5.45x39mm ammunition is a cartridge developed by the former Soviet Union and adopted by the country’s Armed Forces in 1974. Considered an intermediate cartridge, the round features a rimless bottleneck steel case that measures 39.82mm in length.
The case neck measures 6.29mm in diameter, while the shoulder diameter is 9.25mm and the base’s diameter measures 10mm. The rim is 1.5mm thick and houses the 5.60mm (.22 inch) diameter bullet in place.
The original 5.45x39mm bullet weighed between 53 to 54 grain (gr), but modern variations are often seen in 60 gr. While narrow, the bullet itself measures almost one full inch in length, and features a sharp spitzer point and a boat-tail base.
Instead of the American tradition of lead bullets, this Soviet bullet has a mild steel core with a short lead filler, which sits on top of the steel. The nose features a hollow air space, resulting in greater wounding during impact.
The full cartridge reaches a length of 57.00mm and features a Berdan primer, although rounds can be found with a small rifle primer as well. The maximum pressure of the round is set at 55,114 pounds per square inch (psi).
The 5.45x39mm is often referred to as its military designation, 7N6, instead of the cartridge measurements.
Development of the 5.45x39mm
The inspiration for the 5.45x39mm Soviet didn’t start in the Soviet Union, but in the United States, when the Armed Forces adopted the M16 in 1964. Introduced to the world during the Vietnam War, the M16 automatic rifle shot the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge and, due to its small size, was both effective and deadly.
The Soviet Union experienced the receiving end of the M16 and 5.56x45mm during the Vietnam War and could easily see the damage the ammunition could create. They set out to create their own smaller-caliber firearm.
In 1970, Russian Lieutenant-General Mikhail Kalashnikov, who developed the iconic AK-47, created a smaller-caliber automatic rifle that was two times more accurate than the AK-47 in automatic fire and 50 percent more accurate in single-shot scenarios.
After four years of testing and modifications, the Soviet Union officially adopted the AK-74 Kalashnikov Avtomat, caliber 5.45mm, commonly referred to as simply the AK-74, in 1974. This automatic rifle’s design was a modification based on the older and larger AK-47. During that same year, the Soviet Union released its 5.45x39mm cartridge for use in the new, light automatic rifle.
Following the example of the American 5.56mm cartridge, designed to be a replacement for the 7.62x51, the Soviet 5.45x39mm was intended to be a replacement for the 7.62x39mm. A key difference between the cartridge of the Soviets and the cartridge of the U.S. is that Soviet designers needed only to modify a proven design (their AK-47) to have an established rifle that could fire the cartridge. However, in adopting the 5.56x45mm cartridge, the U.S. was switching to an entirely new rifle platform that had never been tested in battle.
The AK-74 automatic rifle and its ammunition saw its first wartime use by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted from 1979 through 1989. Since then, the firearm and ammunition have been used in all post-Soviet Union conflicts Russia has been involved in. What’s more, almost all the countries who were once part of the Soviet Union use the AK-74 and the 5.45x39mm cartridge in their Armed Forces.
During the mid to late 1970s, there were rumors about a new, lightweight Soviet Union round, but nothing was confirmed publicly outside of the U.S. military. In 1980, a journalist by the name of Galen Geer was on assignment in Afghanistan for Soldier of Fortune magazine and brought back intelligence on the round to the States. In October of that year, Geer’s article was published and confirmed the rumors, allowing American civilians to finally be informed about the 5.45x39mm Soviet round.
Benefits of 5.45x39mm Ammunition
There were plenty of advantages to the Soviet Union’s adoption of the M74 in 5.45x39mm chambering, primarily a significant reduction in the ammunition’s weight. There’s also a noticeable decrease in recoil impact, especially when compared to the 7.62x39mm, which contributes to the fact that the 7.62mm has been almost completely replaced by the 5.45x39mm.
Recoil tests show the 5.45x39mm generating a recoil of 2.5 foot pound force (ft·lb) when fired from the AK-74. The 7.62x39mm cartridge, on the other hand, generates a recoil of about 4.5 ft·lb, depending on the weapon it’s fired from. This recoil is lower than what the 5.56mm generates, which is 4.75 ft·lb when fired from the M16. The M14, which fires the 7.62x51mm NATO, fires with just less than 15 ft·lb.
