In the U.S., the AK family of rifles has enjoyed considerable, if controversial, popularity among civilians and American enthusiasm for it is today higher than ever. The AK-47 and its variants are the iconic rifle of the Russian Federation, the former U.S.S.R. and a host of former Communist Bloc states. It is found in the hands of fighters and farmers in nearly every corner of the developed and undeveloped world.
The Kalashnikov family of rifles is renowned for ruggedness, simplicity and punch. It has been produced both by official and unauthorized manufacture across the globe in such vast numbers that today its numbers are literally countless. Whether or not you are considering an AK variant for your own purposes or dismissing it as the firearm of our enemies, it is in your best interest to learn the ins and outs of the globe’s most plentiful assault rifle, including its semi-automatic commercial cousins.
In this article we’ll examine the AK family in basic detail, covering the design history in brief, and major variants with their cartridges, operation and considerations for use and equipage. We’ll bust a few myths, and hopefully leave you with a better understanding of this most ubiquitous of rifles.
The AK-47: Design History and Evolution
The AK family of rifles was first properly conceived in 1947, by Mikhail Kalashnikov, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and respected small arm designers. In his youth, Kalashnikov was attracted to all kinds of machinery, and worked as a mechanic. During World War II, after conscription into the Red Army in 1938, Kalashnikov was made a tank mechanic owing to his engineering skills and small stature.
Later he was promoted to tank commander, and after being wounded in the Battle of Bryansk was recuperating in a hospital in 1942 when he overheard fellow soldiers lament the shortcomings of the Red Army’s issued rifles. Dismayed at their opinion of their weapons, Kalashnikov then had the idea to design a new one, one that would eliminate these shortcomings to give his fellow soldiers an effective battlefield weapon to compete with other nations. This idea would evolve into the basis of the AK-47.
The Soviet leadership during World War II was greatly impressed by the German progenitor of assault rifles, the Sturmgewehr 44. Chambered for an intermediate cartridge, this new weapon combined the accuracy and range of a rifle, with the maneuverability and firepower of a submachine gun.
The Soviets wanted something comparable, and badly, and so in 1944 devised an intermediate cartridge of their own, the 7.62x39mm. Kalashnikov, after much design and refinement, and several rounds of competition and trials against more experienced designers of small arms finalized his rifle design, chambering the new Soviet cartridge in the year of 1947, and calling it the Avtomat Kalashnikova, literally Kalashnikov’s Automatic Rifle, model of 1947.
The AK-47 later entered army trials in 1948, but was not formally adopted until 1949. Initial production was hampered by some difficulties and design revisions: the very first AK-47’s, the Type 1’s, were made of stamped steel receivers, but challenges with welding and alignment during manufacture led to the adoption of a second type, with a milled steel receiver. It was much heavier, but lent itself better to immediate production owing to the existence of the needed milling machinery and tooling. Thanks to these changes and other snags, the rifle did not see widespread distribution to the army until around 1956.
It is here that we encounter our first major variation of the AK family; the heavy, milled steel receivers are the archetypal AK-47, specifically the Types 2 and 3. They are easily identified by appearance, their lack of rivets on the receiver, heft and a distinctive milled rectangular lightening cut on both sides of the receiver over the magazine well.
The AK-47 was upgraded in the year of 1959, going back to a stamped sheet steel receiver, a slanted brake on the muzzle, internal changes to prevent the rifle from firing when the bolt was out of battery. This revision, the Type 4, is better known as the Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy, or AKM, the “M” meaning modernized.
The AKM and its variants are far and away the most plentiful and widespread, being the most commonly encountered today whether or not of licensed production. The AKM is easily identified by its light, riveted and stamped receiver, which also has a small pill-shaped detent just above the magazine well.
The AKM served as the basis of the AK-74, developed in the early 1970’s by Kalashnikov, and is identical in operation and function to the AKM, and differs predominately in its new chambering: the 5.45x39mm, designed to compete with the then new American M16 and its light, fast 5.56 x 45mm cartridge.
The AK-74 and its derivatives are today the main infantry assault rifle of most former U.S.S.R. countries.
A Note on Verbiage
Speaking strictly for American users, most will use “AK-47” or “47” as shorthand for any AK variant chambered in the original 7.62mm cartridge. Most will likewise use “AK-74” or “74” as shorthand for referencing a gun chambered in 5.45mm. “AK” or “Kalashnikov” is used broadly to refer to any rifle in the AK family, or a specific rifle. Individual countries or companies model names will usually be entirely different.
