This article is intended to help the first time AK buyer get the necessary information to make an informed purchase of an AK-47 or AK-74 rifle.
This is not for the current AK owner and collector, and as such, you may feel unchallenged by this information. That’s OK. We still love to have you here. Feel free to read along with us anyway.
Here, we are only talking about purchasing the civilian legal semi-automatic version of the “Automatic Kalashnikov Model 47″ or AK-47, which can go by many trade names and designations, but is still a rose by any other name.
Today’s semi-automatic AK market is flooded with Kalashnikovs ranging from marginal to excellent quality. You may find that the deciding factor is your “hip-pocket national bank” (your wallet). We can work with you as well as the guy with deep pockets who is ready to buy but just needs a push in the right direction. Let’s begin.
The AK-47 and AK-74 rifles are by far the most produced modern small arms in the world. Some estimates are as high as 100 million copies. That means the AK accounts for one out of every five firearms in the world. In addition, they are quite the “bad-boy” of the firearms world. There is good reason for this. The AK has earned a reputation for being an extremely reliable weapon under all possible conditions. This is a good thing. Since it is such a good weapon, and the full auto version is relatively cheap on the international black market, many find it to be their weapon of choice, especially gangs and drug traffickers, not to mention terrorists in all parts of the world. Also, the US military has faced the AK-47 in just about every conflict from Vietnam to the present day–thus, the “bad-boy” reputation. You should have already gotten over the “not invented here” syndrome or you would not be thinking about buying one to start with. Believe it or not, and much to their loss, many folks suffer from this malady.
To keep a mental tab on how long the AK has been in service, the AK-47 was introduced in 1947 and the AK-74 in 1974. Pretty easy to remember, huh? Actually, this method of model numbering is common to the European world where the rifle is simply named after the year it was designed or introduced.
The 7.62x39mm round has good stopping power and can be favorably compared to the .30-30 cartridge. 7.62x39mm is plentiful in that countless ship loads of ammo have been brought into the US over the last 20 years, to the extent it is virtually a universal cartridge. The AK-74 5.45x39mm round is a bit less well known. It is essentially the Soviet answer to the 5.56 NATO round. For the past few years, inexpensive (and corrosive) surplus 5.45 ammo has been available, but it seems to be drying up. New production ammunition is still available in great numbers, so ammo availability isn’t a factor. The AK is also available in 5.56 NATO for those who would find that convenient. Most folks looking to buy their first AK will stick with the original 7.62×39 caliber.
Millions of AK magazines have been brought in over the years, undoubtedly. The basic AK-47 mag is the steel, 30 round “banana clip.” While these have gone up in price over the years, used surplus and unissued condition magazines are still available for under $20. The great thing about AK mags is the demand is so high they are being made new right here in the US! These are mostly the polymer variety and most are of high quality and very usable. However, the very best polymers are from places like Bulgaria which produces the “waffle mag” with the “Circle 10″ arsenal mark at the bottom. These are highly recommended if you go polymer. Of course, all the polymer mags are impervious to rust (not including the springs) and are very robust. East German and Polish steel mags are about the best. There is a whole world of information in identifying AK mags as they all are similar. Perhaps we will also add that information in the future. For now, the number one recommendation is the military surplus, 30 round steel magazine.
AK rifles are available in two major receiver groups: milled and stamped. This is where you must decide if you want to go high or low dollar. Just about any milled AK is going to be on the pricey side. That’s just the way the market is, a milled reciever is going to cost you more. To explain the difference between the two, the milled receiver starts life as a solid chunk of quality steel and is put through over 100 machining stages until there is a finished monobloc receiver. That’s the primary reason for the greater cost; all the machine work. The stamped receivers are, just as the term implies, stamped out of a flat sheet of steel and then formed in a series of bending operations until the final box-shaped receiver is completed. There are added operations for the stamped receiver such as adding the front and rear trunions, spot welding the bolt carrier rails to the inside, and installing a number of heavy rivets that are the trademark of the stamped AK receiver. However, there is something aesthetically pleasing about the solid chunk of steel on the milled receiver, and the action is generally smoother on milled guns. Let your pocket book be your guide. For your first AK-47, most folks go with the much more common 1mm stamped reciever. It is every bit as serviceable as the milled and will more than likely cost you a bunch less. Look at one of the Romanian models for around $500-$600. Be sure it accepts the standard double stack hi-capacity magazine, however.
