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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”