August 17, 2022
Pioneer Arms’ Hellpup AK pistol has been one of their best-selling products since it was introduced. With the introduction of their new 5.56x45mm Hellpup, and a few changes to the line, I thought it was time to do a little review. I secured both an original 7.62x39mm Hellpup and one of the new 5.56 models, which sports both a side rail for optics and a forged trunnion, something customers have been asking for years.
First, a brief blurb about Pioneer Arms: Pioneer Arms Corporation of Radom, Poland, was established in 2002. It occupies the facilities of the famous Circle 11 and employs many of the same workers. The AKs they produce — for both military and commercial sales, are made with 100% new parts (no recycled surplus).
Their products are imported and sold in the U.S. by sister company Pioneer Arms US, located in Port Orange, FL (outside Daytona Beach). Pioneer Arms, both in Poland and the US, has been expanding rapidly, and currently has 335 total employees. Most of Pioneer Arms US’ employees are veterans, disabled and otherwise, and it is run by Dillard “CJ” Johnson, a retired U.S. Army combat veteran whom I first met over ten years ago when he was contracting for Blackwater.
A lot of Pioneer Arms US’ time and energy goes to making the AK rifles they import 922R compliant, and I have written up those efforts in a previous article for this magazine. But they don’t have that issue with their Hellpup pistol; interestingly, because of its size and features, it meets all the criteria of the GCA’68, so it can be imported as is.
The Original 7.62x39mm Hellpup
I’ll cover the 7.62x39mm Hellpup first, but be advised almost all the specs are identical for the 5.56 model. For this pistol version of perhaps the world’s most successful rifle, the Hellpup deletes the stock, leaving the rear of the receiver blank, and shortens the barrel from the standard 415mm (16.3-inches) to 298mm (11.73-inches). Overall length of the Hellpup is 555mm (21.85-inches), and unloaded weight is six pounds, five ounces. Apart from the barrel length and lack of a stock, the Hellpup is a standard AKM, so let me briefly run down the basic features for those of you new to the AK.
I hate to be a stickler for details, but let me be clear. While I might (will) use the term AK or AK-47 in this article, the Hellpup is actually a pistol version of the AKM. Almost every “AK” on the US market is an AKM, Americans are just lazy with our words. We do the same thing with the 1911 — almost every “1911” in existence sports 1911A1 improvements.
The AK-47 was introduced in 1947. The AKM, Avtomát Kalášnikova modernizírovannyj (Kalashnikov’s Automatic Rifle Modernized) was introduced in 1959. Instead of a milled receiver it has a lighter 1.0mm thick stamped steel receiver, parts optimized for mass production, plus a few tweaks (such as an improved trigger group, lighter receiver cover, rear sight calibrated to 1,000 meters, and forward sling loop). We good? Okay, moving on … .
The military AK/AKM rifle is select fire. Commercial versions of the AK, such as the Hellpup, are semi-automatic. This is a long stroke piston-operated design, with the piston located above the barrel and directly attached to the bolt. The bolt handle is one piece with the bolt, and reciprocates with each shot. If you’re a lefty, and like to hold the front of the magazine as you’re shooting, keep your thumb down, or that bolt handle will teach you a lesson.
The safety is the long lever located on the right side of the receiver — up for safe, down for fire. You can’t really work it with your firing hand without taking your hand off the grip, although there are modernized safeties that address this perceived weakness of the design. The Hellpup sports a safety that has a bolt hold-back notch. Some people love this (there’s no other way to lock your bolt back) and some people, especially traditionalists, hate it (it technically makes the safety a bit weaker).
Standard magazine capacity is thirty. Magazines are inserted by hooking the front of the magazine in and then rotating it up and back. The magazine release is a paddle at the front of the trigger guard — push it forward to remove the magazine. The bolt will not lock back on an empty magazine.
AKs have always been known for their reliability. Where they are seen to be lacking is in ergonomics and accuracy, at least compared to competing and/or more modern designs. Ergonomically, there are a lot of sharp edges on the gun, and the controls aren’t as quick or easy to use as an AR-15, but they work, and with practice anyone can run an AK, including reloading it, pretty darn fast.
As for the “inaccuracy” of the AK, it is in part a side effect of the short sight radius. The front sight is a protected post near the muzzle. The rear sight is a notch adjustable for elevation located above the chamber, forward of the receiver. If you compare Cold War guns, the sight radius on an AKM was much shorter than that of the M16, although it is roughly the same as that of a CAR-15/M4 with iron sights.
