January 03, 2022
By James Tarr, Handguns Editor
The AK has the reputation for being the most reliable military-style rifle in the history of the universe. We’ve all heard the stories, bury it in mud and it works. Shoot it until the handguards catch fire and it works. Submerge it inside a Spanish galleon in salt water for 272 years until it’s furry with rust and it works. Dunk it in a lava flow, wait for the stone to harden, chip it out, and it works. In truth, it is a reliable design, but it can, and does fail, just like anything man-made.
The AK has been in constant uninterrupted production for roughly 70 years and has seen military and/or law enforcement service in many countries. If you go to a dictionary and look up the phrase “proven in combat”, there’s a photo of an AK. Its original chambering (7.62x39mm) is the caliber that many consider the best intermediate rifle cartridge ever designed. With all that going for it, the AK seems to be perhaps the ideal rifle for preppers. In this article I want to examine both the pros and cons of the AK platform for that role.
As for the inherent reliability of the AK design, it is a sound and reliable design. Provided that it is made with good steel, and built properly, it will run whether it is clean or dirty. There are not a lot of tiny pieces inside an AK, and whether you're talking the bolt, gas piston, hammer, etc., most parts in the gun are large and steel, and the springs involved are quite beefy. In addition, the tolerances in the design are quite forgiving, so the introduction of a bit of dirt or sand generally doesn't bother it at all. It is well suited for use in extreme cold conditions.
The controls of an AK are simple and easy to use whether you're wearing gloves or working in low-light conditions. You’ve got the safety/selector lever, the bolt-handle, and the magazine release. That’s it, apart from the trigger. This rifle was designed to be simple, simple to use and simple to maintain. This makes it a viable choice if you’re looking for a simple design for an emergency situation, where it might also be used by inconsistently-trained friends, neighbors, or family members.
AK iron sights are so rugged and simple that, once a rifle is sighted in, unless you drop it upside down onto a hard surface, you shouldn’t have to worry about a shift in zero. The great thing about the AK design is none of the operating system extends into the buttstock (as with an AR), so it can be equipped with a folding stock. This allows it to be much more compact for storage and transport. Trigger pulls on AKs are generally very good for something originally designed as a general purpose “battle rifle”. In fact, AK trigger pulls, although very long, are generally lighter than the trigger pulls found on an AR-15 with a GI type trigger.
I fired my first AK in 1986. My buddy had just purchased a brand-new Chinese-made Norinco and it was a fun rifle to shoot. It was also one of the few AKs available on the US market, and that didn’t change for most of the 80s, 90s, and into the new century. For most of that time the selection of AKs were very limited. They were all foreign made, and over the years various import restrictions changed availability of these guns.
For most of my lifetime AKs were really a niche item that only appealed to a certain small segment of the gun-owning populace. But fifteen years or so ago that changed. Whether availability of AKs increased because more buyers showed interest in the design, or the increased number of manufacturers and increased availability caused AKs to become more popular, the end result was a huge explosion of AKs on the American market and in the consciousness of the average gun owner. Their popularity eventually led to models being produced here in the US.
When it comes to the AK, it is its operating system which makes it reliable. There are several other rifles on the market which use variations of the AK long-stroke gas piston operating system. The original Israeli Galil and the modern Galil ACE are just one example. While the standard AK is an old design, with an admittedly short sight radius, many of the AKs being sold these days sport modernized features, such as scope mounts, improved controls, receiver rails, etc. The Galil ACE is one such modernized AK-pattern rifle, and it comes with tritium sights, a receiver rail for optics, ambidextrous controls, a charging handle moved to the left side of the receiver to make it more ergonomic for right-handed shooters, and so on. I like my Galil ACE pistol quite a bit.
Even if your AK or AK-type rifle doesn’t have modern features, your choice of accessories for AKs has never been greater. Handguards, stocks, magazines, muzzle devices, triggers, grips, you name it, somebody makes a different or better version for your AK. I happen to live very close to RS Regulate, which makes the best optics mounts for AKs on the planet.
Back in 1986 when I saw my first AK, you had your choice of an AK chambered in 7.62x39mm or…7.62x39mm. That was it. The existence of the newer Soviet 5.45 x39mm cartridge, and the AK74 rifle that fired it, was a fact known only to a few at that time. While the 5.45x39mm cartridge has certain advantages, most AKs sold in the U.S. are chambered in the original 7.62 caliber. AKs are available in other calibers, including 5.56x45mm.
While both the Soviet 7.62x39mm cartridge and the American .223 Rem/5.56 NATO have shown themselves to work well against people, a general purpose rifle for preppers should also be suitable for hunting. In my opinion, the .223/5.56 cartridge is a bit underpowered for hunting medium-size game with. In some states it is not legal for use on deer.
The 5.56mm NATO cartridge sends a 62-grain .22 caliber bullet downrange at roughly 2,900 fps. The standard 7.62x39mm load features a 122-grain .30-caliber bullet heading downrange at 2,330 fps. Whether you’re talking hunting or the ability to punch through intermediate barriers, generally it is mass that wins out, not velocity. Using that metric, the 7.62x39mm offers advantages for hunting medium-size game inside 200 yards.
Back in the 1980s, your only ammo option was imported steel case ammunition. No domestic ammunition manufacturer was making 7.62x39mm ammo. Things have changed. While new-manufacture foreign-made ammo is still available, and very affordable, you can also buy ammo made by U.S. manufacturers, such as Hornady, Federal, Winchester, Remington, and Nosler.
