(Continued from Part 1.)
The simplest upgrade to classic wooden handguards is a polymer Russian design, often seen on the AK-74M, which has horizontal grooves for cooling and improved traction. The best versions of this design also have internal metal heat shields. Being much slimmer than other options, they are good for small hands. If you don’t need to mount accessories on the front of your rifle, these are a great option.
Among several options for handguards that allow for the mounting of accessories, Magpul offers two types: MOE and Zhukov. Both are excellent, and provide M-LOK attachment points at the 3-, 6-, and 9-o’cock positions. The MOE makes use of the AK’s handguard retainer bracket, whereas the Zhukov requires cutting off the bracket and installing an aluminum chassis that runs for much of the length of the barrel. While easy to install and providing attachment points all the way up to the gas block, the Zhukov makes an AK, already a front-heavy rifle, even more front-heavy. It also means finding and installing a new retainer bracket if you decide you don’t like the Zhukov. If you decide to try the MOE, be sure to order the correct version: MOE AKM for rifles with sling loops on the handguard retaining bracket, and MOE AK for others.
If you need to mount accessories (such as a red dot sight) at the 12-o’clock position, an old and well-respected name is UltiMAK. UltiMAK’s system replaces the gas tube with another that has an integral Picatinny rail. These sometimes need filing to install, and it is very easy to accidentally remove too much material. Much has been said out of concern that UltiMAK mounts can get hot enough to fry optics. They do not, but they can get very uncomfortable to hold. If you prefer to use a thumb-over-bore grip on your rifle, this may not be a good option for you.
A better option in this instance would be Midwest Industries’ line of railed AK handguards. MI makes handguards for AKMs and several other varieties of the AK. You can set up the lower half of your handguard with Picatinny rails, M-LOK, or Keymod, and the top half of your handguard with either a Picatinny rail or an optic-specific cutout. Many red dots will co-witness with the optic-specific cut uppers.
If you want to install a vertical foregrip on your AK, you will need to consider the AK’s rock-and-lock magazine insertion and the very pronounced curvature of the magazine itself. It is very easy to accidentally mount a VFG too far rearwards and cause problems with magazine changes. The Romanians and Hungarians issued large numbers of rifles with integral VFGs, and they were angled towards the muzzle for this reason. The Poles often run integral VFGs on their Beryls, but they don’t have to be angled because the Beryl is chambered in 5.56 and therefore has a relatively straight magazine. Short VFGs, for use used with the thumb-over-bore hold, and the Magpul AFG are also worth considering.
You may order a new handguard, rip open the package, and then get REALLY frustrated that your rifle’s gas tube is stuck and preventing you from installing that new handguard. If this happens, remember that you have to remove the bolt/carrier/piston assembly into order to remove the gas tube. I take great comfort in knowing that I am not the only one who has made this dumb mistake.
Unlike the AR, the operating mechanism of the AK does not extend into the buttstock. This makes it very easy to add a folding stock. An AK with a folded stock makes for a very compact package: a rifle with a sixteen-inch barrel will fit into a tennis racquet bag, and an SBR/PDW/braced pistol can fit into a small backpack or a briefcase. Most designs will let you fire with stock folded, though actuating the safety might be a bit clumsy.
The easiest and most “modern” option for a folding stock is Magpul’s Zhukov stock. It slides into the rear and screws into the tang. Despite one notable report of catastrophic failure in very cold conditions. See this video, starting at the 9:35 mark. It has an excellent reputation. The Zhukov stock also provides the option of snap-on risers to customize your cheek weld. It is a bit bulkier than some of the other options.
Another folding stock which you may encounter is the Russian “100-series” stock. It outwardly resembles a fixed polymer stock, but it has a folding mechanism inside the receiver and a catch just forward of the buttplate to retain the stock when folded. You may also encounter the 100-series’ predecessor, the triangle stock. Both types are extremely tough, but require the temporary removal of side rail-mounted optics when folded. They also require the permanent removed of the tang, and are beyond the skill of most amateurs to install. DO NOT go down the rabbit hole of finding one and installing it unless you are an experienced gunsmith AND a glutton for punishment. They are also difficult to uninstall. Just run it (and love it!) if you rifle has one.
