What exactly is an AK-47?
The terms “AK-47” or “Kalashnikov” are often used loosely, so clarification is in order.
The first AK-47 model was introduced into active service by the Soviets in 1948. For purists, this first iteration is the “true” AK-47. However, the moniker “AK-47” has come to include Kalashnikov offspring — the AKS and the AKM/AKMS, plus the many subsequent variants from nations such as China, Romania, Bulgaria, North Korea, Hungary, Poland, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.
The AK-47 is also grouped together with the derivatives of it such as the RPK, a light machine gun (imported into this country in civilian form as the VEPR) and the AK-74, which uses a smaller cartridge than the AK-47 (5.45x39mm versus 7.62x39mm). (The AK ‘operating system’ is so robust that some manufacturers produce shotguns in various calibers but that particular variant will not be covered in this book).
In addition to looking very similar to each other, the classic AK-47 and its progeny all feature selective fire. This means that the rifle is capable of semi- and full-automatic fire, as well as burst fire, which usually allows two or three rounds to be fired with a single trigger pull. Full automatic refers to the ability of a gun to fire continuously until the magazine is emptied or the trigger is released.
The AK rifles sold to civilians in this country do not have the select-fire feature that allows for the “full auto” or burst-fire options. One could argue that in this respect, they are not true AK-47s.
Why Buy an AK-47?
For many years the Kalashnikov was the “enemy’s gun” and shunned by red-blooded Americans. Ironically, when the AK-47 originally surfaced, the American military dismissed it as cheap and ineffective.
Boy, were they ever wrong.
As CJ Chivers, the New York Times columnist and author of the “The Gun” wrote, “the Kalashnikov-carrying guerrilla, a common man with portable and easy-to-use automatic arms, was now in the field by the tens of thousands, and these men were outgunning American troops.” One of the reasons why Kalashnikov-carrying troops had the edge over US forces was because of the rifle’s legendary reliability. A well maintained AK (or even a not so well maintained one) almost never fails. The rifle’s parts are hefty but loose enough to power through sand or grit. You can punish an AK-47 in oh-so-many ways such as burying it in the mud or immersing it in water and it will still operate.
This video, by Larry Vickers, a retired Special Forces veteran and respected firearms trainer, does a fine job of illustrating how an AK-47 functions.
The upshot: you may not be outfitting a guerrilla band but if you need a dependable rifle, you can be certain that it will fire when you pull the trigger.
Another advantage: The standard AK-47 round, which is 7.62 x 39mm, packs a wallop.
If the 7.62 chambering is not to your liking you can purchase it in other calibers with less recoil. Ammo is readily available and is relatively inexpensive compared to other rifles so you’re not going to go broke practicing.
Finally, cleaning and maintenance of the AK-47 is uncomplicated. You can field strip it in under a minute.
Prices begin at around $600 and go up to $2000+.
What accounts for this wide spectrum?
For more expensive AKs you’re paying for higher quality parts, better fit and finish, premium coatings and the labor that comes with superior workmanship. It’s really a matter of getting what you pay for. The more expensive the rifle the most likely it will be more dependable and durable.
There are disadvantages with an AK-style rifle compared to the AR-15.
The AK-47 is heavier by over a pound. If you are going to carry your rifle around all day or shoot offhand a great deal, this is not inconsequential.
Another important issue: The ergonomics on the Kalashnikov platform are clearly not as good as the AR-15. They take some getting used to. If you’re planning on purchasing an AK-47 and have never fired one, you owe it to yourself to check one out just to see how it feels.
If you’re interested in customizing your AK, third party accessories are available but often finding parts that fit can be challenging. Unlike the AR15, which is generally manufactured to Mil-Spec requirements, the AK has no such universal standard.
Essentially all AK-47 variants are built to slightly different specs. That means adding optics, handguards and other third party parts can be a hassle because it’s hard to ascertain that the new items will fit and work correctly.
Even if you’ve never shouldered a rifle in your life, you already know that the AK-47 is the most iconic firearm in the world. For better or worse, it’s hard to turn on the TV news or read an online report without seeing one displayed.
Why is this rifle so popular?
They are relatively inexpensive, easy to maintain and incredibly dependable.