The sight radius on a Hellpup is shorter, as the front sight is moved back to the top of the piston. Distance between the front and rear sight on the Hellpup is about 10.25 inches, which is long for a pistol, but short for a firearm chambered in a rifle cartridge. It’s certainly good enough for quick use at defensive distances, and hitting man-sized targets out to +/-200 yards, depending on your eyes and trigger control. Pioneer Arms does sell the Elite model, both in rifle and Hellpup pistol form, which replaces the standard adjustable rear sight with a MIL-STD-1913 “picatinny” rail for mounting optics (that has a rough notch through the middle, so you can use it as a rear sight). On a rifle it pulls your cheek up off the stock, which you may not like. On a pistol (with or without brace) it might be a better option.
Up until July 2022, all the Pioneer Arms Hellpups were slick-sided — no side receiver rails for optics. But in July that is changing, and all the Hellpups coming into the country — 5.56 and 7.62 — will have side rails for mounting optics. More on that in a bit. They’ve also been welding the muzzle device you see here in place, but that practice is ending and with the new pistols you’ll be able to swap it out for a different brake or flash hider. Both the 7.62x39mm and 5.56x45mm Hellpups have muzzles threaded the traditional 14x1 LH.
Most Americans who have spent time behind rifles will have shot some version of the AR. AR trigger pulls are single stage, and factory trigger pulls run six to seven pounds, are somewhat short, and can sometimes be a bit gritty. By contrast, the older AK design has a lighter, smoother trigger pull. However, it is a longer trigger pull. Instead of the crisp, hard break of an AR you get much more trigger travel and usually a rolling break.
The trigger pulls on both the 7.62 and 5.56 Hellpup sent to me measured an even 4.5 pounds, and were smooth. Trigger travel (as measured at the tip) was about half an inch, with reset being half that and very positive. With practice I was able to stage the trigger pull halfway through for a bit more accuracy. In general, this is a good trigger pull for an AK, and did not hinder my accuracy testing. If you want more, Pioneer Arms has a new trigger group that provides four-pound trigger pulls (if not less), but those are only found in their Sporter rifles, not the Hellpups. Although they do sell them separately for $39.99.
The original 7.62x39mm chambering of the AK/AKM, and Hellpup, is the intermediate cartridge against which all others are judged. It sends a thirty-caliber bullet 120+grains in weight downrange at roughly 2300 fps out of a rifle-length barrel. While the velocity out of the Hellpup’s shorter tube is of course affected, you won’t lose as much speed as you might expect (+/-200 fps), likely because that .311"-bore gives powder a lot of room to burn.
The 5.56 Hellpup
Now for the 5.56x45mm Hellpup. The .223/5.56 is America’s cartridge, probably the most common rifle caliber in the country and the most widely available. To some people, combining the 5.56 with the vaunted reliability of the AK platform is the best of both worlds. The 5.56 has less recoil than the 7.62x39mm, and with the right ammo some people (myself included) would argue that it is just as effective at everything except punching through light barriers, where the heavier bullets of the 7.62x39mm have an advantage.
Externally, all the dimensions of the 5.56 Hellpup are the same. However, you might see a tiny bit of a weight difference, due to a difference in barrel wall thickness. One thing of interest to AK aficionados will be the forged trunnion in the 5.56 model.
As a general rule, forged trunnions are considered superior to cast trunnions. Wait, hold on, let me back up for those of you new to the topic — a trunnion on an AK, in simplest form, is a big chunk of steel inside the receiver to which things are connected. There is one at the rear to which stocks are usually attached, and the rear of the recoil spring assembly fits there as well, but it’s the trunnion at the front that gets all the attention. It is secured to the receiver via rivets, and the barrel of an AK is pressed into the trunnion. Forged trunnions are generally considered more durable and less prone to wear and cracking. That said … .
Pioneer Arms is known for making inexpensive AKs. Part of that lower price has to do with their cast trunnions. However, they build a lot of full-auto guns for militaries, and use the exact same cast trunnions in those guns. Without any reported problems. The way they accomplish this is a manufacturing process for their trunnions far better than what you’ll see with most cast metalwork. First, they test all the steel coming into their factory, and if it is the wrong hardness, they add alloys until it gets to the proper spec for 4140 steel. Prior to casting they heat the mold up to 5,000 degrees (the same temperature as molten steel) so that after the pour there will be fewer bubbles, cracks, or other imperfections due to a temperature variation. This is the same process used to cast military hard-use parts such as turbines. After casting, they take one piece out of each pour and X-ray it to check for any flaws, and destructively test it for hardness.
