Several years ago while wandering the floor of the SHOT Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, I literally bumped into Tim Yan. It was a fortuitous meeting.Tim is a freelance writer and contributor to Shotgun News, Guns &Ammo: Book of the AR15, Guns & Ammo Handguns, Guns & Ammo: Book of the AK47, Be Ready!, and other publications. He’s also the resident optics editor for The Firearms Blog.
It should be noted that Tim runs an excellent website called Guns & Tech, of which I contribute to.
A five-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, he served as a marksmanship instructor in the 1st Marine Division deployed in Somalia and the Iraq.
He knows his way around optics and has some great suggestions on what to look for when purchasing optics and mounts for an AK. For anyone contemplating the purchase of an optic, this interview is a must read.
Q: You did a major piece on AK mounts for Guns & Ammo magazine. What did you discover about AK scope mounts in doing the research for that piece?
A: It’s generally accepted that there are two suitable locations to mount an optic on an AK: the side mount on the receiver and the handguard/gas tube mount. (Not all AKs have the receiver-side mount. However, it’s relatively easy for a gunsmith to install one on a stamped receiver).
However, there’s technically a third location. Two Israeli companies make AK handguard with a long rail extension that hangs over the dust cover on the AK. Those were originally developed for the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) Naval Commandos for the requirement of co-witness mounting optic and night-vision on an AK. The CAA KeyMod handguard which is lighter, easier to install and has the new KeyMod modular interface is the newest version of this product.
Q: What do you think about the utility of the Texas Weapon Systems and Parabellum “Dog Leg”- style rail dust covers?
A: The Texas Weapons Systems and Parabellum dust covers and rear sights are OK for the recreational shooter.
Q: What about the rear sight replacement optic mount?
A: I have not tried to mount one but my observation is that most are flimsy with probably the exception of the Circle 10 AK and Saberwerk 13 mount. Both of those require some gunsmithing work to install correctly.
Q: If you were to recommend a couple of quick-detach-style scope mounts for the AK, what would they be and why?
A: Any of the RS Regulate modular models: the Arsenal SM-13; Midwest Industries’ AK side-rail flat-top; single and dual 30mm ring-type scope mounts will work. All of them, except for the Midwest Industries flat-top mount, offer very low-bore axis but still allow removal of the dust cover. (Editor’s Note: Midwest Industries has just come out with a Ultimak-style rail/gas tube combination).
The RS Regulate design is the best because it allows adjustment for side-to-side sight alignment as well as front and back adjustment for eye relief and field of view.
The Arsenal and MI are made to fit the Russian- and Bulgarian-pattern side rail. They could be a little off for other AK variants.
Q: What about rail systems or handguards to mount optics? Got any favorites?
A: Krebs Custom, Midwest Industries, Arsenal and Manticore Arms are a good bet. The Krebs Custom UFM keymod handguard is nicely made and has a removable 1913 rail top that holds zero. The MI’s offerings come in many options in both the rail interfaces and the dedicated optic top pieces. These include modular, quad rail, keymod or M-Lock. The top half of the MI design is really the modular part with nine different optic-specific interchangeable top covers. This includes options for the popular Aimpoint Micro T1 and 30mm body and the standard 1913 rail.
If you prefer a solid quad rail, Arsenal’s billet handguard, which was originally made for a military contract, has an actual cleaning rod hole that allows you to keep the full-length AK cleaning rod on the weapon. (Billet means that the product was machined from a solid chunk of metal).
Manticore makes a very affordable, good-quality polymer handguard for the Yugo-pattern AK called the Renegade as well as for my favorite, the M92 short-barreled model.
I recently tested Manticore Arms’ new Alpha AK handguard and I was very impressed with it. It’s the only extended length AK handguard that can be installed with the stock front handguard keeper without the need if cutting it off. The modular version has a replaceable bolt-on panels at 3-, 6-, 9-o’clock that give you the choice of installing KeyMod, M-LOK or just textured polymer panel, or any combination of the three.
Manticore also offers an optional optic-specific top half designed for the Aimpoint T1 and the Burris Fast Fire type small red-dot sight.
Q: Is it really possible to get a bottom one-third co-witness with an AK scope?
A: Many optics using the MI top cover and the Manticore top half will co-witness with the stock AK iron sight — although in most of those cases it’s more of a lower ¼ co-witness. As for the receiver side mount, RS Regulate’s Aimpoint T1 and 30mm mount offer a true lower-1/3 co-witness. Midwest Industry’s 30mm-ring side mount also allows mounting an Aimpoint 30mm body model for a lower-1/3 co-witness.
