What Makes the AK47 Special? Genius Russian Solutions to Unique Russian Problems

Kalashnikov’s legendary AK47 is unlike the battle rifles of the NATO. The AK47 was a unique marriage of an intermediate cartridge with a sophisticated mass production design. Perfectly integrated with the Soviet doctrine of mass attacks and mass fires, it became a symbol of revolution.

The AK has its disciples and detractors in gun culture. No matter where you stand, the AK holds a special place in history. Love it or hate it, if you understand the demands which produced it, you can appreciate its perfect adaptation for its native environment.

Even the employment AK was different. Like NATO rifleman, the Soviet soldier shot semiautomatic on square ranges, but the training didn’t stop there. He was drilled in live-fire obstacle courses, running them on full-auto and firing from the hip. Original gangsters.

An east German conscript holds his AK47 in the snow.

The first click off safety on an AK is full-auto. The Russian infantry of the AK47 era were children of the submachine-gun battalions of the Great Patriotic War. They were organized in mechanized task forces, their mission, to guard the flanks in forests and towns to support the decisive armor attack.

WW2 Russian soldier with a PPSh-41 submachinegun. Teenage conscripts need simple guns. The PPSh was called the “papasha” (Russian: папаша). It means “daddy”.

The AK is more than a submachine gun replacement for the semi-literate peasant conscript army of a nation lacking depth in precision manufacturing. It was the perfect gun for the Red Army in World War II, even if it came a little too late. It was also, therefore, the perfect gun for the post-war Soviet Army.

In the science fiction book “Guns of the South,” time travelers took the AK back to the civil war. The soldiers of 1860 understood lever action rifles and steam engines. They would have picked up an AK without amazement.

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 always wanted to build one to understand the process.

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 wood. By the ’90s, Kalashnikovs would have composite magazines and composite furniture, but they don’t need them.

The AK was ideally suited to poorly trained guerilla armies and was sent to communist groups around the world.

Development

While credit is given to Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, there was a team of designers who developed a series of prototypes. Kalashnikov has suggested he was inspired by the M-1 Garand and assisted by German small arms designer Hugo Schmisser.

There is a theory that the AK47 was a derivative of the German STG44. While there is no doubt that the success of the STG44 was influential, the AK47 is a very different design. Because very few people have any experience with the STG44, there are many misconceptions.

The STG44’s tilting bolt design is completely different than the AK47.

The heart of a rifle is bolt design. The AK47 uses the multi-lug rotating bolt with a bolt face similar to the M-1 Garand. The Russian SVT40 and the STG44 use a tilting bolt, an older design not used in any modern weapons.

There were many competing designs. The AK project was the beneficiary of an excellent common magazine design already in existence and the 7.62×39 cartridge. Features from many previous weapons were used and the influence of the STG44 cannot be denied.

A team of skilled engineers built a series of prototypes and then figured out how to mass produce them. What ever you think about the origin of design features, the AK47 is uniquely Russian.

Ammunition

The 7.62×39mm round is an intermediate cartridge designed by the Soviet Union in 1943. It has solid performance as a military and hunting round.

One under-appreciated quality of the round is its smooth taper and lack of a protruding shoulder. This makes it load smoother and enhances the AKs reliability.

NATO 5.56×39 on the left, the AK’s 7.62×39 in the right

Simple Design

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 is remarkably tolerant of sloppy headspace and undersized contact patches with the locking recesses of the trunnion.

With the sheet metal receiver made transparent, you can clearly see the front and rear trunions depicted in light green. Riveted in the receiver, they provide stiffness and strength.

Designed 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.

In 1965, this Soviet Naval Infantry unit sports their new milled receiver AKs with the original “slab side” magazines.

The German’s also invented hammer forged barrels for WW2 as a cheap mass production technology. The hard chrome-lined hammer AK forged barrel are cheap and rugged. Barrels are pressed in and pinned, much simpler than cutting threads.

The 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.

Special rivet fittings crush rivets in exact shapes to provide maximum strength.

I had the opportunity to take an AK build class with Lee Armory in Phoenix. They know AKs and have all the jigs fitting and parts for building AK rifles because they make AKs. 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. I learned some secrets about making the AK.

