Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
In a world with dozens of different rifles available, one has stayed true to its roots and has proven that old designs are more than capable of withstanding the test of time. We are, of course, talking about the tried-and-true weapons platform from the USSR, the AK-47. With dozens of variants, different receivers, different calibers, and arguments on American-made vs. Imports, it’s no wonder that newcomers to the platform have such a hard time picking one of the many options available.
If you’re in the market for a new AK but don’t know where to start, we’re here to help. Follow along as we break down everything you’ll need to know before buying an AK.
Table of contents
- History of the Legend
- Type 1 AK-47
- Type 2 AK-47
- Type 3 AK-47
- AKM (Modern)
- What to look for in an AK
- Forged Front Trunnions
- Aftermarket Parts Availability
- Build or buy?
- AK Buying Options
- Which should you choose?
- AK Parts Kits:
- You Aren’t Completely Out of Luck
- Complete AK Rifles:
- READ MORE: What Makes the AK47 Special? Genius Russian Solutions to Unique Russian Problems
- AK Stocks
- Mounts and Adapters
- AK Rifles FAQ Section
- Wrapping up
History of the Legend
Developed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1946 and later put into production in 1947, the AK-47 is an incredibly versatile, durable, and rugged weapon system. Commonly chambered in the 7.62x39mm cartridge, it has been used in nearly every major conflict that has occurred since its creation. At the time, it was one of the most cost-effective firearms to produce, and it’s seen its share of changes over the years.
Type 1 AK-47
The AK-47 Type 1 is the first version of the AK put into production in 1947. It featured a 16.3-inch barrel, wood furniture, and a stamped receiver with a different front trunnion design than you’re likely used to seeing today. It was an impressive design that either had a metal under folder or wooden fixed stock. While it was a reliable weapon system, it would be redesigned just a few years later.
Type 2 AK-47
The Type 2 was next, and the overall design of the platform was changed. Instead of using a stamped sheet metal receiver, it was built from a milled receiver made from forged steel. It also included a new stock mounting system.
Type 3 AK-47
The AK would be changed for a third time, becoming the Type 3, but the only major differences between the Type 2 and Type 3 would be a lighter-weight receiver and a return to the Type 1 stock attachment system. The Type 3 would be the longest-lasting of the three AK-47 types, staying in service from 1954 to 1959. In 1959, however, Mikhail Kalashnikov would redesign the platform yet again, this time creating a simpler, lighter, and more cost-effective platform, the AKM.
The AKM is the stamped receiver AK variant that almost all other AK variants are based on. It also features the now traditional slant-style muzzle brake. Easier and quicker to produce, it became very popular among Soviet soldiers and the militaries of other nations housed within the Soviet Union. It would stay in service in some capacity for the rest of the Cold War, and it is still a standard issue rifle in many countries today.
What to look for in an AK
Now that you know about the history of this prolific rifle, it’s obvious why they’re as popular as they are, and why there are so many available today. But what should you look for or know about before shopping for an AK? Let’s talk about that:
You heard the phrases “milled” and “stamped” when we went over the history of the AK, but what does it mean for your AK?
Traditionally, AK variants have been produced with both stamped and milled receivers, however, most of the AKs on the market today are stamped. A stamped receiver is made from sheet metal, usually 1 millimeter thick, that is stamped out using a press. Once it’s stamped into shape, it is then heat-treated and tempered so that it can withstand general use and wear and tear from the field.
Milled receivers are different in that they are made from milling down a forged block of steel. Instead of having to rivet the internal components into the receiver, each major component is milled into the steel. In this case, the front of the milled receiver acts as the front trunnion; this is the same for the rear trunnion. While milled receivers are great options, they’re heavier than their stamped counterparts and are, generally, more expensive to produce, making them the pricier option.
So, which is better? There has always been a debate as to which is better, but in all honesty, it really comes down to user preference. If you are looking for a lighter rifle, a stamped receiver is the best option for you. If you don’t mind a heavier rifle that’s a little more robust and durable, milled AKs are a great option for you. Either way, both receivers are more than capable of withstanding daily use in the field, or a range outing every weekend.
Forged Front Trunnions
The front trunnion of the AK platform is the key component that contains the barrel and the pressure created from firing off a cartridge. Since this is the part of the firearm that contains the explosions of gunpowder, it is very important to know that it’s a quality part. Fortunately, most American AK manufacturers and almost all import AKs have forged trunnions. The ones to look out for are cast trunnions.
