The Soviet 7.62x39mm rifle cartridge was designed during World War II and first used in the SKS carbine.

The cartridge was likely influenced by a variety of foreign developments, especially the pre-war German GeCo, 7.75x39mm experimental round, and possibly by the late-war German 7.92x33mm Kurz ("Kurz" meaning "short" in German). Shortly after the war, the world's most recognized assault rifle was designed for this cartridge: the AK-47. The cartridge remained the Soviet standard until the 1970s, and is still one of the most common intermediate rifle cartridges used around the world. Its replacement, the 5.45x39mm cartridge, has less stopping power and armor penetration, but is highly lethal, has a flatter trajectory, and is more controllable in fully automatic fire due to the lower recoil. The change was in part a response to NATO switching from the 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge to 5.56x45mm NATO.

The original Soviet M43 bullets are boat-tail bullets with a copper-plated steel jacket, a large steel core, and some lead between the core and the jacket. The cartridge itself consists of a berdan-primed, tapered (usually steel) case which seats the bullet and contains the powder charge. The taper makes it very easy to feed and extract the round, since there is little contact with the chamber walls until the round is fully seated. This taper is what causes the AK-47 to have distinctively curved magazines. While the bullet design itself has gone through a few redesigns, the cartridge itself remains largely unchanged.

Since approximately 1990, the 7.62x39mm cartridge has seen some use in hunting arms in the US for hunting game up to the size of whitetail deer, as it is approximately as powerful as the old .30-30 Winchester round, and has a similar ballistic profile.[6] Large numbers of inexpensive imported semiautomatic rifles, like the SKS and semi-auto AK-47 clones and variants, are available in this caliber. The SKS is so inexpensive as to have begun displacing the .30-30 lever-action rifles as the new "poor man's deer rifle" by being less expensive than the .30-30 Marlins and Winchesters that long held that role.[citation needed] In addition, Ruger produces the Mini-30 as a 7.62x39mm version of their popular Mini-14 rifles. Inexpensive imported 7.62x39mm ammunition is also widely available, though much of it is of the non-expanding type that may be illegal to use for hunting in some US states. However, both imported Russian ammunition like Wolf brand and American civilian manufacturers produce both hollow-point and soft-point rounds, which are suitable and nearly universally legal for hunting except in areas where the use of rifles for hunting is completely prohibited.

7.62x39mm ammunition has typically been one of the least-expensive centerfire rifle ammunitions on the market. It cost just over 17 cents a round for quality imported ammo in early 2006. In 2005/2006, prices began to soar (almost doubling in the US) due to the United States placing a massive order to supply the fledgling Afghan and Iraqi armies. Average price in early 2008 rose to 22 cents per round, bought in bulk packs of 500 to 1000. It is still cheaper than most handgun rounds and even some expensive target .22 rimfire ammunition. This cartridge has endeared itself to shooters in spite of its limited ballistics,[citation needed] because of the many inexpensive good semiautomatic rifles available for it, the availability of inexpensive ammunition, and because of its minimal recoil.

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