Let’s face it, the days of importing a complete, functioning AK-47 into the US are over. Those days ended on March 14, 1989 when President G. H.W. Bush created an Executive Order banning the import of 43 different semi-automatic rifles. This is where the term “pre-ban” started and is still in use almost 20 years later. If you want one of these pre-ban rifles, by all means get one. The thing to keep in mind is they cost-a-plenty. We are talking in the realm of $1,000 to $2,000 or higher for rare variants. That’s great if you have the money. You can be assured of getting a quality rifle if you buy a Norinco, Polytech, Valmet, Maadi, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian, or any other pre-ban, imported AK- 47. You may find yourself owning a rifle so nice that you will be afraid to shoot it! Especially one that is still new in box (NIB). Don’t be afraid to shoot it unless you just want to keep it for posterity’s sake or as an investment which is sure to appeciate in value. But that is not what this article is focusing on, we are looking at buying a shooter.
US manufacturers are producing their AK’s from imported “parts kits.” These were once complete, fully functioning, select fire rifles that were demilled in the country of origin (or possibly the US importer) to conform to BATFE specs. This means cutting and removing the receiver between the front and rear trunions and carefully removing all the small parts to be shipped forward for import. In 2006 the BATFE restricted the import of original barrels from these kits. That’s just another part that has to be replaced with a US-made unit, which in turn raises the cost of the finished rifle. These import restrictions have been successfully overcome by many AK makers here in the U.S.A. The demand is there to justify doing all the work of producing the receivers and barrels here at home. As a matter of fact, Arsenal Inc. produces an absolutely outstanding “Bulgarian” AK made in Las Vegas!
Price isn’t always a true judge of quality, but most of these quality AK’s are going to run at least $750. The old phrase, “You get what you pay for” runs true here. You cannot cut corners and have a first class firearm. However, fear not, you can get a quality AK at reasonable prices. There are many Romanian AK’s out there that are certainly worth owning for around $500-$600. Fit and finish on these may not be the absolute best, but they are very functional AK’s that will serve you well. You would be cautioned to make a close check of the front sight tower (FST) if you decide to go this route. We have seen many FST’s on Romanian and Yugoslav AK’s that are not properly aligned (canted left or right) and need to be set straight before you can have a successful shooting adventure. If you special order one sight unseen, you may have to resort to having a gunsmith perform this service for you if it comes in canted.
The decision to buy an AK comes with several choices, one being “furniture” —the buttstock, pistol grip, and handguards. However odd it may sound, furniture is the accepted term to refer to the exterior parts of the rifle other than the barrel and receiver. Furniture is divided into two major groups: wood and synthetic. Both are equally good.
The Soviet AK started with wood furniture. This is the way to go if you want a traditional AK-47. There are a variety of woods to choose from as well as laminated woods. The laminated wood is probably the best choice for overall durability. You can go with original Soviet bloc wood or go with one of the many US made stock sets. If you buy an AK and want to change-out the furniture for any reason, that is easily done. You may buy a synthetic furniture AK and want to go wood, or vice versa. Or, you may have a blond Hungarian stock set and want to change to walnut. It’s easy to do. These sets are available prefinished and ready to install, or bare and ready to apply the finish you desire. One popular fad is to duplicate the red toned Russian finish with a gloss topcoat. Looks very nice on any AK.
Synthetic AK furniture came along sometime in the late 60′s or early 70′s. East Germany may have been the first to use a plastic furniture set. This is known as the “pebble finish” and was medium brown in color. This is not the most robust choice of furniture as it appears to be more of a PVC plastic as opposed to the later, tougher, glass filled nylon, but you may like the look. Later came the black synthetic furniture by the Bulgarians. Some people like the all black AK look the best. As with the wood options, changing looks is very easy. Synthetic furniture sets are now available in OD green, Plum, and black to name a few. You may even find them in various camouflaged patterns. Stencils for doing your own multi-color camo paint job are available as well. Also, you may buy your AK with standard AK length buttstock or in the longer “US” or “NATO” version, which adds about 1.25 inches to the overall length, which is more comfortable for taller shooters.
