Sunday, April 16, 2017

Survival Weapons: The AK Rifle

Source: "AK-47, AKM/AKMS and AK-74 Blueprints"--The Firearms Blog
       The AK (Avtomat Kalashnikova) series of rifles were originally developed as select-fire military rifles. Due to U.S. laws, the variants that you will encounter (at least in the United States) will be semi-automatic only weapons. The AK system is widely distributed--I've seen estimates of between 80 and 100 million manufactured--with many variations and modifications depending on the country of manufacture and, with civilian versions, variations between manufacturers and per the tastes of the individual buyer. The majority of AK weapons fire the 7.62x39mm cartridge; in the 1970's, the Soviet Union and certain of its satellite countries adopted a 5.45x39mm cartridge in response to U.S. adoption of the 5.56 mm M-16.

       Because the AK can be accessorized and customized almost as much as the AR series of weapons, it would be fruitless to discuss all possible variations. Accordingly, I am going to focus on the "standard" Soviet and Warsaw Pact weapons that you will most generally see converted to semi-auto and sold in the United States.

A Brief History

       The AK rifle (really a carbine) was part of a program of development to produce a weapon comparable in performance to the German STG 44 Sturmgewehr ("storm rifle" or "assault rifle"). Prior to and during World War 2, the Soviet Union, Germany and the United States had put considerable effort into developing semi-automatic and automatic weapons in the hands of standard infantry troops with varying success. Most of the major combatants issued submachine guns to limited numbers of troops, and although the use of such weapons increased as the war progressed, it was never a satisfactory solution as a primary infantry weapon. The United States, of course, had adopted the semi-automatic M-1 "Garand" rifle in the late 1930s, and was the only major combatant to issue a semi-automatic rifle as a general service weapon. It was augmented with the M-1 Carbine, another semi-automatic weapon using a light weight cartridge. The Germans and Soviets experimented with different semi-automatic and select fire weapons, even issuing some to specialized troops, but the results were not satisfactory for various reasons, including the recoil impulse from the standard rifle ammunition, weight, and complexity of such weapons.

       The M-1 Carbine should have pointed the way, but it didn't. Rather, that fell to the STG 44 which was significant because it introduced an "intermediate" cartridge: the 7.92x33mm Kurz, which was simply the German 8 mm round put into a shortened case. Combined with a select fire mechanism and detachable box magazines, it had many of the advantages of the submachine gun, but with the greater range and power offered by the intermediate cartridge. The weapons saw quite a bit of use on Germany's Eastern Front, and impressed the Soviets who wanted to field their own weapon.

       Somewhat surprisingly for being a communist country, the Soviet Union decided to use a competitive system to develop its assault rifle. Gathering several teams of designers, engineers, and craftsmen, each team was to develop a prototype, which would then be tested against each other, and then go through repeated cycles, where the teams could borrow ideas from one another, until the number of prototypes were whittled down and a winning design adopted for production. (If the United States had followed a similar procedure, we might have avoided the fiasco that accompanied the long and expensive development of the M-14, its problematic roll out, and its early withdrawal from service).  Mikhail Kalashnikov was the lead designer on one of the teams--the team that ultimately produced the winning rifle--and thus his name was attached to the weapon system. (Kalashnikov was a prodigious inventor whose interest extended to all sorts of machinery besides firearms).

       Although the final rifle has a similar layout to the STG 44, the two rifles are very different. Kalashnikov used a bolt system similar to the M-1 Garand, but simplified by putting the gas tube over the rifle. The rifle used a long-stroke piston with generous tolerances, which made it very reliable although magnifying the recoil impulse somewhat. The trigger mechanism is very simple (no German could have invented such a simple system--the CETME started out with as simple a trigger and, when fully gone over by German engineers, wound up the heavy, complicated monstrosity found on the HK series of rifles and submachine guns).

       Reflecting the cold weather fighting and use of gloves by Soviet troops, the stock is somewhat short to allow its use with heavy clothing, the pistol grip is smaller in order to accommodate using gloves, and the trigger guard is over sized. Because Soviet doctrine revolved around the mass employment of firepower from line infantry, the sights were adjustable from 100 to 1,000 meters (later reduced to 800 meters) to allow indirect fire, but with a "battle-field" setting of 300 meters. All AK rifles were issued with a cleaning rod, and for those rifles with fixed stocks, a cleaning and maintenance kit was included in a trap in the butt stock. The result was a short, handy weapon that was simple to maintain in the field.

