This review is something of an exploration of the AK platform by one with limited familiarity to it as well as a review of the Century Arms C39V2, a U.S. made AK.
I should first explain that the reason I have little AK time is that I am something of a gun snob. I have always thought that the United States, a nation founded upon riflemen and being unique in having the Second Amendment, was first among gun makers, so most of my shooting is with American arms. Folks like John Moses Browning, Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, Eugene Stoner, and of course Samuel Colt have cemented this belief in my being. After the U.S. probably comes Germany. The Mauser brothers had a pretty profound effect, and then there are all of those German machine guns, submachine guns, and sturmgewehrs that profoundly altered military small arms. The British fielded many excellent military small arms, but you see a lot of influence from elsewhere in most of them. Their shotguns, though, take my breath away. The Swiss are known for their accurate rifles, while the Spanish and Italians produce remarkably beautiful sporting arms.
So what of Russia? They are known for serviceable weapons suitable for peasants, right? In other words, they make simple and easy to maintain weapons that are perhaps on the crude side. While I like refined firearms, I have begun to ask myself what is wrong with simple guns that can be maintained and used by relatively unskilled and untrained shooters? Not much, I have to admit, despite the fact they may sacrifice the ergonomics, smoothness of operation, and accuracy valued by gun lovers.
I recently wrote about the Mosin Nagant, and I found it to be a very useful weapon, though not my first choice in a bolt action rifle. I am a lot happier with my Enfield, Mexican Mauser, or Savage Scout. All that said, the Mosin would get the job done, and it cost less than my preferred choices.
When we get to more modern weapons, the AK-47 comes up, though technically what we subjects of the current United States can own aren’t really AK-47’s. A true AK-47 is a select fire weapon capable of semi-auto or full automatic fire. The first AK-47’s had stamped receivers, but production issues led to AK’s with a milled receiver. Once they worked out the stamping process, though, they went back to that style receiver to ease production. To be precise, the final version of the AK-47 with a stamped receiver is called an AKM, but to most of us it is easier to just call them all AK’s. AK’s have been made in numerous countries; some have made excellent rifles, while others are sloppy.
The semi-auto only variants that we get to buy are from a number of manufacturers with both milled and stamped receivers. The milled ones are generally heavier, but many of us like milled steel better than stampings. That’s often snobbery again. Theoretically, milled parts should offer more strength, though stamped ones can be plenty strong. Some argue the milled ones should be more accurate by being more rigid and having a barrel that is screwed rather than pressed in as on the stamped receiver. I’ve listened to the arguments, but I am unconvinced that either side is more right than the other.
A number of parts are not interchangeable between the two types. So if you already have one version, you might keep that in mind when buying another. A collector will probably want different types, while someone equipping their family for self-defense will probably want commonality.
Many AK’s are assembled from imported parts in the U.S., often using some U.S. made parts to get around onerous legal restrictions. There are also some that are completely U.S. made.
AK weapon quality appears to vary widely. However, I was very favorably impressed with the test gun, a C39V2 from Century Arms, which is totally made in the U.S.
Before I go much further, I should comment a bit on the intent of the weapon’s designer– Lt. General Mikhail Kalashnikov. The Soviet Union had been very impressed with German assault rifles in WWII and wanted their own. Kalashnikov designed one for the new 7.62x39mm cartridge. This was considerably less powerful than the previous Russian service cartridge. Accuracy was not as important; AK’s usually shoot around 6- to 8-inch groups at 100 yards, which is disappointing to many American shooters who cherish accuracy. Regardless of American expectations, Kalashnikov’s design was a great success, and some estimates place the number of his rifles around the world at over 100 million.
Inevitably, the AK gets compared to the AR. I have looked for figures on AR production and have trouble with finding anything definitive, but many estimates say 10-11 million of all types have been churned out. Universality, then, goes to the AK.
I personally prefer the AR, though I feel it lacks perfection. I would like for it to hit harder than it does in its most common caliber, 5.56x45mm. I have doubts about the direct impingement gas system, which allow the combustion gases to enter the action. An AR clearly gets dirtier and is harder to clean than a piston gun like the AK that keeps the exhaust gases out of the action.
