Saturday, April 19, 2014

Better than an AK: the Czechoslovakian Vz.58

"What kind of AK-47 is that?" said some guy at the range. I picked up my rifle and showed it to him. "Actually, it's not an AK at all. It's a Vz.58".  The guy grunted and walked away. I guess he didn't want to hear about one of the finest military rifles to come out of Eastern Europe since, well, the AK-47. That was fine with me...I go to the range to shoot guns, not to talk about them. When I want to talk guns, I do it here.

Czech soldiers practicing with this month's subject: the Vz.58. Note the different stock configurations.

As I mentioned in my article about the Vz.52 pistol, Czechoslovakia never really warmed up to Soviet hardware (or Soviet politics for that matter). The Vz.58 is just another example of the Czechoslovakians doing it their way, and a fine example it is. The Soviet Union had standardized on the M43 cartridge, also known as the 7.62x39mm Soviet, in the aftermath of WWII. The first Soviet rifle chambered for the new cartridge was the excellent SKS. I've not yet written about the SKS, but I will: it's a fine weapon in its own right, though some would argue it was obsolete the day it was fielded. Regardless, the USSR wanted all of its "buddies" to use the same ammo. Czechoslovakia, being Czechoslovakia, didn't adopt the SKS. It had its own rifle with its own cartridge: the Vz.52.

The Vz.52 rifle, not to be confused with the pistol of the same designation, was similar to the Soviet SKS in form and function, but unlike the SKS it accepted detachable box magazines, and it was chambered in the unique 7.62x45mm cartridge rather than the M43. The 7.62x45mm round had slightly better ballistics than the 7.62x39mm, owing to increased case capacity, but the Soviets were having none of that crap. If the M43 was good enough for Russia, it should be good enough for *everybody*, so, the Vz.52 was modified in 1957 to shoot the 7.62mm Soviet cartridge. This made everyone happy, except the Czechoslovakians.

A mint condition Vz.52/57. These are in high demand amongst collectors and routinely fetch over $1k at auction.

The Vz.52/57 was in front line service for only a short while, as by this time the Soviet Union was fast replacing its semi-automatic SKS carbines with Kalashnikov's amazing assault rifle. As the Vz.52/57 was a stop-gap weapon, not many of them were made, and of those, most saw little if any use. The real focus was on the next big thing, which had been in development since 1956. Produced at the famous plant in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the Vz.58 was a true assault rifle. When it was issued in 1958, the major Western powers were still years away from having anything equivalent to it, despite the fact that the AK-47 had been in production for a decade. Please don't argue with me about the FAL, or M-14, or G3: they are not assault rifles.

To the layman, the Vz.58 and AK-47 appear nearly identical, right down to the 30 round "banana" clip magazine. Looks are where the actual similarities between the two weapons end, as internally and mechanically, they are totally different designs. I would not dare to impugn the late, great Mikhail Kalashnikov's accomplishments, but the Vz.58 improved upon his AK-47 in many ways. For starters, all Vz.58s were built with a milled receiver. Early Kalashnikov carbines had milled receivers, but were soon replaced by the AKM variant with a cheaper, stamped sheet metal receiver. Milling receivers slowed production and increased cost, but made for a more rigid firing platform, which translates to better practical accuracy. Another difference was the Vz.58's gas system. It was a short stroke system, a la the SKS. This system was easier to maintain and with less movement, contributed to greater accuracy. The Vz also had a modular stock system allowing quick changes, a more ergonomic safety/selector switch and charging handle, a last round bolt hold-open feature, and a two-pin tool-less take down system. Fully loaded it was about a pound lighter than the AKM, thanks in part to its aluminum magazines, which offset the increased weight of a milled receiver, and these magazines could be charged via standard stripper clips, unlike the AK.

"I don't want to hear any more of this nonsense about how great the Vz.58 is. This interview is over!"