AK’s offer several buttstock options other than the classic fixed position. You can find an under folder, a right side folder, or a left side folder. These are now legal to own in most states since the sunset of the Clinton 1994 – 2004 “Assault Weapons Ban.” If you want to leave tradition behind, you can also buy an AK with an AR-15 style collapsible buttstock. The under folder is perhaps the most recognizable version, but the side folders have certainly been around for a while. Many side folders come in the triangular shape, which approximates the basic shape of the wooden buttstock. Or you can still find what is called a “wire stock”, which is a single rod extending from the rear trunion and ending at the buttplate. This is also called a “crutch” folder since it resembles the end of the crutch that goes under the armpit. The beauty of the side folders is that they can be retrofitted to a conventional buttstock AK with little work. Because of its unique rear trunion design, the underfolder is an underfolder for life.
The vast majority of Kalashnikovs have barrels that are 16.1 inches long. This is true to the original rifle and has held constant since the AK was first introduced. Of course, like many military weapons, there are shorter and longer barreled varients. Short barrel AK rifles fall into the NFA area and are restricted from private ownership without the BATFE tax stamp and federal NFA paperwork. Legal ownership is not insurmountable, but most folks don’t want to go through the process. One alternative is to get a “Krinkov” (AKSU) which was originally designed with a 10 inch barrel, and that has been modified by permanently attaching a fake “can” or suppressor. You can have the best of both worlds; short barrel rifle and legal. As long as the barrel and attachment combine for an overall length of over 16 inches, you are good to go. Keep in mind, barrel length is measured from the bolt face in the ready-to-fire position to the very end of the barrel or permanently attached device. Most manufacturers go an extra quarter to half an inch just to be sure they are not short by a fraction.
Long-barreled AKs usually fall into the sniper category such as the Russian SVD Dragunov, Romanian PSL/Romak III, or light machine gun “RPK” style guns. The Chinese made several long barrel AK’s as well as many other Soviet bloc countries. These are great, but be warned, Soviet and Chinese SVD’s are VERY expensive, usually a minimum of $2500 up to $4000, depending on condition and accessories provided. These are more for the serious collector as opposed to the first AK buyer. The PSL/Romak IIIs are much more reasonably priced and available for less than $1000 with optics included. Don’t assume that the long barrel is a guarantee of tack driver accuracy. Soviet bloc accuracy is considered hitting a human in the vital parts at extended range. Anywhere in the chest area or head is considered a good shot. While we Americans like to think in terms of a sniper rifle being able to shoot sub-minute-of-angle (MOA), I would expect the SVD to shoot 1 to 1.5 MOA at best with carefully handloaded match ammunition. The PSL/Romak III is a 2 to 3 MOA rifle, and most standard barrel Kalashnikovs will shoot 4 MOA. That’s a 4 inch group at 100 yards with a good shooter and standard ammo. For the purists who may be reading, the SVD is not technically an AK-47, but it is close enough to include in this discussion.
The muzzles of virtually all AK barrels are threaded to accept some type of muzzle attachment. This thread pattern is 14 x 1mm, left hand. The most common attachment is the slant brake. The idea behind the slant brake is that the escaping gases will work to push the rifle down and to the left to compensate for the tendency for the recoil to push the rifle up and to the right. Sometimes a plain muzzle nut is installed just to protect the threads. There are many other muzzle attachments for the AK. If you like the AR-15 style flash hider, you can find one threaded to work. The AK-74 style flash hider or muzzle brake is also popular to install on the AK-47. It is very effective in controlling recoil, and its very loud noise and blackblast also make it effective in preventing others from standing near you as you shoot!
U.S. Made Parts
If you buy an AK made from an imported parts kit, it must conform to the 922r guidelines (The Imported Parts Law, 1990). This is a code that was developed by the BATFE to set a standard for the manufacture of an AK style rifle (actually any semi-auto rifle on the ban list) from parts kits. The imported parts count cannot exceed 10 parts. This is not just any 10 parts on the rifle, but 10 parts from a possible list of 20 parts that must be complied with. 16 parts on this list apply to the AK design. To comply with this federal law, you must be sure that the AK you purchase has at least 6 US made parts substituted in the build. The most common US made parts that are used in AKs are the hammer, trigger, disconnector, gas piston, buttstock, pistol grip, upper and lower handguards (both count as one part), slant brake or plain muzzle nut, magazine follower, and magazine floor plate. It only takes 6 of these, so it is up to the manufacturer how they want to work the build. Also, if using the magazine parts as US made parts, you must always use the magazines that have these parts when firing the rifle– using an imported steel magazine would create an illegal configuration. As mentioned earlier, there are several US made magazines available that would give 3 US made parts to the build (the mag body also counts), but most manufacturers do not setup their rifles this way as it would preclude the use of those original issue AK mags, which are very likely to be used by the purchaser. You can reasonably expect an AK from a reputable manufacturer to be in proper 922r compliance. Most US made AK’s will also have a certificate stating that the rifle has been found to be in full 922r compliance by the BATFE. This is your best guarantee of being legal. The above discussion is for stamped receiver AKs: milled receiver AKs only require 5 US made parts since the front and rear trunions are integral to the milled receiver and are not counted as applicable 922r parts.
