To help us answer the question of what to look for in an AK, I sought the advice of Chase Sisgold, co-founder of Definitive Arms in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Chase builds custom AKs and has experienced success over the past few years. He’s developed a system allows your stock .223/5.56 AK variant to accept commonly found AR magazines and, has a “Last Round Bolt Hold Open” (LRBHO) feature. This means exactly what it describes–after the last round is fired, the bolt remains open, as with the AR-15 and other semi-auto rifles. (This tells the shooter in no uncertain terms that the magazine is empty).
Q: There are a number of different AK-47 style rifles out there. What advice do you have for a first time buyer?
A: I would advise first-time buyers to consider why they are purchasing the firearm.
There are a variety of options when it comes to AKs. Purpose, caliber, and price point are going to be the biggest factors. Is this rifle for personal defense? Competition? Ranch duty? Collector value? Home protection for the family?
For a first time buyer, I would generally recommend a run-of-the-mill AK in 7.62x39mm. These are common and inexpensive. Magazines and ammunition are widely available and, most important, the rifles are extremely reliable and easy to operate and maintain.
Q: Is there a particular model that you think has the best quality?
A: I find that the Russians still produce the best quality components from which to build an AK. Both for my shop and for personal use, I prefer to start with a Saiga or a VEPR or a parts kit.
However, with the availability of Russian AKs dwindling, I can say that having a quality AK built by a professional from a quality parts kit is an equally viable option.
Q: I see wide disparity of price between manufacturers. Why such great differences?
A: Simple. Not all AKs are created equal. Supply and demand also play a large role in the price of AKs. I often times make the comparison to 1911s. Some guys will spend $1,000, $2,000, even $4,000 on a premium 1911 but for some reason will draw the line at paying more than $1,000 for a good-quality AK.
There are plenty of AKs (and 1911s) that will run in the $500 to $600 range. However, if you want a premium AK (or 1911) built by a skilled gunsmith using excellent-quality components, you had better be prepared to pay for it. In my opinion, the best fighting/defensive rifles are AKs built by skilled guys who really know what they are doing. Most of the time, you get what you pay for.
Q: What caliber should one choose, given that AKs are available in 7.62×39, 5.45×39, 5.56×45, .308, and 7.62x54R?
A: Here is a quick break down on calibers for the AK from an American shooter’s perspective:
>> 7.62x39mm is pretty common, affordable, hard hitting and has mild recoil. The magazines are all over the place and usually inexpensive to buy. They perform very well out of short barrels and make a great PDW (personal defense weapon) cartridge.
>> 5.45x39mm is fairly common, affordable and has a very flat trajectory along with light recoil. The magazines have gotten expensive but they are a very deadly cartridge that shoots well in the AK platform. It has great penetration and amazing results when hitting flesh.
(Left to right) 5.45×39, 7.62×39, 7.62×54R (Courtesy AKOU)
>> 5.56x45mm is very common and abundant. It is not terribly high priced and has a great track record as a fighting caliber. It’s accurate, deadly and has light recoil. There are a large assortment of styles to choose from. The 5.56 AK magazines are expensive and hard to find, but AR magazines are a dime a dozen and very easy to find for the guys out there running AR magazines in their AKs. In an emergency (natural disasters, etc.) the 5.56 cartridge will be the most commonly available cartridge to acquire via bartering, considering its standardized use with military and law enforcement agencies across the country.
>> .308/7.62x51mm is very common, accurate and can easily be used to hunt medium and large game. It also has a great track record as a battle rifle cartridge and is deadly at longer distances. The rounds are a little pricy but not terrible when buying surplus ammunition. Depending on your AK model, the magazines may be hard to come by or expensive. Luckily, we also produce a magwell system for VEPR rifles that utilizes .308 Pmags with the LRBHO feature. This upgrade simplifies the magazine equation while significantly improving the usability of the rifle.
>> 7.62x54R is fairly common in the surplus variety and a number of current production factory loadings are available. This cartridge is the oldest military cartridge still in service today. It can be purchased at very fair prices considering the cost of other calibers in terms of size and power. It is powerful and very deadly. Magazines for it may be more difficult to find. Depending on the load — surplus ammo versus current production factory ammo versus hand loads) — the accuracy will vary greatly out of an AK chambered in this cartridge.
Q: Let’s talk about barrel length. What are the standard lengths and what are the practical differences?
A: Most AKs you will find in America are 16 inches long. Extended barrel lengths ranging from 19 to 23 inches are not uncommon. Krinkovs, custom AKs or other short barreled rifles (‘SBRs’) are under 16 inches.
An AK with shorter barrel, between 7 inches and 14.5 inches, can come in handy as a personal defense weapon or for operations in tightly confined spaces. Close-quarters combat or getting in and out of vehicles quickly comes to mind. Perhaps the operator simply wants something that will fit into a small bag when folded up. Concealment is a huge factor for personal defense weapons.