The Czechoslovakians had a real winner on their hands with the Vz.58. They made about a million of them, which in the grand scheme of things, isn't really that many. Early rifles had beech wood furniture, but soon that was switched over to the cheaper (and in my opinion, better looking) wood-impregnated plastic stocks. This furniture is known (affectionately?) as "beaver barf" by Vz.58 enthusiasts and collectors. It's durable, lightweight, and in keeping with communist tradition, economical. The Vz.58 served both the Czechs and the Slovaks through the Cold War and beyond, with the Slovakian military only just starting to phase out the weapon in 2011.

A Slovakian soldier with a folding stock Vz.58 in Iraq. I served alongside them in 2003-2004.

As a select-fire, foreign made weapon, mortal men are prohibited from owning true Vz.58s in the United States. However, it's still legal to own the next best thing. For some time, a company called Czechpoint USA has been importing semi-automatic versions of the Vz.58 to our shores. Known as the SA Vz.58, these rifles start as 100% Czech made weapons, with milled semi-automatic only receivers and new hammer-forged, chrome-lined barrels, along with original parts. Due to ridiculous 18 USC 922r legislation, the rifles have to be modified and a certain number of parts must be replaced with US made equivalents so that the rifle is legal to sell. For the Czechpoints, those parts are the sear, disconnector, trigger, magazine follower, and magazine floorplate. Everything else is Czech made. The Czechpoint SA Vz.58s are finished in a charcoal black semi-gloss coating (the originals had a battleship grey paint), have had their bayonet lugs ground off (due to dumb laws, see above), and the barrels have a permanently attached muzzle extension to make them compliant with the National Firearms Act of 1934. This gives the Czechpoint version a 16" barrel vs. the ~15.5" originals. The end result is a close, but not exact copy of the original design.

Top: My Czechpoint Vz.58, versus my new JRA Polish AKM. Both are beautiful, functional firearms built with original and new parts.

I purchased my Vz.58 before the "assault rifle" scare of 2013, and I'm glad I did. It's a beautiful piece, and it shoots very well. I've not tested it for 100 yard accuracy, but at 50 yards it's dead to nuts with 1-2" groups. The rifle has eaten steel cased ammo, my reloads, and soft point round nose hunting ammo without a hiccup.  Frankly, I'd prefer a metal trigger (the US part is made of polymer), but since it's a striker fired (rather than hammer fired) weapon, it's not a big deal. Speaking of polymer, lately Czechpoint has been importing rifles without the traditional beaver barf stocks, because the supply of good quality, matching colored originals has dried up. The more recent imports have  black plastic hardware in the shape of the originals. I was lucky to get my rifle before this switch happened. I like the beaver barf, it's got a neat commie look and feel to it.

A close up of the wood-impregnated plastic, AKA "beaver barf".

You may have also heard about the "Vz.2008" rifle. These have been offered at ~$500 by many dealers lately. It's important to note the difference between these and the Vz.58: the Vz.2008s are Century Arms International builds, using some original Vz.58 kits. They feature new, US made receivers and non-chrome lined button rifled barrels, and are entirely assembled in the US. Though they're reportedly decent guns for the money, they are not quite as "authentic" as the Czechpoint rifles. The upside is they cost about half as much, and they do feature the beaver barf forestock and handguard, though most all recent builds feature the folding steel buttstock.

Let's just say that CAI has a checkered reputation for quality among military gun enthusiasts.

The Vz.58 is an interesting piece of Cold War history, and a fine example of a Warsaw Pact nation thumbing its nose at the USSR. I truly admire the Czechoslovakians for doing it their way. Though not nearly as famous as the weapon it's often mistaken for, the Vz.58 is seeing somewhat of a popularity surge these days as surplus rifle parts are turned into "new" semi-automatic weapons. I'd encourage any firearms and/or history enthusiast to czech check one out, and soon...before they're all gone.


  1. Hey, those alcoholic monkeys might be my neighbors!!!

    Century used to have an import warehouse/conversion plant some 20 miles north of the house. Not sure if it's still there.

  2. Swanton, VT? I've got some rifles with that import mark.

  3. CAI's reputation for quality control on their builds is pretty bad, but the internet consensus on the Vz.2008 is good. I've handled a couple at gun shows and they felt and looked like they were well-built. I'd still take a Czechpoint rifle given the choice.