Letter Re: The Usefulness of the AK-47 as a Survival Rifle

Dear SurvivalBlog Readers:
The immediate impression of most shooters, upon hearing “Kalashnikov”, will involve the words cheap and reliable. Non-shooters will often maintain a huge negative connotation to the AK-47 and its variants, though they may not recognize the maker’s name. I will not delve into the rifle’s history today, but instead intend to highlight a weapons platform and illustrate the finer points in favor and against its use.

The AK-47 is a legendary weapon, known for its ability to fire under incredibly challenging circumstances. While some rifles may require regular and frequent care to keep them running properly, it is a commonly-held notion that the AK platform requires only ammunition and a clear chamber to function reliably. Of course, the rifle will perform better and will be far more durable if properly cared for, but if one should find himself engaged in a protracted struggle and without the room, tools, or time to safely maintain the weapon, the owner of an AK variant is going to find himself very satisfied with its performance even if several days, weeks, or months pass without cleaning or lubricant application. This is the core of my survival philosophy: “My weapon must fire every time, without fail, without an excess of labor on my part.” While I will regularly strip, clean, and lubricate my rifle, it should not be picky or prone to jam should I fail to do so for a longer period of time. The Kalashnikov family of weapons has absolutely proven itself in this arena for several decades.

Where else can one find a massive stock of .30-caliber rifles in a military configuration for under $600 each? Certainly not in an AR variant platform. While I heartily endorse the rough and ready nature of the ROMAK WASR-10, the only alternative for a shooter who wants a full-power cartridge in a semi-automatic, magazine-fed rifle is the Saiga line, in which the discriminating shooter can find .223, .308 Win, and 7.62×39 rifles which fit within the budget restriction. However, I always recommend a WASR on the grounds of parts commonality. The Saiga line of rifles uses a different magazine well, requiring modification to use military surplus and commercial 30-round magazines – and their proprietary magazines are expensive.

My number one reason for recommending a WASR over a Saiga is the availability of replacement parts and aftermarket accessories. The AK parts market is a leviathan in our country, with numerous small shops dedicated to crafting excellent quality parts for Kalashnikov rifles. The rifle is ubiquitous enough that most gunsmiths will have an easy time modifying just about any part of the rifle or adding any part you might come across. As a last aside, I’ve never attended a gun show at which AKs, ammunition, and parts were not available.

If you anticipate that a TEOTWAWKI scenario would shut down some of this availability, you may rest assured. Plans for the AK are available online (print and laminate a set today) and any talented machinist should be able to design, build, and test replacement AK parts with minimal difficulty or investment. If your chosen machinist is outfitted with alternative power arrangements, he or she should have no problems replacing worn parts – or even stamping entirely new receivers – during or after a crisis or SHTF scenario.

A shooter who doesn’t have the $1,200-2,000 required for a high-quality full-bore rifle and glass may just find that an AK and good scope will fit better into a smaller budget, and offer comparable battlefield performance to a trained marksman. Above every other consideration, the quality of the shooter and his or her training is paramount. While a life-long, talented and devoted shooter may wring every last bit of potential from his or her rifle, the vast majority of us will be incapable of getting the best possible groups with our rifles until we’ve had significant range time and quality, professional training. In most cases, the AK offers an opportunity to acquire rifle, glass, ammunition, and ample training for the price you’d pay to get rifle and glass in some of the AR-15 or M1A designs.

As with all things in life, we take the good with the bad. The AK platform does, clearly, have some of the latter. If not, wouldn’t everyone be an AK shooter?

First, an out-of-the-box AK will not have tack-driver accuracy. Nor would we want it, if it did. A “new” AK rifle, fed the most economical Wolf-brand commercial ammunition, will generally deliver a 2-4 MOA (MOA =[Roughly one] inch at one hundred yards) performance. For most AK owners, the knowledge that they can hit a circle averaging 3″ in diameter at one hundred yards is plenty. These shooters always aim center-of-mass, and rely on the power of the 7.62 x 39 cartridge, which is fully capable of taking down the particular kind of big game for which it was designed.

There are a few AKs out there which possess better-than-typical accuracy, and which in the hands of a good shooter can produce 1-2 MOA groups. However, the vast majority of AK owners will never tune their rifles to the extent necessary to get this tight, because the steps necessary to wring this performance out of the rifle will also have a deleterious effect on the reliability of the firearm. Imagine that you have a two-ended spectrum; on the left, you have “looseness” or reliability, and on the right, you have “tightness” or accuracy. The AK-47 may be tuned to for either purpose, though the platform has a natural affinity for the reliability side of the spectrum.

The other negative with the rifle platform is the perception it engenders in civilians and in professional shooters. Non-shooter civilians will tend to recoil at the sight of an AK-47, as though it were possessed by the demons of the old Soviet Union. It has strong associations with our old nemesis, as well as revolutionaries, rebels, and terrorists. This is mostly because it has been a cheap, reliable rifle for people too poor or too politically isolated from the US to buy the M16 and other Stoner-derived weapons.

Professional shooters such as soldiers, mercenaries, and police will generally recognize the distinctive silhouette of the AK and the sound of its report, and have a tendency to associate both with a hostile force. This is largely because they and their allies carry the US-designed platforms, while the gang members, rebels, insurgents, and terrorists they’ve been fighting often carry the Kalashnikov.

Overcoming this prejudice pre-TEOTWAWKI is more a matter of common sense and restraint (not carrying openly except when at the range), while post-TEOTWAWKI few will encounter discrimination against someone willing to carry a rifle and help defend the community.

In conclusion, the Kalashnikov pattern deserves consideration from two groups of survivalists: those who can’t afford to properly outfit an AR-15 or M1A or equivalent, and those who perceive rock-solid reliability as a paramount feature in a firearm. Even in the case of those who can afford a “better” rifle, the AK offers economy of savings which can be hard to ignore. It carries only the drawbacks of larger shot groups and perceptions among the general population, which can be overcome through practice and some wise decisions regarding the presentation of the weapon. – Z.M.