That said, Pioneer Arms will be offering 7.62x39mm Hellpups with both forged and cast trunnions (with a slight price difference), but all the 5.56 guns will have forged trunnions.
The 5.56 Hellpup is fed by 30-round magazines that are easy to differentiate from their 7.62x39mm brothers due to their gentler curve. Both the 7.62 and 5.56 Pioneer factory magazines worked for me without a single problem, however they do not have metal lockup either in front or in back. AK people say polymer magazines are fine for having fun at the range, but “serious” AK magazines should have steel-to-steel lockup with the gun. Luckily, you’ve never had more options in this country for AK magazines, no matter the caliber.
There is no “standard” for 5.56 AK magazines. The 5.56 Hellpup uses “Polish pattern” 5.56 AK magazines, and I’m not sure that there are any out there in 5.56 with metal lockup. 5.56 magazines meant for the Polish Beryl fit the Hellpup. The FB Radom green polymer magazines for the Beryl are Polish military issue, and do not have metal lockup, so apparently the Polish army didn’t get that memo. Both WBP and FB Radom Poland 5.56 magazines fit this firearm, and they are widely available online. AC Unity magazines (made in Bosnia and Herzegovina) do not, even though they look like they should. 5.56 magazines meant for Zastava AKs do not.
As for a side optic rail, and why you might want one, let’s dive in — the AK-47 was basically designed as a submachine gun on steroids, back in the day when human wave attacks were still in style amongst Communist nations, which have always viewed people as replaceable parts of the Motherland machine. The iron sights worked fine, if you even used them—far better to just point your rifle in the general direction of the Imperialist dogs and fire full auto as you advanced en masse across the killing fields.
But, if you feel like aiming, and want something more than the iron sights, and your gun doesn’t have an optic rail, you’ve got a limited number of options. A few companies make rail sections which replace your rear sight. The best ones require gunsmith installation. Other companies sell replacement handguards which sport rail sections. The problem with these is they position your optic right over the gas block, and it’s not uncommon to cook to death optics mounted on such handguards, as they are directly over the hottest part of the gun.
Receiver side rails are the original factory method for mounting optics to the AK. And with a good mount, this will place your optic lower, and closer to the level of the iron sights, than any other method. The mount slides in from rear to front, and depending on brand/make there will be some sort of locking lever. The disadvantage to this system is the mount has to be removed to remove the AK’s top cover. If you’ve got an inferior mount, this means having to re-zero your optic every time you clean your rifle. So don’t get an inferior mount.
In case you’re wondering, the receiver optic rail on the 5.56 Hellpup is the standard AKM rail, not the one designed for the AKM-74. Most people don’t even know there’s a difference. I didn’t, but luckily, I’m friends with smart people who know stuff. Such as Scot Hoskisson, CEO/Owner/Founder/Cook/Janitor of RS Regulate, makers of the best AK scope mounts on the planet. He came over to my house and in a quarter of the time that it would have taken me, fit one of his optic mounts to the 5.56 Hellpup.
The modular RS Regulate mounts, available from them directly and most everyone who sells AK stuff including industry giant Brownells, mount the optic of your choice as low as physically possible on the gun. They are light (roughly 3.5 ounces) and allow you to position the optic of your choice over the centerline of your gun, and as physically low as possible over your top cover. And—perhaps most importantly — the QD mount retains zero, so removing it prior to popping the top cover and cleaning the gun is no big deal.
The RS Regulate system uses a base that clamps to the rail, and you have your choice of a rear- or forward-mounted optic. I chose the forward position, which places the optic over the magazine well. Onto that base you choose which optic mount you want, and I decided on the Trijicon RMR mount. Not for a Trijicon RMR, but for the Holosun 507c X2 with ACSS Vulcan reticle, which uses an RMR footprint.
This particular Holosun 507c X2 is a Primary Arms exclusive, as the ACSS Vulcan reticle is one of PA’s designs. It features a 10 MOA chevron inside a 250 MOA circle. If that circle sounds HUGE, it is. The circle is meant to be used if you’re running this optic on a traditional handgun. When you’re doing that, and have the pistol extended at arm’s length, if you tilt the gun so that the reticle moves out of the window, the edge of the circle comes into view, telling you automatically and instinctively how to move the gun to get the reticle back into view. This is a good idea if you’re running a Hellpup without a brace. You can also shut off the outer circle and just leave the chevron, which is what I did for the Hellpup once I added a brace. A 10 MOA chevron is big enough for running and gunning at speed, but that point provides all the precision you need when you need it. The RS Regulate mount positions the reticle above the protective ring around the front sight in a good balance between a low mount and an uncluttered field of view.
