Finland is a country that knows a thing or two about making firearms. Developing successful gunmaking capacity came to that nation out of necessity during the troubled decades of the 20th century, when the Finns found themselves caught in the middle of powerful geopolitical forces. The Second World War brought the country briefly into an ideological orbit with Nazi Germany, but solely in opposition to the Soviet Union. Antagonisms created during the 1930s and 1940s remained alive as the Cold War began, with the result that Finland never moved behind the Iron Curtain. These circumstances meant it had to become a self-reliant and successful gunmaker—which it did by improving on an existing design when the time came to adopt a modern service rifle. In an ironic move for a country with a history of trouble with the Russians, the Finns took the incomparable Kalashnikov rifle and made it better.
In the late 1950s, Helsinki got its hands on several Kalashnikovs and evaluated them with the objective of ultimately establishing domestic production of an AK-pattern rifle. Toward that end, two manufacturing interests were tasked with copying the weapon: Sako and the state-owned conglomerate Valtion Metallitehtaat—also known as Valmet. Valmet’s prototype featured wood furniture and an improved rear sight that doubled the sight radius of the original. As with the communist-block AKs that inspired it, the Valmet AK chambered the 7.62x39 mm M43 cartridge, fed from a standard AK detachable-box magazine and was built using a solid-steel receiver. It was selected over the Sako prototype in 1958, although there was still design development work to be done.
When the Finnish Defence Forces adopted it in 1960 as the Rynnäkkökivääri 60 (RK60), the wood furniture was gone: Plastic had replaced the handguard, a rubber-coated, corrugated pistol grip was introduced and a non-folding tubular metallic buttstock was introduced, as well. A trigger guard was not included on the RK60 so troops could still use it through gloved hands, but that was found to be an undesirable characteristic. After just 2 years, the design evolved again with the re-introduction of a trigger guard, a distinctive three-prong flash suppressor and flip-up, tritium-illuminated night sights. With the designation RK62, Finland’s new battle rifle found the form that would give it decades of service longevity.
As a selective-fire military rifle, the RK62 has armed Finnish Defence Forces for more than 50 years across several models and, as a result of foreign export sales, it has armed Qatar and Indonesia, as well. While it has never realized the battle-tested reputation of the Russian or Chinese Kalashnikovs, the Valmet has established a superlative reputation for exceptional quality—and that reputation followed it to North America during the 1970s.
It was, after all, the Valmet that brought the Kalashnikov to shooters in the United States for the first time. Before Chinese examples began reaching the U.S., a civilian semi-automatic version of the RK62 was imported as the M62/S. But, the recreational-shooting market in America was not quite ready to support firearms chambered for the 7.62x39 mm cartridge and anything in that caliber was hard to feed back then. In recognition of that critical market force, Valmet also produced the sheet-steel-receiver M71/S chambered for .223 Rem.—a cartridge in plentiful supply in the U.S.
Valmet also introduced a civilian semi-automatic known as the M76/S that featured an improved plastic handguard and molded pistol grip. While this firearm was still available in 7.62x39 mm feeding from the standard AK-type magazine, it was also available in .223 Rem. and .308 Win. feeding from proprietary magazines that can be hard to come by today. It came with wood and plastic buttstocks as the M76W and M76P respectively, but then there was also the M76/FS with a side-folding version of tubular metallic stock. Both milled- and sheet-metal receivers were used on the civilian commercial M76s.
In addition to the other models of Valmet rifles available, there was also a semi-automatic version of the squad-automatic-weapon configuration designated M78/83 available in the same three calibers: 7.62x39 mm, .223 Rem. and .308 Win. It featured a longer barrel and a bipod and, eventually, a distinctive thumbhole stock. With multiple models available, Valmet brought a blend of legendary Kalashnikov reliability and Finnish precision to the American shooting consumer until the import ban of 1989 cut off further importation. Nevertheless, there are still thousands of pre-89 Valmet rifles in circulation today and they remind us that Finland should be counted among one of the world’s leading gunmaking nations.