February 22, 2022
By Doug Ford
In December 1979, Soviet airborne forces crossed the border into Afghanistan as part of a spearhead invasion that marked the start of The Soviet War in Afghanistan. This brutal and exhausting 10-year conflict would eventually change Communist Russia in ways nobody, including the Politburo back in Moscow, could have ever imagined. In fact, two years after the Russians eventually withdrew forces, the superpower formerly known as the USSR would no longer exist.
This was certainly not a reflection on the quality of the men, training and equipment that constituted the combat units of the VDV (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyskaor, or Воздушно-десантные войска) or Air-Landing Forces, or any of several other special operations groups that made up vital combat elements in many crucial Soviet operations conducted during the war. Their participation in perhaps some of the most dangerous and difficult missions of the war usually resulted in what could only be described as military victories.
Because of this, Russia relied on their air assault forces quite often when things “got ugly”. In fact, the Soviet military would often employ “airborne” forces in very unconventional ways, in greater numbers and in greater frequency, in order to bolster less capable regular forces.
Their equipment of course played an important factor in their battlefield successes, in part because several of those weapons were designed specifically on their behalf. If nothing else, Soviet small arms were well designed, easy to train on, maintain and operate, and provided an extreme level of reliability often lacking in other types of weapons. They did this without being overly complicated or expensive, or needing elaborate routine maintenance. They also provided a great deal of firepower with satisfactory accuracy, and were well suited to the climate and adverse terrain of Afghanistan. So well in fact, that many of these weapons would eventually be captured and turned against their former owners quite effectively. Such was the case with the Kalashnikov automatic rifle.
AKS-74: The “Paratroop Kalashnikov”
The primary infantry weapon of the airborne assault forces for the entire duration of the war was the iconic Kalashnikov AKS-74, chambered in the M74 5.45x39mm caliber cartridge. Adopted for military service in 1974 (GRAU Index 6P21), AKS-74 replaced most VDV-issued AKMS assault rifles within the next few years. The VDV was actually one of the first services to receive this new infantry weapon, and the first to be photographed by western news agencies brandishing them while marching past the Kremlin on May Day.
The AKS-74 was essentially a folding stock version of the fixed stock AK-74, and was originally designed with paratroopers specifically in mind. It differed in several interesting ways, but strictly in regards to modifications related to its folding stock configuration.
With the buttstock folded, overall length of the rifle was reduced from 933 to 694mm. This provided a compact and handy weapon especially suited for easy stowage, or as part of a paratrooper’s kit upon entry and debarkation from troop carriers, aircraft, assault helicopters, or while operating within small, cramped armored vehicles such as those of the VDV’s special BMD series.
Otherwise, the AKS-74 and the AK-74 were the same basic rifle with 100% interchangeability in all other parts. They were also made on the same production lines using the same serial number sequences.
Specific Design Features of the AKS-74
Early prototypes made between 1969 and 1973 incorporated the typical underfolding stock of the AKMS rifle. However, engineers and designers working on the project in tandem at both TsNIITochmash and the Izhmash Design Bureau eventually chose a far more advanced, non-traditional design featuring a left-hand side-folding skeletonized buttstock. This stock was all new, and was essentially triangular-shaped and made from stamped steel, bent into shape and spot welded to form a solid, rigid shoulder support. Most end users would agree that it was a vast improvement, provided a much more stable and far more comfortable shooting platform favorably comparable to a standard fixed stock rifle.
In order to facilitate the stock, the rear section of the rifle receiver was redesigned around a special hinge block, or “rear trunnion”. This investment cast steel block was machine finished and permanently riveted into the back of the receiver. It not only served the traditional structural functions, but also provided a hinge connection for the buttstock and housed a simple yet masterfully designed three-piece self-adjusting spring-loaded latch mechanism. The latch held the stock securely in place when extended for firing from the shoulder. By manually depressing the left side catch button, one could release the stock. This spring-loaded button also served to provide tension and limit rattle of the buttstock when it was locked in the folded position.
