With over seventy years of service and more than 100 million examples in circulation worldwide today, the AK-47 and its descendants are a venerable breed of fighting rifle. The AR-15 may be America’s rifle, but the Kalashnikov is unquestionably The World’s rifle. Even in the current golden age of affordable and high-quality ARs, the AK still has much to offer: legendary durability, terrific folding stock options, a bullet that punches through barriers, and the idiosyncratic appeal of “the bad guy’s gun.” It behooves every American to have at least a passing familiarity with the AK, and it especially behooves the thousands of Americans who own one to know how to maximize its effectiveness.
In this article I will be making some suggestions to that end. Initially, I will assume a very basic AKM-pattern rifle, exemplified by the CAI WASR-10 and the Arsenal SLR107R-11E (my usage of “AKM” here is a very slightly imprecise, which I will explain later). This type of rifle is chambered in 7.62x39mm and features a 1mm-thick stamped receiver, non-railed handguards, a fixed stock mounted to the rear tang, a 16-inch barrel, and iron sights. With this case considered, I will then examine the most common variants, and special considerations for each variant.
Magazines and Magazine Accessories
7.62x39mm AK magazines are universal: any nation’s magazine can be assumed to work in any nation’s rifle.
Military surplus steel magazines will run for generations if free of large dents and widespread rust. Most surplus steel magazines for sale in the U.S. are of Romanian, Polish, East German, or Hungarian manufacture. These have a ribbed-side design and a raised spine running along the back edge. Chinese magazines, which are also very good, can be distinguished by the lack of the back spine. One occasionally finds very early Soviet magazines which have smooth sides, and these command a collector’s premium. I have encountered some fit and feeding problems with new-production steel magazines from Croatia and South Korea (both are clearly marked in English, with their country of origin), but these are starting to improve.
The most respected polymer magazines are made in Bulgaria and imported by a company called Arsenal. They have a “waffle” grid pattern and are marked with a “10” in a double circle, hence their nickname, “circle ten” or ((10)). They have steel reinforcements in the feed lips and front and rear locking tabs. Though roughly three times the price of surplus steel magazines, they are excellent.
Soviet/Russian polymer magazines made at the Izshmash factory will be marked with an arrow in a triangle, and those made at the Tula factory will be marked with a five-pointed star. Older specimens will be made of an orange phenolic resin called AG4 (similar to Bakelite), and newer specimens will be black or plum-colored and made of a fiberglass-reinforced thermopolymer. There are now dozens of other companies making polymer AK magazines. I have very limited experience with them, but MagPul and U.S. Palm have good reputations.
The widely-accepting testing standard for polymer AK magazines is to drop a rifle with a fully loaded magazine twelve times vertically onto the butt, five times vertically onto the muzzle, and three times horizontally onto the magazine itself, all from a height of one meter. It is very easy to do this test yourself on whatever magazine you are thinking about stocking up on. This video graphically shows what happens when an AK magazine isn’t up the task. Yes, the video is basically an advertisement for Arsenal, but I know several people who have reproduced these tests with similar results. The most important takeaway is to avoid any magazine made by either Tapco or Promag. They will work fine on the range, but they tend to break under hard use that a true mil-spec magazine would shrug off with ease.
Steel 75- and 100-round drum magazines are also available. They are expensive, bulky, and sometimes unreliable. Outside of one situation described in “Considerations for Non-Standard AKs,” in a subsequent installment, spend your money on box magazines.
You may encounter a “Czech AK-47 magazine” offered for sale, possibly advertised as a lightweight aluminum alternative to steel. These are actually for the Vz. 58 rifle. The Vz. 58 is an excellent weapon that outwardly looks a bit like an AK and also fires the 7.62x39mm cartridge, but it is not an AK and its magazines are absolutely incompatible with the AK.
Several companies make aftermarket followers for AK magazines, which hold the bolt open after the last round is fired (and the Serbs/Yugoslavs favor(ed) this type in their military magazines). I have never seen the point of these. A magazine change might be slightly faster with your rifle’s bolt locked to the rear, but an AK’s bolt will fly forward as soon as you remove a magazine with one of these “upgrades.” It has been argued that holding the bolt to the rear makes it easier for the firer to look into the action and determine if his rifle has stopped because of an empty magazine or a malfunction. In the rare instance that an AK malfunctions, reloading will often clear it. Plus, the mushy trigger you feel when the bolt is stuck rearward, and the sight of the bolt stuck rearward, better serve as indicators of malfunction.
I briefly experimented with a product that clamped onto the magazine release lever and was supposed to let you release the magazine with your firing hand, without breaking your firing grip. I couldn’t make it work, partially because of my small hands. Besides, the “fast AK way” to do a non-retention magazine change is to grasp a fresh magazine in your off hand and, in one swift motion, smack the magazine release lever and then the empty magazine with the front edge of the fresh magazine. This will release the empty magazine and knock it out of the way so that you can insert the fresh one.
MOLLE-compatible pouches for AK magazines are widely available from many different makers, as are surplus LBE rigs from many AK-armed nations. I have a Chinese chest rig that has holds three magazines, which is crude but effective and only cost me $10.
Most AKs sold on the U.S. market have a rail on the left side of the receiver. If your rifle has one of these, then you have two very good options for mounting optics. Midwest Industries and RS Regulate make quick-detach/return-to-zero mounts that fit this rail. The RS Regulate mounts are relatively expensive, but they are VERY slim and ride low enough to offer a lower-1/3 co-witness with many red dots. The Midwest Industries rails are a bit bulkier and do not co-witness, but they are more affordable and also of excellent quality. Both of these side rail options can be configured to work with your choice of red dot, ACOG, or low power variable optic (LPVO). Shown in the photo is my Saiga with a Trijicon MRO atop a Midwest Industries Gen 2 mount. Midwest makes mounts with shorter rail segments that are better suited to a red dot, but I was previously experimenting with an LPVO.
If your rifle does not have a side rail, your best options for mounting optics are one of several handguard systems (discussed in detail in the next section), or a Dog Leg Rail or Bitty Dot from Texas Weapon Systems. The Dog Leg can be used with any type of optic, but the handguard systems and the Bitty Dot are for red dots only. If you are interested in the Bitty Dot, make sure you order the one for your specific red dot sight.
EOTech holosights (and red dots with similar form factors) are generally considered to sit too high over the bore for comfortable use on an AK, but that has not stopped the Poles from running EOTechs on their Beryls.
The Russian BP-02 mount is quite good, but it has become a bit rare and commands a collector’s premium.
You would be better off running iron sights than any optic mount made by UTG.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)