They are also ubiquitous. Since its introduction in 1948, there have been reportedly upwards of 100 million manufactured in more than a dozen of countries in a multitude of variants.
As of 2014, it’s no longer possible to import complete AK-47 kits into this country. The AKs sold in the U.S. are assembled by gunsmiths or hobbyists from a combination of imported and domestic parts. Components are gleaned from rifles made in Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Hungary and other countries. The parts are often modified to comply with U.S. laws.
AKs made in the United States
Although most AKs are assembled from imported parts, all AKs sold as new in this country are assembled in the U.S. in order to comply with U.S. laws. There is an exception to this rule when it comes to so-called sporterized rifles. These are AKs configured as hunting rifles, though most of these models end up being converted into the traditional looking, military-style AK-47s.
There are some manufacturers that tout “Made in the USA.” This means that the manufacture of parts and their assembly are all done in America.
This is a very new trend that began in earnest after the 2014 ban on most Russian imports. Given this environment, there’s now an economic incentive to produce a rifle made entirely from U.S.-manufactured parts. Some manufacturers, such as DDI (Destructive Devices Industries), Century Arms and Palmetto State Armory, are already using this as a marketing strategy to sell products.
With the current demand for AK-style rifles, new companies are building manufacturing facilities in this country. RWC, the erstwhile sole importer of the Kalashnikov rifle from Russia, has recently established “Kalashnikov USA.” RWC has licensed the name only–not the intellectual property and is now building US-made AKs.
Some of the higher end custom shops such as Rifle Dynamics, based Las Vegas, also are intent on building an all-U.S.-made AK-47. The company plans to manufacture all the internal parts for their rifles in-house.
Complying with the Law
When you start your buying journey, the term “992r Compliance” will rear its ugly head.
This refers to Title 18 Chapter 44 Section 922(r) Of the United States Code. Essentially it restricts semiautomatic rifles and shotguns to no more than 10 imported parts from a list of 20. For the buyer it may seem like an odd bureaucratic convention, which it is, but it’s a good idea as a consumer to have a basic understanding of the provenance of your rifle’s parts.
I am not an attorney but its common sense that if you plan to customize your rifle you’ll want remain compliant with the law.
Converting a “Sporterized” Rifle
It’s possible to buy “sporterized” — or civilian-style hunting models — of AKs, sans pistol grips.
A mechanically inclined person can convert a sporterized rifle into a traditional-looking AK, but for a neophyte, it is best if a gunsmith assists with the conversion process.
Why buy a rifle if it needs to be converted?
Buying a high-quality, sporterized rifle will assure you of getting a foreign-made receiver, barrel, trunion and other essential parts. With better-quality parts, you’re going to have a better gun from the get-go. Naturally your converted rifle must be 922r compliant.
If you’re serious about converting an AK, there are numerous videos that can show you how. Note that it’s more than just swapping out a few parts.
With most AKs you’ll have to move the trigger group, and that requires a skill set that the average person doesn’t have. This article from Dinzag Arms provides a good overview on what it will take in terms of parts and labor to convert a sporterized rifle.
The original AK-47 chambering was 7.62x39mm. Other calibers include .308 WIN, .35 REM, .222 REM, .223 REM, 7.62x54R, 5.45x39mm (AK 74), 9 mm, 9x39mm sometimes called 9×39 GROM, 6.5 Grendel and even .22 rimfire. Generally, AK ammo is imported but readily available.
AK Nomenclature and Accessories
Suffice it to say, it’s essential that you know your rifle from the inside out.
Part of your job as owner of the rifle is to field-strip (disassemble) it regularly for cleaning and lubrication. In doing so you’ll get to be on intimate terms with your dust cover, bolt carrier, gas tube and other features.
The good folks at UltiMAK have provided us with a breakdown of all the major parts of an AK-47 rifle. The only part they didn’t label was the muzzle brake: it’s just forward of the front sight block.
The AK is easy to field strip and maintain. (Courtesy UltiMAK)
Milled versus Stamped Receivers
AKs are manufactured with two distinct types of receivers—milled and stamped.
Milled receivers are created out of solid chunks of steel. All the internal guide rails, magazine well and latch surfaces, bolt locking surfaces, bolt carrier stop and the barrel and buttstock receiving sockets are cut from a single piece of metal.