The task of holding the buttstock in the folded position was accomplished by a separate spring-loaded stock catch hook assembly, mounted into and extending from the forward portion of the receiver itself. The pivot pin for securing the hook was inserted into a special hole drilled into the receiver bottom, and was held in place by it’s own wire tension spring. The entire three-piece hook assembly required alterations to both the receiver and the front barrel trunnion.
Another modification specific to AKS-74 was the addition of a thick sheet metal reinforcement plate spot-welded to the bottom of the receiver, positioned above the pistol grip. This was not a new design but simply a carry-over part from the AKMS rifle, and strengthened the receiver shell against warpage due to excessive force applied through the pistol grip, either during sustained firing “from the hip”, or from an accidental impact.
Because the rifle could be carried and fired with the stock folded, this area of the receiver saw added consideration from the engineers at Izhmash, who realized the pistol grip and receiver shell might see quite a bit more stress than a regular fixed stock rifle would.
For instance, while the AK-74 continued to use the “Bakelite” material pistol grip of the AKM, the folding stock rifles were issued with grips that provided more impact protection. The earliest rifles used the laminated plywood grip of the AKMS and RPK rifles, but by mid-1976 a polymer grip made from a new fiberglass-reinforced polyamide material was developed. Called the “plum” pistol grip by western collectors, these grips were a chocolate brown to dark maroon in color, slightly flexible and performed much better than bakelite materials in drop tests. They also provided a better grip, especially in harsh winter or wet weather, than traditional shellac-finished laminated wood.
Polyamides quickly replacing the use of wood grips on all models of Russian folding stock Kalashnikov rifles, and eventually replaced all wood products used on all models of Kalashnikovs by the mid-1980’s. Sadly, 1985 was the last year for factory use of laminated wood on the AKS-74.
1976: Full Scale Production
Manufacture of the standard AK-74 and AKS-74 was conducted in whole at the famous Izhevsk Machine Plant, or Izhmash. Actual series production of the new rifles did not gain full steam until 1976. This was typical of Soviet scheduling, since it took time and effort to properly plan logistics for such a major overhaul of mass production facilities, which would one day be capable of building nearly a million units a year.
In the first few years, the new rifle was manufactured alongside lines still assembling AKM and AKMS rifles. The production of these older models was slated for eventual closure, of course, but their assembly lines were kept active until at least early 1978. The role of the AKM and AKMS was certainly not over within the Soviet armed forces, either. Not by a long shot. At least not until adequate supplies of AK-74 could be produced, and certainly not before the new rifle proved itself a satisfactory successor.
In fact, when the Soviets entered Afghanistan in 1979 the majority of their combat personnel were still carrying the venerable 7.62x39mm AKM and AKMS rifle. Only members of the more specialized or elite units entered the war armed with the new AK-74. However, its portability and ergonomics would quickly make it the weapon of choice for servicemen of all branches by the mid-war years.
The Early Rifles
The first production version of AKS-74 was quite unique, and the pattern is well-known today for its distinctive 45-degree gas block configuration, solid-sided front sight base, laminated pistol grips and an extremely straight-angled rear trunnion using an AKM-derived rivet pattern. The first rifles issued to special purpose troops were of this type, and due to this were among the first of the type to enter Afghanistan. Rare images of AK-74s seen in the field during the early stages of the war were almost always of the 1976-pattern. However, by the middle of 1977 the rifle received a great many product improved modifications.
The most noticeable early change was probably the gas block design. According to Russian sources, not too long after it was first placed into service, a “bullet shear” problem was encountered with the early AK-74. The gas vent, which was drilled at a standard 45-degree angle into the bore, was disturbing the travel of the bullet. In simple terms, the faster moving Small Caliber High Velocity (SCHV) AK-74 bullet was apparently being shaved off in such a manner that a new design was eventually recommended. This was not a problem seen with the slower 7.62x39mm caliber AK.
