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The AK-47 Rifle

by Richard Davis
Graphics are provided courtesy of the Davis Family Archives

World War II was a time of unrivaled innovation, one of the many innovations was the assault rifle, in the modern context. Two of the most daunting problems German arms designed faced were the solution to the mass infantry attacks from the Soviets and the second was the German military leadership’s reluctance to add yet another service cartridge to their already swelling inventory.

The workhorse service rifle of the German army was the Mauser 98 “karabiner” or K98. This rifle was accepted as a standard rifle by the German military establishment in 1898, and represented the penultimate bolt action rifle.

The Mauser 98 had all the modern features of bolt action rifles, and many of today’s bolt action rifles trace their lineage to the Mauser 98, if not outright copies. The Mauser 98 was the ultimate battlefield weapon in its day, but it had several drawbacks: it was a high precision machine, with many machining operations and expensive to make. It was accurate to phenomenal ranges and enough power to kill or severely wound an enemy soldier several time over. Another drawback that spelled the inevitable end of the model 98 was the feeding mechanism: it was a manually-operated rifle that could hold a maximum of five rounds. The Mauser 98 was at a severe disadvantage where rate of fire was critical.

Faced with wartime shortages, expensive arms manufacturing techniques, an overpowered rifle cartridge and a need for a more modern rifle, German arms designers developed a smaller, reduced power cartridge. It had sufficient power for short-to-medium range combat distances. This reduced power also meant the weapon that fired it would not have the higher recoil generated by the then-standard 7.92mmx57 service cartridge.

With any new gun, the starting point is the cartridge design. After the new reduced-power 7.92mmx33 short cartridge (Kurtz patronen) was ready for production, the German firm of Haenel produced the first prototype assault rifle then called the Mkb-42. Among the many solutions was the increased use of pressed metal parts wherever possible to reduce manufacturing time and cost. While it gave the rifle a cheap feel and look, it did work as hoped.

The features defining the new rifle were selective-fire (both semiautomatic and automatic fire), a high capacity magazine, a separate pistol-style grip and chambered for the new 7.92mmx33 intermediate cartridge.

Early success with this design led the Germans to continue refining this gun until the final design, the MP-44 emerged. The Germans officially referred to it as the Machine Pistol-44 to hide its true nature from Adolf Hitler, since Hitler had prohibited any further rifle or carbine research and development. Since submachine gun research wasn’t included, the MP-44 was simply referred to as a submachine gun. It wasn’t until December 1944 the designation was changed to StG-44, for Sturm Gewehr-44 (storming rifle 44).

The Soviets entered World War II with a mandate that all full-sized rifles must fire the Soviet-standard 7.62mmx54R cartridge, a policy that would place serious limitations on their weapons development program until after the end of W.W.II. The 7.62mmx54R mandate meant all rifles had to be strong enough to handle the 7.62mmx54R cartridge, and this effectively prevented the development of the assault rifle in today’s context. Early (W.W.II) Soviet automatic arms generally fell into one of two categories: sub machineguns chambered in 7.62mmx25 or long arms chambered in the full-strength 7.62mmx54R rifle round. The result of this policy was a range and capability gap in Soviet small arms – the submachine guns were limited to short range, and the automatic rifles just coming out of acceptance by 1941-42 couldn’t deliver sustained accurate automatic fire from the recoil generated by the 7.62mmx54R cartridge. Further, the Tokarev family of automatic rifles (SVT-38, SVT-40, AVT-40) were selective fit, and the magazines weren’t interchangeable. Replacing a lost magazine on a Tokarev SVT-40 involved a certain amount of hand-fitting before it would feed reliably. The reasons for this are somewhat speculative, but from what reports have survived it seems the Tokarev patterns were rushed into full production before the blueprints were drawn up, and the only reference were the surviving prototypes Fedor Tokarev made for trials and testing. Lacking standard plans and dimensions, an SVT-40 from one factory might have a slightly larger magazine well that one from another factory. This resulted in an early cancellation for the AVT-40 automatic rifle, and also resulted in the SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle cancelled at the end of W.W.II. It appears many of the decisions were either arbitrary or controversial at best, since thousands of surviving SVT-40 rifles were imported from Russia in the early 1990’s, and performed well for US shooters. All the SVT-40s from the author’s collection (past and present) also performed well.

The Soviets were dabbling with an intermediate cartridge and accepted it into their inventory as early as 1943 (resulting in the cartridge designation M43). Rumors of field trials in Byelorussia with early Simonov SKS prototypes late in the war aside, the M43 cartridge did not see service in World War II. Immediately following W.W.II, the first rile to use the M43 cartridge was the Simonov rifle “SKS”. While chambered for the M43 cartridge, it was more a tactical equivalent to a battle rifle (such as the US M-1 garand rifle) than the MP-44. The SKS used an internal 10-round magazine, and while semi-automatic, lacked a detachable high-capacity magazine and selective fire.