The worst question to pose to the AR fan is reliability. The extraction system seems weak to me. While bad ammo has been the source of virtually all of my AR malfunctions, they inevitably resulted in failures to extract which causes a difficult problem to clear that often requires a cleaning rod.
The AK, on the other hand, is probably best known for stunning reliability, even when abused or neglected. Bad ammo? That’s generally not a problem. Extraction? Ha! The extractor on the AK is huge; it could probably pull out a case you Super Glued in the chamber.
While I wish I had been able to run many thousands of rounds through the Century Arms C39V2 in question, I only had about 500 rounds available. It gobbled them up with no problems, and I suspect it would go many, many rounds without issue.
With those points made, the AR tends to be very accurate and most can shoot three inch or better groups at 100 yards. They have excellent ergonomics. While most AR’s, as issued, are not left-hand friendly, it is easy though pricey to swap out the safety, charging handle, and magazine release to remedy that. More and more AR’s are coming with some or all of these parts already in place. AR triggers usually leave something to be desired, but once again money can fix that. There are also no end of other bits and pieces available that allow you to set your AR up to meet your every specification (or becomes so heavy you can’t carry it)!
The AK, in my view, lacks the ergonomic qualities of the AR. I find that the issue safety is awkward, even for a right-handed shooter. The quirk to me about the safety is that it is on the right side of the gun, which means the right-handed shooter is apparently expected to use their trigger finger to operate it. Perhaps Kalashnikov was looking ahead to Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper’s Third Rule of Gun Safety, which is “Keep your finger off the trigger unless your sights are on the target.” Keeping your finger on the safety to disengage it quickly means it is off the trigger. The difficulty is that it usually takes a good deal of force to operate most of the AK safeties I have encountered, though I have been told this can be tuned. My index finger has had problems pushing some AK safeties off. I prefer the safety to be operated with my thumb, which is stronger than the index finger. It is probably also a matter of the habit developed with the 1911 and the AR.
Oddly, I think that I, a persecuted left hander, have less trouble running the AK safety than a rightie. I place my support hand on the magazine and use the thumb to operate the safety. This goes against current fashion, which requires placing the support hand as far forward as possible, but being able to easily operate the safety seems more important to me. It isn’t as easy as operating the lever on the AR with the shooting hand thumb, but it is quite workable. There are ambidextrous AK safeties on the market that can be fitted as well as some with reshaped levers to make it easier to operate. I have not tried any of these and can’t make recommendations, but I actually think they might be more useful for right handers.
The safety is also noisy, making a distinctive click when engaged or disengaged. It annoys me, but when you think about it, it probably doesn’t matter for self-defense. It should be on until you are bringing the sights onto the target to fire and the ensuing bang should drown out the click. It should go back on once you stop shooting, and the click will probably be lost in the echoes of gunfire.
I was pleased that the safety has a notch to allow you to lock the bolt back. Many AK’s lack this notch and I really dislike weapons that can’t be locked clear. As with other AK’s, the bolt does not lock back when the last round is fired, which I dislike.
Changing the magazine is a bit more troublesome with the AK. On the AR, we simply press the button, and most of the time the magazine falls clear; we can then slam another one in straight up the magazine well. With the AK, we have to press a lever and then rock the old magazine out and the new one in. It is clearly a more cumbersome chore but quite similar to what one does with an M14 or Mini 14. I prefer the AR method, but hitting the lever and rocking magazines in and out is quite doable, even at speed. I have noticed that many AK’s are showing up with enlarged paddle levers, like the one on the C39V2 that make it quite easy to remove the magazine. They are very left-hand friendly as well.
I am a huge fan of aperture sights, and that’s another let down for me with the AK. The open rear sight is placed forward of the action, producing a shorter sight radius than found on recent U.S. military small arms. This can magnify shooter error.
