Lee Armory’s AK Build Class: COMBLOC Culture Club

Like many people, I am fascinated with the simple and robust technology used in the AK. The design has many subtle features, not the least of which is the ability to fabricate the rifle under austere conditions for wartime production. I wanted to build one to understand the process.

The same features that made the AK well suited for WW2 Russian infantry made it the weapon of choice for the proxy guerilla wars that followed around the world.

The AK was influenced by German and US WW2 designs and shaped by Russian WW2 experience. Design work on the AK-47 began during the war in 1945. The AK was designed for wartime mass production.

While it did not make it into WW2, the AK served in many other wars and the ease of production allowed it to become the most manufactured gun in history. It has been estimated that over 100 million AKs have been produced. Half of them were made outside Russia.

In 1946, the AK-47 was presented for testing. In 1948, the fixed-stock version was issued to elite units of the Soviet Army and in 1949, the AK-47 was accepted by the Soviet Armed Forces and the Warsaw Pact.

The guys at Lee Armory in Phoenix know AKs. They host build classes. They mostly run an AK manufacturing operation and have all the jigs fitting and parts for building AK rifles. They also have a cadre of gunsmiths who know and love the Kalashnikov design in all of its variants with a passion for sharing with others. Lee Armory wants to help you build your perfect AK.

If you live in an area with state restrictions, Lee Armory can talk you through your options for a legal build. Because they are close, California guns are a specialty. They will ship the rifle back to an FFL of your choosing for DROS. If your rifle must be featureless for your state, Lee has parts like the Strike Industries AK Fin Grip to keep you legal.

All AK parts are not created equal. Lee Armory has a complete stock of quality forged virgin parts from a Romanian factory. Their virgin Romanian barrels are cold-hammer forged with no gas ports. With no pins and no holes, these barrels can become the exact custom cut fit you need.

AK47, AK74, and RPK; Lee can do it all. They have the connections to get quality parts and receivers. Traditional or modern they can make the gun you have only imagined.

I have seen and shot AKs from all around the world. There are some amazing variants and enough models to give most shooters a dream gun. I am partial to full stock classic models because they just feel better to me. I must admit, I am not immune to the charms of the triangle side folder, but the under folder is not the girl for me. I picked Lee Armory’s Romanian Military Classic AKM.

The Avtomat Kalashnikova has an enviable reputation for reliability under adverse conditions. While it has some weaknesses like poor sights, heavy magazines, and substantial recoil, the strengths of the AK far outweigh its deficiencies.

It was perfectly designed for the Russian Army. Simple, rugged, reliable, easy to mass produce and sized for teenaged conscripts. As they taught me at infantry school, “Quantity has a Quality all its own.”

Simple Design

The AK is simple in a way that only expert engineers and craftsmen can make a gun. It uses no space-age materials, just steel, and iron, and wood. By the 1990’s, Kalashnikovs would have composite magazines and composite furniture, but they didn’t need them.

I have seen functional AKs that were made in villages in Pakistan from railroad ties with files and hammers. Photo courtesy of acidcow.com

The AK’s operating system is a long-stroke gas piston system with a rotating bolt. The AK’s oversized bolt has two big locking lugs which are remarkably tolerant of sloppy headspace and undersized contact patches with the locking recesses of the trunnion.

This Chinese Type 56, a copy of the milled receiver Soviet AK47 was siezed from a poacher in Africa. The receiver cover and trigger guard are missing, the furniture is improvised, and the rear sights are held on with wire. Reportedly, it still fires Photo courtesy of Underground Tactical.

Engineered for Cheap Mass Production

The AK was designed as a stamped sheet metal gun. The German’s perfected this technology with the MG42 and later the StG44. The first AKs were made with milled receivers, not because they were better, but because it took a few years for the Russians to perfect the stamped receiver. Stampings are cheap and can be made by unskilled labor.

The bent sheet metal receiver in the middle soon became a gun.

The key components are held together with rivets. This medieval technology consists of taking a small piece of soft metal and smashing it to hold two parts together. Much cheaper than welding or threaded parts with less technology and skill required. Barrels are pressed into riveted trunnions and pinned, much simpler than cutting thread.

This is the secret ingredient that turns sheet metal into Russian guns. Rivets. Not just any rivets, the correct rivet for each location on the gun. These are the rivet bins at Lee Armory.

