PSL 7.62x54R: A Soviet Sniper's View of the Famed Romanian Rifle
January 30, 2019
Century Arms announced on January 30, 2018, the availability of newly manufactured models of the highly sought after the Romanian AES10B in 7.62x39mm and the Romanian PSL in 7.62x54R rifles.
The PSL is also modeled after the RPK rifle, but in the 7.62x54R cartridge, and paired with a new Russian PO4x24 optic.
“We haven’t brought in the AES10B or PSL rifles in many years. AES10B availability has dried up due to a lack of the parts kits used to build them and surplus PSL rifles are being sent to other parts of the world before we are able to acquire them,” said Vice President of Business Development William Sucher. “We have continued to look for a solution for the American market due to the high demand for these models even though the days of low-priced surplus options are long gone. After reviewing all options and working with the manufacturer, we were able to acquire and bring in small quantities of these as newly manufactured rifles, albeit at a higher price, but still uniquely rare and desirable.”
Century Arms will have a limited quantity of these newly manufactured rifles and have sold out of the initial shipments. Guns & Ammo is proud to offer you the following review that originally appeared in Guns & Ammo’s Book of the AK47.
For the last 10 years, those who own a rare SVD have been arguing that the PSL (Pushka Snaiperska cu Lineta), the sniper rifle developed and built by Cugir in Romania, is neither a Dragunov nor SVD. The same arguments have applied to the Romak III. Despite the valiant efforts, the misconception persists. Fueled by slight resemblences to the Dragunov, the PSL seems to have permanently acquired its American nickname, the Romanian Dragunov.
You’re thinking, Oh, no, another article on how the PSL is not an SVD. Not so. There have already been tens if not hundreds of those articles written. Other than some external similarities such as optics, the 7.62x54R cartridge and its intended use, these rifles are completely different.
The PSL owes a debt of gratitude to Soviet SVD rifles for the use of the Dragunov name. It has helped the PSL to gain a bit of undeserved notoriety—though it is a remarkable rifle in its own right.
The Romanian PSL is based on the proven action of the AK and designed to serve as a sniper rifle within a squad per the Warsaw Pact doctrine. The FPK (or its variant, the PSL) was issued to infantry detachments as a designated sniper rifle, thus making the sniper a more prevalent part of the fighting unit. This is a concept with which I was intimately familiar.
Though never having actually owned one, I have always been intrigued by the PSL. I own not one but three SVDs and shoot them on a regular basis during the Soviet-doctrine sniper classes I teach at Behind Lines (behindlines.net). Based on Soviet Spetsnaz sniper tactics, our classes see students armed with a variety of rifles, anything from ARs and SVDs to the bolt-action AW and Russian VEPR and Saiga. But one rifle, which stands out as the most popular, is the PSL. To my surprise, it performs exceptionally well throughout the entire class.
The SVD Sniper
Don’t get me wrong. I was not an instant PSL convert. It would take a lot to break my allegiance to the SVD rifles.
My love affair with the Soviet-designed SVD sniper rifle goes back to the time when I, as a member of a Soviet Spetsnaz unit, was fighting in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union-Afghan campaign. The first nine months of my two-year mandatory service was spent as a sniper carrying an SVD rifle up and down the Hindu-Kush mountains.
I remember the first time I laid my eyes on my rifle. It was love at first sight. As many love stories go, this one started off with me getting a few bumps and bruises before settling into a warm and productive relationship.
When they brought the rifle to me at the firing range at Basic, my heart skipped. Never had I seen something this beautiful, yet so sinister at the same time. Its slick lines, ergonomic stock, very military-looking scope—everything about it was considered the best in long-range precision.
Not having seen an SVD rifle before that time (1985) at the Vozdushno-Desantnye Vojska (VDV) training range in Fergana, Uzbekistan, and not having anything to compare it to, if they would have brought out a PSL rifle, doubtlessly it would have made the same impression on us green recruits.
My above-average performance at the range with the AKS74 provided me the opportunity to try out with the SVD. My first experience was somewhat less than perfect. Having never shot through any optical sight before, I had to grasp the concept of eye relief really fast. Then came a frantic search for a reticle. Those who are familiar with the PSO-1 Russian optical sight will probably agree with me that it is a very unique PSO reticle and somewhat of an enigma at first glance. But after a quick explanation and a kick from the instructor, I figured it out and firing commenced.