As well as the reduction in recoil, the weight of the cartridge itself is greatly diminished in the 5.45x39mm. A soldier may have been able to carry 180 rounds of 7.62x39 into battle, but now he can hoist 270 rounds of 5.45x39 with no perceptible increase in weight.
Another benefit of opting for 5.45mm rounds is that they’re readily available, here in the United States and around the world. This is mostly due to the fact that for over 40 years, these cartridges have been used by the Russian military and many of the armed forces of the countries that made up the former Soviet Union. Ammunition manufacturers across the globe make and distribute these rounds.
And because they’re easy to find, shooters can find cheap 5.45x39mm ammo in just about every gun shop in the U.S. and online. At times, even surplus 5.45 ammunition can be found and ranges from only 20 to 30 cents per round.
Many gun enthusiasts swap out the upper on AR-style carbines and rifles to accommodate the Soviet 7N6 cartridge. With cheap 5.45mm bulk ammo, in some cases, the upper pays for itself in savings after only 6,000 to 8,000 rounds.
As with most things, these benefits come with some cons. The 5.45x39mm cartridge is a dirty round and can lead to corrosion of the barrel. When shooting this caliber from any rifle or carbine, shooters should always clean their firearm immediately after shooting. When this becomes the shooter’s habit, corrosion is kept at a minimum.
It should be mentioned with modern ammunition that using today’s powders can cause fewer problems then with the more archaic military rounds.
Performance of 5.45x39mm Ammo
As a primary example of the international military tendency for small, lightweight ammunitions, 5.45x39mm ammo has a high velocity with significant muzzle energy. The cartridge performance is impressive with the 49 gr powder load, which allows it to reach muzzle velocities in excess of 3,000 feet per second (fps) and generate muzzle energies exceeding 1,400 ft·lb. These performance ballistics result from the unique shape of the projectile, which reduces the aerodynamic drag and results in a long range, higher-retained velocity.
Downrange accuracy is also respectable, with 3.5-inch groups easily achievable at 300 yards, highly impressive for an automatic weapon.
When it comes to military performance, the 5.45x39mm round has a surprising wounding effect. Because of the unique size, shape, and balance of the projectile, the bullet has a flat trajectory. But once it impacts its target, it begins to tumble, increasing the wound potential. It actually creates large cavities within the wound, making it more fatal than other rounds of similar size and performance.
During ballistic testing 5.45mm ammunition shows similar expansion to the 7.62x39mm, although the smaller bullet does expand more rapidly. Compared to the 5.56mm round, the 5.45x39 offers deeper penetration than the standard frangible military cartridge.
5.45x39mm Ammunition Variants
Though the ammunition is manufactured primarily in Russia to combat specifications, Hornady also produces the 5.45x39mm in the U.S. The company caps its cartridges with the polymer-tipped V-MAX bullets, a load that boasts high levels of accuracy – making it successful for hunting small game.
Wolf Ammunition sells ammo capped with hollow point bullets (HP), soft point bullets (SP), and full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets. Bernaul ammunition fires boat tail bullets, claiming their cartridges are accurate and consistent enough to form a group of 100 shots in less than one inch at 100 meters.
Beyond these differences in projectile jacketing, the 5.45x39mm cartridge comes in a variety of military variants, including:
- Enhanced Penetration Cartridges: Designated the 7N6M, where the M signifies “modernized,” enhanced penetration cartridges arose in 1987, and feature a hardened steel penetrator, which allows the projectile to penetrate a 6mm steel plate at 300 meters. These rounds have a red ring around the neck of the cartridge for identification purposes. They’re classified as armor piercing and, as of April 2014, are illegal to import into the States from Russia. Other enhanced penetration cartridges include the 7N10 (improved penetration), the 7N22 (armour piercing), and the 7N24 (super armour piercing).
- Tracer Cartridges: Multiple tracer cartridges are available, including the 7T3 and 7T3M. Tracer cartridges feature a small pyrotechnic charge in the ammunition’s base, which when ignited, burns brightly. This allows the shooter to visibly see the bullet’s trajectory and make aiming corrections without needing to see the target or using the firearm’s sites. In warfare, tracer cartridges can be used to show other shooters where to concentrate their efforts. Tracer rounds in 5.45x39mm feature a marked green tip for identification purposes.
- Training and Instruction Cartridges: Used for training and instructional purposes, 5.45x39mm blank cartridges are designated as 7H3, 7H3M, 7Kh3, and 7H4. Shooters can identify these blank rounds by their plastic white imitation bullets.
