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Review: Century Arms PSL 54

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It’s commonly thought that technological advancements are a primary driving force in firearm innovation and design. Although evolving production methods, materials, propellants and bullet designs certainly play a role, politics are often just as influential in the course of firearm development. A good example of this is the Romanian PSL 54 designated marksman rifle (DMR).

In August 1968, the President of the State Council of Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu, made one of his most famous public addresses, which boldly denounced the Warsaw Pact nations’ invasion of Czechoslovakia. This speech further solidified the Romanian government’s 12-year effort to assert its independence from Moscow. Although this stance against Soviet Union policy worked to consolidate Romania’s independence movement, it also created serious tensions with Russia. Fortunately, the United States and China supported Romania, which obstructed a Soviet Bloc invasion.

Romanian PSL 54 looks a good deal like the Russian SVD Dragunov which inspired its development.At first glance, the Romanian PSL 54 looks a good deal like the Russian SVD Dragunov, a design that inspired its development.

In order to reduce the country’s reliance on Soviet military equipment, Romania used the Soviet blueprints and licenses they had on hand to accelerate the development of its own small-arms production. A Russian rifle the country wanted to emulate was the SVD Dragunov, a semi-automatic chambered in 7.62×54 mm R, which offered a greater effective range than the AKM combat rifles chambered in 7.62×39 mm.

Needless to say, the Russians were hesitant to share the Dragunov’s specifications, so the Romanians set out to build their own platform. Originally manufactured at the Uzina Mecanică Cugir in Cugir, Romania, the rifle that would be designated the PSL 54 (Puşcă Semiautomată 7,62 mm cu Lunetă) was launched in 1974. This rifle is still in production 50 years later and available in configurations suitable for both military applications and civilian markets.

Century Arms PSL 54 right-side view rifle sniper wood stock wood backgroundThe PSL 54 is not a clone of the Dragunov but a beefed-up AKM.

Today, Century Arms imports an authentic PSL 54 that is wholly manufactured by the Cugir Arms Factory in Romania. It is not a kit gun, meaning a mish-mash of surplus parts and American-made components, but a factory-fresh rifle with all original components.

Century Arms PSL 54 sniper rifle wood buttstock pistol grip sling attachment black metal receiver gun shown on wood backgroundThe iconic steel-capped thumbhole stock is on the shorter side with a 12.625” length of pull.

It should be noted here that the PSL 54 is not a clone of the SVD Dragunov. It may be cosmetically similar to the Dragunov sniper rifle and intended to fill the same roles. However, these two rifles are mechanically different. The only three components they share in common are ammunition, optics and bayonets for those PSL 54 models sporting bayonet lugs.

The PSL 54 is a long-stroke-gas-piston-operated semi-automatic rifle. It is essentially an AKM (the 1959 update to the AK-47) that has been beefed up to handle the 7.62×54 mm R rimmed cartridge. Otherwise, the controls and internals have been lifted directly from the enduring Kalashnikov design. The stamped sheet steel receiver is comparable to that of the RPK light machine gun, meaning it has been shaped to accommodate a reinforced, or “bulged,” front trunnion.

Century Arms PSL 54 action controls rifle wood stock wood backgroundThe external control and rock-in motion required for inserting the magazine will be utterly familiar to AK-type rifle fans.

Breaking down this rifle for routine cleaning follows the same steps as other AK rifles. The controls, including the right-side bolt handle, safety lever and the trigger-guard-mounted magazine release lever are operated in typical AK fashion.

The left side of the receiver has a riveted optics rail that proved to be compatible with the Wolf Performance Optics military classic PO 4×24, which is a replica of the famous Russian illuminated sighting system. This optic, which I tried for the first time with a Molot Vepr also chambered in 7.62×54 mm R, was used throughout the course of testing the PSL 54.

Century Arms PSL 54 disassmbled parts arrangementThe internals are classic AK, including the long-stroke piston, rotating bolt and recoil assembly.

The thumb-hole grip shoulder stock is one of the distinctive features of this model. It’s made of light-color laminated beech wood with a steel grip cap, a sling loop and a corrugated stamped sheet steel buttplate. This stock provides a 12.625″ length-of-pull (LOP) which is either “compact” or “too short,” depending on the operator’s body shape.

This model features the Century Arms RAK-1 Enhanced Trigger Group, which provides a consistent and smooth trigger pull weight of 4 lbs., 12 ozs. according to a Wheeler Engineering digital trigger gauge. The sheet-steel, 10-round magazine has distinctive X-shaped stampings on the left and right sides. These markings distinguish it from the Russian Dragunov and Chinese Norinco magazines, which feature waffle pattern stampings and are not interchangeable with that of the PSL 54.

Century Arms PSL 54 muzzle brake front sight shown on wood floorThis already-long gun is made 2.75” longer with a muzzle brake which is pinned in place.