Once I acquired the concept of the scope reticle, I found it easy to use and ingenious. The first time behind the trigger of an SVD had me shooting at two types of standard Soviet military resetting targets positioned at 200 and 400 meters. I knocked ’em down with no effort at all. I just couldn’t believe how easy it was. It was almost unfair.
At the end of that day I had been selected to carry the most accurate military rifle that the Motherland had to offer—therefore, I was to be called “The Sniper.”
Three months of training followed that first SVD experience. I concentrated on learning the rifle and equipment, memorizing ballistic tables and, most important, getting more practical trigger time. The training did not end with graduating from the training center. On-the-job training continued way into my time served in Afghanistan. Nothing—and I mean no amount of training—can fully prepare you for war.
During my stint as a sniper, my Dragunov rifle performed very well with no malfunctions of any kind. I took care of it, keeping the rifle and optics clean and in good order.
Being deployed with the SVD rifle, I got to use it extensively in combat. My place was with our fire support group, which utilized a dominating height over the ambush area or village, preferably controlling the entire kill zone or at least covering a significant part of the engagement area and possible escape routes. This usually meant 75 to 400 meters from the area of fire contact and a depth of battlefield anywhere between 50 to 1,000 meters. This is where the SVD semiautomatic feature comes in use, as well as the performance of PSO-1 optics. Its wide field of view allows you to maintain control over the entire engagement area, and its unique reticle allows the operator to change POA within drastically different ranges from extremely close up to 400 meters, without touching scope turrets.
After a long six months in the country, I was transferred to an assault subgroup, and my beloved SVD rifle was replaced with a brand-new AKS74. It is as an assaulter within a Spetsnaz unit that I continued and ultimately ended my service in Afghanistan and with the Soviet army.
My affair with SVD rifles continued after I moved to the United States in the late ’80s. As I dove head first into the American gun culture, I absolutely had to have one at any cost. Therefore, as soon as could afford it, I bought one.
As a proud SVD Dragunov rifle owner, I often get involved in the PSL versus SVD discussions. However, instead of just snubbing my Com-Bloc rifle brethren, I try to offer a more objective opinion based on facts. The facts are as follows:
The receiver on an SVD is milled with an integrated scope rail. The PSL sports an RPK-type stamped reenforced receiver with an add-on (riveted) scope mounting rail.
I have to comment on the PSO optical sights, which the PSL rifles are equipped with. In shape, size, reticle and operation, they are almost identical to that of the Soviet/Russian-built PSO scope, so, for me—the PSO fan—it was an easy switch and took this element out of the learning process.
The SVD is part of a specially designed sniper rifle complex: rifle-scope-cartridge. It was conceived by the famous designer of precision sporting rifles, winner of numerous World Championship and Olympic shooting gold medals, Evgeniy Dragunov. Conversely, the PSL is a modified AK variant.
The SVD gas system is a short-piston, stroke-adjustable design. The PSL’s is a nonadjustable long stroke.
The SVD rifle is equipped with an elongated, nonremovable, cage-type flash hider. The PSL, on the other hand, has a slotted flash hider/muzzlebrake.
On the surface, the SVD rifle looks and feels as if it utilizes better metallurgy and overall finish with no sharp edges to snag on your skin or clothes. The PSL finish is usually like that on a regular AK workhorse with few rough edges and corners to make you bleed. It is a military rifle, after all. My commanding officer used to say, “If you are not bleeding from your hands, you’re not fighting.”
The SVD forend and handguard are made of laminate wood. It protects the barrel and gas piston and is retained in place at the front of the receiver and hinge-pinned handguard retainer plate. The PSL, on the other hand, is solid wood and consists of a two-piece handguard configuration that covers the gas tube as on the AK design.
Both buttstocks are similar in length, made of laminate wood and of a similar skeletonized, thumb-through design. However, there are differences. Though the PSL’s buttstock has an integrated cheekpiece, the SVD supports a removable cheekrest for shooting with open sights. And the pistol grip on the PSL is wider than that of the SVD.
