August 23, 2022
Since James Tarr is reviewing Pioneer Arms’ Hellpup pistols, it seems an opportune time to examine their new forged trunnion 5.56mm Sporter Elite rifle. So, while Tarr was burning rounds on his range in Michigan, I began testing this new model here in Kansas. The new 5.56mm Sporter Elite piqued my interest for three reasons, it has a forged trunnion, it has certain useful upgrades over a standard AK and it is chambered in the hugely popular 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge. With the end of economical 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm ammunition imported from Russia on the horizon, an AK chambered in the NATO standard 5.56x45mm cartridge is appealing. But, how well would a Polish 5.56x45mm AK actually perform and is it something you should consider? This was my question when I began this project.
As James Tarr has already touched on who Pioneer Arms is, where they are located and some background information, I’ll skip the history and geography lesson. I will only mention that approximately 90% of their output is selective-fire fires for foreign military sales. Why do I mention this? Simply because the genesis of their commercial 5.56mm Sporter Elite rifle is due to a foreign military contract for 5.56mm AK rifles. Pioneer Arms competed against a variety of well-respected Kalashnikov manufacturers, including companies from Bulgaria and Serbia, and won a contract to build select-fire Kalashnikov rifles chambered in 5.56mm NATO. This successful military contract combined with current events on the US commercial market led Pioneer Arms to develop and introduce a semi-automatic sporting rifle chambered in 5.56mm NATO. Their new Sporter Elite though brings more to the table than just a popular NATO caliber.
Delving into this model it is obvious the design is straight Kalashnikov, featuring his famous long-stroke gas system with a carrier-controlled rotating bolt. Pioneer Arms builds the Sporter Elite using a conventional stamped steel receiver. Internally, the basic design is traditional AKM pattern. The Sporter Elite rifle features a 16-inch barrel with a durable Melonite finish. The rifling twist is one turn in seven inches which allows it to handle a wide range of projectile weights and lengths. The muzzle features typical 14mm LH threads, the same as you would find on a 7.62x39mm AKM, but comes with a birdcage flash suppressor slightly different than the unit pictured here.
Behind the flash suppressor is a traditional AKM-style front sight block with a protected post front sight. This is adjustable for both windage and elevation when zeroing the rifle. While Pioneer Arms’ standard 5.56mm Sporter rifle has a traditional AK-type tangent rear sight the Sporter Elite, seen here, is optimized for use with optical sights. In place of the tangent rear sight is an integral rail for mounting an optical sight. This is a major departure from other Kalashnikov rifles. It’s important to note the mount is integral, it is not an “add-on” pinned or screwed in place. It features a five-inch long modified Picatinny rail with an integral fixed rear sight square notch.
If you want to mount a red dot sight, or even a scout scope, Pioneer Arms’ integral optic mount is very interesting. Properly mounting optical sights onto AK-pattern rifles has always been a bit of a chore to do right. This is the reason why there are so many different types of optic mounts available for AKs. Handguard mounts, mounts that clamp directly to the barrel and replace the gas tube, mounts that take the place of the rear sight, top-cover mounts, mounts held in place by the pistol grip and side rail mounts. Some work better than others, and all have their shortcomings.
This is something I am very familiar with. Since first mounting an optical sight onto a Yugoslav RPK back in 1991, I have tried a wide variety of mounting solutions. Over the years on my travels and adventures I have spoken with engineers and designers from the US, England, Russia, Czech Republic, Poland and Finland about this issue. I also gathered input from Larry Vickers, the late Peter Kokalis and other industry professionals, military and competition shooters.
In a nutshell, the AK is a difficult rifle to mount an optical sight onto properly. The challenge for aftermarket companies is designing a robust mount that interfaces onto an existing rifle. Pioneer Arms didn’t have to do this though. They build their rifles entirely in-house, and so are not limited to Soviet thinking from 1949, 1959 or 1974. They examined all the typical solutions, threw them all away and designed an integral mount directly over and parallel with the bore. This has zero flex to provide a solid base for mounting an optical sight.
