(Continued from Part 3. This concludes the article.)
Considerations for Non-Standard AKs
When it comes time to order accessories and parts for your AK, it is very easy to accidentally order incompatible items meant for a different AK variant. To get an idea of the scope of the problem, check out UltiMAK‘s and Midwest Industries’ AK product listings. In this section, I’ll help you make sense of some of the lingo on these pages, as well as other terms that you may encounter. Unless otherwise noted (or implied by a chambering in a different cartridge), all of these rifles use standard AK magazines.
While commonly referred to as “AK-47s” (Automatic Kalashnikov model of 1947), most AKs that you will encounter are more similar to the AKM (Automatic Kalashnikov Modernized). When Mikhail Kalashnikov designed his namesake rifle, he intended for the receiver to be stamped from sheet metal. Soviet metallurgy of the day was not up to the task, so receivers were milled from blocks instead. This continued form the rifle’s rollout in 1949 until 1959, at which time Soviet metallurgy had improved such that the stamped receiver could be reintroduced, officially designated the AKM.
On the commercial market, AK-47-types are called “milled receiver” rifles, and AKM-types are called “stamped receiver” rifles. Milled receiver rifles use different styles of buttstocks, handguards, and gas tubes. Their barrels also mount directly to the receiver, whereas on a sampled rifle, the barrel mounts to a trunnion and the trunnion mounts to the receiver. Most other parts should interchange with basic rifles, but unfortunately, there are few guarantees here. Milled rifles are more than a pound heavier than stamped receiver rifles. Milled rifles also have a reputation for higher round-count life expectancies, which is probably academic for anyone not doing large volumes of full-auto fire.
At this point, I can explain my imprecise usage of the term “AKM.” The Soviet AKM, and its direct copies, was only ever fielded with 14×1 LH muzzle threading. The 7.62x39mm AK-103 is fielded in small numbers today and has M24x1.5 threading, but it has a 100-series folding stock and is therefore not considered a “basic AKM” for the purposes of our discussion. Such hair-splitting might cause confusion, but I wanted to introduce the term “AKM” early, as it is the common nomenclature for any stamped-receiver AK that mostly fits AKM parts.
The RPK is a light machine gun based on the AK. It can be identified by a long, heavy barrel that is often fitted with a bipod (Yugoslavian/Serbian variants also have cooling fins on the section of the barrel between the receiver and the gas block) and a club-shaped buttstock. The handguards, buttstocks, and gas tubes do not easily interchange with any other type of AK, and the front and rear sights are also non-standard. RPKs can use standard box magazines, but they are also the intended users of the 75- and 100-round drum magazines mentioned in the magazine section. An RPK and a good supply of (thoroughly-tested) drums would be great for defending a fixed position, and would certainly cost less than a belt-fed semi-auto.
The AMD-65 is a Hungarian variant of the AK, recognizable by its distinctive muzzle brake, forward-slanting vertical foregrip on a unique handguard, and unique wire folding stock. This rifle is the namesake of the aforementioned amd65tech.com, whose cheek risers were originally made for that rifle. The AMD-65’s wire folding stock does not easily interchange with any other rifle, though several companies make fixed stocks for it. The handguards also do not interchange with any other type.
The Saiga is a series of sporting rifles and shotguns. They roll off of the same assembly line as military AKs at Kalashnikov Concern’s (formerly Izshmash) factory in Russia. It is identifiable by its Monte Carlo-style stock, extended handguard, and lack of threaded muzzle. They are also built to be incompatible with mil-spec magazines. Saigas have been banned from importation to the U.S. since 2014, but Kalashnikov USA is now (intermittently) manufacturing a new version here. There is a vibrant cottage industry devoted to converting Saigas into mil-spec rifles, and Arsenal used to offer their SGL line of professionally-converted Saigas. The process of doing the conversion is well beyond the scope of this article, but you can start here [LINK: https://www.arizonaresponsesystems.com/tutorial-saiga-sporter-ak-conversion/] if you are interested. I did the conversion of my own Saiga, and it was a worthwhile experience. A fully-converted 7.62x39mm Saiga may be considered a basic AKM for the purposes of our discussion.
Of the several types of AKs imported to the U.S. from China, the MAK-90 is the most common. These may be branded as either Norinco or Polytech. They have 1.5mm stamped receivers, and so do not fit AKM furniture easily (I have seen the Magpul Zhukov stock made to fit with filing). A distinguishing feature of all Chinese AKs is a fully-enclosed front sight hood, as opposed to those from other nations, which are open at the top. Many are also fitted with an underfolding bayonet similar to the SKS. (Watch for both of these features in movies and TV shows: Chinese AKs are a staple of Hollywood armories.) MAK-90s have much in common with the Saiga: both are now banned from importation, both were imported in a “sporter” configuration, and both may be encountered in various states of partial conversion. Chinese AKs have become collector’s items, and command a premium. Chinese AKs in 5.56 use radically non-standard magazine dimensions, and Chinese 5.56 magazines go for about $100 each.
The PSL is a Romanian sniper rifle chambered for the 7.62x54R cartridge. It is sometimes advertised as a “Romanian Dragunov,” or “Romanian SVD” (“SVD” being the Russian acronym for ” Dragunov’s Sniper Rifle). In truth, the PSL has nothing in common with the SVD, other than its chambering and its general appearance. The SVD has its own unique action that is more similar to the SKS, but the PSL is essentially a scaled-up AK that has no parts in common with the AKM. It is typically fitted with an LPS scope, which has a very handy stadiametric reticle copied from the Russian PSO-1 scope. The LPS fits a mount that fits the PSL’s side rail, which looks like the AKM’s rail but is incompatible.