Hundreds of thousands of MP-44s fell into allied hands; many nations tested and analyzed the new weapon platform. It wasn’t long before the true nature of the MP-44 became apparent, and the lesson wasn’t lost. The Soviets were deeply influenced by this new gun; the Yugoslavians retained the original MP-44 in service as late as 1980s.

After W.W.II, a Soviet tank driver with a background in engineering combined multiple designs from many sources, and chambered a new rifle in the orphaned M43 cartridge. The designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, worked tirelessly until the final design was accepted for general use in 1947.

The new rifle featured selective fire as the earlier MP-44, frequent use of stamped parts and a very high capacity magazine. It reflects many of the lessons learned in W.W.II, namely placing the gas reloading system on top of the barrel, and raising the sights to reduce heat “shimmer” from a hot barrel. The cartridge is a true reduced-power rifle cartridge designated the 7.62mmx39, having roughly 2/3 the power level of the old Russian 7.62mmx54R service cartridge it replaced. The reduced power level allows reasonable controllability in automatic fire while still retaining adequate power for general infantry use.

The Soviets prestigiously named the rifle AK-47 (47=1947, the year of acceptance) after Kalashnikov in lieu of a patent grant, something that embitters Mr. Kalashnikov to this day.

Like many designs, the first Kalashnikov rifle had initial troubles, but was soon overcome with two design revisions. So, the Kalashnikov rifle thought to be the first model was really the third model. The third model, or first officially accepted version had a receiver machined from a solid block of steel. Thousands were produced before the original stamped steel design was perfected. The stamped steel variant quickly became the new standard-issue, designated Automatic Kalashnikov Modernized, or AKM.

Undoubtedly the MP-44 was a source of inspiration, since both have similar architecture and extensive use of pressed metal parts. Initially the Soviets vehemently denied any connection between the MP-44 and their new rifle, but recent publications are insinuating, if not outright confirming the MP-44’s role in the Kalashnikov rifle design.

During the Cold War years (approximately 1946 – 1990) the Soviet Union and China traded, sold or gave away countless millions of Kalashnikov rifles to nearly any nation that desired them. Other Communist Bloc nations made their own. Kalashnikovs are the most common rifle found in war zones all over the globe, and because of this they are an icon of combat itself. No one knows how many Kalashnikov rifles exist on the earth; best estimates are in excess of 100 million.

US Forces first encountered the Kalashnikov in the Viet Nam conflict, and the Kalashnikov was a prized battlefield pickup. It was sturdy, required little maintenance, simple and could operate under extremely poor conditions. Thus, the Kalashnikov was well-suited to uneducated peasant armies. The secret to the Kalashnikov’s reliability are increased internal clearances. The Kalashnikov rifle has almost a “clunky” feel from what appear to be loose fitting parts, the bolt and bolt carrier in particular. This extra room makes it very resistant to stoppages, but also decreases accuracy. This means Kalashnikov users must get closer to targets than soldiers using Western rifles.

Over the years, the Kalashnikov became a family of weapons too numerous to catalog. The major variants are:

  • AKM- Kalashnikov with pressed steel receiver, fourth variant, most common version encountered
  • AKMS- Fourth variant Kalashnikov with pressed steel receiver with a down-folding butt stock very similar to the German MP-40 stock. Intended for paratroopers and other applications where the Kalashnikov rifle needs to be more compact.
  • RPK- Kalashnikov with reinforced receiver, lengthened barrel and bipod to serve as a squad automatic weapon.

AKMS rifle, (top) stock extended (bottom) stock retracted.

These three rifles form the backbone of infantry weapons for many of the world’s armies, particularly east of Europe.

Russia changed the Kalashnikov design in 1973 by following the US example towards a smaller, high velocity bullet. The re-chambered was type-accepted in 1974, and thus is known as the “AK-74”. The Russian cartridge fires a long 60 grain 5.45mm bullet that’s just barely balanced upon firing. This bullet also has a small weight in the base that is designed to slide forward on impact. The idea is to create enhanced tumbling or “see-saw” effect on impact. Coupled with the high velocity, it produces large, cratering wounds that were initially thought by Afghan resistance fighters to be explosive bullets. The AK-74 has also expanded into four major variants, the standard fixed stock version, folding stock version, the RPK-74 and the “Krinkov” submachine gun.

The AK-74 saw service during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979-1989), and many AK-74s remained in Afghanistan after the Soviets left. The Russians have what they perceive as a viable replacement for the Kalashnikov, but high production cost and complexity prevent the AN-94 “Akaban” rifle from widespread deployment. So, the AK-74 is the standard front line service rifle in Russia and a few other Eastern European nations.