       The weapon (initially designated the AK-47) was intended to be produced with metal stampings to as great an extent as possible, including the receiver, dust cover, and trigger guard. However, the Soviet's manufacturing capabilities were not quite up to mass production using stampings, and so after a brief time, the Soviets switched over to using a milled receiver, which made the rifle much heavier. However, these difficulties were overcome and so, in 1959, the Soviets introduced a new model of the AK designated the AKM which main differences were the use of a stamped receiver, a simplified trigger assembly, and the addition of a slant muzzle brake. (Although generally referred to a muzzle break, I suspect that the primary purpose of the device is to prevent dust from being kicked up when shooting from a prone position or off a support like sand bags, a wall or roof).

       Based on their observations and experience in the Vietnam War, the Soviets were suitably impressed by the United States' M-16 rifle and lightweight 5.56 mm cartridge and embarked on developing a similar cartridge. However, wanting to minimize changes in manufacturing processes, the Soviets were determined to make the new caliber use as much of the same parts as the AKM as possible. Thus, in 1974, the Soviets introduced a new rifle using the 5.45x39mm cartridge. The primary differences between the new AK-74 and the AKM, besides a change in the bolt size because of the different caliber, was the introduction of a true recoil brake, a different forward sight assembly that was threaded to accept said brake (the AKM had used a barrel threaded at the end), and, due to the new ammunition, the gas port had to be drilled into the barrel at a 90 degree angle rather than the 45 degree angle of the AK-47 and AKM. Thus, instead of a gas block with a distinctive 45 degree slant on the front, the AK-74 used a gas block that was squared off and vertical to the gas port. Another important difference was that the Soviets switched to using polymer (initially Bakelite) magazines instead of the heavier stamped steel magazines.

       Obviously, Russia has continued to modify and improve their rifles, including adoption of polymer stock systems, folding stocks, and differing barrel lengths for different troops. Variants of the rifles were not only made by Soviet bloc countries and allies (including China), but also appeared in Finland (the Valmet) and Israel (the Galil).

       The majority of parts kits imported into the United States were AKM (or variants of the same), mostly from the former East Germany, Poland, Romania, and other Soviet client states and satellites. AK-74 (i.e., 5.45 mm) kits were imported in much smaller numbers because it has been less widely adopted prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of these kits were from Bulgaria and Poland as they joined NATO and, perforce, were required to upgrade their infantry weapons to NATO standards. Parts continue to be made in Bulgaria (and possibly other former East Bloc countries) and imported, in addition to companies in the U.S. beginning to make their own parts, so new AK weapons will continue to arrive in the U.S. market.


       The specifications for the AKM are as follows:
  • Weight: 6.83 lbs (3.1 kg)
  • Length (overall): 34.6 inches (880 mm).
  • Barrel length: 16.3 inches (415 mm).
  • Caliber: 7.62x39mm.
       The specifications for the AK-74 are as follows:
  • Weight: 6.8 lbs (3.07 kg)
  • Length (overall): 37.1 inches (943 mm)
  • Barrel length: 16.3 inches (415 mm)
  • Caliber: 5.45x39mm.
Basic Operation

       The operation of both the AKM and AK-74 are the same. There is a combination safety/selector lever on the right side of the weapon. When it is pushed up all of the way, it not only blocks the cocking handle from being drawn back, but also closes off the opening behind the cocking handle to keep dirt and other debris out of the action. Obviously, with a civilian weapon, the only other setting for the selector/safety is semi-automatic firing, which requires pushing the selector lever down until it hits its stop.

       The selector level is made of stamped steel, with two small shelves at the front of it to push the lever up and down. The most efficient method of operating the safety is, with the thumb of your right hand hooked behind the pistol grip and the rest of your hand flat, use your first or second finger to catch the shelf on the selector lever and move it up or down as needed. (See the video below: 17 min.)

       The cocking handle is attached to the bolt carrier group (and thus reciprocating), and projects out of the left side of the weapon. Cocking requires that the bolt carrier be drawn to the rear and released to pick up a round from the magazine.

