June 05, 2020
By David M. Fortier
A question I am frequently asked by fans of the Kalashnikov rifle is, “Which caliber is better, 7.62x39mm or 5.45x39mm?” This is actually a hard question to answer as it comes down to an individual’s personal needs and desires. What might be right for one may not be right for another. However, that being said, for your average American rifleman the 7.62x39mm makes much more sense. Here are five reasons why I suggest buying a 7.62x39mm over a 5.45x39mm.
Ammunition availability is a big deal for your average shooter, and here the 7.62x39mm easily trounces the 5.45x39mm. Since the Chinese first dumped inexpensive 7.62x39mm on American shores this caliber has taken off in popularity. It is not only widely imported from European manufacturers but it is also produced by the major players domestically. Any well-stocked gun store will have 7.62x39mm on the shelf. More than likely they will have multiple offerings.
5.45x39mm? Typically it is much harder to find, and you may have to order it online. Domestic 5.45x39mm? You have one load from Hornady to choose from. 7.62x39mm is also imported into the US in drastically larger quantities than 5.45x39mm. Plus, since 7.62x39mm is so much more popular, during times of panic buying the importers ignore the slower selling cartridges, cough 5.45x39mm, and concentrate on bringing in as many containers of the big sellers, cough 7.62x39mm, as possible. So, during ammo shortages it will be easier to find 7.62x39mm than 5.45x39mm.
Diversity of Loads
When it comes to having different flavors to choose from, again the 7.62x39mm puts the knuckles to the 5.45x39mm. Not only do you have a variety of imported FMJ, HP and SP loads to choose from, but there is a host of modern domestic expanding loads as well. American companies like Hornady, Federal and Winchester have all done a great deal of design work and experimentation with the 7.62x39mm. They have developed modern expanding projectiles specifically for this caliber which offer an excellent blend of expansion and penetration for hunting medium size game or personal protection. 7.62x39mm loads are available in both Berdan primed steel cases and reloadable Boxer primed brass cases.
There are far fewer options when it comes to 5.45x39mm. The imported ammunition is steel case from Russia and non-corrosive. But, much of the military surplus 7N6 ball ammunition was loaded with corrosive primers. So, you have to properly clean your rifle or it will rust due to the salts in the primers. Domestic options? There is only one, Hornady’s 60-grain VMAX load. So, if you like options then the 7.62x39mm is the better pick.
While the 5.45x39mm’s 7N6 “Poison Bullet” earned an enviable reputation during the Soviet’s war in Afghanistan, it’s utterly outclassed by modern expanding 7.62x39mm loads. The long for caliber 5.45x39mm ball projectiles were designed with an early yaw cycle. They do not expand or fragment, they yaw and turn side-ways going through a soft target. This, combined with their velocity, is their primary mechanism for tissue destruction. If the projectile does not yaw, you end up with a small .22-caliber hole. The Hornady 60-grain VMAX load on the other hand is a varmint bullet which expands violently on impact, but does not penetrate very deeply. For its intended purpose it is a very good design.
The 7.62x39mm M43 ball load earned a bad rap regarding terminal performance during our war in Vietnam. It had a late yaw cycle, and did not expand or fragment. Moving from FMJ though to modern expanding projectiles drastically improves the terminal performance of the 7.62x39mm. Winchester, Federal, Hornady and even Wolf Performance Ammunition all offer 7.62x39mm loads which expand reliably and penetrate well. Terminal performance for personal protection is excellent and these loads are suitable for hunting medium size game at reasonable distances with good shot placement. To be blunt, the 7.62x39mm has both size and weight on its side while the 5.45x39mm has velocity. When it comes to terminal performance with readily available loads the 7.62x39mm comes out on top.
Let’s face it, the cost of ammunition is a huge deal to recreational shooters. More-so for AK owners who want to practice and have fun on the range, without deflating their wallet. In the good ol’ days surplus 5.45x39mm 7N6 ball was cheap. But those days are long over. Today imported steel case 5.45x39mm and 7.62x39mm costs basically the same. There is no price advantage to 5.45x39mm like there used to be. You would think that since the 5.45x39mm uses less material in its projectile that the ammunition would be less expensive. But, it’s not. So there is no advantage to choosing 5.45x39mm over 7.62x39mm if cost is a factor.
One nice capability the 7.62x39mm possesses is its ability to mimic the 300 AAC Blackout’s subsonic performance. Subsonic factory loads are available and typically launch a 200-grain projectile at around 990 fps. Better still, these will cycle a standard AK. So, if you like shooting suppressed, but prefer doing so with subsonic ammunition, well the 7.62x39mm is an obvious choice. Subsonic 7.62x39mm ammunition was first developed for Soviet Spetsnaz units and fielded in various hotspots, including Afghanistan. The 5.45x39mm? There is no commercial subsonic ammunition in this caliber, and if there was it would not cycle the action of an AK74. Terminal performance of a .221 projectile at subsonic velocities is…unimpressive. So, if you want the option of shooting subsonic ammunition the 7.62x39mm is the obvious choice.
Well, that is five, but here is a sixth reason I’ll toss in for free.
If you wish to reload 7.62x39mm it is a fairly simple affair. Reloading data, dies, projectiles, cartridge cases and suitable powders are all readily available. Companies like Hornady, Sierra, Speer, and Barnes all offer projectiles. Lee, RCBS, Hornady and others offer dies. Hornady, Winchester, Starline and even Lapua offer brass. Plus, there is a host of data readily available from all the manufacturers. I started reloading 7.62x39mm in the 1980s. It’s an easy cartridge to load. The hardest part is finding where your Kalashnikov flung your brass.
5.45x39mm is a much different animal. Reloadable cartridge cases have only just become available and are offered by only Hornady. Projectile selection? Not much. Reloading data? Sparse. So, once again the 7.62x39mm comes out on top.
Personally, I really like the 5.45x39mm cartridge. It’s smooth shooting with a light recoil impulse, more accurate than the 7.62x39mm and has a flatter trajectory. For all around use though, the average American shooter is better off with 7.62x39mm.