Like Ford Vs. Chevy, Heinz Vs. Hunt’s, or Bud Lite Vs. stagnant pond water -- a question for the ages in the firearms world has been AR-15 Vs. AK-47.
While similar in more ways than either camp would like to admit, but radically different in lots of ways, this is a debate that we won’t settle on here.
But we can at least explore it, talk about it, and hopefully learn something from it.
Before we dive into everything else, let’s just take a moment and talk about where each of these rifles started. This is the very, very short version of both -- we got a lot of ground to cover so we can’t get bogged down in the history books.
In Soviet Russia, AK-47 Is Submachine Gun
Something the Soviets did way, way before almost anyone else was move their military to an intermediate cartridge. In a world dominated by .30-06, .303 British, 8mm Mauser, and 7.62x54r the idea of a much smaller 7.62x39mm cartridge was truly revolutionary.
To shoot it the Russians needed a new firearm. While the exact development around this is a little confusing, the big takeaway is that in the late 1940s Mikhail Kalashnikov and his team designed what would become known as the Avtomat Kalashnikov -- the AK-47.
7.7 lbs, 16” barrel, 30-round magazine of 7.62x39mm Soviet, the AK-47 was at first designed to be used more as a submachine gun than anything. The Soviets fell in love with the SMG idea during WWII and wanted to carry that on into the Cold War.
However, the AK-47 proved to be so well designed and so versatile that it quickly became the default firearm of the Soviets, and the “rifle” arm of the development program was dropped.
Finished in ‘47 but not adopted until ‘49, the AK-47 has gone on to be one of the most prolific and respected rifle platforms ever made.
While updates to the design would come in the form of the AKM, AK-100 series, AK-200 series, and most recently the AK-12 and AK-15 -- the fundamental AK-47 will forever be one of the kings of the firearm world.
Capitalistic America And The AR-15
About 10 years later the American military finally decided that .30-06 and even .308 Winchester just wasn’t cutting it anymore. What was needed was a new high-velocity cartridge that was easier to handle, lighter, and better than the .308 Win.
Armalite and Eugine Stoner heard the call and quickly redesigned their AR-10 into a smaller package built for a new cartridge that Stoner helped develop, the .223 Remington.
The result was the AR-15.
6.5 lbs, 20” barrel, 30-round magazine of what would become 5.56 NATO, the AR-15 design was handed off to Colt and adopted by the US Army in the mid-1960s as the M16.
While that story is a long and painful one full of incompetence, negligence, and lessons learned in blood -- the end result is the AR-15, M16A1, and later the M4 carbine.
It would take years of work, but the AR-15 family of rifles has proven to be one of the best ever made.
Design Goals And Practical Uses
Fundamentally, the AK-47 and AR-15 are built for basically the same goal -- an intermediate firearm that is lighter and easier to use than a full-sized rifle.
Historically, the AK-47 or AKM and something like the M16 or M16A1 are often compared since these were the first generations of both.
While that isn’t an unfair way to look at things, that doesn’t help the modern average American shooter if you’re choosing between the two platforms.
Really, a more apt comparison is between the AK-47 and the M4 or at least an AR-15 that is built to roughly the same specs as the M4.
[Check out our article M4 vs. AR-15 to learn more about their differences.]
What we want to look at is an AK-47 with a 16” barrel in 7.62x39 Soviet Vs. an AR-15 with a 16” barrel in 5.56 NATO.
Using that as our base -- here are how they stack up against each other.
I really don’t like 5.56 NATO for hunting and one of the huge benefits of the AR platform is that you have access to lots of calibers by way of just a new upper. Depending on what you choose the AR-15 can be an awesome hunting platform for anything from rabbits to deer.
The AK-47 isn’t very easy to change calibers with, in fact, it’s almost impossible without a LOT of custom gunsmithing, but 7.62x39mm is a great cartridge for lots of game. Perfect for shots within about 300 yards, 7.62x39mm packs a punch and will drop hogs and deer very well.
You’re a bit limited in range for shots, but that isn’t a huge problem for most of us.
