The first modern sporting rifle I ever bought was a piece of junk. It was an extremely ammunition-sensitive AR15 in an A2, HBAR configuration.
This led me to shun the little Armalite in my quest for a reliable semi-automatic carbine, and lead me towards a more Soviet persuasion. That's right, I'm an AK guy. I love the history, reliability, cheap magazines and affordable ammunition.
I'm not blind, however. The AK certainly has its faults—especially in terms of optics and ergonomics. Thankfully, with the recent rise in popularity, the AK has seen a surge of manufacturers producing quality aftermarket parts that put the old-world Cold War carbine nearly on par with its former Western adversary.
Here are my top five AK accessories for the ubiquitous Cold War carbine that drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Shooters accustomed to either aperture sights or magnified optics often find the basic post and notch irons of the AK limit their capability to make precision shots. Endless internet arguments concerning AK accuracy aside, the platform truly has issues reaching its potential due to the small iron sights and limited sight radius. So many shooters decide to mount an optic instead.
This opens a huge can of worms on the AK's suitability for optics. Despite most AKM-pattern carbines shipping with an optics side rail, the platform is ill-suited to their use. Not because it's not accurate enough to benefit from them, but for a number of usability reasons. The three biggest concerns are eye relief, cheek weld and bore-centric mounting.
The first step to maximizing your AK's accuracy potential is purchasing an optic and a mount to install said device. Two top-tier mounts for telescopic sights are the RS Regulate AK303 and the Midwest Industries AK 30mm Side Scope Mount. Both allow the shooter to mount 30mm optics as low as possible and are rock-solid. The RS Regulate AK303 is more modular and can be configured for a multitude of sights, but its price also reflects this.
Now that a shooter has a quality AK accessory mount for their Soviet leadslinger, they need a proper optic. If the shooter intends to engage targets outside of 200 yards, they're going to want a scope with a built-in ballistic drop calculator, or BDC. This gives the operator an instant visual cue of where to aim to adjust for the bullet's drop—which in the case of 7.62x39mm is tremendous. The problem is that few optics-makers offer their scopes with BDC's designed for the Soviet 7.62x39mm round. That said, many are offering models with .300 blackout BDCs, which happen to coincide with the ComBloc cartridge's ballistic arc.
The best two optics featuring this reticle are the Nikon M-300BLK and the Hi-Lux CMR-AK762.
With an adjustable magnification ranging from 1.5x to 6x, the M-300BLK offers great flexibility for shooters looking to engage targets at medium distances ranging from 300 to 500 yards. The BDC on this optic is especially crucial given the round's steep, artillery-like arc. For example, at 300 yards, 7.62x39mm drops more than two feet or 26.5 inches, and at 500 yards, 125 inches or 10.5 feet. Trying to eye that level of drop without a BDC would be very tricky, especially at unknown distances. The only downsides to this AK accessory optic is its size and weight. The former of which precludes the use of a 30mm side rail mount, since the size and length of the objective lens would collide with the rear sight.
The Hi-Lux CMR-AK762 fills a similar role, though with less magnification, only going up to 4x. Though this isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the optic can reach lower magnification with a greater field of vision than the Nikon. Also, its smaller size allows it to be mounted in a dedicated 30mm side mount, which accommodates shooters who prefer a lower, more traditional cheek weld. Another benefit of its more compact design is that it doesn't drastically alter the balance of the rifle, especially when paired with a lightweight mount.
While internet tough guys abound will tell every new shooter that their rifles don't need a comp, that they simply need to hit the gym. Any shooter facing the clock understands when it comes to recoil, "less is more." While traditional AKM-pattern carbines feature the rudimentary slant-cut brake, more modern AK-100 series rifles use a more aggressive brake identical in form and function to those found on AK-74 rifles. While good, neither of these compensators are truly great.
Thankfully, muzzle devices found in the AK accessories market has grown beyond AK-74 and slant-brake clones. After trying several makes and models, I've found one company whose brake strikes the perfect balance between recoil reduction and concussive blast: Manticore Arms. Known for their triangular aluminum stock and keymod AK handguards, Manticore Arms also makes an excellent comp known as the NightBrake.
