the training, equipment, and employment of these.

A short note on the podcasts. The links above go to their respective iTunes-pages, but they are also found e.g. on YouTube. The language is Finnish for Radio Kipinä and Swedish for Militärt med Gyllenhaal. For their sniper episodes, both interviewed an officer who has a long background as a sniping instructor, Major Tapio Saarelainen  of the Finnish Army Academy and Captain Håkan Jorsell of the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion (AJB).

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A Swedish sniper from the army ranger battalion during an exercise in Gotland last year. Source: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

Let’s first get Simo Häyhä out of the way before continuing on towards the modern day. Arguably a prime contender for the title of best known Finnish soldier, Häyhä fought as a sniper at the Kollaa front during the Winter War, and is widely credited with being the most lethal sniper throughout history. Needless to say, there is quite a lot of  legends surrounding Häyhä’s short but spectacular career. Saarelainen addresses quite a number of these during the podcast, and has also written a brand new biography on Häyhä. Having met Häyhä “roughly two dozen times”, Saarelainen notes that Häyhä usually aimed for the target centre and scored most of his kills at around 150 meter range, downplaying the importance of his longer shots (his longest record hit was at 450 meter), and that he never fired from up in trees. The experiences gathered by Häyhä still influences Finnish army snipers today, and much of the basic trade remains the same. However, some specific parts of Häyhä’s tactics have become obsolete, such as using iron sights to keep a lower profile. Saarelainen notes that optics gives a decisive advantage in speed, while Jorsell agrees that while learning to employ iron sights is an importance step and a good foundation for becoming a proficient marksman, out in the field optics still take the price.

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Simo Häyhä during the Winter War. Source: Wikimedia Commons/SA-Kuva

The road to becoming a sniper is vastly different in the Swedish and Finnish defence forces, due to the basic difference of Sweden fielding a professional all-volunteer force compared to Finland’s model based on general conscription followed by reservist duty. It should also be noted that the Finnish force does not differentiate between snipers and designated marksmen, instead only using the term tarkka-ampuja (literally ‘sharpshooter’) for bothEdit: In fact the new Finnish rifle squads do feature designated marksmen, called tukiampuja (‘supporting shooter’), following the latest reform. These were not covered in the podcast. Sweden differentiates between skarpskytt (designated marksman) and prickskytt (sniper). The Swedish designated marksmen are found in infantry squads, where they provide accurate supporting fire at ranges out to 300 meters. The Swedish snipers are on the other hand part of the Swedish elite units, such as the marines, army rangers, the air force’s base security units, and the special forces. Here, the snipers are trained to operate in independent pairs at ranges up to and including 1,000 meters, during all weather conditions and all times of the year. Both the spotter and the shooter in the sniper team are trained snipers, with Jorsell noting that roles may change depending on who has the better capacity that day. For Finnish snipers, while they also always operate with a pair, he may or may not be a trained sniper.

To get into sniper training, the soldier must first accepted into the basic units, after which he (or she) can volunteer to receive sniper training. This means that to e.g. become one of Jorsell’s army snipers, one must first pass the basic (but demanding) tests to be accepted into the Army Ranger Battalion, followed by a 11 month long basic military training held in Arvidsjaur, in the northernmost parts of Sweden. After this, one can volunteer for sniper training, which requires slightly higher physical and psychological marks than a normal ranger (or jaeger, as the Swedish army calls them). On this follows an eight to ten week long sniper course, followed by a grand exam being held out in the field and lasting a few days. The test covers all aspects of sniper training, and if the sniper passes he is allowed to wear the sniper badge as proof that he is a qualified sniper.

Amongst the Finnish soldiers, all units training  the infantry units train conscripts to snipers, and as such one has to first get into a infantry unit to be accepted into sniper training. The prospective sniper starts out with the normal eight week basic course, which trains basic soldier skills (including use of standard issue assault rifles). Following this, the snipers are trained in their particular field for nine weeks, with the final seven weeks focusing on the soldiers role as part of the greater unit. The other alternative is to be active in the reserve and get transferred into a wartime position as a sniper based on training received post-conscript duty.

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A Finnish sniper from KAIPR securing a landing zone during exercise METSO 16. Source. Finnish Defence Forces

Needless to say, the Finnish sniper being sent into the reserve is not up to par with a professional soldier such as the Swedish ones, something that Saarelainen readily admits. While the Swedish sniper fires approximately 1,000 rounds during a service year, a Finnish conscript fires approximately 300 7.62 mm rounds, and even less if employing a larger calibre. This is purely due to a lack of funds, and Saarelainen states that the bare minimum a sniper would need is 500 rounds.

