The venerable AK-47 is the most prevalent, popular military rifle in the world today. It is fielded by more than 105 countries around the globe. Whether you are a fan or not, the rifle is here to stay… either in its original format or the upgraded varieties.
Who can forget those video news reports from foreign lands, mostly Arabic, showing turban-clad soldiers pointing their trusty AK-47s skyward and emptying their magazines? I particularly remember seeing captured news stories from the late ‘60s from Vietnam that showed NVA or Viet Cong moving through the jungle with their AKs slung across their back. The rifle was (and still is) very popular.
How did it get to be so popular and why has that popularity not faded? Short answer: it works.
We’ll look at the AK from a few different angles. If you just can’t wait, click on the specific topic to go there:
- Milled vs. Stamped Receivers
- American vs. Foreign Rifles.
- AK-47 vs. AR-15
So let's get started!
The rifle we know as the AK-47 began its life in (duh!) 1947. It was designed by Mikhail Kalishnakov, who was just about the Russian equivalent of our John Browning. He designed (among other guns) the AK-47 assault rifle and its variants (AKM and AK-74), as well as the PK machine gun and RPK light machine gun.
The AK-47 originally was, and is still, chambered for the mid-power 7.62x39 cartridge. This is basically a “short 30” that propels a 123-grain-or-so FMJ/SP bullet at around 2350 fps. Contrast that with our .308 and the .30-06, which moves a heavier, 150- to 180-grain bullet at decidedly higher velocities. The AK was designed for combat at close-to-medium ranges, say out to 300 yards or so.
The larger-bullet American cartridges were good to 800 or more. It was after WWII that we found that the average range of combat by infantry riflemen took place at around 200 meters or closer. So, the Russians were on top of that. They designed the 7.62x39 cartridge and then had a rifle built to shoot it. They provided a select-fire carbine that was cheap and easy to build, light, and effective to most common (closer) combat ranges. It has been that way to this day, with upgrades (the AKM in 1959 and AK-74 in 1974), but the basic effectiveness hasn’t changed, even though the AK-74’s caliber has shrunk to 5.45x39mm which comes closer to our 5.56mm.
After it was adopted by the Soviet Armed Forces in 1959, the rifle was introduced to communist-bloc (Warsaw Pact) countries and is still used by more than 105 countries, communist or not. Even with upgraded models like the AKM and the AK-74, the basic platform is the same. Just as we combine different uppers on our AR-15 lowers, you can get AKs or variants in three different versions and two calibers… you just have to buy the complete rifle.
So, what are the advantages of Mikhail’s brainchild? The top advantage as I see it would be reliability. These things were cranked out by the thousands, using stamped receivers (AKM) and other manufacturing shortcuts but (by and large) they just plain worked. Just as Glock pistols use a slightly oversized chamber to enhance performance and reliability with all types of ammo in different conditions, the AK-47’s reliability is such that you could dunk one in Jell-O and it would come up firing. Tolerances are kept on the fuzzy side to allow the gun to run even after a dunking in Jell-O… er, mud or other dirty environments. (I like Jell-O). .
Another big advantage is the cost to build one. Using stamped parts (and a few of them), the AK’s cost per unit in terms of manufacture is really low. I’ve read that, back when it was first being built, it cost about $21 to build one. I’m not sure if that’s accurate but you never know. Even in this day and age, the rifle is still fairly inexpensive to build – unless you’re milling the parts (more later).
Another advantage that I’ll mention is the weight of the ammo. You can carry a lot of 7.62x39 on you, since it’s an intermediate cartridge and not that large. But… to be honest, one of the main reasons they went to the 5.45x39 was that you could carry even more of that over the 7.62.
Speaking of ammo weight, here’s an interesting chart I found.
|Caliber||Bullet Weight (gr)||No. of Rounds Per 8.5 lbs|
So, even though there isn’t a huge difference between the weight of the Russian and the American 30s, there is some. Looking at the .223, it makes sense that they went with a 5.45mm round – that saves even more weight.
The final plus I’ll list is availability. It is estimated that there are 100 million AKs floating around. That’s a lot of guns! Given the fact that many of them are available and can be purchased very reasonably, that equals an advantage in my book.
The main disadvantage that I see with the AK-47 is accuracy. Now, I get it… the gun was not designed to be a benchrest beauty. To be honest, the Russian military accuracy requirement for an AK is 15 centimeters, about 5 MOA at 100 meters. I can’t really quibble about the 7.62x39’s accuracy (see below), but out of an AK it has a bit of room for improvement.