Personally, an AR-15 in 5.56 NATO wins this hands down for a list of reasons.
First off, the AK-47 is very hard to attach things to -- such as a light and optics. It’s doable, but it’s not easy much of the time and might require a few aftermarket parts depending on what you buy.
Even if you get a red dot and weapon light on your AK, 7.62x39mm is not a great home defense round. Sure, it packs a punch and drops bad guys, but it also carries a lot of overpenetration. Assuming you live in a home with drywall for walls and you have other people in the home or have neighbors semi-close by, 7.62x39mm poses a significant risk of collateral damage.
The AR-15 is much better suited for home defense in every way. First, it’s really easy to add a light and optic to, and second 5.56 NATO is highly lethal while not carrying nearly as much overpenetration risk. It will still go through multiple layers of drywall, but you’re looking at half or less as much as 7.62x39mm will.
Totally even between the two.
AKs are fun, like big fun! And cheap ammo is pretty easy to get your hands on making this a great rifle for a day at the range.
AR-15s give you a high-speed, low-drag feel that AKs just don’t. Cheap ammo isn’t as cheap but it’s still cheap enough to have fun blasting with.
Really, this is a personal choice. I love both platforms but your feelings might vary.
AK-47 Vs. AR-15 in a Zombie wasteland/SHTF/Red Dawn style scenario is a complex topic that I could probably write a book on.
But the short version is that… it really depends.
AR-15s have a huge advantage because they are by far the most common platform in the USA. Both civilian and military fields the AR-15 in huge numbers and parts are basically all interchangeable. This gives you a massive reserve to draw from if things go really, really bad.
That said, the AR-15 does generally take a bit more preventative maintenance than an AK-47 does.
You can feed AKs horrible ammo, treat them like crap, never clean them, and generally do things you’re not meant to do with an AK and it will still run. Maybe not well or accurately, but it will run.
Personally, my pick is an AR-15. But there is a good argument to be made for the AK-47 as well.
Russian AKs Vs. American AKs
So something that has been a major problem for the AK world is that American manufacturers for a very long time have insisted on making the worst AKs they can possibly make.
Let me explain.
Because the AK has been produced for so long and by so many countries there are mountains of surplus AKs in the world or AKs made for exporting that were built in state-designed/operated factories.
This led to a very long period in the USA where AKs were SUPER cheap (like $100-$150 cheap) and VERY high-quality. When everything is made to mil-spec and a government that no longer exists footed the bill, it’s not hard to export something for way below cost.
American companies wanting to do the capitalistic thing and get in on that money train started to produce some domestically made AKs.
Until very recently, these have all sucked. Chasing a price point that was competitive with overseas imports caused American brands to do things like make really bad barrels, weld parts, or make trunnions from cast metal.
AKs made like this are bad. Period. Like, often go kaboom kind of bad.
This, unfairly, resulted in the AK getting a bad rap for a while.
Within the last 5 years or so, several American brands have finally started to make AKs that are well made and still mostly affordable. This is mostly because overseas imports have gone way up in price, but at least American-made can compete now.
Still -- if you want a great AK, the best of the best still come from outside the US.
Accuracy Claims And Facts
A lot of people like to brag online about their sub-MOA rifle, but I got news for you -- you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet. Yes, I recognize the paradox that a statement like that can create.
For now let’s ignore the huge debate about 3-shot and 5-shot groups, accuracy Vs. prevision, and ammo quality.
Milspec standards for an M4 are roughly 2-3 MOA, the AK-47 standard is more like 3-4 MOA.
That might sound like a lot, but really it isn’t. For the ranges that these weapons are designed for and that they can be practically used, 4 MOA is perfectly reasonable. It isn’t ideal, but it’s reasonable.
AK-47s have several things going against them in terms of accuracy. First, 7.62x39mm ammo is often really low quality. Bad ammo = bad accuracy.
Second, the AK’s 3-lug bolt design isn’t ideal for a consistent lockup and maximizing accuracy.