- Reduced Velocity Cartridges: Called the 7U1, the reduced velocity 5.45x39mm ammo is a subsonic cartridge that features an 80 gr projectile. This heavy bullet reaches a velocity of 994 fps (compared to a specialty bullet, which can reach up to 2,950 fps) and has a muzzle energy of 176 ft·lb. The 7U1 features a black and green painted meplat for identification.
Firearms Chambered for the 5.45x39mm Ammunition
The 5.45x39 was not originally intended for civilian use, but as the weapon proved its worth in the Soviet Union’s military, it eventually spread into civilian hands. The cartridge is not wildly popular in the U.S., as it has been in other parts of the world, but it has been chambered for rifles using the AR-15 platform as well as non-AR-style rifles.
The SSG 82, technically called the Scharfschȕtzengewehr (sharpshooter’s rifle) 82, is a bolt-action rifle built in East Germany for its special police forces. Very few of these made their way to the United States and little is known about their creation.
Made in Russia, the VEPR 5.45 semi-automatic carbine is a high-quality rifle based on the Kalashnikov design. These long guns are designed for sporting games and manufactured at the Vyatskie Polyany Machine Building Plant.
Perhaps one of the most popular 5.45x39mm firearms in the U.S., the Saiga semi-auto in 5.45mm is made in Russia and is considered a high-quality AK-style rifle. To get through importation, these firearms are given a “sporty” look and then reworked once they get to the U.S. to look more like the original AK-74.
Smith & Wesson also released an AR-style rifle in 5.45x39mm, the M&P 15R, which proved to be the company’s first non-5.56mm chambered pistol grip rifle. It came with a 30-round magazine and was designed specifically to give AR-style enthusiasts an oftentimes cheaper option than the standard .223 ammo or 5.56 NATO. Unfortunately, this firearm is no longer in production.
While it will not likely ever trump the popularity of the 5.56 NATO cartridge, the round’s low recoil and great accuracy have earned this Warsaw Pact veteran a deserved place in the American ammunition market for many years to come.
What guns shoot 5.45x39 ammo?
The 5.45x39mm cartridge was designed by the Soviet Union’s military for use with the AK-74 and it replaced the AK-47 chambered for the 7.62x39mm. Although the round was not intended for civilian use, it eventually made its way into the public. Beyond the military rifle, other guns chambered for the 5.45x39mm include the East German Scharfschützengewehr, the Russian VEPR and Saiga semi-automatic carbines, and the Smith & Wesson M&P 15R (this is no longer in production). Many American shooters have rechambered their 5.56x45mm/.223 Remington AR-style carbines to the 5.45x39mm.
Why did the Russian army adopt the 5.45x39 ammo?
The Soviet Union was inspired to create the 5.45x39mm round after the U.S. debuted the 5.56x45mm (the NATO version of the .223 Remington) during the Vietnam War with the M16. After being on the receiving end of the M16, the Soviets wanted to create a smaller caliber firearm that what was chambered for the 7.62x39mm like the AK-47. Along with the 5.45, the Soviets created the AK-74 carbine which was lighter and significantly more accurate than the larger bore rifle.
Which ammo does more damage, the 5.56 or the 5.45x39?
When comparing the Soviet 5.45x39mm to the American 5.56x45mm, which is the NATO version of the .223 Remington, the two cartridges are surprisingly similar. The 5.45 is often found with a heavier projectile, while the 5.56 tends to have a slightly higher velocity and more muzzle energy. According to their ballistic performances, in most cases the 5.56 would create a little more damage.
Which penetrates more, the 5.45x39mm or the .308 Winchester?
When comparing the 5.45x39mm to the .308 Winchester, ballistics performance shows that the .308 has a slightly higher velocity, but more than double the foot pound force. With such an increase in energy, the .308 is more likely to penetrate deeper.
Why is 5.45x39 ammo corrosive?
Not all 5.45x39mm ammo is corrosive. For instance, modern commercial ammo is almost always non-corrosive. Military surplus ammo, on the other hand, is almost always corrosive. This is because military ammo uses a Berdan primer. This primer includes a chemical that leaves a residue of salt. This salt is hygroscopic, which means it attracts water, creating a thin layer of saltwater on the firearm. Luckily, this salt is water soluble, so shooters only need to wash the weapon in hot soapy water to remove the salt and protect it against corrosion.