Another factor that I will call a disadvantage but others may not is build quality of the stamped-receiver models. Some of these guns have some decent gaps between parts that could allow dirt and other gunk into the action. I understand why they do that – it’s to allow the gun to function when it’s really grungy. But, it doesn’t help accuracy. Again, this may not be a disadvantage to you but it is to me.
About the only other thing I could list as a disadvantage (and again, this is just my opinion) is the mag release. I’ve had some AK mag releases require almost a hammer to let the mag drop. The lever and spring are subject to abuse, being exposed. The AR-style release is more to my taste. Pop the button in and the mag drops. The mechanism is hidden away from dirt and the possibility of being bent or otherwise compromised.
I had to really think about the disadvantages of the AK platform. If we accept that “it is what it is” and was designed that way on purpose, then really everything I’ve listed here goes away. As the old saying goes “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Your eye most likely is different than mine.
Milled Vs. Stamped Receivers
What’s the difference? Well, milled receivers are machined (or milled) from a block of steel. To paraphrase an old saying, everything that doesn’t look like an AK receiver is cut away. Stamped receivers are made by folding a thin steel plate into the receiver shape and attaching other needed pieces with rivets.
Ulitimak.com explains the difference very well; the following four photos came from that site.
Here we have a milled receiver, from the side and the bottom:
Note the lack of rivets on the sides and the overall smooth appearance.
Now for the stamped variant:
You can see prominent rivet heads, and also a “dimple” above the mag well that keeps the mag centered when inserted.
The article linked to above does a great job of explaining the differences between both types. I won’t reiterate that here, but it’s a good read.
Why Stamped, Over Milled?
Stamped receivers are quicker and cheaper to build. When you cut away metal in the milling process, you end up with a lot of waste on the floor. Plus, you have to know what you’re doing… you don’t just pull in Sergei off the street and plop him in front of a milling machine… it won’t work, no matter how much vodka you give him. It takes some pretty special training to learn the finer points of milling machines, or even CNC in modern times. So, milled receivers look better but cost more to make, are heavier, and generally produce a lot of wasted metal.
Stamping, however, would be more up Sergei’s alley. A piece of thin metal is placed in a jig and a press comes down and scrunches it (technical term, of course) into a basic receiver shape. Other pieces-parts are riveted on and bingo, there you have a receiver. The finishing process is shortened as well, since the metal piece you stuck in the jig could already have finished edges, been deburred, etc. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but you get the point… training for stamping machine operators is less involved than that for mill operators. Plus, I would imagine that the stampers could be paid fewer rubles than the more highly-trained millers.
Lastly, stamped receivers tend to be lighter than milled ones. This is important if you are toting a rifle around all day, or even if you’re not. For most of us, lighter is better providing that strength, reliability, and other factors are equal.
The original AKs that Kalishnakov built used milled receivers and it wasn’t until the AKM came about that stamped receivers were used in any quantity.
It was claimed in Soviet manuals that the stamped variety had a longer life expectancy than the milled one.
Parts, by and large, for stamped receivers may not work in milled ones and vice versa.
The quick way to tell if a receiver is stamped is to see if there are rivet heads and the mag well dimple present. If not, chances are it’s of the milled variety. Really, either variant is acceptable. There are millions of stamped-receiver-AKs out there that are still kicking, and the same could be said for their milled cousins.
Before we take a quick look at the 7.62x39’s history, allow me to testify to the effectiveness of the 7.62x39… I have an AR in this caliber from Bear Creek Arsenal that I took hunting last November for whitetail deer here in Indiana.
Short story, I saw a nice doe at a range of 151 yards (range measured with a laser range finder). I put the crosshairs just behind her shoulder, pulled the trigger, and she went down after taking just two steps, like a truck hit her. That steel-cased 123-grain SP did the trick!
So, how did the “.30 Russian Short” come about?
In 1943, the Technical Council of the People's Commissariat for Armaments got together to design an intermediate-power, thirty-caliber cartridge. It was to be used in semi-automatic carbines, selective fire rifles, and light machine guns. The 57-N-231 round was the winner and was adopted in December, 1943. Interesting to note: 314 cartridge designs were looked at, with 8 finalists emerging. The original 57-N-231 used a bullet with a lead core (not steel, like later varieties) and had a case length of 41mm.