AKs are available with a number of metal finishes. The most common is the Parkerized finish. This is a durable and traditional finish for a military firearm. All it needs is an occasional oiling. The Egyptian MAADI uses a paint finish which isn’t as durable as the parkerized job, but that’s the way they did it. Some US manufacturers use a combination of parkerizing to “prime” the bare metal followed by a high-tech coating over that. Also, there is the traditional blued finish as used on Chinese, Polish and original Yugoslavian AKs as imported by Mitchell Arms in the late 80′s. These are perhaps the nicest finished AK-47′s out there. Of course, finish is something that can be changed later if the mood suits you.
Wood finish on the AK is usually a tung-oil type but can be linseed oil or polyurethane. Original, imported wood furniture often has been dipped in a laquer or shellac that creates a hard clear coat around it. Since these were military issued furniture sets, the look of the rifle wasn’t a consideration at all and the thick laquer will have obvious drips and runs. Many American AK owners refinish their wood furniture as a result.
Polymer furniture needs no additional finish.
1994 – 2004 Ban Models
You may find some remnants from the 1994 – 2004 Clinton Gun ban for sale. These are referred to as “post-ban” models. Post-ban AKs have had their bayonet lugs ground off, muzzle attachment removed or permanently attached to the barrel, either absent a folding stock or the folding stock welded or fixed in the open position, or possibly with a thumbhole buttstock. These can be fine shooters at more reasonable prices since most AK seekers want all the whistles and bells of the pre-ban AK-47s. It is legal to modify these to “no-ban” configuration as long as you remember to comply with the 922r regulation.
Most post-ban rifles still in possession of the factory or distributor were sent back through a re-assembly or upgrade process and were brought up to no-ban status effective September 14, 2004. There may be one or two minor features that were not brought up to date on no-ban rifles, such as leaving the muzzle attachment permanently attached, as it would not be cost effective to remove it. The same logic applies to the bayonet lugs. These are rather small issues that don’t affect the operation of the AK as far as live fire. They simply fall under the heading of aesthetics, but could give you a potential way to save a few bucks on the cost of an AK if you don’t mind them.
Shooting your new AK
This is the best part! The only drag in the last couple of years is the higher cost of all ammo. In years past, AK ammo was as little as 9 cents per shot. Oh, for the good old days to return! In any case, ammo is plentiful and still fairly inexpensive due to the sheer bulk available. Steel cased ammo is perfectly fine in the AK, as that is what it was designed for. Some ranges will not permit any steel jacketed or bi-metal ammo such as TulAmmo, so keep that in mind.
Before you leave home, carefully inspect the bore for any grease that may be in the barrel. US made firearms rarely have it, but it may be there just the same. Light oil is not usually a problem and will be burnt out after the first round or two. In either case, go ahead and run some patches down the bore to see what you have. When they come out fairly clean, go to the range.
Once out to the range, get it sighted in. You will need to have purchased a sight adjustment tool before hand as nothing else will work for you there. Keng’s Firearms Specialties has some of the Polytech armory-grade models for around $35. This is the one to get! It is built like a tank. Older after market adjustment tools can break the first time you try to move that front sight for elevation, be gentle with them. I won’t go into the actual sighting process, just remember that when correcting the windage, move the front sight away from the desired direction, or, toward the wayward grouping, which is the opposite for the standard western style firearm with adjustable rear sight. So, if your group is to the right of the bull’s-eye (or whatever you like to aim at), you must push the front sight to the right to get on target. The rear tangent sight has a setting at the very rear which is called the “battle setting.” At this setting, and after properly sighting in at 100 yards or meters, by aiming at center of body mass, you will hit an enemy between the shoulders and hips at ranges from zero to 300 meters or yards. Of course, you have the traditional ranges also listed from 100 to 700 or 800 meters or yards. For general use, sight-in at 100 meters or yards.