       Civilian weapons are semi-automatic, and so each pull of the trigger will fire one round. Like most military style rifles, it uses a two-stage trigger with a moderate take up before finally hitting the wall and releasing the hammer. Unfortunately, the AK series does not have a bolt hold open, so there is no indication that you have reached the end of the rounds in the magazine until you hear or feel the "click" on an empty chamber. For U.S. made weapons, the Tapco G-2 trigger group seems popular. However, I prefer the Arsenal trigger group. I polished off the rough matte surface with a brass brush on my Dremel and had a very smooth, light trigger with the appearance of blued steel. If this is not good enough, however, I've seen recently that there are match trigger "drop in" units available. However, whichever trigger you use, you can be rest assured that the AK triggers are superior to many other combat rifles.

       The magazine release is a lever conveniently located centrally under the receiver between the trigger guard and the magazine well. Although it could be longer, it is adequate. To unload the magazine, the general practice is to grip the magazine at the top with your hand, and use your thumb to pull the lever forward. Then rock the magazine forward and down. Inserting the magazine is the opposite: insert the front of the magazine into its catch and then rock the back of the magazine up until it locks into place. There are three methods of making a quick reload, which are aptly described in the video below (15 min.): (1) using the new magazine to strike the magazine release and knock the old magazine out and then rock a new magazine into place; (2) grasping the new magazine in your support hand, use your thumb to actuate the magazine release and knock the old magazine out; and (3) as you bring your support hand back to make the reload, first drop the old magazine before bringing your hand all of the way back to get the new magazine. As you will note, the author of the video turns the rifle on its side to allow him to reach and operate the cocking handle with his support hand.

       The standard AKM does not have a method of attaching an optical sight. The Soviets developed a side rail to which you can attach a scope mount. However, many civilian models--whether an AKM or AK-74 style--will have the side rail.

Accessories and Parts

      While there are not as many after market accessories available for the AK as the AR, there are still a large selection of accessories compared to any other rifle, and the variety and number of available accessories keep increasing--there is much more available now than even a few years ago, with some major players, such as Magpul, having entering the market. I have found K-Var to be a good source for parts and accessories.

       Some of the common accessories people get are more ergonomic pistol grips, updated hand guards (especially with rails or attachments for installing rails), and an upgraded stock. One of the issues to be aware of is that rapid fire can heat up the hand guard fairly rapidly. Polymer hand guards, unless they incorporate a heat shield, can and will melt. Not an issue for a range toy, but since this article presumes that the weapon is intended for self-defense/combat, you really should have a hand guard with a heat shield. Arsenal sells a polymer hand guard with a metal heat shield, as does Magpul. The Arsenal hand guards are similar to the Russian polymer hand guards, including the palm swell that is located just ahead of the front of the receiver. The Magpul hand guards have M-Lok slots to which rail sections or other items may be attached.

       There are various attachment options for sights, but most are not very good. Some attach to the side rail (mentioned above) which allows the sight to be mounted close to eye, but may interfere with removing the dust cover and bolt carrier group to clean the weapon. Others replace the iron sight with a device (e.g., Midwest Industries AK Mini Dot Mount) or rail (e.g., Scout Scope AK Mount Kit) to which an optical sight can be attached. Some methods use a rail system that locks into the mount for the iron sight, and extend back over the dust cover and lock to the rear of the receiver; typically, these are "hinged" at the front so they can be unlatched and tilted up to allow access for cleaning and maintenance (e.g., Krebs Custom Rear Sight Rail System). Finally, there are both replacement gas tubes (e.g., UltiMAK Optics Mount top cover) with rails and replacement front handguards with rails for mounting an optical sight, such as a red dot. Tactical Life has a review of 14 such systems. I would eschew any such system that requires removal or replacement of the rear sight, unless mounting something like Krebs system. I have used the Midwest Industries product, and although Midwest Industries products are normally very good, after using it for awhile, I feel the AK Mini Dot Mount is too fragile for use in the field.

        There are several manufacturers that make better quality pistol grips, such as U.S. Palm and Magpul. I have used the Magpul pistol grip, and find it to be very comfortable, with the added bonus of a storage compartment.