The AK’s barrel isn’t free-floated, the piston system can create harmonic issues, the sights have a very short radius, and the open notch rear sight isn’t ideal for precision shooting.
Basically -- everything about the AK where you can choose option A or option B for better or worse accuracy, the AK choices B every time.
Granted, many of these shortcomings can be addressed with aftermarket parts, but those are band-aids at best.
AR-15s come in so many flavors that it isn’t hard to get an inexpensive AR-15 that shoots 1.2-1.5 MOA. However, if we’re trying for apples to apples here it’s only fair that we look at the AR-15 in something more “standard” like that of the M4 configuration.
An M4 doesn’t have a free-floated barrel, but it does have a better bolt, a much longer sight radius, a much more precise peep sight, a better trigger, a more in-line design for better recoil management, rarely has barrel harmonic issues, and the ammo is of a much higher quality.
The M4 doesn’t choose option A every time, but most of the time it does. The AR-15 really is a rifle designed for good shooters.
[To see more ballistic data and comparisons between the two rounds, check out our complete guide to 7.62x39 vs. 5.56!]
Photo courtesy of Recoilweb.com
Mud Baths And Ice Storms
Something you might have seen online or read about in forums is the ability for an AR or AK to be submerged in mud or frozen solid in sub-zero temperatures.
These really aren’t something most of us need to deal with, but it’s at least fun to talk about.
For years AK fans have claimed that the “looser tolerances” of the design helped make the AK a better performing rifle in the dust and mud.
This simply isn’t true. While loose tolerances have their place and do in some ways have a benefit, this isn’t one of them.
The AR-15 is a very closed-up system, what little isn’t closed up in a way helps self-clean because of the DI gas system blowing through the action.
The combination of these factors makes the AR-15 very reliable even when you drop it in the mud or cover it in dust or get stuck in a sand storm.
Compare that to the AK with its much more open design that leaves lots of cracks for dust, grime, and gunk to get in, and test after test shows that the AK fails much more quickly than an AR-15 does.
On the other hand, something that has plagued the AR-15 is ice and snow. And this is entirely fair, military testing and random YouTube people have consistently shown that the AR-15 has problems when it comes to ice and snow.
Basically, if you let the water freeze in your AR-15 -- you’re going to have a bad time. It’s not super hard to break free of the ice, but it does take more than racking the bolt and slapping the forward assist.
The AK-47 is very strong in this area where it’s very easy to get an AK back in the fight even when it’s been frozen solid.
First, it’s a lot easier to beat the heck out of the AK charging handle to get the bolt moving. Once you get it moving and can feed/fire a shot or two the heat and movement break everything else up and gets things moving.
This is where those looser tolerances help by giving the ice somewhere to go and the parts a little wiggle room.
Hundreds Of Thousands Of Rounds Downrange
I shoot a decent amount more than the average gun owner, and yet even I don’t shoot as much as a pro-tier competition shooter. But if you really want to talk about millions of rounds per year -- you gotta talk to the people at Battlefield Vegas.
Outside of government-run testing, Battlefield Vegas is probably the best place to find guns that have been shot to death. Putting over 400,000 rounds downrange per month, Battlefield Vegas puts their guns through more abuse in a year than any of us will in our lifetimes.
According to them: the M4 lasts longer.
The huge difference is in the design. Everything in an M4/AR-15 that can break is pretty easy to replace. An M4 with 200,000 rounds through it will go through multiple barrels, bolts, bolt carriers, gas tubes, charging handles, etc. But the lower and upper receivers themselves won’t break.
According to Battlefield Vegas, they’ve never had an AR-15 lower or upper break -- ever.
The AK-47 isn’t so lucky. While AK barrels are famous for lasting 40,000+ rounds, the receiver itself is what will give you a critical failure that is hard to fix.
Around 100,000 rounds, the rails on an AK-47 receiver will crack and break. Battlefield Vegas fixes this with a tig welder, but there really isn’t any other way to solve it.
But these are extreme situations, the likelihood of any of us putting 200,000+ rounds through our guns is pretty low.
Still, it’s food for thought.