Measuring overall length, the SVD rifle is slightly longer.
Both rifles have long and heavy barrels. They are semiautomatic and chambered in the Russian-designed 1896 7.62x54R (“R” for “rimmed” cartridge). Both use 10-round box-type magazines. Though similar in appearance, they are not interchangeable. Both the SVD and PSL are issued with PSO-designed optics. The scope/magazine pouch is also of a similar design and would accommodate either rifle.
The last and most important similarity of all is the intended use of both rifles as designated sniper implements within a unit.
Considering all of the above, is it enough to determine what rifle is superior? Many say yes. To me, all it says is that the SVD is not a PSL and the PSL certainly is not a Dragunov. To determine superiority, however, there has to be more to it than comparing similarities and differences. After all, they are both military rifles, instruments of war, and at the end of the day it is their performance that makes a definite determination.
The performance discussion can open a whole new debate, as there are as many opinions on this subject as there are shooters. It boils down to the man behind the trigger who makes all the difference with any gun. I am of the opinion that a highly trained Romanian sniper with his PSL rifle will outshoot an average recreational SVD shooter any day and twice on the weekend.
I shoot all of my SVDs regularly during my Behind Lines classes as well as during testing for reviews such as this. I can attest to the performance of an SVD, but the intent of this article is not to directly compare the PSL to the SVD but rather to find out what the PSL is capable of. However, I will use the SVD as a reference and a starting point.
Having witnessed the outstanding performance of the PSL in the hands of my students month after month, I decided to see it for myself—at the range of 800 meters.
Nowadays it is nearly impossible to find a Romanian-built rifle offered for open sale by FFL dealers. However, they do come up for sale at various gun auction sites or by private individuals. What you readily find today are kit-assembled rifles by reputable companies such as Century International Arms (centuryarms.com) and I.O. Inc. (ioinc.us). I am not qualified to compare the quality of PSL rifles from various manufacturers, nor would I care to. As the saying goes: “Got lemons…?” Folks at Century International Arms were gracious to provide one of their standard PSL54C rifles for my use as well as an ample supply of test ammo, the Com-Bloc 148-grain light ball and 179-grain heavy ball military surplus ammunition. Note that the manufacturer of the PSL rifle had in fact sent heavy ball ammunition for my testing. In contrast to popular belief that PSLs are not suitable for heavy loads, both types of ammunition are readily available at more than reasonable prices.
The PSL rifle came out of the box looking and feeling like a military rifle. No glossy finish, engravings or any other nonsense. It looked like it meant business, typical for a Com-Bloc fighting rifle—the matte finish, the wood, the metal—everything. Rough around the edges, a few sharp corners, but once you make this rifle yours the imperfections fade away. I understand that some shooters place stock in aesthetics. I don’t. One has to make a decision whether he wants a safe queen or an everyday shooter. I took the new PSL for the latter.
Upon closer inspection the PSL revealed its true form and unmistakable origins. My test sample was assembled on a U.S.-made receiver, with a U.S.-made barrel and utilizing a Tapco trigger group. I racked the charging handle a few times—smooth! Being intimately familiar with the AK platform, I couldn’t help but start to take apart this rifle. Everything was in its place for an AK. I could have fieldstripped it with my eyes closed. The rifle came apart easily. I oiled it, then wiped it down clean. Time for the range.
This PSL came with the original-equipment LPS scope, which is essentially a high-quality Romanian copy of the Soviet PSO-1 scope (the Romanian IOR factory is well known and recognized for its quality optics). Though it looks and feels similar to my beloved PSO, there are several differences. Still 4X—perfectly suitable for this rifle’s intended use—the scope provides the wide field of view essential for quick sight acquisition when engaging multiple targets. It uses a regular PSO-type reticle with upside-down chevrons for on-the-fly BDC; hash marks for lead-off, on-the-fly windage adjustment and rudimentary range estimation; and a chocked-type 1,000-meter rangefinder—perfect combination. The reticle itself is slightly larger than that of a Russian PSO scope and has much larger numbers. Unlike the Russian scope, the reticle is illuminated not with a battery-powered bulb, but a tritium-filled element. However, the scope I received was built in 1976, and any tritium that it may have had installed then had been completely exhausted and rendered inert. Since there is no battery, there is no battery compartment, switch, bulb and wiring, the lack of which results in a slightly lighter version compared with the PSO. It came with a typical PSO-style rubber eyecup. It was slightly loose, so I used an old electrical-tape trick and fixed it in place. The scope did not come with a front lens protective cup (they were easy to lose)—no big deal, as I would always use the canvas dustcover that came with this rifle anyway.
