Kitting Out The Kalashnikov – Part 1, by A.D.C.

Introduction

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.

Mounting Optics

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.)




20 Comments

  1. AK’s have their virtues, yet also their problems in this day and age. The ability to ‘kit it out’ with modern accessories is relatively problematic relative to the AR. Having the ability to fight at night by locating and identifying the target can be made possible with the use of a red dot, or iron sights that are painted with a bright colored nail polish, and a light mounted on the barrel. I like a bright yellow on the sight post and rear ward surface of the wings of the front sight. If the target is only bracketed by the wings, a hit is likely. This a caveman’s version of an EOTech sight. The painted front sights are illuminated by the flashlight, and easy for the eyes to ‘pick up’ and take aim. It is surprisingly fast, and inexpensive. Here is solid way to mount a single mode high intensity flash light on the barrel just in front of the front hand guard and under the gas tube.:
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001WJ4DGA/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o03_s01?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    To complete the outfit, this flashlight is affordable, and fits on the picatinny rail that is clamped onto the barrel. It is very important to use a single mode flashlight that can be quickly turn on and off without cycling through various modes that leave the shooter exposed. It can be position is such a way that the thumb of the supporting hand can quickly turn the light on and off. There is the optional remote switch that is unnecessary, and not recommend for this application:
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07VGH8286/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o03_s01?ie=UTF8&psc=1

  2. Respectfully disagree with your criticism towards Tapco mags. I may have gotten lucky, but I own MANY, and have used and abused them over the past 7+ years in competition, tactical training, in all kinds of conditions, and have actually tried to get them to fail, and with tens of thousands of rounds through them, I have never had one hiccup, running Wasr, Saiga, Yugo, AMD rifles.

    Just my experience.

    1. Thanks for your input. I had bad experiences with Tapco mags in the mid-aughts, which matched their lousy reputation at the time. I moved to ((10))s and surplus steels, and never looked back. It’s very possible that they improved their product since that time. Any experience with Promag AK magazines?

  3. It’s any utterly reliable platform. From a durability standpoint, I dont believe there is a better weapon. Yes it’s not usable with an optic and red dot and silencer and light all attached to it as some ARs are all perked up on accessories.
    I ve never had an AK jam because it was dirty or underlubed. For a shtf weapon it’s the best.
    And ammo is still cheap and available.

  4. Its worth mentioning modern American AK rifles made by Palmetto State Armory. These are very high quality affordable rifles. Some models come with a hinged and railed dust cover. I’ve found this to be a superior option for optic mounting on an AK.

    1. I’m not sure if a hinged dust cover, or scope of any kind is a good idea. I’ve had it happen several times over the years where I had to clear the action by removing the dust cover and dumping a spent casing. The cover does not need to reinstalled for the rifle to operate, so clearing the action is very quick. Anything that would restrict access would concern me unless I had much experience with it. The standard cover pops off almost instantly, and is completely out of the way during the process.

      1. Thank you for bringing this up. This is an important consideration that I meant to discuss, but got sidetracked.

        The old version of UTG’s top cover mount secured with set screws in addition to the standard pushbutton that is built into the recoil spring assembly. This would be very slow to remove if you had to clear a malfunction. The hinged covers on PSA’s rifles that HP mentions appear to copy the Krinkov design (which will be discussed in a later section). This design, and the TWS dogleg rail, hinge at the rear sight cross pin and secure with just the pushbutton. They are very fast to open and shut. UTG’s new version also attaches this way, but I have no experience with it.

      2. For me, the PSA hinged cover is easier to manipulate than the standard cover thats on my AMD65. You can do it with one hand and dont have to worry about properly lining up the front into the groove. Pop it up, pop it down- easy. IMHO it’s a welcomed design upgrade and it provides a solid, reliable mount for whatever accessory you choose. Also IMO, optics are a must on fighting rifles.

        Good article, looking forward to the next installment.

  5. We got the Romanian version- I’d say strongly that every bullet in firearm you’ve have is gold right now. With the uncertainty of the elections in play (And real corruption in the vote process , especially mail in)… Americans are going to be grateful for every gun. you may want to buy some throwaway guns, like junky ones to “turn in” if Biden/Dems creeps out a win. We may not even know the results of the election until Christmas.

    In May/June I convinced a number of friends to get two of each caliber (because two is one, but 1=0).

    I told all my friends this year may be THE LAST year to easily obtain guns/ammo. I’m trying buy 1 @ Elk Creek for obvious reasons.

    AK is a great platform, made sloppy …I remember seeing it all over the world in every country I’ve ever been in. It’s hardy….You drop it in a river or quicksand and rinse it off =and it’s ready to go. Probably the most common caliber, useful to hunting and defense.

  6. Didn’t know UTG made optical mounts Bought one of their scopes off Amazon because it had good reviews . Seems okay but have no idea if it will hold up to heavy use.