The end result is a bombproof base. This facilitates easy mounting of modern optical gun sights such as a red dot, Holographic sight or even an extended eye relief scout scope. A cantilever mount can be used to mount a conventional scope as well. The fixed rear sight provides a traditional sight picture combined with a longer than standard 18-inch sight radius. Using the fully adjustable front sight you can zero the rifle for the distance which best suits your needs, such as 200 meters.
In addition to the integral optic base, the Sporter Elite features nicely upgraded controls. An improved safety lever on the right side of the receiver acts as a dust cover and can be used to lock the bolt back when in the up, safe, position. More importantly, an extension tab allows the rifleman to quickly and easily manipulate the safety lever using just his trigger finger, while maintaining a firing grip. This is a very nice improvement that greatly aids getting the rifle quickly into action. It eliminates the most common complaint leveled against the AK, its safety design.
Another enhancement is a slightly extended magazine release lever. This ambidextrous piece provides a bit more leverage, speeding up reloads without being too long and getting in the way. So, the Sporter Elite has improved controls to facilitate both getting the rifle into action quicker and to speed up reloads.
Inside the Sporter Elite’s stamped steel receiver you will find another upgrade, Pioneer Arms’ own “Enhanced Firing Group.” This is produced by Pioneer Arms USA at their facility in Florida and has been redesigned to provide a lighter pull-weight and shorter reset. The trigger weight is a crisp and very light four pounds, and the reset is very short. Overall it is an excellent design that contributes to making the rifle easier to hit with.
Furniture consists of good-looking laminated wood combined with a polymer pistol grip. The fore-end features the classic AKM bulges for a more comfortable and secure grasp of the front of the rifle. Length of pull is a short 12.75 inches. This moves the rifle’s center of gravity back closer to the shooter’s center of gravity. Overall length is just 36 inches making the rifle fairly compact. Placing it on my scale I noted it came in at 7.6 pounds without the magazine.
On the initial examination, we noted the Sporter Elite to appear nicely made with no obvious flaws or issues. The rivets on the receiver looked good with nothing to complain about and the satin black finish was even and properly applied. The markings looked good and nothing seemed out of place. I tried the two 30-round Lexan magazines included with the rifle and they fit well without issue. These mags are constructed of a Lexan material, which is an all-black, high-quality military-spec-approved substance that is supported by the European Union and used by many European forces. These are the same magazines provided with their 5.56mm military contract rifles.
The safety was tensioned on the tight side, but I readjusted that easily by bending it slightly away from the receiver. The bolt carrier assembly cycled smoothly for a brand new gun. Removing the top cover revealed nothing out of the ordinary. An AKM-style recoil spring assembly is utilized with no buffer. The top cover was a bit tight out of the box, but posed no issue and the rifle stripped easily during the initial examination. Examining the rifle you will note the front trunnion is forged. Pioneer Arms has their own foundry and has built rifles with cast trunnions, but they introduced forged trunnions to their line with their 5.56mm models.
After an initial function check the Sporter Elite was tested from a rest with a rear bag at 100 yards. Four five-shot groups were recorded with five loads to check accuracy, and velocity was measured using a LabRadar Doppler chronograph. For bench work, I mounted an old Burris 1-4x24mm scope in a Geissele Super Precision High Power Mount (Long) turned around. Test ammunition consisted of Black Hills 55-grain TSX and Australian Outback 55-grain Sierra Blitzking in .223 Rem. In 5.56mm NATO I selected Federal 62-grain M855 FMJ, Black Hills 62-grain TSX and Black Hills 77-grain TMK (Tipped MatchKing) Match load. With the 1-7 inch barrel twist I surmised the Sporter Elite might perform best with heavier bullets and was interested to see how Black Hill’s 77-grain TMK load performed.
Testing from the bench didn’t go quite as I expected. The rifle proved very pleasant to fire with mild recoil. Rounds chambered smoothly and the rifle functioned without issue and ran like a top. The trigger is quite good, making the rifle relatively easy to shoot, although the optic sat higher than optimum due to the way I mounted it. I zeroed with Federal’s 62-grain M855 ball and got to work. The “Green Tip” load averaged 3.5 inches at 2,998 fps. Encouraged by these initial results I switched to the Black Hills 77-grain TMK Match load. I was a bit surprised to see my groups immediately open up. This particular rifle frankly didn’t care for this well-respected load and it averaged a disappointing four inches at 2,726 fps. Frankly, it shot like…an AK.