The builders in Pakistan are skilled artisans. They produce working guns, even though they use crude tools. The secret to the Russian AK is the craftsmen who make the jigs and special tools. These fittings made it possible for largely unskilled laborers to assembly quality weapons from components.

As home builders can attest, barrel population can be very frustrating. Lee Armory uses sophisticated jigs similar to factory equipment which can precisely press components on to the barrel. Once the sight post and trunnion are positioned, they are pinned in place.

Barrel head space and population can be very frustrating. The barrels must be installed in the correct position for the rifle to function safely. The AK design is very forgiving but proper head apace is essential.

This fitting lines up the parts for precise barrel population avoiding the dreaded canted front sight.

Headspace is easily checked with gauges but requires a deft touch with the hydraulic press to get it right. If you press too far, you have to take it apart and start over.

This AK receiver is completely riveted together and ready for assembly.

Once you populate the barrel, you rivet the trunnions into the folded sheet metal receiver and push in the assembled barrel. Rivets are much easier to make than screws and provide an outlet for repressed aggression.

Using proper sized rivets is critical to building a solid AK. There are different rivets for different locations and models.

Magazines

One of the most complex AK parts is the sophisticated stamping, bending, and welding of the magazine. This produces an elegantly designed magazine with a smooth feed path. To feed 7.62×39 ammo, the AK mag is sharply curved with high feed lips close to the chamber center-line.

The design of the feed system is the most important aspect of reliability. Small variations in magazine construction can have a big impact on function. While the AK has received many modifications and upgrades, the only change to the magazine has been the addition of reinforcing ribs.

100 yard accuracy with a standard AK and steel cased ammunition is quite acceptable.

AK magazines are rugged and have a dependable design. I have a couple of the original slab side magazines which probably date from the 1950s. They still run reliably after decades of carry with no maintenance. (Don’t worry, they have a loving forever home now).

Environmental protection

Mud, sand, and debris are the enemies of reliability. The AK’s safety seals the gap between the receiver and the receiver cover protecting fire controls and the bolt carrier group.

This Chinese Type 56, a copy of the milled receiver Soviet AK47 was sized 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.

Kalashnikov was limited by the Soviet technology. The AK is designed to tolerate rust or pitting in most parts without impacting function or accuracy. See above.

Early AKs were made of steel and rust blued. These guns look good when new but don’t provide the same level of protection as parkerization. Critical parts like the gas port area, the gas piston, and the bore are hard chrome plated.

The AKs I have seen overseas almost always had some surface rust and pitting. The critical areas, protected by chrome plating still work. The ugliest AK I ever saw still shot. The levels of accuracy varied widely, but I think much that is attributable to ammunition.

No Small Parts, Fewer Parts

A field-stripped AK contains nothing small or easy to lose. The parts are simple and robust. The bolt is the smallest part without detailed disassembly.

Where ever possible, parts were reduced or combined. The hammer spring, for example, is made of two wires coiled together for strength and redundancy. It also serves as the trigger return spring reducing the number of parts.

Appropriate Tolerances

It is a common misconception that the AK is not manufactured with precision. The design genius of the AK is that precision is strictly rationed to parts where it is needed.

The only moving parts with truly tight tolerances are the interface of the bolt lugs with the recesses in the trunnion. This affects headspace and for safety and accuracy, headspace has to be precise. The non-bearing surfaces of the trunnion are opened up to provide space for carbon build up and dirt to go without interfering with lockup.

The trigger guard and magazine release are stamped and riveted to the receiver.

The AK uses a bolt carrier with a flexibly mounted gas piston. The AK’s bolt can interface with its carrier loosely with no harm to reliability.

There are some small parts in the trigger, but after assembly, these parts would never be removed.

Is the AK the gun for you? It all depends on your abilities and requirements. If you value simplicity and reliability over all else, there is a strong appeal. AKs are a refined solution to a very Russian problem.