The total number of models, variants and country-specific permutations of the AK family of rifles is nothing short of mind-boggling, and beyond the scope of this article. Instead of making this a historical or reference work, I’ll instead paint with a broader brush and cover things pertaining to the AK-47/AKM and AK-74 designs at large.
The topics we cover will be applicable to the families of rifles as a whole, and will help you make informed decisions about selection and employment, if applicable.
Design Elements and Controls
The AK action is typified by a handful of hallmarks: great reliability and ruggedness in all conditions, a long-stroke gas pistol system, a distinctively slanted or vertical gas block, generous tolerances between moving parts, a large curved magazine and a large, somewhat unwieldy safety and selector lever on the right side of the receiver.
The entirety of the AK design is designed to enable cheap and quick production, and greatly simplified training in its manual of arms. Furniture can be made of any combination of wood, plastic, or metal, in a wide array of colors or finishes.
AK sights are a simple rear notch and hooded front post. The rear notch is usually graduated to allow adjustment for target distance without tools. Windage and elevation adjustment for zeroing is achieved with the front sight, being threaded for elevation and on a driftable base to allow for windage adjustment. This will typically require a tool for the purpose.
The AK, while renowned for its simple design and ease of manufacture also varies wildly in quality from country to country, or manufacturer to manufacturer. One of the most pervasive myths about the AK is that it simply will not break or malfunction as long as it is an AK, and that one hammered together by untrained laborers in a nameless town with no electricity will shoot and shoot and shoot until the end of time.
Like anything else, especially with guns, you get what you pay for, and an AK variant from a maker that is known for fine quality materials and fitment will be a far better and more reliable rifle than one dredged as parts from some undeveloped country and assembled by minimum wage workers. Do not believe the idea that you can pay $350 or $400 for a commercial AK in the U.S. and come away with a quality gun by virtue of it being an AK.
AK magazines are either made of metal or plastics, and vary greatly in their quality and reliability depending on pattern and country of origin. Due to the sheer number of variation between both guns and magazines, you will run into more occurrences of fitting and functionality problems here than, say, with an AR or G3 rifle.
Identification of AK magazines is another sub-article in itself, but let it be said you should give the same care and consideration to selecting your magazines as you do your rifle. 7.62x39mm magazines are easily ID’d against their similar 5.45mm cousins due to their more pronounced curvature.
Insertion of the AK magazine is accomplished by hooking the front tab of the magazine into a lug at the front of the magazine well and then rocking it reward until it engages the magazine release with a pronounced click. This operation will be very fiddly for those used to straight-insertion designs until practiced.
The magazine release is a lever directly behind the magazine well on the underside of the receiver. To remove the magazine, the thumb presses this lever toward the muzzle as the magazine is rocked forward out of the magazine well.
The selector lever of the AK is 3 position: Fully up is Safe, the middle position is Automatic, and fully down is Single, or Semi-Automatic. The design ideology was that a user under serious stress will swipe the selector from safe all the way down to single, and placing the gun on automatic requires a deliberate action.
The selector functions as a dust cover, sealing the receiver when on safe and preventing the bolt from cycling reward enough to strip and chamber a cartridge. Operation of the selector is challenging for right handed shooters, and typically mandates breaking of the firing grip entirely if not using an aftermarket selector lever.
A few countries versions have a modified selector lever that is also engaged by the shooting hand thumb, and consists of a lever on the left side of the receiver just above the pistol grip. This lever is typically forward for Safe, and Rear for Single, with the middle position being Automatic. Operation of this lever is slaved to the main selector lever on the right side of the receiver.
The charging handle protrudes directly from the bolt on the right side of the action, reciprocates with the bolt upon firing and can be grasped with either hand for cycling depending on the technique used.
The AK trigger is unremarkable, save for its typically middling pull. Some variations of the AK are known for a phenomenon known as “trigger slap,” where the trigger is somewhat violently reset by the reciprocating action, and causing discomfort or even pain to the shooter’s trigger finger.
The AK typically does not have a bolt lock, and the bolt not lock open after the last round is fired, and relies either on a notch in the selector lever for achieving this manually or a certain type of magazine equipped with a follower that will restrain the bolt in its reward position after the last round is fired. Using such a device, the bolt will close if the magazine is removed.
Loading and Unloading
To load any AK, follow the steps below. The following assumes you are starting with no magazine in the gun, and the selector off safe.