It wasn’t until March of 1944 that this version went into production. In 1947, a company started tweaking the design of the cartridge. The Ulyanovsk Machine Building Plant wanted to get more accuracy and penetration out of the round, so a different bullet construction was used (low-carbon, soft steel wrapped around a lead core, which made a slightly longer bullet than the original and a better penetrator). The case was shortened to 38.7mm in order to keep the overall length the same. That’s where we get the “39” in the designation… it’s a rounded-up version of 38.7. Field tests of the cartridge with the new AK-47 ran from December 16, 1947 to January 11, 1948. In early 1949, the rifle was officially accepted by the Soviet military and Warsaw Pact countries. We know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say – it went on to become the most prolific military rifle going, and until the caliber switch to 5.45mm in 1974, all were chambered for the venerable 7.62.x39. I have grown to respect this round, especially after hunting with it.
American Vs. Foreign Rifles
Ah, a trick question. Who makes the best? Us or Them?
The AK is made by many countries. A quick count revealed 31 countries that make the AK-47 or a variant and that number is probably old and inaccurate… it might be easier to list the countries that don’t make one. The U.S. is one of those countries included in the 31.
That doesn’t answer who makes the better AK – us or them? That depends. There are some awfully nice foreign AKs for sale… some experts believe that the best of the best come from Finland and Bulgaria, with other countries filling out the list.
You can buy a good AK from an overseas manufacturer or one made right here in the good ol’ USA… there are so many out there you’ll have to really do your homework. That’s more than I can cover in a short article like this. I would say that there are perhaps more good rifles to be had than bad ones, since everybody and their brother have been making AKs since the platform came about in the 1940s.
This is one of those “you’ll have to make up your own mind” situations. Decide what you want your AK to look like in terms of stock, optional equipment, finish, etc. and then hop online and see who makes one that looks like what you want. Read reviews by other owners and writers, and check out any videos that discuss the rifle you’re interested in. If the general consensus is negative, keep looking. You probably won’t see too many negative reviews, but it pays to be aware of whatever info is out there where buying guns is concerned.
Here’s an interesting variant… a Zastava Arms AK pistol. Talk about handy!
AK-47 vs. AR-15
Our final category has to do with comparing the AK-47 to the AR-15. This is going to be perhaps the most subjective of all the areas I’ll cover in this article. Every person who has shot either of these – better yet both of them – will have an opinion as to which one is better. So, I’ll try to be as objective as I can in a few categories, and then you can make up your own mind. I know which one I’d choose, but like a good journalist who hides his or her politics, I won’t tell you. Anyway, here are a few comparisons that I’ll do between the most common, average example of both of these rifles.
|Operation:||Gas, rotating bolt||Gas, direct impingement, rotating bolt|
|Safety Lever:||Accessible by lefties, long lever||Left-side only unless modified|
|Effective Range:||300 meters||400-600 meters|
|Accuracy:||5 MOA @ 100 meters||1 – 2 MOA @ 100 meters|
|Tolerances:||Looser for reliability||Tighter for accuracy|
|Ease Of Use:||poorly-trained soldier can operate it||More training is necessary|
|Typical Price:||$550 - $900||$700 - $1500|
* This is due to the extreme taper of the 7.62x39’s case. The mag had to be curved that much in order to feed reliably.
Now, before you storm the castle with pitchforks and torches, remember that the above is written in the most general, generic terms I could find. There are rifles built with exceptions for each of the categories – you may own one, I know I do. I just wanted to help begin the discussion of preferences between the two platforms.
Finally, check out our complete guide to AK-47s vs. AR-15s for another take on a comparison between the two.
Want a rifle that goes “bang” pretty every time you want it to? Have a hankering to shoot steel-cased ammo that you got at a garage sale 14 years ago? Need something you can throw in a bug-out bag and forget about until you need it? Check out the AK-47. It hasn’t served all those nations’ militaries all those years without reason. And, let’s face it… many soldiers receiving AK-47s were not exactly West Point quality. They still figured it out. Reliability, ease of production, familiarity across the globe… the old AK-47 has a lot going for it. If you are Iooking for a survival-type weapon, you could do worse. Buy a load or two of steel-cased ammo and put both away until needed. I think you’ll discover that the 75-year-old rifle still has what it takes. Let’s hear from you AK owners below!