By Wayne Lincourt
If you like to shoot like I do, you’re faced with limited supplies of ammo and high costs (when you can find it). You can’t always reload either, because the most common powders are just not available. I’ve been looking for reloading powder online and at the local sporting goods stores for more than a month. Got everything else, but no powder to send the bullet on its way.
However, there is one rifle cartridge that’s in plentiful supply at very reasonable prices—7.62×39. Developed by the Soviets during WW II, it later became the cartridge of the battle rifle developed by Makhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov. Introduced as the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947, better known as AK-47, the gun was adopted by the Soviet Armed Forces in 1949 and has since proven itself in 65 years of continuous service in militaries around the world.
The popularity of the low-cost 7.62×39 round has not escaped the attention of AR-15 manufacturers, and there are now a number of really nice ARs chambered in 7.62×39. The problem is that to buy one you have to pay AR prices (unless you build your own). Century Arms, long an importer of surplus foreign-made AKs, has developed its own brand new AK-47, the C39 Classic, made in its Vermont factory and sold for less than half the price of an AR. As an aside, this is not intended as an argument in favor of the AK platform versus the AR. The AR is a newer, more refined and versatile design. This is strictly about the practical economics of shooting on a budget in today’s firearms/ammunition environment.
Up to this point, you were limited to military surplus AK-47s. The problem is in finding one that’s not, to use the scientific term, junk! Some perform reasonably well, some don’t function well at all, and accuracy is quite literally, hit or miss. AKs went from milled receivers to stamped receivers in 1963 to reduce manufacturing costs, and that’s what you’ll find in most imported guns. These military surplus (used) guns can be found for around $400 depending on model and condition. Of course, government restrictions on importing certain guns, like the AK-47, led to American-made parts to make them legal. You see, you can still sell them as long as they are made with no more than ten imported parts (Title 18 Chapter 44 Section 922(r) of the United States Code). That’s where the term “922r compliant” comes from. These restrictions resulted in additional parts being produced in the US until we had almost enough to build an entire gun. Century International closed the loop a couple years ago and started manufacturing completely new US-made AK-47s dubbed the C39 Rifle. The receivers of the Century International Arms guns are machined from solid steel for better accuracy and repeatability. The rest of the parts are pretty standard AK parts.
The Century International C39 Classic Rifle is faithful to the Kalashnikov design, which has proven to be rugged, dependable and easy to maintain. The AK is a simple design wherein a gas port on top of the barrel actuates a piston which in turn cycles the action. The fact that the gas drives a rod to cycle the bolt carrier group means that the top end of the rifle stays cleaner than a direct impingement systems, where the gasses act directly on the bolt. All parts are readily accessible simply by removing the dust cover and extracting the recoil spring/gas rod and bolt carrier assembly. The handguard/gas tube assembly is easily removed by first turning a small lever that releases the pressure holding it in place. Another lever allows removal of the forend.
That’s as far as you have to go to strip the gun unless you want to replace the stock. The stock is a little more difficult to remove due to the press fit, but it’s not that bad with the right tools. The C39, by-the-way, uses a Polish-style stock attachment that secures the stock with a lower tang as well as an upper tang extending back from the receiver. This is a more solid attachment but limits aftermarket stock selections. There are two departures from the original AK. The rear leaf sight is adjustable for both windage and elevation instead of just elevation, and the stock is one inch longer than military issue. They are both good changes.
As you can see in the photos, Century has installed nice laminated wood furniture that retains the classic look of the AK while providing greater stability than solid wood. The wood is available in three colors – black, brown or blonde. The test gun obviously has the brown wood. It’s also available with composite furniture for a slightly higher price, and there’s a chrome-lined barrel option as well.
The only concern I had before going to the range was that the flash suppressor/muzzle brake had some free movement. It screws down almost tight and is held in position, with the ports directed up to reduce muzzle rise, by a spring loaded plunger. However, because it wasn’t seated firmly, the suppressor could be wiggled a little with your fingers. I solved the problem with a stainless steel wave lock washer from Ace Hardware, which I placed between the suppressor and the front sight mount to take up the slack. It probably wasn’t necessary, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
On my first range session, I found that the C39 is a fun gun to shoot. Magazines are easy to load simply by pushing the rounds straight down from the top of the mag, and recoil is moderate, meaning that after 220 rounds I could have kept shooting. It doesn’t beat you up the way that some rifles do. By-the-way, the C39 comes with two 30-round Tapco USA composite magazines in the familiar and somewhat sinister banana shape. Although the gun may look bad with the 30-round mag, I found the Tapco 5-round and 10-round magazines to be more practical for range work. For hunting most game, the 10-round mag would provide plenty of firepower as well. The 30-rounders would be fun to burn through ammo with a Slide Fire bump stock, but commercial ranges limit fire to no more than one round per second. Bummer.
Using the stock iron sights, the gun was reasonably accurate. At 50 yards, I shot some one-inch three-shot groups, although my five-shot groups always opened to three inches or so. At 100 yards, my five-shot groups averaged around six inches, which is good for me using iron sights.
I wanted to mount an optic, though, to get a better idea of the gun’s real accuracy potential. One of the inherent problems with the AK, unfortunately, is mounting an optic. The loosely mounted dust cover on the top of the receiver doesn’t offer a suitably stable surface to attach a scope. Some AK versions have provisions to add a mount to the left side of the receiver. The side mount arches over the dust cover, detracting from the clean lines of the gun, and has to be high enough to permit opening the dust cover, just barely. This puts the optic higher than optimum for achieving a good cheek weld on the stock.