Like all compensators, the NightBrake reduces felt recoil by redirecting the muzzle blast vertically, thus compensating for muzzle rise. The brake is so effective, it reduces felt recoil to near-.223 levels. Available for both 24mm and 14x1mmL threads, the NightBrake dramatically reduces the time it takes to reacquire targets when shooting quickly.
Additionally, the 14x1mm model is less than one ounce heavier than a slant brake, and the 24mm version is 1.3 ounces lighter than the 74-type brake. In both cases, it doesn't drastically affect the carbine's balance.
In the world of AK accessories, many shooters regard furniture options as purely cosmetic. While in some cases this is accurate, the current market is more about giving shooters options and allowing them to tailor the rifle to themselves. The growth of the custom parts market has mirrored that of the Soviet carbine's popularity in the United States. Shooters needn't look any further than the recent release of polymer AK furniture options from the most prolific AR-15 furniture-maker, Magpul Dynamics, for evidence of this.
This is great news for shooters like myself who enjoy shorter length of pull on their rifles, but don't want to settle for surplus options. I say settle, because even though these are proven designs, they're a one-size-fits-all solutions to arming the vast militaries of the former Warsaw Pact members.
After using several different makes and models of non-OEM furniture, two stocks stand out as some of the most adaptive and durable while maintaining the AK aesthetic: the Magpul Zhukov and the ProMag Archangel OpFor.
The Magpul Zhukov is fantastic, and lives up to the brand's reputation for quality, modularity and durability. Fully adjustable for length, the Zhukov can collapse to smaller than a Warsaw-length stock and extend past a NATO-spec one. Magpul offers this, and their other AK furniture options in five different colors including black, OD Green, FDE plum and stealth grey.
Thanks to Magpul's wonderful marketing team, their line of AK accessory furniture has saturated the firearms blogosphere for the last couple of months, overshadowing ProMag's newest release. Though the Mosin Nagant model proved incredibly popular at the 2014 SHOT Show in Las Vegas, the AK Archangel OpFor is relatively unknown. Which is unfortunate, since it greatly increases the AKM's modularity and effectiveness with optics, due to its adjustable length and comb.
Built from high-impact polymer, the OpFor feels right at home on the most reliable rifle on Earth. In testing, the OpFor was the only adjustable stock that permitted proper cheek weld with larger optics that required higher mounting. One thing of note, the stock is not 100 percent drop-in. Some minor fitting is required, though it only took around 10 minutes of file work to do so.
Railed handguards are one of the most oddly contested topics of the firearms industry. Most people swear by them, remarking that they open a rifle up to a limitless array of accessories. Naysayers argue about the added weight and awkward gripping surface.
Addressing the latter part of that argument are two relatively new interface standards: KeyMod and M-Lok. Both seek to reduce the bulk of railed AK accessories while simultaneously reducing weight. I enjoy both and consequently purchased one railed handguard featuring each in my quest to modernize the AK.
Since the AK is anything but light to start off with, lighter handguards are definitely preferred if shooters intend to do anything but bench-shooting with their Avtomats.
My favorite railed M-Lok handguard is the new Magpul MOE polymer furniture. It may not allow handguard-mounted optics, but weighs next to nothing and easily interfaces with M-Lok accessories or rail segments. It's available in five different colors and two different lengths. The shorter is referred to as the MOE, or Magpul Original Equipment, while the longer holds the moniker of Zhukov.
As far as KeyMod handguards go, the AK market isn't nearly as saturated as the AR-15 one, but quality parts still exist.
One great example, is the Manticore Arms ALFA Rail. It consists of two halves that are bound by six hex screws, and attached to the rifle by means of the original lower handguard retainer and bottom front hole in the receiver like traditional lower handguards.
What makes the ALFA Rail special is its rugged, ultra-lightweight aluminum construction and picatinny-railed upper handguard for micro red dots. This gives the average shooter massive amounts of tactical flexibility by allowing them to configure their AK in dozens of ways.
Truthfully, the AK in its original state is still a potent lead delivery system, regardless of the date. None of these accessories can make up for for lack of training, bad ammunition or a poorly-constructed rifle. That said, shooters who have either hit or are looming close to their Kalashnikov's performance limit, can squeeze a few drops more with the proper AK accessories. They won't turn you into the next Jerry Miculek, but will certainly help separate human interface issues from machine capabilities. The only downside is that shooters won't be able blame their equipment for missed shots.