Better weather brought more enthusiasm from friends and family for an afternoon of target shooting at a nearby gun range. It also gave me an opportunity to shoot different rifles than I would normally have access to, and thus get a better comparison of their handling characteristics. The rifles I got to try out were a new Bushmaster MOE in 5.56 NATO, a semi-auto civilian version of the AKM with synthetic stock, and an older model (i.e., pre-1990) of the Mini-14 with a traditional wood stock.
I won't try and compare accuracy because we were forced to use a short-range lane (less than 40 yards), and the Bushmaster was outfitted with a Nikon 556 scope, the AKM with a reflex sight, and the Mini-14 was using only its iron sights. I would note as a general matter, however, that the standard iron sights for an AR are generally much better than the sights on the AK series of rifles or the older Mini-14 sights. That said, it is possible to obtain upgraded sights for the AK and Mini-14.
For overall ergonomics, I think that it was a wash between the rifles, with each presenting its own pluses and minuses. The AR and AK were both front heavy. I admit that part of this with the AR was due to the scope, but I feel that issue was offset by the vertical foregrip. The fact is that the Mini-14 seemed to balance better, and come more easily to the shoulder than the other two rifles.
Although I don't mind the traditional stock found on the Mini-14, I generally give a slight edge on ergonomics to rifles outfitted with a pistol grip. Between the AK and the AR, the AR has the more comfortable pistol grip. However, this seems in my mind to be a function of the size of the pistol grip. The AR has a fuller grip than the standard issue AK. However, if I were wearing heavy gloves or mittens a lot, I would probably opt for the smaller grip on the AK. Also, switching out the pistol grip on an AK is easy.
The Mini-14 has an exposed bolt, whereas the AK and AR both have enclosed bolts and dust covers (the AK's safety lever, in the safe position, acts as a dust cover). This means that the AK and AR are less likely to have dirt and other muck get into the action. On the other hand, whereas the AK and AR eject to the right, the Mini-14 ejects up and forward, making it more comfortable for a left-handed shooter.
Because of the open top on the Mini-14, and the stamped sheet metal dust cover for the AK, neither rifle is particularly adapted to mounting an optical sight. Of course, an older model AR with an integral carrying handle is likewise not amenable to a scope. I know that there are options for adding optical sights to both the AK and the Mini-14, but none are as satisfactory as the fixed sighting rail on the upper receiver of the AR.
The Mini-14 was the hands-down winner when it came to safeties. Like the M-1 Garand and M-14 rifles, the Mini-14 uses a safety at the front of the trigger guard that can be pushed forward with your finger to disengage the safety. This makes it easily operated without having to move your shooting hand, and equally accessible for left- and right-handed shooters. The AR's safety is an easily accessible lever on the left-side of the receiver that is operated by using your thumb. However, it is not as easy for the left-handed shooter to use. The AK has a very poor set up for operating the safety lever. While I admire the fact that it doubles as a dust cover, it is awkward to reach, and noisy.
The Mini-14 and AK both use a magazine locking system that requires you to insert the front of the magazine first, and then push the rear of the magazine up to lock it into place. The AR, on the other hand, has a magazine well that you simply push the magazine straight up into. While the AR is probably slightly faster to switch out magazines, I feel that the mechanisms on the AK and Mini-14 rifles are more solid and robust.
Another factor allowing someone to more quickly change magazines in an AR and get back to shooting is the bolt release button on the left side of the receiver. Both the Mini-14 and AR lock the bolt back when the magazine is empty, which makes reloading easier. With the AR, you simply slap the release button on the side of the rifle to free the bolt to chamber the next round. With the Mini-14, you only have to slightly pull back on the cocking handle to release the bolt. The AK lacks a bolt hold-open, so you have to fully pull the cocking handle back after inserting a new magazine. While the arrangement on the Mini-14 and AK wouldn't be significantly slower if the bolt handle was on the left side of the rifle, because it is on the right side, you have to use your shooting hand, which means you lose your shooting grip and position. Thus, the AR is, overall, quicker and easier for fast reloads.
I don't really like the cocking handle on the AR. The T-handle is interesting, but I don't know if adds much to the usability, while the mechanism is definitely more fragile than those of the Mini-14 and AK. I could kick the bolt open (or closed) on a Mini-14 or AK. You wouldn't dare on the AR.
When it comes to accessorizing, the AR wins by a huge margin. It easier to customize the AR and attach accessories because of the layout and modularity of the system. There are plenty of aftermarket accessories for the AK as well. The Mini-14 runs a distant third. The pricing of magazines is similar. Absent market shocks, like those of the recent few months, magazines for the AR and AK are generally readily available at reasonable prices. Mini-14 factory magazines, however, (the only reliable types) are expensive and harder to locate.
As I stated above, each of the rifles has its pluses and minuses. If you are looking for finesse and something to which you could attach a flashlight, laser, optic(s), etc., the AR is the clear choice. If you are more interested in weapon that is robust and durable, the AK and Mini-14 are probably the better choice. If usability by a left-handed person is an issue, the Mini-14 is probably the superior platform, although there are many "ambidextrous" modifications that can be made to the AR.