Our second interview on AK buying tips is with Mike Owen, founder of Meridian Ordnance LLC in Mount Sterling, Kentucky.
Mike’s shop has a great reputation for building AKs and he’s one of the more articulate guys I’ve interviewed on this subject. Reading his comments will complement what Chase Sisgold had to say and will go a long way to help first-time buyers sort out the most frequently asked questions.
Q: With some Russian products now banned from import, what brands of mass-produced rifles do you recommend?
A: There are many variables here, with the biggest ones being the buyer’s budget and intended use.
Given the current situation, if I had to choose an out-of- the-box AK, I would suggest a Bulgarian Arsenal Inc. SLR107 (stamped) or SAM7 (milled) series. The only caveat is that for their price range I’ve always thought Arsenal Inc. should feature a superior finish than what they do. That said, having an AK refinished in a more durable option like Moly Resin or Cerakote is an easy fix, and I do many in just such a fashion.
Q: Are there any appreciable differences in quality between some of the more popular mass-produced rifles such as WASRs, Century Arms, Arsenal, etc?
A: Absolutely, yes. I could preach for days about some of the known issues with lower-end commercial AK offerings out there. Canted sight blocks, magazine wobble, poor fit/finish, improper heat treating, and even headspace issues have all been documented.
I’ll hit on this: For many of these budget buyers, having a “correct” or high-end AK isn’t the point, but the majority of the noted problems are performance or safety issues — not personal preference issues.
Factoring in neutered parts, commercial features and overall quality to price ratio is a budgetary matter. While there are many decent commercially made budget AK-based firearms like the WASR out there it is important for the first time buyer to remember that you get what you pay for. I often have customers bring in problematic rifles, where the cost of the corrections or repairs plus what they gave for the firearm would put them within the price range of a military pedigree or overall higher-quality AK.
Q: It seems that you can get a good deal from some of the larger stores that sell online. What are the pros and cons of buying a new rifle online?
A: The biggest pro to buying online is just as you noted: The good deals. Large retailers who market online have the buying power to get more product from the manufacturer or distributor at a lower cost and pass some of those savings on to the consumer.
The firearms industry simply does not consistently have the big margins and high mark-ups people often associate with it. In some cases, my dealer’s cost on a quantity of just one particular item can be higher than what large online retailers offer the same item for on sale.
I think most gun owners would agree the biggest disadvantage to online shopping is that you cannot physically inspect, handle, examine, or pine over the exact item you want to buy. With something as unique and often as personal as a firearm, many people are perfectly content to pay a few dollars more to see it in hand, or, in our case, have it built to order just for them.
Q: Can you recommend a specific model in the $600 price range for a first-time buyer who wants a brand new rifle?
A: If the buyer is not looking for a more “correct” rendition of an AK variant, at under $600, I’d suggest the Zastava produced O-PAP M70 rifle.
Now, the receiver, reinforced trunion, furniture, rivet pattern, gas block and a handful of other details are not identical to its military cousin the Yugoslavian M70B1, but for a commercial AK they hold up well to the typical usage which most shooters will put them through. I would give Palmetto State Armory AKM a tentative look as well.
Q: With some Russian rifles no longer imported, do any dealers you know sell other sporterized rifles that can be converted?
A: A few distributors actually may still have the Saiga 5.56mm NATO IZ114 and 5.45x39mm IZ240 rifles in stock. They are great candidates for conversions. We have a few in 5.45mm left ourselves.
Granted, they are on closeout due to the import ban and will not be restocked anytime soon. That said, any AK that is lacking in some respect can be a good candidate for a conversion, depending on your goals. It could be something as minor as needing a gas block with a bayonet lug to having the barrel threaded or, as major as an out-of-the-box Saiga needing a full conversion.
I always offer a lot of guidance to customers seeking to improve an AK in these respects. Funny thing, but the model that comes to my mind in regards to converting a truly sporterized rifle like the Saiga series into something more practical is the old Norinco Hunter. Big transformations possible there.
Q: What about in the $700 to $1,000 range?