Cast trunnions are found primarily on older American-made AK systems because they are much more cost-effective to make in bulk. Cast trunnions are made by pouring steel into a trunnion mold, where it then cools and is fine-shaped to fit in the rifle.
This type of trunnion works but isn’t ideal; there is a reason most of the higher-up name-brand AK producers don’t use them. The problem with cast trunnions is that they don’t have anywhere near the same tensile strength and durability as forged ones, making them more likely to have a catastrophic failure. In some cases, they fail in fewer than 1,000 rounds, though some cast trunnions have lasted longer. Regardless, cast trunnions are less reliable than forged ones.
Forged trunnions are made by forging a block of steel into the shape of the trunnion. This is a much better option to go with since the manufacturer can control the steel’s grain pattern, tightness, and shape, making it capable of shooting hundreds of thousands of rounds. AKs with forged trunnions are more expensive than ones with cast trunnions, but for the quality you get, it’s worth the extra cost.
One feature that sets the AK platform’s construction apart from other rifles is its rivets. Instead of having takedown and pivot pins like an AR-15, the AKM has its main parts, like the front and rear trunnions, riveted in the receiver (when using a stamped receiver).
These rivets hold everything in place on your firearm, and they are very sturdy and secure when installed properly. Properly fitted AK rivets should fit flat against the receiver and should be completely vertical. When checking out your AK, observe the rivets. If you see any light from gaps, partially crushed rivets, or loosely fitted rivets, it isn’t structurally sound and not worth purchasing.
Aftermarket Parts Availability
Traditional AK furniture is timeless, functional, and looks great aesthetically. The only issue with traditional furniture is that you can’t do much with it. There aren’t any mounting surfaces like picatinny rails or M-LOK. Fortunately, as the AK platform has boomed in popularity, there are many options for aftermarket handguards, triggers, optic mounts, and more. You will, however, have to make sure that the accessory you buy fits your AK.
As we said before, there are many variants of the AK and each one is designed a bit differently from the other. Luckily, many of the AKMs produced in former Soviet countries are designed almost the same, allowing for complete parts interchangeability between them. Different furniture options are required for Yugo pattern AKs like those from Zastava Arms.
Yugo pattern AKs use a more robust receiver and trunnion, opting for a bulged front trunnion (like that on an RPK) and a 1.5-millimeter-thick receiver. Additionally, they have different handguard lengths, so traditional AK furniture will not fit on a Yugo pattern rifle. Instead, you’d have to use Yugo-specific parts and hardware. However, since these types of AK-pattern rifles have become so popular, there is now a plethora of aftermarket parts and hardware specifically for Yugo-pattern AKs to choose from.
Build or buy?
When you want to purchase an AK, there are two ways to go about acquiring one. You can either purchase a U.S.-made or imported AK, or you can have one custom-built. We’ll touch on this again later, but assembling an AK is nothing like an AR; you will need a lot of specialized tools and experience to properly build one.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, a lot of countries had a vast surplus of AKM rifles. Most of these countries either joined NATO or adopted new standard-issue rifles, and with the abundance of excess AKs, they were de-milled and exported to the United States. Surplus parts kits are one of the best ways to get good quality parts that can be customized into different configurations. However, in most cases, you will have to send your parts kit to a professional to have it built.
It is possible to build an AK on your own, but in order to do so, you must have over $1,000+ in specialty tools and parts to do so. So, if you’re only building the one AK, it just isn’t worth it to invest so much into building it yourself. Fortunately, there are hundreds of quality AK builders in America.
AK Buying Options
If you’re looking for a standard, off-the-shelf AK, you have a lot of options. Many of the AKs available on gun store shelves are either produced in America or imported from other countries and then finished in America. Due to ATF regulation, any foreign firearm imported from another country to be sold on the civilian market must have a certain number of American parts to be considered 922r compliant.
Fortunately, most imported AKs either have partnerships with American companies or have branches of their companies located in the United States to take care of any conversions or part replacements. Some examples of import companies like this are Zastava Arms and their American branch Zastava USA, or WBP Rogów and their importers Arms of America and Atlantic Firearms.
Which should you choose?
