When it comes to adding handguards and other accessories, less can be more. Like many first-time AK buyers, when I got my rifle I started adding third-party parts and went overboard on the “tacticool.” This included items such as a full-length handguard, optics, fore grips, scope mounts and the like. Before I knew it, I was drowning in paraphernalia.
The lesson was that adding some of these components may make sense in some circumstances, such as home defense, but you need to be wary of “mission creep”. Loading up your rifle with gewgaws has its practical limits. For example, if you’re going to be proficient at shooting offhand, shouldering a 10-pound rifle gets old very quickly.
(My epiphany is hardly original. One of Larry Vickers’ maxims is “seriously resist the urge to over-accessorize the gun”.)
Given my own experience, I’ve become a proponent of minimalism.
Custom builders such as Rifle Dynamics, Krebs Custom, Definitive Arms and others strive to keep the weight down by using a combination of polymer furniture (often from Arsenal) and in some instances, even chopping the barrel two inches.
Jim Fuller of Rifle Dynamics takes the weight reduction process a step further by employing the Bolton Gas Block, a proprietary product manufactured by Venom Tactical.
This cleverly designed product is the latest incarnation of a technology used by the Israeli Galil, the Finnish Valmet RK62 and other rifles, combines both the front sight and gas block into a single assembly. The system allows you to remove the stock front sight block, which diminishes weight on the front end of the AK47/74 and makes handling the rifle easier. (According to Lenny Bolton, the founder of the company, these gas blocks have been proven reliable in combat conditions).
By placing the front sight atop the gas block, the barrel length can be shortened. Jim Fuller has integrated this system on many of his high end rifles. He says that with the proprietary gas block and a shortened barrel, he can take off as much as a pound from the front end. It doesn’t sound like a lot but in practice it’s very significant.
Lenny Bolton states that the shorter sight radius on his gas block/front sight provides faster target engagement. While losing a few inches of sight radius might concern some people, he says that it’s not an issue if you’re going to engage a target under 300 yards. The front sight is adjustable for windage with a simple screwdriver.
Bolton has sold thousands of the $99 gas blocks. However, he suggests that people without extensive experience should let a gunsmith install the part. If you’re interested in researching how to do it, this article in Rifleshooter.com will illustrate how.
If you’re going to use an optic on your minimalist rifle, there are ways to keep the weight down. Jim Fuller of Rifle Dynamics employs the UltiMAK M1-B optic mount on some of his AKs. This $98 product integrates both the handguard and the gas tube in its design which ends up adding less than an ounce to the rifle.
Lyle Keeney of UltiMAK says that a lightweight red dot atop the rail brings a great deal more “shootability” to a rifle without adding significant weight. It’s still a “minimalist” setup, he insists and is mandatory if you shoot at moving targets, in low light, or at targets of opportunity (requiring fast targeting on short notice).
You can get a wide variety of lightweight polymer handguard sets from K-Var. Their typical upper handguard is simply a U-shaped section of plastic which covers the gas tube. (Note that the gas tube must have a bracket to retain it). If your gas tube doesn’t have one, you can buy an entire assembly (upper handguard plus gas tube) for about $45. Keep in mind that there’s no rail atop this system so if you want to add an optic at a later date, you’ll need to pick up a side mount.
The second part of the equation is the lower handguard. K-VAR sells a variety of them from $23-75. All have a stainless steel heat shield. To add it, simply slip the rear end into the receiver and cinch down the opposite side with a special retainer ring or bracket.
There are two styles of retainers.
To keep a traditional look, you can purchase the standard-issue retainer ring from K-VAR for $30. It’s very solid and has a lever, similar to that on the rear sight block, to keep the lower handguard firmly affixed to the barrel. The only caveat is that with this particular setup you’ll have to remove the gas block and the front sight block from the rifle in order to install it. Removing both these parts takes special tools and is best left to a gunsmith.
If you want to keep your rifle as close to original as possible, this is the best way to go.
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of removing the above-mentioned parts, there’s a second style of retainer ring which consists of two pieces.
There are at least three small companies that make these parts. One of the manufacturers, DPH Arms, has a set screw in the center of their retainer ring to help keep it from shifting. It also has shims so that the same unit can be used on a standard AK or taken off so that the retainer can be used on the larger diameter VEPR barrel.
Generally, adding the retainer shouldn’t take any modifications to the handguard. However, Brian Smithwick of Dinzag Arms (which also manufactures retainers) suggests you create a small bulge on the heat shield with a pair of needle nose pliers if you have an AK-74. This protuberance will position the handguard off the barrel and underpin the fit to prevent the AK-74 handguard from sliding up at the front end of the retainer plate.
To install the retainer from Saiga-AK, one must add a notch or divot on the barrel keep the bracket in place.
I didn’t want to adulterate my barrel, nor remove the gas and front site blocks so I decided to go the DPH Arms route. If you are a stickler for detail, professional builders suggest that you use the original equipment retainer from Arsenal but if you don’t have the tools to remove the parts, the two-part brackets will do the trick. The DPH product retails for $44.99 and worked fine.
Both brackets feature a sling mount loop and a hole that secures the end of the cleaning rod. UltiMAK founder Lyle Keeney suggests that if you have a cleaning rod mounted below the barrel you consider removing it to reduced weight. If you need to clean your rifle in the field you can take a bore snake with you.
There’s third type of aluminum retainer available but I would not recommend it. It’s very easy to strip the threads on this item. You’ll want to make sure and purchase a retainer manufactured from steel.
Although the polymer handguards from Arsenal (or similar units made by other manufacturers), are great at keeping the weight down, a KeyMod handguard system is also an option if you feel it’s absolutely necessary to add other accessories, such as a light or a grip to your rifle.
KeyMod handguards, such as the AK-UFM model for AKM rifles manufactured by Krebs Custom, are made from aircraft aluminum and they are really light. At 6.6 ounces (including the Picatinny rail) it definitely falls into the “minimalist” camp.
Another weight saving measure is to change out your buttstock if you’re using a collapsible, AR 15-style system. There are a number of lightweight units available including the Rogers Super-Stoc, the Mission First Tactical “Minimalist” model and the CTR from Magpul. In this chapter (see section below) I’ve reviewed these products and other options that are both comfortable, and lightweight.
The lesson is to think twice before you buying add-ons, such as a full-blown tactical handguard/rail system. If you can eschew adding stuff that you don’t really need, or replace your existing gear with something lighter, by all means do so.
With AKs less is always more.