The sheet-metal underfolder is another common style that deletes the rear tang. These make for an extremely compact package when folded, but they have a reputation for loosening up with use and they are the most uncomfortable of all folding stocks. Like the 100-series and the triangle, they are not easy to install or uninstall.
Wire folding stocks offer the best combination of slimness, toughness, and ease of installation. The “classic” wire folders are the Romanian, Polish Tantal, and East German, and the greatest of these is the East German. Some of the key points of how a wire folding stock attaches to an AK are explained in the image to the right.The Tantal and East German wire folders attach with one screw in the tang and a metal bracket that is secured by the pistol grip nut. Romanian wire folders attach with two tang screws. Romanian wire folders come in both lever and pushbutton types, but Tantal and East German folders only have levers. For their Beryl rifle, the Poles also have an updated wire folding stock that requires minor cutting of the receiver to install. Examples of all four are available on the surplus market. To any of them may be added a cheek riser from amd65tech.com, as shown in the image at the beginning of this section. This simple upgrade improves the cheekweld greatly, but not really well enough for use with a magnified optic.
If running a wire folder, I recommend using a red dot. You can also improve the cheek weld (and keep your face off of hot metal) by wrapping a wire folder with paracord. All four wire folding stocks also offer a sling loop just aft of the receiver, which is especially appreciated by shooters accustomed to M4s with slings attached to the receiver endplate.
If you are not interested in a folding stock, there are many wood and polymer fixed stock options. I know of none that are problematic. The Magpul MOE AK stock is notable in that it can accept the same cheek risers as the Zhukov stock. Traditionally-styled fixed stocks are often sold in either “Warsaw pact” or “NATO” length, with NATO lengths offering a slightly longer length of pull. Some traditional fixed stocks have a shallow, lengthwise furrow cut down either side. This furrow was introduced by the Soviet military with the AK-74, so that rifles chambered for 7.62 and 5.45 could be told apart at a glance. For the civilian, it is a purely aesthetic choice.
There are several adapters that allow you to install an M4 buffer tube and telescoping stock on your AK. They are a subject of ridicule among some AK aficionados, but photos of them running in today’s conflict zones cannot be dismissed out of hand. The point of a telescoping stock is to adjust the length of pull, usually to accommodate body armor or small-statured firers. Such adjustments usually run to the shorter end, and Combloc stocks tend to be quite short. If you are running a red dot rather than iron sights or a magnified optic, fine-tuning the length of pull becomes even less urgent. It is also undeniable that a folding stock will be much more compact for storage and transport. If you do decide that you want an M4 stock on your AK, then I would recommend an adapter that holds the buffer tube in-line with the bore, which not all of them do.
Tapco’s fixed stock is fine, but their folding and telescoping stocks are flimsy, wobbly, and just plain ugly. Avoid them.
Many manufacturers make AK pistol grips, and I have never heard of any particular brand being problematic. Pistol grips are inexpensive and worth experimenting with in order to find one that fits you. My own favorite is Tapco’s SAW-style pistol grip which is, unfortunately, no longer made. If you can find one, it is worth checking out. It copies the shape of the M249’s pistol grip, which was designed to give the shooter adequate leverage on a twenty-pound machine gun. With that design, a nine-pound rifle is very easy to maneuver. Previously, I had a GP WASR-10/63 with a traditional Soviet-pattern pistol grip, which I didn’t care for. An East German pistol grip came with my wire folding stock, and though I have never installed it on a rifle, feels better to me. I have also tried the very popular U.S. Palm pistol grip, which I hated and couldn’t get back off my rifle fast enough.
Your mileage will vary.
It should also be noted that most commercial-design pistol grips (Tapco’s SAW, U.S. Palm, Magpul, and Hogue to name a few) are hollow and attach with a short bolt, like the AR-15. Most surplus pistol grips (and reproductions of military designs) are not hollow, and attach with a long bolt that runs from the bottom of the grip. The threading of the pistol grip nut is standardized, so while a new pistol grip might require a new pistol grip bolt, it shouldn’t require a new pistol grip nut.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 3.)