This difference is also seen in the emphasise placed on prior knowledge. While Saarelainen wants snipers who are both hunters and have some basic competition results to show (air rifle, rimfire, …), Jorsell has trained skater boys from downtown Stockholm,  although he also confirms that a solid hunting background naturally helps. Both officers agree that no-one is born a crack shot, but it takes hard and determined work to become one, and it is a skill that requires consistent training if it is to be maintained. For the Finnish snipers, this creates an additional challenge. In practice, for the reservist to maintain his proficiency, he has to acquire his own rifle and put his own time and effort into making sure he trains adequately. The big issue here is firing ranges, as firing ranges over 100 meters long are few and far between, especially those where a civilian can stop by to fire off a few rounds. MPK arranges a few courses each year, which gives access to the defence force’s own ranges. Also, Tarkka-ampujakilta, the snipers’ guild, provides a framework for those reservists that wish to maintain their know-how. Still, it is by no means a cheap hobby, and while both officers note that no amount of equipment and technology can replace the basic skill of marksmanship, long-range shooting certainly is a practice that rewards the use of high-end equipment. The current Finnish gun laws places very little restrictions on the ownership of medium-bore bolt-action rifles and their accessories, so as long as you aren’t looking for your personal Barrett M82 you should be good to go. And, yes, you are allowed to bring your own sniper rifle to war, as long as you make sure you bring the ammunition as well (or use army standard rounds).

When it comes to equipment, the standard Finnish sniper rifles are the 7.62 TKIV 85 and the 7.62 TKIV Dragunov, both chambered in the 7.62x54r, a rimmed cartridge dating back to Czarist-Russia and the Mosin-Nagant M91 (as in 1891). The M91 was adopted in different locally modified versions as the Finnish army’s standard rifle up until the introduction of the AKM in the early 60’s. The TKIV 85 is the last of this line, and is based on refurbished receivers. The exact age of the receivers employed is unknown, but the rifles very likely have a shot at the title of oldest operational small arm still in active service. The rest of the rifle is completely reworked, including using the somewhat tighter tolerances of the 7.62x53r standard (a Finnish version of the 7.62x54r developed during the interwar years). The Dragunov is the ubiquitous Soviet semi-automatic designated marksman rifle, and doesn’t require any further introduction. The most modern design in use is the 8.6 TKIV 2000, a Sako TRG-42 chambered in .338LM, with a Zeiss Diavari V 3-12 x 56 T mounted on top. For anti-material work, the Barrett M82 in .50 BMG is found. This highly-specialised rifle is known as the 12.7 RSTKIV 2000. The effective range increases with the calibre, with snipers equipped with 7.62 mm weapons being seen as having an effective max range of 5-600 meters, .338LM being able to achieve max ranges of up to 1,000 meters, and the .50 being effective beyond 1,500 meters if the conditions allow. However, due to the Finnish geography (read: forests), in practice shots above 350 meters are rare.

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The last in a long line of Mosin-Nagant based rifles, the 7.62 TKIV 85. Source: Wikimedia Commons/MKFI

For the Swedish forces, there is basically two rifles in use. The larger is the Barrett, which the Swedish forces call the Ag 90. While the Barrett is today widely found in western forces around the world, it was in fact the Swedish Army which was the launch customer, narrowly beating the US Marine Corps with their order. The current Swedish version is the Ag 90C, which features a number of modifications to improve the overall quality of the weapon. Besides its use in the anti-material role using armour-piercing bullets at ranges up to and including 1,000 meters, the rifle is also used by the engineering corps for clearing explosives. The other rifle is the Psg 90, a locally modified version of Accuracy International’s Arctic Warfare, chambered in 7.62×51 mm NATO. The weapon is also commonly known by its British designations L96 or L118A1. The ballistics of the round very closely match those of the slightly longer round used by the Finnish weapons, something which further shows the demands placed on the Swedish snipers who are trained to use their Psg’s out to the 1,000 meter distance. For self-defence, the snipers are also equipped with Ak 5 (FN FNC) assault rifles. All snipers are trained on all weapons, but naturally the exact load-out is mission specific.

When it comes to additional equipment, the Swedish snipers are better off than their Finnish compatriots. Most Finnish snipers lack such basic equipment as range-finders and wind gauges, tools which are standard issue for Swedish snipers. Still, both countries place emphasis on the snipers being able to function with the bare necessities, going back to mildot charts, maps, home-made ghillie suits, and open sights if the need arise. When it comes to their employment in combat, the Finnish snipers are subordinated to the company commander. The company commander then sets the mission (destroy, disrupt, gather intelligence, …), with the sniper deciding how the mission is to be performed. This usually places geographic restrictions on the sniper (i.e. he can’t wander off into the neighbouring company’s zone of responsibility), but otherwise he has a high degree of freedom. Some Finnish recce and SF units also have snipers at the squad level. For the Swedish snipers, my understanding is that as the jaeger units themselves often operate in front of their own lines, their snipers more often operate as part of and subordinated to their squad compared to the Finnish ones.