The Avtomat Kalashnikova has an enviable reputation for reliability, especially under adverse conditions. This is not popular to say, but the Kalashnikov rifle, contrary to Russian propaganda, is not the best in the world. It struggles with poor sights, heavy magazines, and substantial recoil in the preferred mode, full auto.

The strengths of the AK far outweigh its deficiencies. It is 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.”

Buy and Sell on GunsAmerica! All Local Sales are FREE!

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.

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Ronald Dunne March 25, 2021, 9:47 pm

    Adopting a soviet-designed rifle for use during the Cold War just wasn’t gonna get thru US Congress, then or now. Shoot, even the Belgian-designed FAL wasnt able to pass muster here even tho 90 countries adopted the “Right Arm Of The Free World”, which outclassed (gritting my teeth as I write) the M14 that was finally adopted here.
    Would a US-engineered AK-type have been a good choice? Maybe… altho back-engineering comes with it’s own set of issues.The AR/M16 still suffers from lack of power and bullet weight, IMO, which has to some extent been addressed by the 855 ball ammo. M16/M4 accuracy runs circles around the Kalashnikovs, doubtful many would disagree with that. And it can be readily scoped. I like both systems (and the FAL) and given my slim chances of being in any more firefights, have gotten fairly handy with all three.

  • Ethan Perks January 4, 2021, 10:54 am

    If you look closely at the AK bolt and firing system, the bolt resembles that of an M-1 Carbine and the trigger that of the Garand. The genius of Kalashnikov was in how it all goes together. As for accuracy. Some is accuracy. Over the years I’ve fired dozens of AK/SKS rifles. Most have terrible triggers. Most are 3″ MOA at best. (At least with me doing the shooting) One 5.45×39 was 2MOA consistently. But the best was a MilSurp Chicom SKS! Best military trigger I’ve ever shot. One MOA!!!!

  • KMacK December 11, 2020, 2:14 pm

    Living in California, getting an AK posed numerous problems…until I located a special AK, one that is not gas operated but rather is a pump rifle. The PAK meets California’s convoluted laws and is just as easy to use as a gas-opp’d one but is considered legal because it lacks the gas system. Note: a modified op-rod and movable foregrip are the only differences between the (horrid) gas-operated AK’s and the (Oh, that’s interesting) AK that I have. It can be shot just as fast as a gas-op and is just as accurate. Automatic rifles are more for making the other guy keep his head down than anything else…
    What’s odd is that my AK is a virtual tackdriver, a minute-of-arc rifle even with Wolf’s cheap stuff. It’s easy to keep clean and unlike Stoner’s Boner, is totally reliable when used.
    Actually, IMHO, the U.S. would have been a lot smarter to use a modified U.S. made version of the AK than what we did use…even in 5.56 Rem it would have been a better weapon, but I guess the military wanted “Shiny” and the Commie AK wasn’t at all “Shiny”, it just got the job done.
    That’s what you get, living here in the U.S.A….

    • Ethan Perks January 4, 2021, 11:04 am

      To quote Mr Kalashnikov; Perfect is the enemy of good enough. The AK/AKM could never meet the US Military’s requirements. The original M-16 weighs 6.5 lbs. The Marine induced A2 weight the same loaded as a loaded M-14. With really nice sights too. The Russians wanted a simple, RELIABLE weapon for a mass conscript army! US Small Arms are designed for expert target shooters. They even lengthened the pull on the A2 without considering a combat soldier also has the thickness of a flak jacket!

  • Ej harbet November 9, 2020, 7:18 pm

    Its my rifle of choice for whatever I encounter that a pistol can’t handle. I prefer the effects of a good expanding bullet.

  • Dr Motown November 5, 2020, 1:26 pm

    Why would you say “it was the perfect gun for the Red Army in WWII” when it didn’t enter service until after the war???

    • Mark Miller November 5, 2020, 1:36 pm

      Armies have always prepared to fight the last war. The AK47 was the perfect gun that the Russians wanted and need for WW2. The Red Army designed it during the war for wartime needs. They just didn’t get it until after the war was over.