Just like whether you should opt for a steel receiver or a milled one, choosing to build or buy your AK is entirely up to you. If there were limited options in complete AKs available, building would be your best option to ensure you’re getting a quality rifle. While this was true 5-10 years ago, we now have several fantastic import options available.
If you’re looking to have a custom build that you may not find on store shelves, order a parts kit and have it built to your specifications. If you’re looking for a starter or traditional AK that can be customized later, there are a lot of good, completed rifles available.
Now that you know what to look for in an AK parts-wise, you’re ready to get the AK of your dreams. As we said before, there are A LOT of different AKs available. It’s a little daunting when you’re new to the platform, so we’ve got some recommendations to help point you in the right direction.
AK Parts Kits:
If you’re going the kit build route, you’ll need to know what to get and where to find them. Most of the parts kits you’ll find are going to be surplus kits from other countries. Some of the more readily available kits are from Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia/Serbia, and Poland. More sought-after kits come from Russia, Bulgaria, and Germany.
While the other kits are still great options, parts kits from Russia are always sought after first because of the legendary quality from the Izhmash and Tula Arms Plant; Bulgarian and German kits were produced in limited quantities, making them much rarer to find in good condition, highly sought after, and expensive comparatively.
Due to government sanctions on Russia and other nations, parts kits are not as available in the quantities that they used to be. As of writing this, there are no more imports of Russian AK parts kits, and there are few surplus parts kits being imported. For the most part, many of the imported parts kits have dried up. If you do plan on going the kit build route, most of the kits you’ll find are going to be Romanian, Polish, Hungarian, or Serbian.
You Aren’t Completely Out of Luck
You can find Russian, Bulgarian, and East German kits online on sites like Gunbroker, but keep in mind that since they aren’t being imported and are already in low quantities, they are very expensive compared to other kits.
For the most part, you’ll find parts kits online. Companies like Arms of America, Atlantic Firearms, and Royal Tiger Imports have many parts kits available from a variety of countries. Something to note: not every kit will come with the barrel. Some kits will come with torch-cut barrels that need to be replaced. Fortunately, AK barrels can be found online from each of the retailers mentioned previously.
Complete AK Rifles:
As the AK’s popularity has increased, so has the number of options available on the market. From American-made rifles to foreign nation imports, it’s tough to narrow down the best of the bunch. We’re going to make it a little easier on you with some great suggestions (in no particular order):
Zastava M70 ZPAP
Made in Serbia and imported to the States by Zastava’s U.S. branch, the M70 ZPAP is a rugged and reliable AK available today on the U.S. market. Usually priced under and around $1,000, they are affordable while still featuring high-quality parts. As stated previously, Zastava is known for using more robust materials; their M70 has a thicker 1.5-millimeter receiver, and a forged RPK-style bulged front trunnion.
In addition to those, it also has a cold hammer forged, chrome-lined barrel for increased durability (great for shooting corrosive surplus ammunition). It comes with an enhanced safety selector that allows you to lock the bolt open, and it ships with Yugo pattern steel magazines that lock the bolt open once it is empty. It’s a great rifle for first-time AK buyers or seasoned AK aficionados.
WBP Rogów Jack Rifle
This AKM is a modern take on the traditional platform, built with high-quality parts, and usually priced around $1,000 to $1,300. Coming from Poland, the WBP Jack rifle is a newer import AK available in the States. Based on the traditional AKM design, it is compatible with all aftermarket AKM parts and furniture.
It also has a forged front trunnion, a hammer-forged and chrome-lined barrel, and a side rail for attaching optic mounts. With wider aftermarket parts availability, it is a great AK for those looking for a traditional-style rifle, or something to modernize later on.
Arsenal Inc. SAM7R
Coming from Bulgaria, Arsenal AKs are revered by many as some of the best available. It is one of the more expensive options, retailing around $1,800 to $2,200. Featuring a milled receiver, the SAM7R is one of the most popular AK variants available today.
Built solidly from a forged steel receiver, this rifle also has a cold hammer forged chrome-lined barrel, a side rail for optic mounts, and it comes standard with an enhanced FIME Group trigger. Being that it is a milled AK, not all aftermarket handguards and stock options will work, but rest assured that there are still a lot of aftermarket upgrades available for Arsenal’s milled AKs.