A: In this price range there’s the Arsenal SLR107-21 and -31 right at the top end, cost-wise. I wish the Russian SGL series were still an option here. But the SLR series are solid rifles with the right feature set and very few shortcomings.
What many people are surprised to learn is that even with the BATFE (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) barrel ban, you can still often get a matching-numbers, military-parts kit built on a fully heat-treated receiver in this price range.
The Russian Saiga IZ132 rifle conversions can also be done professionally for under $1,000 by some builders such as ourselves, but we can all thank (President Obama’s) EO 13662 for effectively cutting off that option. U.S.-made variants will quickly fill the gap so it seems.
Q: If you can’t afford a $1,000+ Arsenal, are you better off buying a good-quality used rifle?
A: Get the best you can afford for your purpose, be it new or used.
If your budget is $500 to $600 and your purpose is plinking at the local range, check out that Zastava N-PAP or a Romanian WASR, provided you can look it over for those problem indicators first before buying, which is the big boon of buying in person versus online.
If your budget is $900+, consider an Arsenal Inc. model, Russian VEPR or custom kit build from a reputable AK builder.
If you take your time and hound the gun boards, auction sites and listing services, there are still some deals to be had. Just be careful that you know what to look for and do your homework first before buying. If you find yourself looking at a kit build, especially of unknown provenance, correctly check the head spacing before buying and certainly before shooting. A $70 set of headspace gauges beats a $700 emergency room visit, or worse.
Q: Some manufacturers, such as Century, are advertising AKs that are made exclusively of all USA-made parts. Are these rifles of good quality?
A: The U.S.-made AK is slowly coming to fruition, and there are a number of companies pushing these models to market. Some say Century is slowly improving its QC (quality control) reputation and their C39v2 rifle is making some gains.
I’d also suggest tracking how the Palmetto State Armory AKM stacks up this year. I cannot speak definitively on any one U.S. made offering being better than all the others right now.
Q: We’ve talked at length about the purchase of a new AK. What about buying a used rifle?
A: Most people who own a quality AK know it, so finding that great used AK deal can take some time.
You will likely weed through hundreds of jacked up and overpriced offerings for every fair deal you see, and great deals are even scarcer.
Good deals on Russian VEPR rifles are hard to pass up when encountered, but I personally believe the biggest “sleeper” AK deals on the market right now lie in the Clinton-era Assault Weapons Ban firearms imported from ’94-’04, although they are drying up. Examples would be rifles such as the Chinese MAK90, NHM91, Romanian SAR series, or Egyptian MISR or MAADI for instance, often seen with thumbhole stocks and neutered parts.
No, these are not going to be WASR-priced, by comparison, but often you can snag one for a fair price and sit on it while gathering funds to fully de-ban the rifle appropriately. In the end you’ll have something unique and more collectible, as well as a good shooter, typically.
A properly de-banned Romanian SAR1 rifle (for example) will appreciate in value exponentially faster than even the best made WASR on the market, in addition to being of higher quality and a closer representation of an AKM.
Q: You’ve mentioned to me that there are QC issues with WASRs, especially in the area of proper heat treatment, which in the long term can result in malfunctions. Those rifles always seem to be the least expensive. Are they a serious option for first time buyers?
A: For the budget buyer, yes. The WASR has always been an option simply because of price, and that price makes it popular.
Their known issues have given them a bad reputation, one that’s not entirely misplaced. I have seen a handful of egged axis pin holes and stress fractures that can be attributed to improper heat treating in the series. If you are a serious first time AK buyer, don’t fall to impulse, understand your own needs and expectations, and then train-up a bit before going with any given AK.
Q: What caliber do you recommend for the first time buyer who is primarily a “plinker” and maybe will use the rifle for home self-defense?
A: 7.62×39 mm Russian M43 (ammunition). It’s obtainable, well-proven and comes in many loads from many manufactures. From bulk Wolf WPA Polyformance ammo to Hornady, there are lots of great options for every need, from the range to defense.