       There are many manufacturers that make stocks for the AK, with two of the most prolific being Magpul and Tapco. There are also attachments available that allow you to use butt stocks designed for the AR. Some AKs come with folding stocks (which generally use a different receiver and rear trunnion from the standard AKM or AK-74). Aftermarket folding stocks are available, including several that are designed to fit on a standard rear trunnion.

       Russian and Bulgarian folding stocks (both the triangular steel and polymer models) generally fold to the left of the weapon, which allows the safety and trigger to be operated even with the stock folded. Unfortunately, the cocking handle protrudes to the right, so a case for a folded weapon must be able to accommodate the cocking handle sticking out the opposite side.  Most U.S. designed folding stocks (including the system offered by Magpul) fold to the right, and thus this is not a problem (although it prevents access to the selector lever). So, it depends on whether you want the most compact package, or be able to use the weapon with the stock folded.

       Replacement rear sights and front sight posts are available to allow you to customize the weapon as you like. Night sights with tritium elements can also be purchased. However, if you are intending on using an optical sight of some type, I think you might just as well leave the standard sights in place.

       As discussed above, the selector lever is not as easy to manipulate as on an AR. Krebs offers an aftermarket "enhanced" lever that sports a shelf closer to trigger guard allowing you to use your forefinger without breaking your grip and, as a bonus, a slot to hold the cocking handle back to allow easier access to the chamber. Frankly, however, the latter feature allows debris to enter the mechanism. And, given how easy it is to remove the dust cover and bolt carrier, having a slot to hold the cocking handle back seems to be of dubious value unless it is simply to make it easier to satisfy a range-Nazi that the weapon is, indeed, unloaded. There are other replacement levers offered, however, that don't have the slot to hold the bolt open and may be of interest. (Update: It has been pointed out to me that the slot to hold the bolt open would be useful for helping cool the weapon after a long string of shots by holding the blot back and, thus, allowing air to circulate through the barrel).

Thoughts and Impressions

       I have shot both the 7.62 and 5.45 models, and, frankly like both. The weapon is easy to operate and maintain (born out by its popularity throughout the Third World). With good ammo, accuracy is acceptable at battlefield distances. The problem being that most people do not use good ammo, but inexpensive plinking ammo of varying quality. The standard sights, being a notch and post variety, are quick for close up work, but harder to use for longer ranges. All of this contributes to an unwarranted reputation for being inaccurate.

       The primary point to remember about this weapon, and why it is still widely used, is that it is reliable. Everything from the simple mechanism, generous tolerances, chromed barrels (at least for the original barrels), the selector lever sealing the inside mechanism, a strong extractor, and even the tapering cartridge cases, all contribute to reliable feeding and extraction. Although it does not perform as well as a sealed AR when put to the "mud" tests popular on many You Tube channels, the weapon is certainly more reliable than most any other rifle in the world. However, having a shovel full or two of mud dumped on top of your rifle is not the biggest risk facing a prepper. Rather, general exposure to the elements and lack of cleaning are probably more of a problem. If you have a chromed barrel, or similar, the AK will tolerate both elements and lack of cleaning.

       It is also a fairly rugged weapon--a descriptor that I would not use for the AR. Where this shows up, besides the stock assembly, is the cocking handle. The cocking mechanism on the AR is thin and lightweight. The cocking handle on the AK is affixed to the bolt carrier. If you had to kick the cocking handle to open the bolt, you could do so.

       The only issue I've noticed is that if the weapon gets wet (such as carrying or using in the rain), there are a lot of nooks and crannies where water can hide and, if your finish is worn or scratched, result in rusting. This is especially problematic around the lever and block that locks the gas tube into place. I suppose a large number of nooks and crannies is a problem with most modern combat rifles. But, the point is that, unlike a typical hunting rifle which is easily wiped down, the AK will take a bit more care after a rain storm or dunk in a stream if you want to keep it in a pristine condition.

       There are some subtle features to the AK that I also like. As I noted above, the weapon was intended for colder climates (the infamous Russian winter), and the dimensions and design of its stock, pistol grip handle, and trigger guard are premised around heavy clothing and gloves. There is a "hump" on the bottom of the hand guard, where the hand guard abuts the receiver, which is intended as a palm swell. That is, if you put the palm of your hand under the "hump", it naturally places your arm in a good position to hold the weapon.