Rivets are much easier to make than screws but it’s not as simple as it seems. To get the full strength a rivet can provide, you must have the correct rivet profile and smash it with the proper tool. If the metal doesn’t flow properly, it will not join the trunnion to the receiver as it should, weakening the gun and possibly misaligning cycling parts.

Loose Tolerances?

This is my sheet metal receiver after the rivets have been smashed for the trunions, sight mount and trigger guard/magazine release. This strengthens the sheet metal stamping yet still allows some flexing.

While there is some healthy space for carbon and debris, critical parts of the AK are manufactured with precision. The beauty of the Russian engineering design philosophy is that nothing is manufactured with unnecessary precision.

There are some parts of a gun that absolutely must fight tightly to ensure safe, accurate, and reliable operation. The only critical tolerances in the operating mechanism come from the interface of the lugs of the rotating bolt with the locking recesses of the receiver.

Building an AK style rifle includes the handcrafted art of rivet smashing. Rivets are much easier to make than screws and provide an outlet for repressed aggression. Lee armorers will instruct each student on the technique.

This hydraulic press has an attachment to reach inside the receiver and smash the rivet to hold the front trunnion. This is an example of a special jig, built by a craftsman so that unskilled labor can smash a rivet.

Populating the Barrel

Barrel head space and population can be very frustrating. Many parts kits arrive with parts still attached to demiled barrels. Removing and reinstalling these parts is never simple. Canted sights are the most irritating issue with most AK Style Rifles, Lee Armory will show you how to prevent this in your build.

An alignment guide is used to check the position of the front sight and gas-port block in relation to the rear-sight block before placing the barrel assembly in the press.

Lee Armory uses virgin barrels. New barrels do not have a notch in them for the support pin that secures the barrel to the trunnion or a gas port. These holes have to be drilled as well as the pin holes for the gas block. Lee has fittings and jigs that allow precision placement, even with my unskilled labor.

This is the fitting that presses the parts onto the barrel. It maintains precise orientation and spacing. Once things are in place, it is used as a guide to drill the pinholes.

The front trunnion attaches the barrel to the receiver, it is the base around which the rifle is built. This block is the first piece to be added to a new barrel. 

The barrel is placed on the barrel and the head space is checked using the bolt, a Go gauge, No Go gauge, and a cartridge case. Correct headspacing is critical to safety and proper function. It is tricky because if you go too far in, you have to take it off and start over so you want to press it in by small degrees until the spacing is just right.

Head spacing encompasses one of the most important tasks for the rifle to function safely. Most home builders don’t understand the risks of incorrect head spacing. The AK design is very forgiving but proper head apace is essential. Guns with bad headspace blow up.

Little things make a gun great. The Lee guys fit and tune the mag catch, dust cover, gas tube, and wood furniture to give mass-produced parts the craftsman’s touch. In this picture, the mag catch is held in place with a temporary pin to test fit.

Lee Armory has the tools you need to do things safely and easily. They meet you at your level of expertise and offer technical advice and support. If you are not comfortable with performing all the tasks required to build your gun, they will jump in. If you already have a gun that isn’t quite right, Lee Armory also provides complete gunsmithing services.

My completed Lee Armory build in all its glory.

Josh and Mario at Lee Armory supervised my build and kept me on track. When the gun finally came together, we gauged the headspace one last time and test-fired three rounds into a bullet trap in the shop, so far so good. It was the next step that truly impressed me.

Every build class ends at the range. Here is my new rifle ready to rock.

Mario loaded my guns into a car and we went to a nearby range. We pulled up to a bay with steel target at 200 yards. There were several size plates ranging from 36 inches to 12 inches. No paper, nothing closer than 200 yards. He had my attention.

If you have never seen an AK-sight adjustment tool, it is a C-clamp with a front sight wrench on the adjusting arm. There are no clicks, just a horizontal sliding drum with a front sight post screwed into the top. It can be difficult to determine when the windage drum starts moving and how far it goes.

We then pulled out the Lee Armory’s Romanian Military Classic AKM I had just finished 30 minutes ago and a couple of boxes of Red Army Standard ammunition out of Mario’s trunk. I shot two rounds from the bench at the big gong. Both misses.

Mario looks at the desert dust clouds from my shots and makes one windage adjustment and one elevation adjustment. My next shot hits the 36-inch plate, then I hit the 24-inch plate. With no confidence at all in my zero, I then hit the 12-inch plate. My next shot missed, but that was me. I put the next three rounds on the 12-inch plate. Considering the Red Army Standard ammunition I was shooting normally holds an 8-inch group at that range, this gun was shooting very well.