There are several solutions available in the aftermarket. Some require drilling holes in the receiver, a process I wanted to avoid. Damage Industries has a nice forend/handguard/gas tube replacement made from anodized aluminum. It’s well made and provides a host of mounting options including long and short Picatinny rails, sling swivels and rail covers in all the popular colors. It was a very tight fit. Unfortunately, as much as I liked the forend/handguard, I had problems with the red dot mount, which extends back from the side of the forend. It’s actually an extended Picatinny rail that makes a couple of 90-degree bends to bring it on top of the dust cover behind the leaf rear sight. This leaves the optic mounted on an extended (7 ½” unsupported) length of aluminum that has some flexibility. There’s a screw which supports it at the rear by resting on the dustcover. However, I just couldn’t keep the sight zeroed and finally gave up on it.
There are rails that mount directly to the dust cover, but the stock cover just isn’t stable enough to work. I then came across a variation on this from a company in Austin, Texas, not too far from me—Texas Weapons Systems (TWS). It is called a Dogleg Rail, but it’s really a replacement dustcover with the rail built in. The “dogleg” portion of the name comes from a component that replaces the leaf sight, being pinned solidly to the top of the receiver. This is held under considerable pressure from the leaf sight flat spring. It then bolts directly to the TWS dustcover, anchoring it securely at the front. Also included is a replacement dust cover retaining button. The bottom of this button is cut with a bevel or wedge shape that puts downward pressure on the back of the dustcover. Through mechanical advantage, it effectively triples the force of the recoil spring as it converts it to clamping force to hold the dustcover solidly in position. There are some further modifications to the bottom skirt of the dustcover for added stability. The TMS mount is a full-length rail permitting the use of a scope instead of simply a red dot, or if you wanted a red dot, you could also add a magnifier behind it.
I mounted a Leupold VX-R HOG 1.25-4×20 variable power illuminated reticle scope. The reticle is one Leupold calls the FireDot Pig Plex. You don’t really need the illuminated center red dot, but it does make target acquisition faster in a hunting situation where you want to get a shot off quickly. The combination of the Texas Weapons Systems Dogleg and the Leupold VX-R was just what I was looking for. After zeroing at 50 yards, I went to the 100-yard target and was able to quickly fine-tune the zero. Amazingly, the Century C39 shot to 1 minute-of-angle accuracy. That’s all shots into one inch at 100 yards with cheap Russian made ammo! Given the AK’s reputation for poor accuracy, it was much better than I expected and certainly plenty of accuracy for hunting or home defense.
I used some of the most readily available ammo from Wolf and Silver Bear. More specifically, 123 grain jacketed hollow point Wolf ammunition from Ukraine, and two types of Silver Bear from Russia – 123 grain jacketed hollow point and 123 grain semi-jacketed lead soft point. (These are all steel cased rounds so you can’t reload them.) The Silver Bear hollow points consistently performed the best. They also had the highest muzzle velocity and the least deviation in velocity from round to round. The Wolf hollow points were the second best for accuracy, although they had the lowest muzzle velocity. Out of a total of 350 rounds of a mix of ammo, there was only one malfunction—a failure to extract with the Wolf ammo. The Silver Bear soft points had the second highest average muzzle velocity but the greatest deviation in velocity shot-to-shot and the poorest accuracy.
MSRP for the C39 is $799.99. Street prices seem to be running around $600-640. The ammunition cost less than twenty-five cents a round buying in bulk—240-500 round lots.
As I said, it’s a fun gun to shoot, doesn’t break the bank, and I like the look of wood on a gun. If you want to make it your own, there are lots of aftermarket products to customize it. The only problem I’ve run into is finding a fully adjustable folding stock. Most aftermarket stocks are designed for stamped receivers, and I haven’t yet learned if it’s possible to modify one to work with the C39.
The Leupold VX-R HOG is a good match. Because the leaf sight base is higher than the top of the dust cover, you’d have to use high rings if your scope had much of a bell on the objective end. It’s best to have scopes mounted as close to the bore axis as is practical. Mounted on a one-piece Leupold forward cant set of rings, it clamped easily to the Picatinny rail. I took it off during my range session to check the screws of the TWS rail and it went back to zero when I reinstalled it. As in any scope mount, you should use blue Loctite on all the screws. Same with the TWS rail. There were no problems with screws shooting loose on either.
The illumination button is on the left side of the scope. One press turns it on and each additional press takes it to the next brightness level. Hold it in and the dot turns off. The next time you turn it on, it illuminates at the last setting. The optics are bright and clear, edge-to-edge. The 4-power max magnification was plenty for 100 yards and should allow you to place accurate shots out much farther. I especially liked that you didn’t need a screwdriver to adjust windage and elevation. Eye relief for me was about 3 ½”, which gave me a full field of view through the scope with everything in sharp focus. The only thing I’d add to the scope would be a good set of flip-up lens caps to protect the glass. The 1.25 setting is good for close in or moving targets. In fact, with the dot illuminated, you could use any magnification setting with both eyes open. Where you see the dot is where you’re aiming. Just ignore the magnified image.
Although you could potentially take game out to 300 yards, I’d personally use the AK for shots out to 200 yards. The Leupold should be all the scope you’d need for that. MSRP is $624.99. As usual, street prices are considerably less. I’ve seen it advertised for around $500.
Century C39 Ballistics:
Ammunition Mean Velocity Standard Deviation Extreme Spread Muzzle Energy Smallest Group Size*
Silver Bear 123gr JHP 2461.6 fps 7.36 fps 38 fps 1655 ft. lbs. 0.75”
Silver Bear 123gr SP 2446.8 fps 12.96 fps 86 fps 1635 ft. lbs. 2.80”
Wolf 123gr JHP 2321.2 fps 8.32 fps 41 fps 1471 ft. lbs. 1.58”
*Five shot groups fired from a rest at 100 yards.