    That’s the problem with older rifle designs. They had no option for mounting a scope. The AR-15
    being exception after eliminating the carry handle. Had a chance years ago to buy a WASR-10 for $300

    After handling one was obviously a crude weapon plus tales of canted sights and poor accuracy. Have read good things about American built a AK’s. Unfortunately since the communists have stolen the election the ability to procure firearms in the future seems grim.

    Great article by the way. Thanks for the contribution and info

    SL

  7. What a nice timely article, i have been in the market for an AK for a couple of months now and trying to educate myself on this item; want to diversify the inventory due to lack of availability of other caliber rounds.
    someone commented on keeping junk guns around in case of a buyback or gun grab i am of the camp that believes that this will be the time to use them !

    1. Excellent! You’re exactly the type of person that I was hoping to reach with this article. There are so many AK accessories that run the gamut from great to garbage, and many of them are not compatible with every AK variant. If you’re new to the platform, you’ll definitely want to stick around for the final part of the article, when I discuss the nomenclature and gear considerations for the most common variants. (Short version: it is easiest to go with the SLR107 or new WASR-10 that I mentioned in the intro.)

      It does seem like 7.62x39mm ammo inventory is bouncing back faster than 5.56, doesn’t it?

      1. Can’t answer your question, yet does seem to stand to reason that there is a huge global market and supply for AK ammo that would naturally seek higher profit margins that rising U.S. prices conveniently provide. I would think that there is ample foreign production of 7.62×39, however, foreign producers could easily be prevented from importing more. There is not nearly the production of 7.62×39 in country as there is of .223, and our military does not stockpile this ammunition. Should CW3 break out, the supply of AK ammo is limited. Fortunately 7.62×39 is still only half the price of 5.56 Nato/.223 making it easier to stockpile it for ourselves.

        The AK is primarily a short range weapon, that in the right hands, a good example can be almost as versatile as the AR. It’s greatest attribute is it’s durability and reliability that is simply unmatched by any other military arm. Unlike the AR and other platforms, it will more likely continue function in extreme cold weather, and in other harsh environments, and can easily be maintained by the least experienced shooter. I’ve owned and operated the full range of semi-autos, and can say the AK is the one I would grab if headed out the door into the unknown in a worst case scenario.

        1. re: “and can say the AK is the one I would grab if headed out the door into the unknown in a worst case scenario.”

          Agreed… reliable… instinctive… will continue to operate when cleaning, lubing not possible… (like on the run).

          As for loss of ammo source during “CW3”, that is a concern, but check out the Berdan Loader that the Sharpshooter 22 guys have. Drills a center hole for a boxer primer, and uses a sleeve to make the primer fit the pocket. I have often considered the possibility of just popping the primer out with the hydraulic method, reloading the primer cup with their primer mix (apparently its the old H-48 chlorate, Krag primer mix) , and reloading the steel case, possibly 2 to 6 times. Haven’t tried it yet, but cast lead bullets with a polymer coating might allow you to get to decent velocities without leading the barrel. One advantage of a steel case is, if you HAD to make fulminate of mercury primers, the mercury wont “rot” (amalgamate with) the iron as it would with brass. This would be very down and dirty ammo, but better than nothing. (and using chlorate or mercury primers WOULD require thorough cleaning).

    2. It’s not the razor, but it is the blades that get you. The much lower cost of ammunition will easily offset the higher price of a high quality rifle. PSA is out of stock. Arsenal brands are possibly the example they would emulate. These are Bulgarian rifles assembled by persons who know AK’s intimately. I would much rather go with this rifle than an inexpensive AR, or AK that is not necessarily entirely up to ‘spec’. ‘Mil-spec’ mostly refers to parts that are made to certain dimensions, and implies a standard, yet these parts could be of questionable quality in other important regards. Quality control during assembly is a critical part of the production process. I have had to repair 6 of this type of AR rifle, but only 2 AK’s. Even a shoddy example of an AK, if it runs, will continue to run. If you’d rather standardized on an AR, purchase one in higher price range, or get the highest quality AR you can afford. The lives of your family could be at risk.

      SLR107R-11EG 7.62X39MM OD GREEN SEMI-AUTOMATIC RIFLE ENHANCED FIRE CONTROL GROUP
      Available Now!
      MSRP: $1,289.99
      SKU: SLR107-11EG

      https://www.arsenalinc.com/usa/firearms/rifles/slr-107-series/slr-107r-od-green-furniture-fixed-stock.html

  8. I’ve had a AK in the collection for many years. When it comes to optics, if found the authentic Russian stuff works best. After all, where did it come from? Try the PK-ASV, a excellent red dot that uses common watch batteries or the Obzor- no batteries needed. These have gone up in price the last several years, but are well worth the investment and built like a tank.

  9. When the UN/NATO troops arrive there should be lots of AKs just lying on the ground all over. Might I recommend a documentary on YouTube called “Hold a AK”, some strong language warning. Kalashnikov forever

  10. I ordered the last few parts this week for my first AKM build. went with a 80% receiver. I have the ammo stored away, I have the mags, and now I just need my buddy to help me with a few gunsmithing issues. this is a great compliment to my Ruger Ranch Rifle in 7.62×39.

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