Ease Of Use
One area that the AK-47 clearly wins is the manual of arms. AKs are stupid simple, like just crazy stupid simple.
From elite forces to goat herders or rice farmers that have never seen a modern firearm before, the AK-47 is as close to plug-and-play as it gets for a firearm. History has proven this.
The controls are large and simple, the sights are basically self-explanatory, and teaching someone to shoot an AK takes almost zero time.
Solving malfunctions, if one even occurs, is just a matter of whacking the crap out of the charging handle until the gun runs again.
While the M4/AR-15 might be preferred by marksmen around the world and has found a place with literally every elite military unit including ones fielded by nations that issue the AK as their standard grunt rifle, it cannot be disputed that the AR-15 takes a little more know-how to use.
The controls are smaller and there are more of them, the sights take more training to get right (or just cheat and use an optic), and malfunction drills take a lot more training and assessment to solve.
That said -- these are big picture problems. For the average gun owner like you and I, there really isn’t much difference since we have the luxury of time and space to learn our guns.
Building Vs. Buying
The AR-15 is often called “Legos for adults” and it’s completely true. Even if you’re horrible at DIY it’s not hard to put together a complete AR-15. You can even start from an 80% receiver and still have a high-quality AR-15 completed in a short afternoon of work.
Tools needed for an AR-15 vary depending on what you’re starting with, but assuming you at least have a stripped lower receiver all you need is a cheap torque wrench, some punches, a vise, and maybe a phone or TV to watch YouTube walkthroughs on.
Oh, and a kitchen table. Or a large desk. Just a little bit of space to work.
An AK-47… oof. Unless you have a 12-ton press, really know what you’re doing, have a lot of time working with rivets, and maybe a mill also -- building a complete AK is a huge endeavor.
While it is entirely doable, the tools required are a lot more expensive, harder to get, and physically larger requiring a lot of workspaces.
Even back in the day when AK kits were dirt cheap it still took 4 to 7 AK builds before the tools and equipment paid off for you. That’s a ton of work. And everything is much more expensive these days.
Sadly, building AKs at home is basically dead.
Just Buy One
Buying your guns is always an option too and if that’s your jam, you got tons of options.
The AR-15 is made by and sold by basically everyone in the USA. Shameless plug for Bear Creek Arsenal AR-15s since this is their blog. Side charging, rear charging, 5.56 NATO, 7.62x39mm, BCA has a ton of options for you.
AK-47s have a lot of choices also, but a lot of them are more subtle or harder to really understand. Almost all of the AKs worth buying come from not-the-USA. The few brands that are made in the USA and are worth the money are often back-ordered a long time out.
That said, AK-47s are really fun to own and shoot. While it might take a little more research before you pick the one for you, it’s worth it if you ask me.
What Is Best For You
Okay -- we’ve gone over a ton of information, so let’s clean it up with one sweeping generalization that people can argue about in the comments.
The AR-15 is the best firearm platform for you.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the AK platform -- but the cold facts are that in this country, the AR-15 is king.
And, I would argue, the AR-15 is objectively better no matter what. The only caveat to that might be logistical if you live outside the USA.
Right off the bat the AR-15 is more accurate, more reliable when properly taken care of, and leaves more on the table to be exploited by a skilled marksman.
It is more versatile, easier to upgrade, better able to handle next-generation threats, gives you a wider engagement range, and it’s lighter to carry with less recoil when shot.
Anything the AK can do the AR-15 can do and do it better. An AR might need a new upper with a new caliber to do it, but that is at least an option with the AR-15 system that the AK does not, cannot, and will never have.
And with all of that, here we are. When it comes down to it I think the best answer is to get both the AR and the AK. Both are awesome platforms that have proven themselves time and time again.
That said, I’ll always reach for my AR-15 when everything goes sideways. My AKs are fun, but they fall short in a few too many ways.
[We would like to extend a huge thank you to David Lane for his hard work on this article. Make sure to comment your thoughts below and check out our huge selection of AR-15, AR-10, and AR-9 uppers, lowers, barrels, parts and more!]