PSLs have a reputation for good accuracy with cold barrels, which deteriorates quickly as the barrel heats up. It is also worth noting that Saigas with 20-inch barrels chambered in 7.62x54R or .308 Winchester are occasionally fitted with thumbhole stocks and advertised as Dragunovs. They are also not Dragunovs, but if you wanted to put together a “Dragunov homage” rifle, a Saiga might be a more practical starting point. You could use some AKM parts and have more options for optics. (It should be noted here that the Russians, and many nations in their current and former sphere of influence, use the term “sniper” a bit more broadly than Americans. It is used as the equivalent of both “scout sniper” and “designated marksman.”)
The Galil is an Israeli rifle which that nation developed after bad experiences with their FN-FALs jamming during the Six-Day War. It largely copies the Finnish Valmet RK-62 (which is quite rare in the U.S.), which is based heavily upon the AK design. Both the Galil and the Valmet have a uniquely-shaped receiver, which angles upwards from the trigger guard towards the handguard much more so than the AKM. Both also have their front sights mounted to the gas block. The Galil can be distinguished from the Valmet by the presence of a secondary safety selector on the left side of the receiver, and by an upturned charging handle with a large knob. Most Galil’s available in the U.S. are chambered in 5.56, but one occasionally encounters the 7.62 NATO version. The Galil/Valmet’s buttstock, pistol grip, and handguard will not interchange with the basic rifle, and the interchangeability of internal parts is controversial.
Galil magazines are certainly not as common (nor as affordable) as those for the AR-15, but they are generally available. Milspec steel magazines are the best, Orlite polymer magazines are in a distant second place. And the Tapco and Promag aftermarket magazines should be avoided. Mounting optics to the “legacy” Galil is difficult, but the radically-updated Galil ACE makes it very easy. The Galil ACE is available in 5.56 and takes AR-15 magazines, and also available in 7.62x39mm, which takes AK magazines.
There are two types of pistol/SBR/PDW AKs commonly encountered on the U.S. market: the Draco and the Krinkov. The full-size Draco is an AK pistol imported from Romania that has a 12-inch barrel and the front sight mounted to the gas block. The Mini Draco has an 8-inch barrel and the same front sight arrangement. The micro-Draco has a 6-inch barrel and the same front sight arrangement, but it moves the rear sight onto the top cover. The rear of the receiver omits the tang from all of them. They are available with a plain rear, with an integral buffer tube adapter, or with a type of SB Tactical brace unique to the Draco. For the full size, all parts except for the front sight/gas block interchange with the basic AKM.
The Mini and the Micro use a unique lower handguard and non-standard gas tube. They also have no factory upper handguard, leaving the (potentially very hot!) gas tube bare. There is no provision for mounting a handguard to the gas tube. Several companies, including Midwest Industries, make railed handguards with top sections that attach by other means.
The Krinkov has an 8-inch barrel like the mini Draco, but it can be distinguished from the Draco by the presence of a unique top cover, which is permanently attached to the receiver by a hinge where one would find the rear sight on an AKM. The Krinkov moves the rear sight to the middle of the top cover. It also usually features one of several distinctive booster devices on the muzzle. These ensure adequate kinetic energy for cycling the action. The Krinkov mounts the front sight to the gas block just like the Dracos, and the Krinkov has its own unique handguard type. Several varieties of buttstocks are available. What we call the “Krinkov” was introduced into Soviet service with the formal designation AKS-74U. It has several nicknames in Russian, none of which are “Krinkov.” The most popular Russian nickname for the AKS-74U is “suchka,” which is the diminutive of “suka,” which is Russian for “bitch.” It is likely that “Krinkov” is actually a Pashtu word. For a fascinating discussion, see this article.
The Zastava company of Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia) puts its own unique spin on the Kalashnikov design. Their rifles are distinguished by thicker receivers and a non-standard handguard shape. Some models have sheet-metal underfolding stocks. Others have fixed buttstocks that slide into the rear of the receiver and are secured by a single, long bolt that runs into the stock along the stock’s long axis (similar to the Lee-Enfield). Some models also have integral AR-15 buffer tube adapters, and Zastava also offers several varieties of Krinkov, RPK, and PSL-like rifles. Collectively, these are known as “Yugos.”
I bought my first AK in 2007. In those days, they were available to suit any budget, from $400 WASRs to $1,400 custom builds, with many excellent options from Arsenal, Vector, Zastava, and others in the middle. Today, WASRs cost as much as the old midrange options (with a corresponding increase in quality), and the old midrange options can cost nearly as much as a custom build. Surplus parts are drying up, and some U.S. manufacturers are having problems with poorly heat-treated bolts and trunnions. This echoes yesteryear, when AR-15 forums kept meticulous charts of who would properly stake their gas keys and perform magnetic particle inspections of their bolts. “To everything, there is a season.” Anyone wanting to add a military-style rifle to their arsenal should seriously consider taking advantage of the current golden age of affordable and high-quality AR-15s. But, if the AK’s unique features appeal to you, no one could ever say that you made a poor choice of rifle.
Please forgive any errors or omissions I have made in this article. I have made every effort to avoid them, but it should be obvious that, in the process of becoming the world’s rifle, the AK picked up some of the world’s diversity. Where I have failed to answer your questions, I hope to have given you an idea of what questions to ask, and also the vocabulary with which to ask them.