Accessories and Upgrades
You can absolutely leave your Hellpup as-is. But who doesn’t love to customize their stuff? There aren’t as many accessories available for AKs as there are the near-infinitely modular AR-15, but there are a lot:
As I write this, pistol arm braces are still legal. If you do want to equip your pistol with a brace, there are many options. While there are some replacement rear trunnions out there to accept various stocks/braces, they require a gunsmith. Most AK braces people choose are the much simpler ones that attach to the gun via two metal tongues. Loosen your pistol grip, slide those tongues between the pistol grip and the base of the receiver, and then tighten the grip back against the receiver.
SB Tactical are the inventors of pistol arm braces, and their original AK brace is the SOB47. It sports a rubber brace, with a nylon cuff, with roughly the same silhouette as an AK stock. It’s strong and very functional. They also sell an adapter into which you can thread a buffer tube/receiver extension, which will then accept those braces meant to fit onto ARs (their SBA3 seems to be the most popular).
If you want to take advantage of the AK’s buffer tube-free construction, SB Tactical’s AKTF (AK Triangle Folder) might be for you. The brace is shaped like an AK triangle stock, and folds to the left when not in use.
SB Tactical’s braces are meant to help you steady and shoot large-frame pistols one-handed. They are designed so you can slide your hand inside them, and strap them to your forearm with the provided nylon strap. The BATFE has ruled that these are perfectly legal and do not require any paperwork — attaching one to your pistol does not change its legal definition, it remains a pistol. And as long as you don’t otherwise modify the brace, shooting it off your shoulder is perfectly legal as well.
SB Tactical invented pistol arm braces, and their stuff is solid, and works. But consider them the Ford of folding pistol braces. If you want something fancier, say the folding pistol brace equivalent of a Cadillac, you should look into JMAC Customs.
To put together a complete JMAC setup you need to piece it together, and the Configurator on their website helps you. For my Hellpup I grabbed a side folding mechanism, arm bar, brace adapter for arm bar, and then the brace itself (JMAC sells the DoubleStar StrongArm brace, but the Gear Head Works Tailhook Mod 1 fits as well).
JMAC’s folding mechanism clamps onto a 1913/Picatinny rail, and the rear of the Hellpup’s receiver is smooth. As this was a test gun on loan, I didn’t want to send it to a gunsmith to have them replace the rear trunnion, or have it drilled/tapped for JMAC’s RSA-AKP rail adapter, so I got the AK1913 rail adapter from SB Tactical which is held to the receiver via the pistol grip. The end result is beautiful and functional, but about $450 of parts hanging off the back end of the pistol. But, if nothing less than the best will do for you … .
The factory pistol grip works, but it is a little small for my hand. I tried out the US Palm/TangoDown AK pistol grip, perhaps the most well-known aftermarket replacement, as well as the Magpul K2, and didn’t like either one of them. Your experience, as they say, may differ.
One of the most popular upgrades to the AK is a modernized safety with a shelf, allowing you to deactivate it with your trigger finger while keeping a firing grip on the gun. I think the first one was designed by Mark Krebs, of Krebs Custom, and the model they sell is still the best. Provided your AK doesn’t have the shepherd’s hook spring setup (and the Hellpups do not) swapping out a safety lever on an AK is really very simple.
The Hellpup has a spring-loaded detent to hold their muzzle device in place, which is very nice. Press down the pin, and the muzzle device screws right off by hand, no tools needed. If the muzzle device on the Hellpup isn’t to your liking, there are a lot of options on the market. The original AK slant brake might be the way to go — it is simple, but effective, and relatively inexpensive because it is so simple. There are all sorts of muzzle brakes on the market. I really like the look and performance of the Bulgarian four-piece flash hider, and the ones made by AK Builder are supposed to be excellent. However, they’re not cheap (~$100) and sell out quickly … .
On my 5.56 Hellpup I decided to try out the JMAC Customs Facemount X37 Bravo with Blast Diversion Shield (BDS). The Facemount is a muzzle brake. It is a very fat muzzle brake, and the exterior of it is threaded. To that exterior you can attach one of their blast shields, which sends all the noise and concussion downrange. But those threads also work as a suppressor mount, and are machined to fit the Dead Air Nomad, SilencerCo Hybrid, and many others suppressors on the market.