On top of the rifle is an AK-style sighting system with a height-adjustable post up front and a fully adjustable rear sight with markings for shots out to 1,100 meters. The fore-end furniture, unlike the shoulder stock, is made of blonde beech hardwood. The Romanian 24.5″ long barrel is chrome-lined with four-groove, 1:10″ rifling.

This particular model ships with a pinned muzzle brake that adds another 2.75″ to this rifle’s impressive overall length of 45.5″. The gun I tested tipped the scales at 9 lbs., 4.6 ozs., unloaded, with the empty 10-round magazine. For those who are interested, mounting the Wolf optic increased the weight by another 1 lb., 6.9 ozs. Although the PSL 54 is certainly one-man portable by military standards, no one is going to call it a lightweight any time soon.

Century Arms PSL 54 riflescope left-side view on wood floorThe test was conducted using a replica of an illuminated Russian rifle optic.

In regards to fit and finish, there is, for lack of a better term, a military-grade coarseness to the construction one does not usually see with commercial rifles. This is a gun that’s built to be tough, not pretty. That being said, I could not find anything to complain about with this particular example of the platform. The sight system was correctly aligned. All of the rivets were properly placed and neatly rounded. The finish was applied evenly throughout, and the wood-to-steel fitments were clean and precise. This is not a kit gun or a knock-off but a professionally assembled rifle clearly made by folks who know what they are doing.

Century Arms PSL 54 in metal cradle on shooting rangeThe PSL 54 proved to be utterly reliable with all ammunition tested.

At the shooting range, the PSL 54 proved to be a bit stiff at first, including the magazine release. But the controls and action settled in and smoothed out nicely, making for an enjoyable shooting experience. Now more than 130 years old, the venerable 7.62×54 mm R cartridge is comparable to the .308 Win. in regards to performance potential and levels of felt recoil. When fired from a bench-rested semi-automatic rifle that’s about 11 lbs. when fully loaded, the recoil was moderate and manageable.

Ammunition boxesThe author used steel-cased rounds, some of which are no longer in production.

This combat rifle is intended to hit man-sized targets within 1,000-meter distances, so it’s not necessarily a precision competition rifle. As for the test ammunition, I had to dig into the loads that were squirreled away for a rainy day. They included a steel-cased Hornady 174-grain, boattail hollow-point, which is no longer in production, and a Wolf Polyformance 174-grain full-metal jacket load. The third round consisted of a Russian bi-metal 150-grain full-metal jacket bullet seated in a copper-washed case and shipped in a “Spam” can. This last load was provided by Century Arms for another review some time ago. Here are the range results:

Those folks who take an interest in designated marksman rifles like this one generally agree that the Romanian PSL 54 does not exhibit some of the refinements or the mystique of the Russian SVD that played a role in its development. However, the simplified design makes it rugged, reliable and less-expensive to produce. This has contributed to the Romanian rifle taking a prominent military role around the world.

Hornady ammunition box shown with colorful target and bullet holes accuracy groupThe Hornady load, which is no longer available, knocked out the above 2.52” five-shot group.

In regards to the U.S. civilian shooting sports market, the Century Arms PSL 54’s sleek profile and storied history make it an authentic military collectible that is enjoyable to own and to take to the shooting range. As for the cost of owning a PSL 54, I’ll admit that some folks are going to flinch at the suggested retail prices of $2,721 with a scope included or $2,586 for a non-scoped rifle that ships with a single magazine. This is a solid chunk of change, but a stroll around the Internet dealer sites looking for other DMRs can be informative.

As of this writing, I found the Serbian Zastava Arms M91 rifles with real-world prices starting at $3,150 with an optic included. A fairly scarce Chinese Norinco recently sold at auction for more than $7,000, and the Molot Veprs were banned from importation several years ago, making them quite difficult to find. And if you do lay eyes on the unicorn of DMRs, the Soviet-era SVD Dragunov, then you may have to talk to your spouse about skipping a few mortgage payments in order to add it to your collection. And so, it’s safe to say that if these semi-automatics are your cup of tea, then the Century PSL 54 is worth a closer look.

Century Arms PSL 54 sniper rifle left-side view.

Century Arms PSL 54 Specifications
Manufacturer: Cugir Arms Factory, Romania
Importer: Century Arms
Action Type: long-stroke-gas-piston-operated, semi-automatic, centerfire rifle
Chambering: 7.62×54 mm R
Receiver: stamped carbon steel, matte black finish
Barrel: 23.5″
Magazine: 10-round detachable box
Sights: adjustable, left-side receiver-mounted optic rail
Trigger: RAK-1; 4-lb., 12-oz. pull
Overall Length: 45.5″
Drop At Comb: 1.125″
Drop At Heel: 2.125″
Length Of Pull: 12.625″
Accessories: owner’s manual, lock
MSRP: $2,586 (no optic)l $2,721 (factory-included optic)

Article by B. GIL HORMAN


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