The two War Wars are occasionally referred to in these oblique terms: the First World War was the chemist’s war; the Second World War was the physicist’s war. That said, the Cold War will likely be added to this description as the financier’s war. The essence of the struggle between the East and the West in the 1946-1990 timeframe was competing for global economic dominance without the unrestricted warfare like World War II. When China and Russia opened their markets, they struggled to adapt their old weapons platforms to appeal to Western buyers.

Initially China flooded the US gun market with inexpensive Kalashnikov pattern rifles, both fixed and folding stock versions. The Chinese versions initially came with black fiberglass furniture; apparently they were worried the Kalashnikov wouldn’t take root in the US market. Later versions had the correct wood furniture. Earlier black fiberglass models are extremely rare and command a premium when found. US shooters quickly discovered how controllable and reliable the Kalashnikov rifles were, and they immediately became extremely popular. The Kalashnikov market bottomed out at around $260 for a new semi-automatic Kalashnikov, fixed or folding, 7.62mm or .223 Remington (5.56mmx45) introduced around 1987-88. Apparently the negative association Kalashnikov rifles earned in the hands of our former opponents hasn’t been completely erased, especially in the halls of Washington, DC. Based on the pattern of recent laws, it appears there’s a concern that the US shooting community may develop into the western equivalent of Viet Cong, should the number of Kalashnikovs proliferate enough.

When the 1989 import ban took effect, the prices soared temporarily to $2500 overnight. These became known as the “pre-ban” guns, and have long since leveled off to roughly twice their original value.

A few years later, the Russians briefly imported Kalashnikov-based rifles, but none bearing the pistol grip and high capacity magazine. However, the Russians did prove they are very competent at making high quality sporting weapons, as evidenced by the Siaga series of rifles and shotguns.

Shortly afterwards, other European nations received approval to import Kalashnikov pattern rifles into the US, in dizzying arrays and versions. The present market is saturated with inexpensive Romanian Kalashnikovs in the original 7.62mmx39, occasionally in 5.45mmx39 or US-.223 Remington. Most are selling for under $400, some with pre-ban features. Given the stability of the present price levels, this is a very good time to purchase for someone considering this type of rifle.

Interestingly, the AK-74 entered the US about 10 years ago under the Romanian moniker “SAR-2”, creating a modest market for the 5.45mmx39 ammunition. It’s clear that there was a serious effort to create a US market for 5.45mm. East German AK-74 magazines flooded the US market before any AK-74s were known to exist in civilian hands in the Western hemisphere. Next came Romanian 991 and 992 rifles, highly modified Kalashnikov rifles chambered in 5.45mm but sold poorly despite good performance reports. Other Kalashnikov rifles were configured to take only special low-capacity magazines, apparently marketed to more restricted areas in the US. These rifles did not sell well, and many were modified into the more common high capacity configuration. The next waves of Kalashnikovs were much closer to the original recipe, the Romanian SAR series. Opinions vary why they were discontinued, but they were probably unofficially declared “non gratis” since they were not only very close to true military Kalashnikov rifles, but could easily be retrofitted with military cosmetic features.

The semi-automatic versions of the Kalashnikov are as robust as the military versions, and in better condition. At the present price level, they represent a very pragmatic choice that’s well suited to plinking and a few defensive applications. I suggest avoiding the original down-folding stock model unless compactness is a serious issue. These stocks loosen over time, resulting in a slightly wobbly platform, a symptom the fixed stock versions don’t have trouble with. Also, the butt plate doesn’t lock which has a tendency to fold down and slip under the arm pit. Slight adjustments in shooting habits can compensate for this, but it shouldn’t be necessary.

At present, present ammunition shortages are purportedly caused by either Middle East wartime conditions or the Russian mafia, depending on which source you believe. Irrespective, 7.62mmx39 and 5.45mm is becoming more expensive and harder to find. Backorders are common, although domestic supplies seem less affected.

From an operational perspective, the Kalashnikov is very easy to support. The magazines can be loaded singly by hand or en-masse with stripper clips and charger guide. The Kalashnikov rifle is so reliable that failures of any kind are generally a curiosity and regarded as a rare event. After firing, they require little in the way of maintenance aside from cleaning. Plastic furniture is more durable in wet weather than wood, as the clear coating on wood furniture does not completely seal moisture and will lift if moistened. While this won’t affect operation, it is annoying to feel the wood being damaged.

Cleaning is almost as fast as describing the process: pressing the receive cover latch button, lifting the cover off, pulling the carrier and bolt out and maybe pulling the gas tube off. After this, a good swabbing with suitable bore cleaner appropriate to the type of ammunition used. Note that corrosive priming is common with military surplus ammunition, and requires a slightly modified cleaning procedure to remove the corrosive priming compounds from the internal surfaces. This is rarely more than running a patch soaked with Windex or ammoniated cleaner to remove the priming residue. Also, commercial products are appearing specifically for corrosive priming residue.

There is more unsaid about this fine rifle than what’s printed here, time and space don’t permit more. Hopefully it’s been informative enough to give a little history and insight what it’s like to use one.