Optics are a big deal, especially for those of us with older eyes. The stamped receiver AK’s often have rails to mount an optic over the action. The ones with the milled receiver usually don’t, and other strategies must be taken to get a scope or red dot sight attached to the rifle. The two primary ones are replacing the receiver cover or the gas tube. The receiver cover mounts place the sight in the more conventional location closer to the eye, while the gas tube versions place it ahead of the rear sight in what is usually called the Scout position that is favored by Lt. Col. Cooper. Both positions are serviceable, particularly for red dot sights, which I think suit this weapon very well.
The big issue with either type of mount is whether or not they provide solid mounts for the optic. It is a greater problem with the receiver cover as this must be removed for routine maintenance. Yes, it is an AK, but you should clean and lube it occasionally. You need the sight to return to zero, since we usually clean after shooting. The gas tube mount doesn’t need to be removed anywhere near as often, but it still has to be solid. It should also return the sight to zero if removed and replaced for maintenance.
Ultimak http://ultimak.com/BuyAK.htm, whose Scout mount for the M1 Garand I recently reviewed, makes gas tube mounts for $98 that I would like to try, but I didn’t get a response when I asked to borrow one. I like the fact that it has clamps to hold it to the barrel and that it allows the user to retain the existing rear sight for emergency use after removing the optic.
Texas Weapons Systems http://www.texasweaponsystems.com/, which also didn’t reply to a request to borrow a mount, makes both a receiver cover mount and a gas cover mount. Century Arms recommended their mounts and I have gotten good reviews on them from people I respect. Their $140.00 receiver mount requires removal of the issue rear sight, but you can buy an aperture sight to use as a backup on their receiver cover for another $40.00.
AK quality seems to vary widely, and I often hear arguments about which one is the best or worst. I’m not sure who is right, but the Century Arms C39V2 surprised and impressed me. I was actually shocked when I pulled it out of the box. I expected to see something a bit on the crude side. It’s an AK, right? This rifle, however, is very nicely finished with a black nitride finish. There were no ugly machine marks, though there is a slight bit of texture on the receiver that I found pleasing. The sight block and gas block have what appears to be slight casting textures, which didn’t bother me at all. I had expected something crude, and instead I found something that was as nicely finished as a top tier AR.
The nitride finish, besides being attractive, offers a number of advantages over other gun finishes. It is also called salt bath nitro-carburizing and is essentially the same type of finish as the Tenifer on Glocks or the Melonite used by S&W. It has wide industrial use, and I believe that Glock was the first to use it on firearms. I am not competent to explain it chemically, but it involves dunking parts into a heated liquid that causes the surface to harden and turn black. It comes close to making it rust proof as well as reducing friction. It is highly wear resistant. It seems to me, especially after watching it on Glocks for 30 years or so, to be an ideal finish for firearms, and I suspect that it will eventually dominate the market for steel guns.
The next shocker for me was the trigger. It is quite clean and crisp. At five pounds, it is just a touch heavier than I would prefer, but the crispness and lack of creep makes it very workable. I have never gotten an AR with this quality trigger without spending some serious bucks after purchase.
The stock, forend, and handguard are walnut, and while not what one would find on a British or Spanish best-grade shotgun, it is pleasing to the eye and much nicer to look at than plastic. The finish is probably some form of satin polyurethane that will survive a nuclear holocaust. I’m old fashioned and prefer a matte oil finish, but this will do just fine. The pistol grip is some type of plastic.
Two things that initially flummoxed me a bit are that the AK stock butt is small and the stock length is shorter than I am used to. I feared the small butt plate would enhance recoil, but I found it a non-issue and got used to it quickly. It has an advantage in one regard, using it with armor. Armor often gets in the way when one is shouldering a long arm, and the smaller butt interferes less with it.
The length of the stock, though, was bothersome, as it places the end of the receiver almost on my glasses. Even with armor, I felt it was too short for me. There are a number of inexpensive recoil pads available that will lengthen the pull to remedy that issue. A more expensive solution could be one of the conversion kits that allow you to use the AR carbine telescoping stock, which allows you to adjust length of pull as needed. I’ve seen a few that even allow the stock to be folded. Since there are variations in AK’s, be sure to check if what you are looking at will fit your rifle. This, of course, is a generic issue with AK’s, not one particular to the C39V2. I have to note that many people get by just fine with the issue stock, so it could just be me.