As the name implies, stamped receivers are stamped from a sheet of steel and shaped in a series of bending processes that make them more cost-effective to produce.
The original AK-47, called a Type 1, was stamped but this process was discontinued, as the stamping and assembly technology at the time had unacceptably high rejection rates. As a result, the Soviet manufacturers went to milled receivers. The milled version was solid, but machining is a labor-intensive and, more expensive process. Hence, this line was terminated as well.
The Soviets eventually perfected the manufacturing methodology for stamped receivers (which are lighter than the milled versions) and are still produced today.
The differences between milled and stamped receivers are elucidated on the UltiMAK website.
Whether to purchase a milled or a stamped receiver will be one of the prospective buyer’s major decisions. From a structural point of view, there’s no question that the milled receivers are stronger and do not flex. However, milled receivers are generally more expensive.
Aesthetically, milled receivers are quite pleasing to the eye, and in this regard, most people would consider them superior.
From a purely practical point of view, they may not be your first choice. Milled receivers are inherently more robust, but they are not necessarily “better.”
While prettier, as alluded to above, they also are heavier than the stamped models. If you plan to do a lot of shooting offhand or lugging the rifle around for extended periods of time, heavy is not optimal. In addition to the weight factor, they also cannot use the more commonly available AKM-type aftermarket furniture.
If you’re just going to shoot off the bench, then it doesn’t matter.
As far as which type of receiver can take more punishment, the milled models purportedly last longer than the stamped versions. According to Ron Cheney, Director at Battlefield Vegas, a Las Vegas shooting range which features fully auto AKs, stamped receivers of every brand usually suffer a “catastrophic failure” (cracked trunion) at 80,000-100,000 rounds.
In Cheney’s experience none of the stamped receivers, regardless of price or provenance, fare much better than others as far as longevity. His facility features rifles from different manufacturers including Saiga, Arsenal, Norinco, WASR and others of Hungarian, Polish and Serbian origin. He had particular praise for the much maligned WASR, which he said held up just as well as the higher priced AKs. Cheney said that none of the rifles with milled receivers (to date) has failed due to a cracked trunnion.
What does this mean for the average person?
Probably, not much. First off, very few people will shoot an astronomical number of rounds through a rifle, much less in a fully automatic mode. Cheney reckons that the average stamped AK that is shot semi-auto should last even longer than 100,000 rounds. Unless you’re planning to open up a rifle range, either a stamped or a milled receiver will serve you well.
Don’t confuse AK furniture with love seats or rocking chairs. The term simply refers to the exterior parts (with the exception of the barrel and receiver) that come with the rifle. These include the buttstock, pistol grip and hand guards.
The traditional AKs have wood furniture whereas the modern rifles often utilize polymer. Some of the newer designs from companies such as Krebs Custom offer “KeyMod” handguard/rail systems made from aircraft aluminum. KeyMod allows for direct attachment of accessories such as flashlight mounts, laser modules, etc.
Even with aircraft aluminum handguard designs, AKs equipped with polymer furniture aren’t necessarily cheap or cheesy. There are also several advantages with polymer which usually weighs and costs less than aluminum.
There are, of course, different grades of polymer furniture. Arsenal, a well-respected Las Vegas manufacturer of AKs, uses polymer or “synthetic” furniture of high quality. “Plastic” furniture comes in a variety of colors or even in camo. Many people prefer polymer to wood for aesthetic and ergonomic reasons.
Fixed buttstocks are available in the old style “Combloc” (13 inch) length or in the longer NATO version that adds an additional 1.25 inches. If you’re considering the purchase of a fixed-stock rifle (either with wood or polymer furniture) and aren’t familiar with them it’s advisable to shoot one before you buy.
On all but the least expensive rifles you’ll find a mount on the left side of the receiver called a “side rail” or a side accessory rail.
The innovation came about in 1953 and was the first quick-detach (QD) optic mounting system.
Since 1991, the side rail has been standard for all rifles made in Russia, Bulgaria and Romania, according to Scot Hoskisson, founder of the optics mount company, RS Regulate.
The side rail allows shooters to add or remove optics such as red dot sights or other types of “glass” from the rifle. Companies such as UltiMAK, Krebs Custom and others also produce a variety of rail systems that can be installed over the top of dust cover but do not utilize the side rail.