My philosophy when it applies to training and testing is that one would not sit and hammer nails into a plank of wood all day with a new nail gun. One would certainly use the tool to actually build something. So the practical aspect of training and testing is important to me. It is because of this philosophy that I decided to test not just accuracy of the PSL, but rather the practical accuracy of the rifle.
I grabbed the rifle with its scope, some targets and both types of ammo that were generously provided by Century Arms as well as several rounds of Soviet 7N1 sniper ammunition I had in my stash. My range gear included one more device I have to mention—the Voodoo Tactical Shooters Beanbag. It’s very simple and yet an ingenious implement. I have to say that I am not a big fan of bipods. Though at the range and on even surfaces they work great, in the field you won’t always find an ideal shooting position. Sandbags and beanbags make far better field support implements. Unfortunately, they add significant weight to the equipment list. I encourage my students to use packs as rifle rests. A pack works great. It’s flexible enough to permit the engagement of multiple targets and sturdy enough to give a rifle proper support. However, packs have limitations, too. The Voodoo Tactical Shooters Beanbag Sandbag, on the other hand, is a small and lightweight alternative. It consists of two small blocks (one measures 6.5x4x4 and the other 4.5x3x3) stuffed with lightweight, soft material to mimic the effect of a sandbag for cradling your rifle. These blocks can be attached to each other using hook-and-loop patches in a number of combinations, giving a shooter a rifle-rest height range from three to 11 inches.
Once at the range, I set up in the sitting position on the bench at the 100-yard firing line. I removed the scope, as I wanted to see what this rifle is capable of out of the box with open sights. I put up two eight-inch smallbore rifle targets, loaded mil-spec ball ammo into the 10-round box magazine, propped the PSL on a Voodoo Tactical Shooter Beanbag and went to work. Without difficulty, I punched several holes in my target, scoring 1½- to two-inch groups with the light ball ammo. The groups tightened once I switched to 179-grain ammunition.
Surprisingly, recoil is not just manageable, it’s very light and comparable to that of the full-length SVD. I would even say that it’s slightly less than my SVD folder.
The rifle shot true, and it was time to attach the scope and see what accuracy potential lay inside. With scope attached, I switched positions, moving to the 25-yard firing line. As I was not sure of the scope’s zero—rightfully so, as it turned out—I set up on the bench and continued to use the Voodoo Tactical beanbag as a rest. I affixed a standard sighting target, attached a loaded magazine and charged the rifle. After the first series, my shots revealed a tight group measuring 12 inches above POA. My intimate PSO knowledge dictated that I’d bring a screwdriver just for situations as this. After a quick adjustment, the scope was zeroed for 25 yards producing better than satisfying results.
Though not bad, I found the scope to be mounted too high for ergonomics to allow a proper cheekweld—even with a swell on the stock. I remedied this by wrapping a Russian tourniquet around the stock, getting the needed height and comfort. The other small inconvenience I noticed was the thickness of the pistol grip. It feels wider. However, I have no doubt that after shooting the PSL for a while I’d get used to it. The length of pull is reminiscent of an SVD; it feels short. As everyone is shaped differently, the majority of PSL shooters will probably not encounter such problems, and for those who do, there are a number of fixes.
The most noticeable difference from the SVD is the Tapco trigger in the PSL. Though it works extremely well, it is rather tight with no considerable slack. It’s more of an AK trigger than one found on a sniper rifle. In fact, it feels a lot like an RPK machine gun. Having said that, anyone can get used to it rather quickly and develop a feel for it. My feel came as I finished with the second magazine. For those who would rather modify the trigger on one of these PSL rifles, there are many options available by your reputable gunsmith. If this were my rifle, I would certainly choose Marc Krebs from Krebs Custom Inc. (krebscustom.com) or Richard Parker from Parker Arms & Tool (215-541-1099). I have yet to be disappointed. The difference and improvement can be tremendous aids in terms of accuracy.