Q: Can you suggest some budget, midrange and high-end red dots for an AK?
A: The best red-dot sight for AK is the Aimpoint Micro T1 or T2. It’s small and lightweight but a bit expensive.
The next down at $350 to $400 is the Aimpoint PRO. They are based on the older Aimpoint 30mm tube-size models.
On the more budget end, I really like the new Hi-Lux Micro-Max B-Dot mini-red dot sight. It has flip-up caps and 2 MOA dot like the Aimpoint T2. Its battery life even surpassed the Aimpoint models, with 55,000 hours from just a CR2032 lithium battery, and it carries a spare one in it cap. It also has an Aimpoint Micro compatible screw pattern in its base to use with the RS Regulate direct mount. We have drop-tested and used this optic on the IWI Negev belt-fed machine gun and it has been tested in temperatures from -85 Fahrenheit to +180 Fahrenheit by Alexander Arms.
It’s also been recoil-tested by firing 300 rounds of .338 Lapua Mag while mounted on an Alexander Arms Ulfberht semi-auto rifle.
During a Big 3 Media event in Daytona Beach, Florida we mounted the Hi-Lux on a Rifle Dynamics AK owned by Bill Geissele and did mag dumps until the rifle was too hot to hold. The gas-tube rail was actually red-hot and the little Hi-Lux sight mounted on it was still working fine. Not bad for a $200 sight.
I’ve also had good luck with the Primary Arms Advanced Micro Dot (the 50k battery life version). It’s a bit cheaper than the Hi-Lux and doesn’t have as many features. The warranty is also shorter.
There’s also another new mini-red-dot sight coming to the market in 2017 called the 2SD C-8 MRAS. It’s made in South Korea and it has a 2-MOA dot size. Its built, tough with 25 meter submersible rating and it can withstand -40c to +50c temperatures. The battery life is 20,000 hours from a single CR2032 and it uses Aimpoint T1 mount. The MSRP is $299. I was very impressed with it in the short time I used the prototype at a training event. (At the time of publication it’s not yet available but keep an eye out).
I am not a big fan of the Trijicon RMR or other types of mini-reflex sights in that category, mostly due to their tiny field of view, especially if they are mounted on the handguard position.
Q: Can you recommend a good combination of red dot and scope mount for someone who is buying their first AK?
A: If your AK has a receiver side rail, I would recommend the RS Regulate AK300 direct mount for the Aimpoint or the Hi-Lux.
I prefer mounting the red dot as far back as possible for the maximum field of view through the optic. Scot Hoskisson from RS Regulate likes to mount the red dot just behind the rear sight for the best balance on the weapon.
If your AK doesn’t have a receiver side-rail or has a milled receiver, I would recommend the Midwest Industries’ modular AK handguard with the Aimpoint Micro T1 top cover for the T1/T2/Hi-Lux or the 30mm ring-top cover for the APO/PRO. I prefer the direct mount type because it’s solid mounting and fewer things to go wrong. (Editor’s note: RS Regulate’s newest lower (pictured in the photo above) is AK-309M is the AK-300 Modular Side Mount system, and is specifically engineered for the Century Arms new proprietary side rail, now available on the RAS47 and C39V2 rifles).
Q: What about some hologram optics? Which would you recommend?
A: One projection type sight with large square sight ocular window is the Meprolight M5. The Meprolight uses a red dot-style LED projection instead of using laser on the EOTech, and has the battery life close to that of the Aimpoint. However, the Meprolight sights have the same height issue on the AK.
Also, check out the new Hartman MH-1 and the DI Optical EG1. Both of those are the new crop of red-dot sights that uses prisms as its optical element instead of lenses. The advantage is that there’s no empty space between the lens for leaks and the glass prism reinforces the structure of the housing making for very robust sights. Prismd allow for better optical correction and offer a clear, big viewing window.
Q: Can you recommend any 1-4x prism scopes?
A: My favorite prism sight is the ELCAN, but like the EOTech they are too high and too heavy for the AK.
I also wouldn’t recommend any of the Trijicon ACOG TA31 4×32 models for AK because of their very short eye relief. The ACOG TA11 3.5x35mm model is better, but it’s big and heavy.
My preferred ACOG for the AK is the TA33 3x30mm Compact ACOG model with the 7.62x39mm bullet-drop compensating (BDC) reticle. If you have a 5.45x39mm caliber AK, then any of the 5.56mm M4 Carbine BDC models would work for you. The trajectory for both calibers are very close to about 300 meters. The only downside of the Trijicon is its tiny FOV of only 3.7-degrees.