I thought that was just luck. Mario zeros each Lee Armory gun before it ships, he is good at it. We had several other production guns he needed to zero. I saw him do the same trick again with two other guns. I have seen a lot of AKs zeroed. I have never seen anything like Mario’s feel for the AK sight tool.

I left Lee Armory that day and drove to Henderson, Nevada for the Red Oktober AK event. I shot the Red Oktober AK match and went through about 200 rounds with no issues. My buddies at KCI USA needed extra rifles for their demonstrations. I loaned them my new Lee Armory build. They put another 500 rounds through it over two days, mostly mag dumps to show the reliability of their magazines. Using KCI USA magazines with Wolf and Red Army Standard Ammunition there were no malfunctions.

If you want to Cerakote your build (or anything else), Lee can hold the rifle and send it out to We Plead the Second for Certified Cerakote Application. Cerakote provides a solid durable coating which is far superior to almost every other coating on the firearms market. They’ve tested Cerakote to 1000 rounds of continuous full auto machine gun fire with no issues.

Lee Armory offers classes from a box of parts to barreled depending on your time constraints. There are two options in the build class, depending on your needs. Classes are normally the third weekend of every month.

1 Day Class – I have all parts ($600.00)

1 Day Class – I need all parts (Parts are extra, Billed Separately) ($600.00)

2 Day Class – I have all parts ($1200.00)

2 Day Class – I need all parts (Parts are extra, Billed Separately) ($1200.00)

Here is what you get:

One day classes are condensed, but all topics are covered including instruction.

Course Outline: Day 1

8am – Introductions

9am – Introduction to Riveting

12pm – Lunch

1pm – Introduction to Riveting (cont)

5pm – Conclusion

Course Outline: Day 2

8am – Q/A

9am – Introduction to Barrel Populations

12pm – Lunch

1pm – Introduction to Barrel Populations (cont)

3pm – Introduction to Final Assembly

5pm – Conclusion, Test Fire.

Lee Armory’s AK Build Class held in scenic Phoenix, Arizona. AKM Parts Kits are available and you can schedule the 1 or 2 Day class depending on your needs. To sign up click HERE

Lee Armory combines Russian design and quality virgin parts with American craftsmanship to make a superior gun. They lovingly bring out all the qualities of the AK with none of the vagaries of mass production. They take the risk out of buying an AK. Wither you build it or they do, you get a winner every time.

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About the author: Mark Miller is a former Customs Agent and a Green Beret who served in Afghanistan and a number of other live fire locations. A student of firearms and shooting, he is an FFL and a SOT. The guiding philosophy of his life is that terrain and situation dictate tactics and the enemy always gets a vote on any plan.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • GaryGary September 8, 2020, 8:02 am

    AK’s are so simple to build that many, many, American manufactures have gone bust because their attempts were failures ! If anyone thinks pressing a AK barrel into the trunion and pinning it is a do it yourself for anyone think again. But as a Journeyman Tool Maker and AK owner , yes it is somewhat easy with thousands of $$ of special fixtures, jigs, and tooling. Yet many have been doing this for years with varied results.

    • Mark Miller September 8, 2020, 9:27 am

      I could not agree more Gary. That is what I came away with. Unskilled labor can build a reliable AK only if some very smart engineers and tool makers make the fixtures and check the components. A guy in his garage with a hydraulic press is going to have mixed results.

  • bill cattell September 7, 2020, 12:00 pm

    what part of WWII was fought in 1947?

    • Mark Miller September 7, 2020, 10:52 pm

      The AK was influenced by German and US WW2 designs and shaped by Russian WW2 experience. Design work on the AK-47 began during the war in 1945. The AK was designed for wartime mass production. It did not make it into WW2, but it served in many other wars and the design allowed it to become the most manufactured gun in history.

      It has been estimated that over 100 million AKs have been produced. Half of them were made outside Russia.

      In 1946, the AK-47 was presented for testing. In 1948, the fixed-stock version was issued to elite units of the Soviet Army. In 1949, the AK-47 was accepted by the Soviet Armed Forces and the Warsaw Pact.

  • Jimmy H. September 7, 2020, 11:35 am

    I enjoyed the article very much. I respect the AK 47 as a very reliable and effective rifle. I do not like the recoil effect it has. I would much rather shoot an M-1 rifle as it has less slap to my face literally and figuratively. Ha ha. However, I own a couple. I am glad to see an American manufacturer having this type of offering and interest. Thanks.

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