The beauty of the AK is that it eats just about any ammo you feed it with ease. That’s just the way it was designed. Of course, you may encounter problems as with any firearm. Any new rifle may need a break in period, so don’t be alarmed if you have a few failures feeding or extracting. Be sure it is properly lubed and oiled before you shoot, that may curb any problems before they crop up. Some AKs, such as the Yugoslavians, have a three-position gas setting which should be in the middle position. The other two are for very dirty rifles (more gas) and very hot loads (less gas). Be sure to check here if you have short stroking problems. In rare cases, you may have a bad magazine follower. Bent magazine bodies are more likely and this is easy to spot once you suspect a problem. If the rifle fails to run the bolt carrier to the rear AT ALL, then you have a block in the gas orifice between the bore and the gas tube. This may shut your shooting down for that session since it is going to require getting a probe in there to clean out whatever is blocking the orifice. Its pretty rare, but possible.
This is going to involve some disassembly of your new AK. Not a problem. Just pop the dust cover off and proceed to take it down. Instructions are furnished with all A’s these days and plenty are available online. The best policy for cleaning is to assume that your ammo is made with corrosive primers, especially if it came from overseas. Note that Wolf and TulAmmo are not corrosive. If you don’t clean your rifle after shooting corrosive ammo, the bore will rust as well as the bolt face and breech areas. It’s a really ugly mess, but will not actually affect the operation of your AK unless it is an extreme case and you let the situation go without ever stopping the rust. However, why take a chance on ruining the value of you rifle? Hoppe’s No 9 cleaner is the best to use to clean up after corrosive primers. Use it generously and you will sleep well at night. Even if the primers are not corrosive, it is still a good policy to properly clean (from the rear of the bore) after a firing session. Lightly oil after cleaning and reassemble your AK.
Not much is needed for the AK-47 except a sling. However, if you think you may want to add a scope, then you want to make sure your rifle comes with a scope mount. These can be added later, but the problem is finding someone to mount it accurately. It’s much easier to get it on the rifle from the start, which is something to consider, especially if you are getting near the “50″ mark where the old eyes start losing a bit of their sharpness.
A bit of information on the mount. The traditional AK-47 scope mount is on the left side of the rifle, which is different from most modern rifles. It is a matter of necessity since there is not a solid mounting point to mount the scope on the top rear of the rifle. Dust cover mounts are available, but will not hold a steady zero. That method is OK for iron sights as on the Galil, but just not practical for a scope. The side mount does provide a nice feature in that it provides easy removal and replacement without losing “zero.”
Other scope mounting options are available, now that the accessory market has greatly expanded. Picatinny rail handguards are available that replace the front handguards. On the Picatinny rails you can easily mount an optic. The potential problem here is the fair amount of heat generated from firing is quickly transferred to the scope. The picatinny rails are usually made of aluminumm, which can get pretty hot on the hands even if no scopes are attached. Of course, mounting a scope that far forward usually requires a long eye relief scout or pistol scope, or just a zero magnification red dot sight. If this method of sight attachment appeals to you, then you are covered.
There are many AK scopes to pick from. Since the traditional scope mount for the AK is on the left side, you need to either get a scope with integral mount such as a Russian PSO-1 or similar, or buy a left-side mount and add your favorite scope. The PSO-1 style scopes are good and are made to the military spec and configuration of the original Soviet model. In fact, you can still get one made in the Belarus military factory. Keep in mind, as with the accuracy of the AK, Russian scopes are not quite as good as we are used to here in the West. They get the job done, however. Sighting in a Russian scope is a bit different in that the windage and elevation knobs operate a bit different for the sighting- in process. Also, the reticle does not stay centered as on a Western scope. There are instructions online (AK-47.net) on how to sight-in a Russian-style scope. If you go with the side scope mount by itself, you can add just about any scope you like, including one you may have sitting around unused. Such a deal! To the AK purists, mounting anything other than an AK style scope on an AK-47 is not kosher; just doesn’t look quite right. But, each to his own!
The accessory market for AKs continues to expand at a rapid pace. Keep in mind that the more equipment you apply, the less handy and rugged your AK may become. It was designed as a rough and tough, reliable basic weapon and many believe it should be kept that way; the simpler the better.
If you’re looking for more advice on purchasing your first AK, feel free to ask questions on our facebook page at www.facebook.com/cheaperthandirt or call our tech support folks at 800-421-8047.The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!’s blog, “The Shooter’s Log,” is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!