Standard-length rifles around 16 inches are going to make up the majority of AKs one will encounter in America. These might include home/property defensive rifles, competition rifles, or fighting rifles.
A 16-inch barrel is long enough to get good projectile velocity and deliver good stopping power down range with good accuracy. It is still fairly light and will maneuver well, allowing it to bridge the gap between all roles. It’s a do-all rifle. In short, the 16-inch barreled AK will suit the needs of most.
Q: Are chrome-lined barrels more desirable?
A: In general, yes. Hammer-forged, chrome-lined barrels have been around for a long time. They are tough and very long lasting. Most people will be hard-pressed to shoot enough ammunition through one to wear it out.
Q: What about buying used rifle?
A: AKs are one of those weapons that can be bought used with confidence. Any decently built AK will most likely outlive the next two generations. Of course, you will still want to inspect the weapon closely or have someone who is knowledgeable look it over for you. I wouldn’t recommend buying a weapon that looks like it was mistreated and may have a high round count on top of that.
Q: What are the differences between a milled or stamped receiver? Does it really matter?
A: Milled receivers can make a fine AK. Stamped receivers can also make a fine AK. I don’t favor one over the other. I will say that currently I own more stamped AKs than milled, but I believe that is due to cost and availability more than anything.
Q: What about wood furniture versus plastic? Is this purely a function of aesthetics?
A: There is something beautiful about a classic all-steel firearm encased with well-finished wood. Some people like the look and feel of a wood-clad firearm. From a manufacturing perspective, plastic can be more economically produced.
Q: I see a lot of people using a folding stock. What furniture is the most ergonomic and comfortable?
A: Comfort and ergonomics are really a personal choice. Some may base their choices solely on cosmetics as well. I personally prefer a full furniture set on my 16-inch barreled weapons. For Krinkovs or SBRs, I love the look and feel of the classic triangle folders, though they may not be the most ergonomic choice.
Q: You mentioned that AR’s are less accurate and AKs are more accurate than most people think. What kind of accuracy, say at 100 yards, can I expect from an AK-47 versus an AK-74?
A: Many shooters will say that their rack-grade AR is a sub-MOA (Minute of Angle) weapon, but this just isn’t the case. I think if most of these folks got their rifles out at 100-plus yards they would find that their beloved ARs do not, in fact, shoot half-inch groups like the sales guys told them.
On the flip side, you hear a lot of people say that the AK is not accurate, but many can consistently tag steel at 200, 300, 400 yards or more with one. Any rifle capable of tagging a man-sized target at 400 yards is more than combat-effective in terms of accuracy. Generally speaking, an AR will be more accurate than an AK, but not by a great margin. The AK is plenty accurate for its intended purpose.
Caliber is also a big factor. We put out 5.56 AKs that will shoot on par with most rack-grade ARs.
Q: If I want to customize a stock AK, are they as easy to work on as ARs?
A: ARs are definitely easier to work on. Almost everything for an AR can be done with simple hand tools. AKs do not have as many aftermarket parts offerings and are more difficult to mount optics to with repeatable results.
A lot of AK components will require gunsmithing for installation, not just hand tools. In this sense, the AR is definitely easier to customize. However, there is nothing quite like a well-built AK, and for that reason alone many will go through the effort or pay the money to have a custom AK built. There are also enough drop- in AK parts so that customizing an AK from home is not terribly difficult.
Q: What about the garage builds that you hear a lot about? Is that a good way to go?
A: Jim Fuller has an expression, and I agree with what he says: “Building an AK is easy, but building an AK properly is difficult.”
You can build them in your garage with friends and probably get them to shoot, but if want it to be built well and last a long time, you really need to build it right, and that can take some time.
We do an alarming number of repairs and reworks of very poorly built AKs from “build parties” and guys who’ve built it themselves from advice given to them on gun forums or on YouTube. Neither of these are a reliable source of anything AK-build related. Building AKs is fun, but gunsmithing should be taken very seriously.
Unless you really know what you’re doing, I’d avoid the “garage groups.”
Q: Given that the Russian guns such as the Saiga are harder to get nowadays because of the ban, what other variants do you recommend for an entry level rifle?
A: Given the current situation I would recommend guns that are built by a quality builder from older parts kits of forged, then machined components. The only downside is trying to source a quality barrel. Fortunately, US manufacturers are putting out fairly tough and accurate barrels these days.
Q: What kind of price points are we talking about?
A: If you want a reliable gun built for you, get a reputable builder and budget between $799 and $999. If you want an amazing AK that is reliable, accurate, smooth and well-tuned, I would budget between $999 and $1,999 depending on options. If you’re looking for just a range gun you can get a ‘plinker’ for about $500 to $600, and just roll the dice.
Q: Anything we missed?
A: The only difference between an AK and most other weapons is that in 200 years the AK will still work and be relevant as a fighting implement and tool for survival.