Kalashnikov USA KR-103
Based on the design of the AK-103, the KUSA KR-103 is an AK rifle made completely in the United States. Ranging from $1,300 to $1,500, they have forged bolt carriers and front trunnions, but depending on the variant, it doesn’t have a hammer-forged barrel. The base model KR-103 still has forged trunnions, but it has a standard chrome-lined barrel. KUSA does make a version of the KR-103 that has a cold hammer forged and chrome-lined barrel, but it is more expensive and usually priced around $1,500 to $1,700.
Palmetto State Armory PSAK-47
Another American-made AK, the PSAK-47 is one of the most affordable AKM rifles on the market, priced around $800 to $900. Based on the traditional style of the AKM, these rifles also feature a forged front trunnion, bolt, and carrier. The barrels, however, are not hammer forged and are instead nitride coated. Like the KUSA KR-103, PSA makes additional AK models that have cold hammer forged barrels, but these are much more expensive usually priced around $1,100 to $1,300.
M+M Industries M10X-Z
A more modern take on the AK, the M10X-Z was designed and made entirely in the United States. Priced around $1,800 to $2,000. this isn’t your average AKM, in fact, it’s more of a blend between the AR-15 and AKM. Instead of using the traditional AK receiver, it uses a modified one that uses M+M’s custom components.
Whereas the traditional AK doesn’t have an upper and lower receiver like an AR-15, this one does and allows you to have multiple configurations. It still operates using the traditional long-stroke gas piston system, but it has a different bolt design that allows the charging handle to be placed on either side for ambidextrous use. Also, instead of traditional AK furniture, it uses a proprietary rail system that’s integrated into the upper receiver; this allows the barrel to free-float the handguard for better barrel harmonics.
With its continuous picatinny top rail, you can mount optics freely without having to use any additional rail mount or chassis system. If you’re looking for a traditional AKM, this isn’t the one for you, but if you want something more akin to an AR-15 with the controls of an AK, the M10X-Z is a great option.
Traditional AK stocks aren’t always the most comfortable option to go with. Since they don’t adjust, they either work great for you or they are uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are a lot of stock options available. Just like how custom wooden handguards can be purchased for your AK, so can stocks. This keeps the traditional look of your AK intact while giving you a more comfortable shooting experience.
Besides wood stocks, you can also opt for Magpul stocks like their Zhukov stock. The Zhukov stock from Magpul allows you to have a folding stock that is adjustable for multiple lengths of pull. You can add a cheek riser to it if you have higher sitting optics. These are great options to use in place of the traditional AK stock, but what if you want to use something like an AR-15 stock?
Mounts and Adapters
With so many stock types available, it’s important to know that there are a lot of mounts and adapters to make them work on AK pattern rifles. There are AR buffer tube adapters available for AK rifles, allowing you to add your favorite AR-15 stock to your AK. There are even adapters for stocks that use 1913 picatinny rails. Stocks like those from Midwest Industries and Sig Sauer use 1913 rails to mount onto rifles.
With these adapters, you can use these stocks in place of the traditional AK stock. Another plus, most 1913 stocks already come with their own folding mechanism, so there aren’t any additional parts to buy if you want your stock to fold.
AK Rifles FAQ Section
Q: What is an AK rifle?
A: An AK rifle, short for Kalashnikov rifle, is a type of firearm designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. It’s known for its reliability, durability, and widespread use. The AK-47 and AK-74 are among the most famous models.
Q: What are the key features of an AK rifle?
A: AK rifles typically feature a gas-operated, piston-driven system known for its reliability. They have a distinctive curved magazine, a stamped or milled receiver, and are known for their simplicity of design and robust construction.
Q: Are AK rifles available in semi-automatic and automatic versions?
A: Many AK rifles sold in civilian markets are semi-automatic, meaning they fire one round per trigger pull. Full-automatic or select-fire versions are generally reserved for military and law enforcement use.
While new weapons platforms are constantly in development, the AK-47 pattern rifle has withstood the test of time and proven that old designs still have their place in the modern world.
By now, you know about the history of this great firearm platform, what to look for when shopping for one, and the different upgrades available. An incredibly versatile platform, when built with modern components, it continues to outperform and outlast many other rifles today.
The AK-47 is a great option for anyone looking to expand their arsenal. Whether you intend to keep it traditional or upgrade it to make it more functional in modern space, the durability and reliability of this legendary rifle will serve you well.
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