       Recoil of the 7.62 round is noticeably more than a 5.56, but certainly much less than .308 or other medium calibers. The primary problem with the 7.62x39 round is that it lacks wounding potential. The bullet is so stable, that there is minimal yaw; and the velocity is low enough that, except at short ranges, expansion of even soft point ammunition is questionable. (See, e.g., my prior post on "Wounding Effects of the AK-47 Rifle...." and the "7.62x39 (M43)" article at Terminal Ballistics Research). The Russians developed a special bullet to address this issue--the 8M3. Absent that, however, I would recommend stocking up with soft-point bullets or other bullets intended for hunting.

       The 5.45x39 round is very comparable to the 5.56 ballistically, although the recoil is somewhat less. However, the Russians initially had a problem with the 5.45 not yawing either. This was remedied by a change in bullet design to include a hollow cavity in the tip of the bullet that caused it to violently yaw upon striking a soft target. If you are shooting surplus 5.45, it likely will be very effective against a target notwithstanding being full metal jacket. The 7N6 surplus 5.45 will outperform M855 at ranges beyond 150 yards. (See "Graphic Results from live-fire 7N6 Surplus 5.45x39mm rounds – video included"). Unfortunately, 7N6 can no longer be imported because it uses a steel core. Nevertheless, in looking at this video (6 min.) of Red Army Standard 69 grain 5.45, the results in ballistic gelatin is still impressive.

      Twenty or thirty years ago, it would have been insane to use a Soviet bloc weapon such as the AKM or AK-74 as a survival/prepping weapon because of the lack of parts and ammunition. Today, 7.62x39 ammunition is readily available, and parts and accessories are common. 5.45x39 is harder to find (at least in my area), but there are sources of ammunition on line, and Hornady makes high quality ammunition for the more demanding shooter.

       For a long time, AK rifles (whether imported or built from parts kits) offered a distinct advantage over the AR in terms of price. That advantage has largely evaporated (although ammunition prices are still generally less). AKs now fall within the same general cost range as ARs, depending on quality and features. Nevertheless, I think that the AK is still a very viable option for the prepper/survivalist. That its basic design is still being used, even as new models roll out, and its adaptability, speaks highly of the weapon.

       To me, one of the biggest advantages to the AK rifle is that when you purchase one, you have a complete rifle. Sure, you can upgrade bits and pieces, but its all there. ARs seem increasingly to be sold without a full set of sights, or sights that are only suitable as backup sights. Many don't even come with sling swivels.

       On the other hand, in this day of optical sights, the AK really suffers because it simply was never designed or intended to carry an optic. A significant improvement in the most recent AK models to appear in Russia is to replace the flimsy stamped steel dust cover over the receiver with something more substantial and solid and sporting a rail allowing optics to be mounted. That said, if all you are going to use is a red dot (especially some of the smaller, lighter weight units), changing out the gas tube/upper hand guard with one sporting a rail, and mounting the red dot forward on the weapon is an entirely acceptable solution. And if you want flashlights or vertical fore grips, etc., there are many hand guard systems available that sport rails or allow you to attach rails or accessories. I have the Magpul MOE system, and it is an inexpensive and easy solution allowing to mount accessories to the weapon--far better than some of the older options that clamped onto the barrel.

       Another thing about the AK is that it is not a rifleman's rifle. The barrel is not (and cannot be) free floated. You can shorten the barrel and gas system (with the help of a gun smith), but there are no heavy barrel options. You cannot mount different uppers in different calibers or configurations. What you see is what you get.

       As I noted above, the safety/selector lever is not as easily manipulated as on other weapons, and is noisy. It also is not amenable to being converted to an ambidextrous system, if that is important to you.

       In short, the stock AK system is a viable defensive weapon. While there are those that argue that it is obsolete compared to the AR, they are comparing it against a modern AR. It is no more obsolete than a 1960s or 1970s AR would be. And it is easily updated to carry modern optics and flashlights. It is a weapon intended and usable for CQB and ranges within 300 yards. But if you want something sporting a telescopic sight or a larger/heavier red-dot sight, it probably is not the rifle for you.
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