The front sight tower appeared to be slightly canted, which is a common issue with AK’s. I was able to get a good zero but had to push the front sight almost all the way to the right to do so. Century said this would be covered by a one-year warranty. One might be able to detect this issue with a close look before purchase, but it takes a hard look to see it.
As mentioned above, C39V2 was boringly reliable. I fed it Sellier & Bellot full metal jacket (FMJ) and soft points (SP), Silver Bear SP, and Winchester FMJ and SP ammo. Winchester was kind enough to provide 100 rounds, while I provided the rest. Silver Bear, a Russian brand, was fittingly what I shot the most of.
Accuracy, with two exceptions, ran to the expected 7- to 8-inch groups at 100 yards with the issue sights and my bad eyes. A younger, better shooter would do better. The Winchester and Silver Bear SP’s were noticeable more accurate and provided 4.5 inch groups. If this were my rifle, I would stock up on those rounds. I trust Winchester more than Russian ammo, so I could see using the Silver Bear for practice and the Winchester for hunting or self-defense.
Interestingly, all of the groups were pretty close to one another, so little sight adjustment would not be required if you stick with these loads.
I would like to see how this would shoot with optics. I suspect the groups would shrink by 25-40%. If that happens with the Winchester and Silver Bear SP, it would be getting competitive with AR’s.
I used Magpul MOE, Romanian, Polish, Bulgarian, and Tapco magazines with it, and everything fed and went bang. The Magpul and Tapco magazines are polymer, while the others were steel. All seemed sturdy, but the plastic ones were, of course, much lighter. All of the magazines, save the Tapco, were 30-round ones. The Tapco held 20 rounds, which made it shorter and a lot easier to use when prone or from a bench. I have a leaning towards steel but would be happy with any of the magazines and would probably buy them based on price. The rifle comes with two of the excellent Magpul MOE’s.
This is, by the way, the second version of this rifle from Century, hence the V2 in the name. The new model corrects complaints about non-standard parts in the earlier one. I did not handle the earlier one, so I can’t compare them, but I like the idea of standardized parts with the realization that there will be difference between milled and stamped receivers as well as rifles from different countries.
One thing I would have to work on is attaching a sling. The loop on the barrel is on the left side of the rifle, which is awkward for the left-handed shooter. Blue Force Gear makes a nifty Universal Wire Loop that solves that problem for around $25. You could easily create your own solution, of course, for less money.
I did note some sharp edges on the trigger guard and would probably attack them with some emery cloth if it were my rifle.
I ran some of my normal drills with the C39V2 and found it worked quite well. These involve 5- to 25-yard engagements of two or three targets starting with the rifle at the ready position. Once I sorted out a way to operate the safety, they went well. I was a bit slower with the AK than with an AR. There were several factors, the first being my limited time on the AK. The lack of an optic hurt, as did the slightly greater recoil from the cartridge. Reloads were slightly slower, too, but I could improve that with practice. Overall, it worked a lot better for me than I expected.
I really want to buy this rifle, but I probably won’t be able to afford it. This was the first time I got to spend any serious time with an AK, and I was frankly surprised at how well it worked for me. It was far better than I expected, based on the handful of rounds I had put through AK’s in the past, usually off a bench. I have far more respect now for those who choose the AK over the AR.
Personally, I still prefer the AR to the AK, snob that I am. Accuracy and ergonomics mean a lot to me, and I think the AR has the edge there. Reliability, however, goes to the AK. Comparing extractors was quite sobering as was cleaning it. Keeping the gas out of the action makes a big difference. Either weapon will serve well in self-defense, but you will probably need to be more particular with the care of an AR.
Whichever platform you choose, it is a good idea to know how to run both platforms, and that’s why I really would like to own this one. You never know what you might come up with someday, and being skilled in multiple weapons could be a huge advantage.
The C39V2 has an MSRP of $799, but they seem to be going for under $700 on Gun Broker. The rifle is 37.5 inches long and weighs 8.2 pounds. The barrel is 16.5 inches long.
– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Eire