Switching to Black Hills’ 62-grain TSX load saw my groups tighten up and this load averaged a respectable 2.6 inches at 3,070 fps. Groups continued to shrink as I went down in weight to Black Hills’.223 Rem 55-grain TSX load. This load averaged a slightly better 2.4 inches at 3,036 fps. At this point, I was pretty pleased; the rifle was performing well and fun to shoot. I texted photos of the targets to our Editor-in-Cheif Vincent DeNiro, and then decided to try the Australian Outback load. I’m very glad I did as the 55-grain Sierra Blitzkings provided the best accuracy of the day. My best five-shot 100-yard group came in at just 1.1 inches and this load averaged 1.3 inches for four back-to-back five-shot groups at 100 yards. Average velocity was 2,942 fps and accuracy was very consistent from group to group.
Overall, the rifle performed well, it functioned without issue with all of these loads. It loaded easily, ejected cleanly and exhibited a smooth recoil impulse. It did not appear to be overtly over-gassed as many AKs are. Plus, the good trigger definitely was an asset while shooting groups.
Next, it was time to have some fun. I removed the 1-4x24mm Burris scope and replaced it with a SIG Sauer Romeo4T red dot. I then ran the Sporter Elite through a variety of drills starting at seven yards and moving back in increments to 100 yards. This was done on B-27 paper silhouettes, and then on steel plates and silhouettes as the distance increased past 50 yards. Here the 5.56mm AK really came into its own rapidly engaging multiple targets. At 7.6 pounds empty, and without accessories, it is light and quick handling. Its short length makes it very easy to maneuver, especially around cover. Practical accuracy is very good and snap shooting silhouettes at 100 yards proved no difficulty, especially with the good trigger and red dot sight. It proved to be a lot of fun to run quickly through various drills and had zero issues. The improved safety and extended magazine release really stood out during these drills.
I finished up my range time shooting prone at 280 and 400 yards. I remounted the Burris for this, and used the Australian Outback 55-grain Blitzking load. Temps were hovering at 100 degrees, but I had almost no wind. The Sporter Elite easily dinged steel at 280 yards. The full-size silhouette rang with each pull of the trigger and a nice cluster of impacts formed just left of center. At 400 yards I was able to consistently connect with a LaRue silhouette. The Sporter Elite performed very well teamed with the Australian Outback load.
My thoughts on the Sporter Elite in 5.56mm? The recoil impulse is mild and the rifle is easy to control. Practical accuracy is very good. The upgraded controls, trigger and especially the optical sight mount are big improvements over a standard model and noticeably improve the rifle’s user-friendliness. With the addition of a red dot sight, white light and sling the Sporter Elite would be a capable rifle for personal protection. Negatives are the optic mount, when combined with the standard stock profile, sits a mite higher than optimum. The buttplate is slippery and slides around and some will find the length of pull a bit short.
MSRP on the Sporter Elite is $799 and it arrives with two 30-round magazines. If you are interested in an AK rifle the Sporter Elite has some nice upgrades to make it one to consider. AK rifles and pistols from Pioneer Arms are available from Classic Firearms.
Pioneer Arms 5.56mm Sporter Elite Rifle Specifications
- Caliber: 5.56x45mm
- Operation: Long-stroke gas piston w/ rotating bolt
- Barrel: 16 in., Melonite treated with 1-7-inch twist
- Overall Length: 36 in.
- Feed: 30-round Zytel dual-column dual-feed detachable box
- Weight: 7.6 lbs. without magazine
- Sights: Protected front post, fixed rear with “U” notch
- Optics Mount: Yes, integral Picatinny rail
- Furniture: Laminated wood
- Length of Pull: 12.75 in.
- Trigger: Enhanced Firing Group, 4 lbs. as measured
- MSRP: $799
- Manufacturer: Pioneer Arms, (386) 290-0379, PioneerArmsUS.com