Moving back to the 100-yard firing line, I set up one sighting and two smallbore rifle targets. After verifying rounds were on paper at this distance, I fired my first series of three-shot groups that impacted three inches above center in a 1½-inch group. I made minor adjustments to the elevation turret. By my third string, I had the rifle hitting dead on and scoring just over one-MOA groups. Satisfied with this result, I moved on to the eight-inch round targets.
As the practical application of any gun is extremely important, I decided to put the PSL through two exercises, one for overall accuracy and the other for rapid fire—something I call practical accuracy. After all, that’s what this type of rifle was developed for.
I loaded the magazine with military surplus light ball first. Aiming at the center of the target, I fired three single, evenly spaced shots. The results were just outside of a 1½-MOA group. It was not my best, but I wasn’t overly concerned considering the mil-surplus source of this ammunition. During rapid fire I sent a series of six shots in rapid succession with less than a second between each. The result was better than expected. Though the group had opened up slightly—to three inches—the latter rounds started to drop as the barrel heated. Even considering this dispersion, the group was still tight enough considering the nature of the exercise.
Firing shots in rapid succession, I at once noticed how manageable the recoil was. It easily allowed me to reposition the rifle, reacquire the target, aim and squeeze off round after round.
Next, I switched to the heavier 179-grain surplus ammunition. Same exercise. The first three-shot group was placed in the same location as the previously used light ball ammo, though this time it was slightly better than 1½ MOA. Apparently, this rifle loves the heavier ball. The subsequent rapid-fire demonstration dropped in terms of accuracy, probably due to the increasingly hot barrel. Regardless, group size stayed within 1½ MOA. I was satisfied with the consistency that this rifle displayed.
Shooting an out-of-the-box PSL and getting 1½-MOA groups with military surplus ammo can’t be considered a bad result. I was convinced that it would perform extremely well in the role it was designed for. Given time to train with it and properly learn it, I have no doubt I could tighten these groups.
In a desire to see how the PSL would do with Russian 7N1 sniper ammunition, I performed the same drill—one three-round series for accuracy and one five-round rapid-fire accuracy series. This time I reversed the drills. I’d shoot rapid-fire first and see if I could get any single-shot accuracy after that with a hot barrel. I loaded the magazine and took aim. My first five rounds fired with less than one-second intervals nestled tightly into a 2½-inch group just right of the target’s center. Having so much fun, I had not noticed that a northwest five- to 10-mph wind had picked up a bit. I quickly made windage adjustments on the scope and fired three single shots. Yet another one-MOA group!
Needless to say, my rudimentary test results exceeded expectations. Not only has the PSL proved to be an overall accurate rifle, it delivered consistent performance well within the parameters it was designed for. There is no surprise why these rifles perform so well at my sniper classes.
The more I shot it, the more I wanted to shoot it. I’m not swearing off the SVD, but the PSL is a rifle that’s just as fun to shoot as the famed Dragunov. It is certainly a worthy alternative to the “unobtainium”-built and scarcely available SVD, Tigr and NDM. At an MSRP of $850—less than a third of the current price for the Russian Tigr Carbine, a fifth of NDM and a 12th of the Russian SVD—the PSL delivers accuracy coupled with lots of fun. It eats everything you feed it, and you don’t have to worry about its place in the “Blue Book of Gun Values” any time you want to take it to the range.
Not every new PSL rifle owner can expect such immediate results right out of box. In my case I had the training and experience with a similar rifle system. One may find himself disappointed with the initial performance of a semiautomatic rifle firing a large cartridge. My advice: Do not despair. It is not the rifle, it is you. And I mean that in the nicest of ways. Embrace the PSL, learn it, get trigger time, and then the results will follow.
In Dire Times
Though it could never match the performance of the Dragunov SVD, the PSL is an accurate, reliable and formidable rifle that I would not hesitate to utilize to engage an enemy with confidence.
To learn more about the AES10B, PSL and Century’s other models, please visit CenturyArms.com.