It’s an AK. Don’t over-think what you’re feeding it. I know guys who carry over experiences with $3k+ bench rest rifles and try to apply that same thinking to an AK platform. It’s just misplaced, like a GE jet turbine in a (WW2-era) T34 tank.
5.45×39 mm is a fine light load as well, and, contrary to what some people think, the Executive Order banning Russian 7n6 5.45×39 ammo Russian did not kill 5.45, as it is far from dead. It’ll still be imported and made domestically, but not in the quantities or the selection of 7.62×39 mm ammo.
5.56 NATO is a distant third choice. The Romanian SAR3 and its brief history with hammer geometry issues gave the .223/5.56 AK in America a bad rap early on, but those days were long ago and few people even know about it today. New offerings in 5.56 mm, such as those from Arsenal, are pretty squared-away rifles. My personal complaint with any 5.56 mm AK is simply that the diversity of 5.56 mm AK magazines and their availability/cost will keep it from being a major contender on par with 7.62×39 mm.
From the East German Weiger to the .223 Saiga, there is a big selection of different original and aftermarket mags, and not all of them are interchangeable, of course. The Definitive Arms AR mag adapter conversions seek to solve that problem, and do so very inventively and surprisingly well.
Q: What kind of finish do you recommend for an AK? Can you talk about blued, versus powder coat, versus Cerakote, etc. How do they wear? Which is better at protecting the metal?
A: There’s a slew of finishes on the market now to augment the traditional stuff we’ve seen for decades, such as hot bluing and zinc or manganese phosphate Parkerizing.
Cerakote is of course a big name in the newer coatings and quite popular for good reason. I mention Cerakote here because they have done a fine job testing a number of these old and new finishes side by side.
From the standpoint of someone who does a lot of refinishing, including Cerakote H-series work, I personally prefer John Norrell’s Moly Resin for an AK. It is more forgiving and simpler to apply, as far as the applicator is involved, so I can process jobs more efficiently. But more important, it is a closer match to the Russian “squid ink” acrylics and similar finishes used on many AK rifles, so it makes a good historical match for those who want a more correct AK or wish to only refinish certain parts and preserve the rest.
The flat black option of Moly Resin is also a good match to manganese phosphate Parkerizing. One downside is that Moly Resin does not come in the vast array of colors that Cerakote H-series comes in. Moly Resin is a very durable finish and in my opinion the only one on the market that holds up on par with a product like Cerakote H-series. The only way to entirely remove either of these finishes is with abrasion blasting.
Bluing is a decorative finish and does nothing to protect steel, but is often the right historical choice.
Likewise, Parkerizing is simply a porous finish so once any oils in it have bled out over time (accelerated by heat or moisture) it will do nothing to inhibit rust or corrosion.
Powder coating is generally not an option for firearms, as it will not hold up to the really tough solvents and chemical abuse over time.
Of the many other spray-on air-cure or oven-cure finishes out there, there are many decent ones such as Duracoat or KG Gun Kote that are available for the DIY crowd and professionals alike. The results of using these products will be entirely in your preparation, just like anything else, but some are a bit better than others.
Q: What are the pros and cons of having a gunsmith build you a rifle from a kit from scratch? What’s the price range?
A: Well, you get exactly what you need, not an off-the-shelf model you have to modify later at greater cost or settle with as-is.
Gunsmiths and professional builders such as ourselves assemble your rifle to-order, often based on a given set of specifications to suit your needs, wants or mission.
Many military pedigree kits carry with them history, character and a unique appeal for those seeking hard to find variants.
Other buyers want the satisfaction which comes with knowing a specific kit is their own basis for a higher quality AK, be it a museum-worthy reproduction or practical, modernized Kalashnikov system they may depend upon with their life.
The downside is it takes time to build each individual firearm for its owner, to source parts or dig up that one small detail that brings the whole project together, so it’s not a pay and go option.
Our basic AKM kit building services start in the $260 ballpark and go from there. Just to get an idea of average cost, there are still many great AK parts kits on the market today in the $200-$500 price range.
We simply have had the best results, are most impressed and most satisfied with Moly Resin and Cerakote for our needs and AKs specifically.