  • Clint W. November 3, 2020, 1:16 pm

    Me and a buddy of mine each bought underfolder AK’s from SOG a bunch of years ago. Paid 250 bucks each for them. Nice shooters, the metal stock was not very comfortable. We each sold them a few years later, for exactly what we paid for them and happy to get it… at that time. We both kicked our respective butts later on over that sale. I ended up building a short barrel 7.62X39 AR last year from an 80% lower. On the subject of Russian stuff, I have a 7.62X54R bolt action carbine, and I consider it the most brutal rifle I ever shot. I think the reason the Russians gave their soldiers a rifle and 5 rounds of ammo is after the 5th round they were ready to surrender. Maybe if I had one of those heavy winter coats, I could have shot 6.

    • Ronald Dunne March 25, 2021, 9:26 pm

      I hear ya on the the 7.62×54 carbine. I have had the opportunity to shoot and own those little carbines- the flash, boom, and recoil are of nuclear proportions, especially blinding at night. Nice to carry, not so much to actually shoot. Maybe 4 more inches of barrel and/or some kind of flash suppressor would tame it.. Have considered chopping down a full-size rifle to 24″ just to see how that would work- but since they havent been coming into the country like they once were- mutilating a rare-ish rifle just isnt in the cards now.

  • Star November 2, 2020, 12:23 pm

    The communists did not have any industrial capability of stamping rifle parts, before they kidnapped German experts after World War II, and forced their cooperation.

    The AK is what you get when you take German precision and slap Russian manufacture of German technology into production.

    • Mark Miller November 2, 2020, 10:50 pm

      I am very interested in your historical research detailing the German contributions to the AK47. I would love to find some more sources on this. It is very difficult to know with any certainty about what happened behind the Iron Curtain right after WW2.

      “Without direct evidence of major design features being carried over from the MP-43 or other German designs to the AK, and without any primary sources documenting German engineers working with or under Kalashnikov in his team, this connection remains decidedly speculative.”

      https://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2015/05/05/rifle-paternity-test-pinning-down-the-m1-garands-influence-on-the-ak/

      https://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2017/09/27/kalashnikov-vs-schmeisser-umpteenth-time-guest-post/

      I agree with you that the Russians initially had difficulty producing stamped sheet metal guns, but they made milled AK47s. They later used stampings in their excellent PK belt-fed machineguns. Were those designed by the Germans too?

      Before the AK47 and the STG44, there was the SVT40. The Germans used captured SVT40 rifles. They liked them so much Germans copied the SVT40 gas system for their G43/K43 rifle. The Germans were not above coping Russians designs. The SVT40 used a vertically tilting bolt. Could this have inspired the STG44?

      There is very little which is completely new in firearms design. Don’t discount the Russian engineers, they did some fine work.

    • Ronald Dunne March 25, 2021, 9:13 pm

      And a very good marriage it turned out to be (for the soviets). Did I live overseas, an AK would probably be my choice, all things being equal. Here in the States, the AR15/M16 Stoner system reigns supreme and would be my out-the-door rifle under most circumstances. (Not that there arent other good choices, depending on the situation at the time).

  • Don November 2, 2020, 10:11 am

    The Russian AKM is not rust blued. Those are American clones. Russians and the older Soviet pattern rifles are parkerized and then painted. It is a servicable finish.

    • Mark Miller November 2, 2020, 11:38 am

      Later AK47s used paint over a pale grey zinc parkerizing coat.

  • Barefoot skunk hunter November 2, 2020, 8:35 am

    In 2012 while living in a 26’ RV in Southern California I built one With very simple hand tools from an 80% stamped receiver and an Egyptian parts kit. I improvised the barrel press with scrap steel, all thread rod and an 8 ton bottle Jack I got from the trash. I had it out yesterday and put a few rounds through it just to make sure it’s still in good order. 7.63×39 is one of the few rounds I’ve been able to find lately at a reasonable price. Very satisfying!

  • Ray November 2, 2020, 6:08 am

    Frankly I have a very strong aversion to the AK-47 or to be precise the North China Industries Type 56 because on 17 May 1966 a little VietMihn girl soldier girl shot me in the left elbow with one and every day when it is cold It hurts. When it is cold and damp it hurts even more.

Leave a Comment

Send this to a friend