These days, everyone is throwing braces on AK pistols, and that is very definitely an option, but you don’t necessarily need one to hit things. That 10.25-inch sight radius isn’t going anywhere, and if you’re running a Hellpup with a non-magnified optic/red dot it will work no matter what eye relief you’re using.
If you can figure out a way to mount a single-point sling to the rear of the Hellpup, pushing out against the sling, keeping that tension, steadies the pistol a surprising amount. Short of a sling, you can use the traditional push/pull technique—push forward with your support hand on the handguard, and pull back with your hand on the pistol grip. This both steadies the pistol and tends to mitigate recoil.
One technique I saw for running a braceless Hellpup seemed both quick and effective. Tuck your shooting arm in tight to your body, your forearm against the side of your chest. This braces the rear of the gun and keeps it steady, and helps speed up your shot-to-shot recovery. If you’re running an optic in a tall mount, you won’t even need to bend down to see through it.
These are technically pistols, so I did my accuracy testing at 50 yards. Pioneer Arms has stated their 7.62 rifles will do between 2-6 MOA, which is pretty common with AKs. Shooting the 7.62 Hellpup, with iron sights, I will admit I struggled to shoot up to the accuracy potential of the pistol. My eyes aren’t getting any younger.
However, with the 5.56 Hellpup I was able to do tighter groups, and suspect that was simply because of the more accurate sighting system (Holosun optic) than any inherent accuracy difference between the guns. Seeing as all the new Hellpups are being imported with side receiver optics rails, that will soon be an option for the 7.62 guns as well.
The 7.62x39mm Hellpup has more recoil, but it is not abusive. I can keep a full-auto Hellpup SBR conversion on target, so semi-auto it’s easy. AKs are not known for heavy recoil, although they do have more recoil than an AR. And on that note, the 5.56 Hellpup was a pussycat. Once you add the weight of a brace, optic/mount, and a loaded magazine, you’re talking an eight-pound 5.56. Shooting it was soft and smooth. I love how easy it was to run this gun, between the low recoil and the optic. But I also appreciate the traditional look and function of the 7.62 Hellpup with iron sights, and sometimes you want a gun with more recoil.
Running and gunning with both guns was a lot of fun. I worked off my club’s rifle barricade, which reminded me of one stage at last year’s Red Oktober match where we had to shoot our AK’s through various inconveniently sized and placed openings. I practiced a few transition drills as well, swinging between several silhouette targets.
The short barrel of the Hellpups make them easier to work around barriers, and why they might be a good choice for you for home/property defense. A Hellpup, with a side-folding brace, seems like a very good choice for a truck gun. The chances of you needing a truck gun are very low, but never zero.
While the red dot-equipped Hellpup was nice, I’ve always found the AK iron sights, which sit so low to the gun, point very naturally for me. At close ranges I can run them easily with both eyes open. Hammering silhouettes with the 7.62 Hellpup was a lot of fun.
I secure my USPSA cardboard silhouettes to the target sticks with duct tape. Apparently, I did a poor job, as during one of my range trips some of the tape got loose, and right as I began shooting the target began to whip energetically around the post, up and down, left and right. I took the opportunity to shoot at a moving target, and burned through the rest of my magazine.
These pistols came with polymer handguards and pistol grips. Wood versions are available as well if you want a more traditional look. Pioneer Arms doesn’t sell directly to the public, and so the Hellpups don’t have an official MSRP, but whether you’re talking 5.56 or 7.62, wood or polymer, the MSRP should be at or near $779.
Finally … AKs are weird. I feel they are objectively inferior to the AR-15 in nearly every way, and yet I understand their draw. They have soul. For all the modern modularity of the AR, it rarely feels more than a tool or a toy. The AK brings forth emotion. Drama. It’s like comparing a soulless Glock to a 1911. Both the 1911 and the AK are old designs. Outdated. Passed by. And yet look how many are being made and sold. Look how many professionals not just use them but choose them.
Pioneer Arms Hellpup AK Pistol Specifications
- Caliber: 7.62x39mm/5.56x45mm
- Weight: 6.32 lbs. empty (7.62x39mm model)
- Overall Length: 21.85 in.
- Receiver: Stamped 1mm steel
- Barrel: 11.73 in.
- Muzzle Device: Expansion chamber
- Pistol Grip: Polymer
- Handguard: Polymer, with heat shield
- Trigger: 4.5 pounds (as tested)
- Sights: Post front adjustable for elevation, 1,000m blade rear, side optic rail
- Accessories: Two 30-round polymer magazines
- MSRP: $779.99
- Contact: Pioneer Arms, (386) 290-0379, PioneerArmsUS.com