Many of the disadvantages of the AK have been noticed by anyone who has picked one up and compared it to an AR-15. First of all, it is an old design, especially from a manufacturing point of view. The bolt handle is on the wrong side of the gun for right-handers, magazine changes are slow and awkward when compared to the AR, the selector is hard to reach, and to top it all off the gun is covered with sharp edges that jab you.
While AKs are known for their reliability, such is always not the case, especially with American made rifles. Stories of cracked receiver trunnions, broken bolts, soft metal parts, poorly cast parts and quality control issues abound with American made guns. Canted front sight bases are not uncommon with imported and domestic built guns. Tight magazine wells are not uncommon either.
While AKs earned an enviable reputation for reliability during the war in Vietnam, many veterans of the Global War on Terror have a lessor opinion of them. Stories of Iraqi Army and Afghan Army AKs having issues and beating themselves to death are not uncommon. The safety/selector lever also acts as a dust-cover. When it is placed in the Fire position there is a large opening for dirt, mud and debris to enter directly into the action. Get enough dirt, mud or sand into the action of a Kalashnikov and it will shut it down like any other rifle.
The standard laminated wood, and later polymer, handguards heat up quickly. It’s not uncommon for the laminated wood handguards to begin smoking after a fast and extended string of fire. Customizing an AK is much more difficult than making modifications to an AR15. This is due to both its basic design and method of assembly.
While steel Combloc pattern 7.62x39mm magazines are very reliable, they are also very heavy when loaded. If dropped onto a hard surface the magazine feed lips will often deform enough to cause reliability issues. The weight factor comes into play depending upon how many magazines you wish to carry. The weight difference between a loaded 30-round 7.62x39mm AK mag and a 30-round 5.56mm AR15 mag is noticeable.
While the AK is not really longer, it’s heavier than an AR, especially once you add a loaded thirty-round magazine. That’s not much of an issue of if you’re a big tough manly man, but if you’re thinking of buying a rifle that can be used by your spouse or nearly-grown children, it is a factor to consider. That weight helps tame the recoil a bit, but even so the AK when chambered in 7.62x39mm has more recoil than the AR-15. So recovery between shots is slower.
While much more popular than it ever has been, the 7.62x39mm cartridge is still not as easy to find as the .223 Rem/5.56 NATO. If you walk into any gun store in the country, they will have a wide variety of .223/5.56 ammo in stock. They might have 7.62x39mm. If they do have 7.62x39mm in stock, it’s typically economical steel case ball. They most likely won’t have any 5.45x39mm. If your plan is to buy a case or three of ammo when you purchase the rifle and set it aside for a rainy day, local retail ammo availability isn’t an issue for you.
If that’s a concern, however, and your primary focus is defense against two-legged predators instead of hunting, there are a number of companies offering AKs chambered in 5.56mm. I think the first AK in 5.56mm I ever fired was from Arsenal Inc., and I own a Zastava AK pistol as well as a Galil ACE pistol, both of them chambered in 5.56mm and fed by AR magazines.
One historical “negative” of the AK platform has been the short sight radius, which is roughly fifteen inches. If you are young, and have good eyesight, the sights are not really an issue for what the rifle is intended for. However, as your eyesight begins to fade with age they become much harder to see. Zeroing the sights, for your average person, is more time-consuming than with an AR. It typically requires a hammer, punch, elevation tool and a bit of cursing. Poor build quality can also lead to having a rifle come from the factory with a canted front sight base. This can make zeroing impossible or if you can zero the rifle the front sight is pushed all the way to one side.
When it comes to modern optics, just about every AR these days is a “flattop” model, with a rail atop it specifically designed for mounting an optic, be that a red dot or a magnified scope. When it comes to AKs, things aren’t so easy. Some of them have scope rails on the side of the receiver, in which case you can just clamp a mount to your gun, top it with your optic of choice, and hit the range. However, many AKs do not have a receiver scope rail. If you want to mount a red dot you’re going to have to make a decision, do you buy one of those mini red dot mounts which replace the rear sight, do you buy a railed handguard on which to mount an optic, do you buy a replacement railed topcover which probably will not retain zero?
Typical accuracy of a 7.62x39mm AK pattern rifle with ball ammunition is not particularly impressive. Most average around 4 inches at 100 yards, some open up to 6 inches others might tighten to 3 inches. So, they are not precision pieces, but they are capable of doing their intended function. 5.45x39mm AKs have a much better reputation in the accuracy department. Exterior ballistics of the 7.62x39mm is relatively unimpressive with noticeable drop past 200 meters.
Finally, one big negative to the AK as a choice for preppers has nothing to do with its performance, but rather American society in general. In America, the cops and military and good guys use ARs. They do not use AKs. In America, the AK is the “bad guy’s gun”. So, if someone sees your AK, they automatically know you are not a cop or in the military. While that might not automatically make you a bad guy in their mind, it doesn’t help, and depending on the situation the type of rifle in your hands might make a difference to how those around you respond. In the end, the choice on which rifle is best for your individual needs can only be answered by you. It doesn’t matter what is best for anyone else. All that matters is what is best for you.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
About the Author:
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
This article originally appeared in the 2020 issue of Be Ready! Survival Guns.