There’s a lesser-known ELCAN Specter OS 3.0 3x32mm model that would work just as well as the Trijicon ACOG because it’s the only ELCAN that uses internal adjustment and features the M16 carrying handle-style mounting.
The ELCAN 3x32mm model offers significant bigger field of view and an inch more eye relief than the Compact ACOG 3x 30mm.
The drawback of the ELCAN is its busy reticle. It also lacks daylight illumination, not to mention it’s a good three to four ounces heavier than comparable optics. Note that the ELCAN OS 3.0 is being discontinued. Midway USA has the remaining stocks and they are selling it for $699 w/ free shipping.
On the budget end, I have had success with the Burris AR-332 (3x32mm) and AR-536 (5x36mm) prism sight. Both are in the $300 price range. Both utilize a version of the Burris reticle that offers a very thick outer ring for fast target acquisition at close range and BDC dots for range out to 600 meters. Both models also have switchable red and green day-visible reticle illumination.
All of the above sights use Trijicon’s ACOG mounting screw pattern and could be used on an RS Regulate ACOG mount for the lowest sight height on an AK.
Now let’s talk about the lower magnification prism sight such as the ACOG 1.5x16mm and the new Vortex Spitfire 1x. Those are great red-dot sight alternatives for those of us who have bad eyesight. By featuring an etched reticle on the glass, those lower-magnification prism sights have a couple of advantages over a red-dot. The reticle will be still useable if the battery dies and it allows for BDC and other shapes in the reticle design.
The etched reticle forces the shooter’s eye to focus on it, which works especially well for those of us with astigmatism.
Q: I see a lot of 1×4 scopes out there. Can you recommend a high end model?
A: On the higher end, I recommend the Meopta MeoTac 1-4x22mm RD tactical scope. Don’t let the price of $999 shock you. The Meopta tactical 1×4 scope is actually at the same level as the Swarovski and Schmidt & Bender in terms of optical performance and daylight reticle illumination, plus it offers a true 1x magnification at the lowest setting.
I think Meopta is the best-kept secret in the premium Euro optics. The Meopta’s BDCs are calibrated for the 5.56mm NATO, so it will work just fine with 5.45x39m AK74.
For the 7.62x39mm caliber, since the Meopta’s BDC hash marks are not named, it’s easy to figure out the hold-over for each of the 3 small chevrons. (Meopta has the 7.62x39mm ballistic BDC info available but it’s just not on their USA website).
There’s a new mid-end 1-4x on the market and that’s the new Steiner P4Xi with a street price of under $600. It has daylight visible illumination, true 1x, and it uses German Schott glass for its lens.
Q: You did a review several years ago of the CMR (Close-Medium Range) model from Leatherwood Hi-Lux. Would you still recommend that scope for an AK user?
A: I think that is still the best 1-4x scope for the AK.
Leatherwood Hi-Lux is now offering two tiers of the CMR models. There is the original and the CMR4 model with a better grade of glass. The latter has capped turrets with the MIL-MIL adjustment, and the windage turret is relocated to the left side.
Both AK models of CMR have a reticle BDC out to 900 meters for the 7.62x39mm. I actually tested that out to 1,000 yards (914 meters), with a Noveske AR in 300 Blackout, which the ballistic matches on the 7.62×39 mm. This one doesn’t have the best optical or build quality. However, it’s very affordable and the ACSS reticle is a good design.
Q: What is your impression of the Russian-produced optics for the AK? Do you recommend them, and, if so, which models do you like?
A: The Russian military uses a variety of combat optics on their AK. Some of those are not available to the commercial market and most are not available in the U.S.
The Russian red-dot sights are, in general, not very good. Most are heavy and have a short battery life. That’s why the Russian special operations forces use Aimpoints and EOTechs.
On the other hand, their prism sights are surprisingly good. For example, the Russian Kashtan 2.8x prism sight has an impressive 13-degree field of view. The PSU model 1x/4x switchable sight I tested is the only alternative to the ELCAN Specter DR.
Keep in mind that if you acquire a Russian optic via mail order, the biggest issues you will have are the warranty and customer service. If anything goes wrong, you may have to ship the item back to Russia for repair.
I don’t trust the Russian postal system and there may be U.S. government restrictions regarding sending weapon accessories to another country.
If you go this route, I would recommend only that you buy optics made in the NPZ (Novosibirsk Instrument Plant) factory for top-quality Russian-made optics.
Editor’s note: Much thanks to Tim Yan of GunsandTech for his photos.