The severity of any problems associated with using a traditional 45-degree gas vent on the early AK-74 were apparently quite limited, since it took the Russians almost four years to make any changes, and rifles already produced were left in the field in service with some of the most specialized and important of frontline military units. It is also fairly certain to researchers that no recalls were ever officially made since these early rifles could still be seen in service with specialized Russian Federation forces well into the 1990s.
In any case, the eventual modifications employed to address this “problem” were a new 90-degree gas vent and a matching 90-degree gas block, both introduced in late 1976 or early 1977. The design is still produced today for the modern AK-74M and AK-100 rifle series, without major significant changes.
Buttstock Design variations
It is very important to note that the folding stock geometry of the AKS-74, although outwardly similar in most respects, changed quite substantially in the first few years of its production. Most importantly, the angle of the folding stock-to-receiver hinge interface was changed, which affected the compatibility of the receivers, the hinge blocks, and the buttstocks that had to fit them. Changes of this kind were not taken lightly, since they interrupted assembly line operations at the factory and created headaches for military supply-lines and depot repair facilities.
The earliest prototypes had a near zero-angle interface that made the stock swing closed parallel to the top of the receiver edge. The buttplate of the stock was flat and thus contacted the receiver fully when folded. A small circular cutout at the top to buttplate allowed clearance for the rearmost barrel trunnion rivet. It is unlikely that this design reached serial production.
In early 1976, the angle of the receiver hinge block was slightly increased to about 4 degrees. The buttstock was also modified in order to maintain the straight centerline alignment of the rifle for firing. As a result of the changes, the stock folded slightly upward and provided for a more compact carry, strapped to paratroop chest rigging during air drop operations. A small buttplate tab was also added at some point in 1976, to keep the stock from making full contact with the sidewall of the receiver when folded.
Both of these alterations were also done in part to provide clearance for the use of a side-mounted scope rail base, which was installed on versions of the rifle designated AKS-74N (the “N” suffix meant ночным прицелом, which denoted their “Night Sight” capability). These special rifles were of course developed for nighttime operations. For the new AK-74, a lightweight one-piece optical rail was developed which replaced the bulky, complex multi-piece version used on the AKMN rifles.
In that same year, a new universal night vision riflescope was introduced. The factory designation was NSPU, but its military Index code was 1PN34. The new scope was widely issued to airborne units, who greatly favored it over older models due to its lighter weight. It was also the first NVD designed for use with 5.45mm rifles, and was extensively used by VDV forces operating inside Afghanistan throughout the war. Each scope was also issued with a padded web drop case fitted with special straps, specifically designed to attach the scope to standard paratroop load bearing gear.
In 1978, the design of the folding stock assembly was modified once again to the basic style we know today. Receiver-to-stock interface angle was increased to 6 degrees, and the hook catch tab on the buttplate was moved to a lower position on the buttplate, necessary since the stock folded with an increased upward angle on the receiver when closed.
In order to provide more strength to the back portion of the rifle, the rear trunnion also had extended forward rivet arms, or “forks”, which relocated the front rivets deeper into the receiver towards the selector lever axis. This affected receiver sheet metal preparation and was the first time since 1960 that standard AKM rivet spacing was modified in such a way on stamped receiver AKs. This design would stay in production without change, from 1978 until 1992 when the AK-74M was introduced. Ironically, at that time the hinge angle on the AK-74M was reduced back to near 1976 specifications!
Standardization of the AKS-74
By 1979, the AK-74 and AKS-74 were rolling off Izhmash assembly lines at near peak production capacity. The configuration of its basic structural design by this time was standardized and would remain unchanged for the lifespan of its production.
Of course, improvements too numerous to list here would continue to be made throughout the 1980s as the factory strived to enhance its performance, developed improved furniture materials, created new accessories, streamlined assembly methods and automated production techniques.
Once considered a tool uniquely tailored to the air assault troops, the successful design of the AKS-74 was underscored in 1992, when the Russian Federation chose its successor. The new replacement, officially adopted as the AK-74M and meant for issue to troops of all services and professions, was in fact simply a modernized AKS-74.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.