- Insert a loaded magazine at proper angle, rocking from front to rear until it engages.
- Grasping the charging handle with either hand, pull the bolt all the way to the rear, then release, letting it go home under full spring power.
- Rifle is now loaded and ready to fire. Engage safety if not firing immediately.
The unloading procedure is the reverse. Extra care must be taken during unloading of an AK compared as you must disengage the safety to retract the bolt enough to eject any cartridge in the chamber.
- Remove magazine by grasping magazine and pressing magazine release forward with thumb. Magazine is rocked from back to front out of magazine well.
- Move selector off of Safe position.
- Grasping the charging handle with either hand, pull the bolt all the way to the rear, observe for ejection of chambered cartridge.
- Release bolt, or engage bolt hold-open if featured.
- Rifle is now unloaded.
Cartridge Performance: Which Should You Choose?
The 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm are completely different cartridges. The venerable 7.62mm, with a projectile weight of 120gr. – 155gr. And muzzle velocity of 2,100fps- 2,430fps falls somewhere between the U.S.’s domestic .300 Blackout and .30-30 Winchester in performance. The .300 Blackout has a slightly better ballistic coefficient but is typically slower with a similar weight of bullet, while the .30-30 Win. can push heavier projectiles faster than the 7.62mm across all loads.
The 5.45x39mm’s closest domestic analogue is the 5.56x45mm, having been designed by Russia to compete with the 5.56mm after they took a good, long look at U.S. employment of that cartridge in Vietnam. The 5.45x39mm uses bullets weighing anywhere from 52gr. to 64gr., with muzzle velocities between 2,800fps and 3,200fps. The inspiration for this cartridge is obvious when ballistic data is compared to the 5.56x45mm.
The 7.62mm, while punchy with good penetration and performance against intermediate barriers, has a ballistic shortcoming in its significant drop at even close-mid range. The average 123gr. Bullet fired by an AK with a muzzle velocity of around 2400 feet per second will drop approximately 42 inches at 350 yards, and will have shed around 1000fps if velocity. That is almost 4 feet!
In comparison, the 5.45mm 7N6 standard load, firing a 53gr. bullet will only drop 28inches at the same distance. The 5.45mm thanks to its superior velocity and ballistic coefficient is much “flatter” shooting at typical engagement distances. Either will serve well for an anti-personnel rifle, but the 5.45mm has far less recoil than the 7.62mm, is significantly lighter, and has better effectiveness with most loads against a human target than the 7.62. Modern armies and agencies have moved away from .30 caliber rifles in the intervening decades for a reason!
Neither7.62 or 5.45 is known for accuracy, but this is mostly due to the majority of AK’s not being particularly accurate rifles, not because the cartridges are inherently inaccurate. Modern commercial ammo fired from another rifle, or even a high-end commercial AK variant can produce excellent groups all the way out to 300 yards and beyond, with many commercial loads being capable of producing around a 1 ½ MOA group at 100 yards.
Your biggest advantage selecting the 7.62mm in the US is going to be cheap and plentiful ammunition. If you do not mind the added weight and recoil, the 7.62 still serves well even today, and modern, high-performance bullets make it significantly more effective than with legacy loads.
5.45mm ammo is not nearly as easy to procure, especially since the ATF banned importation of common surplus military loads from Europe and Asia, but is available and affordable if one is willing to order quantity online. The lighter recoil, and flatter trajectory make the AK-74 a joy to use, and if optimized for accuracy, a real competitor against nearly any Western rifle.
A plethora of domestic and foreign aftermarket performance parts and modifications exist for the AK family of rifles, from tuned triggers to stocks, grips and extended handguards. Muzzle devices and extended controls are common, as are optic mounts. You will find modern AK’s equipped with everything one would expect to see on a fighting rifle: lights, lasers, foregrips, IR illuminators and more.
The issue with this newfound modularity is that of weight. Russians historically place weight-savings very low on their priority list when designing small arms and the AK is no different. An AK is a fairly heavy gun when loaded. It is even heavier when saddled with modern accoutrement, and a 7.62 gun can easily tip the scales at 10lbs plus.
The issue of optics mounting is more a problem of expectation than execution. Americans are used to simply mounting an optic to the top of the receiver of most guns, and expecting that rigid receiver to hold zero. Considering the AK’s entire receiver top cover is removable for disassembly and is far from an optically consistent fit, you have a couple of choices:
1.) Install an optics rail in a more rigid location, typically in front of the trunnion over the gas tube. This omits the use of most magnified optics.
2.) Utilize an AK specific side-rail mounted optics base. Contrary to popular opinion, a quality mount on an in-spec rail is very rugged, and not likely to lose zero, but it will necessitate either a cheek riser or more of a “chin-weld” on the stock to see through the optic.
3.) Gamble on some abominable Gun-Show Special replacement top-cover with a rail welded on and set screws to increase rigidity. Pray it works, then curse when it inevitably fails.
#3 is always poor decision unless the solution is from a high-end, AK-centric manufacturer. Numbers 1 and 2 are both acceptable depending on what optic is desired.
When preparing to purchase and install mods and accessories for an AK, you must keep in mind that the sheer number of variations means some parts are designed only for country or regional specific variants. Other parts which should be “bolt-on” will still require a degree of hand fitting to install. Things like trigger and hammer installation are just not as simple or as fool-proof as the installation on an AR. They are typically achievable for the average user, but may require a different approach or tools than normal. When in doubt, consult the manufacturer of either component or rifle.
Considerations for Domestic Use
If you buy a quality rifle and decent ammunition, you should expect a very high degree of reliability out of your AK, certainly comparable to most Western standbys. Do not expect to buy a dirt cheap $300 import parts-kit gun and get a 25,000 service life out of it; people that try to convince you otherwise citing that they “never had a problem” with their “flawless” cheapy have not even put 500 rounds through theirs. As I mentioned above, an AK is not invincible or trouble-free just by virtue of being an AK. Quality speaks. Seek it.
The AK is noticeably less ergonomic than the AR-15 family of rifles, specifically the safety, very short fixed or folding stock that lacks adjustable length of pull, and cramped stock handguards. Manipulations like reloads and taking the rifle off safe will be slower and more prone to error compared to an AR without practice. This is not to say that you cannot obtain a high degree of speed with an AK. You certainly can, but the AR and other western designs simply make some actions easier to accomplish.
A sort of elephant in the room may be the AK’s status as the “Bad Guys’ Gun.” This is probably too much to unpack in this article, but I will give you my thoughts and opinions on the matter and let you make your own decision. First, the AK is also the “Good Guys’ Gun” and serves in one guise or another as the primary infantry rifle of several allied or friendly nations, or as the basis of their domestic variant. I believe technology is agnostic in this regard, and the AK has only the cultural value we assign to it.
Second, the gun culture in the U.S. reflects, well, the rest of our culture: most Americans value merit over nationality, and we happily assimilate foreign people and products that offer benefits or improve our lives. A huge swath of U.S. manufacturers, gunsmith, customizers and gun owners have seen fit to enshrine the AK here and make it a part of our landscape.
The AK’s popularity is booming, and the commercial sector is responding in kind, thanks to a grassroots effort by enthusiasts. More quality domestic AK’s are available now than ever, along with a host of high-performance upgrades. A well-tuned AK is as much a hot-rod as any high-end AR.
All that being said, one must still stop to consider a more subtle issue. This is a rifle that has been depicted on targets, in movies and other media, constantly, and I do mean constantly as being the weapon of bad guys. I mentioned it above, but how would this possibly affect someone’s perception of the person who wields it?
I do not mean to insinuate that, for instance, using an AK in an otherwise righteous home-defense shooting would create any undue legal trouble if the rifle was legal, but I do worry about a case of mistaken identity if a cop or someone else happens upon me in some unknown situation, wielding the distinctive silhouette of an AK, one that he has no doubt engaged many, many times on the target range in practice of just such an occasion. This is admittedly probably only a plausible issue in times of serious societal unrest or worse.
I could be way, way out of my lane with that line of reasoning, and it will take a much smarter person than me to sift that for truthfulness, but there it is.
Bottom Line: If you like or prefer an AK for whatever reason, and spend the money and time to both invest in a good one and train with it like you mean it, it will serve you well, and is able to accomplish well most things you could ask of any general purpose intermediate caliber rifle.
The AK family of rifles is the world’s most ubiquitous and plentiful rifle, bar none. From the mind of a wounded tanker, the AK-47 spawned innumerable variations in the aftermath of World War II, and has been present in nearly every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. If you love the AK loathe it, you’d be best served to know how to make the world’s most popular rifle work for you.
What’s your opinion of the AK? Do you prefer yours in 5.45mm or 7.62? Let us know down in the comments section!