August 14, 2020
I was perhaps the first American to ever fire the Russian Avtomat Nikonova-94 (AN-94, often simply called the “Nikonov”) assault rifle when I traveled to Russia back in 2001. A fascinating design intended to increase the rifleman's hit probability through the use of a hyper-burst feature, the AN-94 can fire 2 rounds, at 1,800 rpm, before the recoil impulse reaches the shooter. Handling it I quickly noticed the AN-94 has a number of good and not so good features. The first thing you notice picking it up is its front heavy. Noticeably front heavy and it tips the scales at almost 9.5 pounds loaded. This negatively affects handling, and the rifle is not as quick to the shoulder, or swinging onto a target, as a lighter and better balanced AK-74M. Once swinging it’s also harder to stop than a lighter rifle. However, the weight does aid in reducing muzzle movement when firing.
The pistol grip is a bit oddly placed, and too close to the trigger in my opinion. It's simply a recycled AK-piece bolted on. Basically a cost saving feature using an off the shelf part, and it is less than perfect in this application. The side-folding buttstock locks securely in place and is comfortable enough. The handguard, although short by today's standards, does its job. When you lock the 30-round magazine in place though, things really get weird. The magazine, due to the mechanics of the feed system, juts from the receiver at an odd angle, slanted slightly to the right. This affects the balance and handling of the rifle. It also makes it difficult to use the magazine as a monopod when firing prone. Reloads are also affected, as the magazine comes out and goes in at this odd angle to the right.
The sights are a definite improvement over an AK-74M. The rear diopter works well enough. My only complaint on the sights is I would prefer the front not to be completely surrounded by the sight protector. More importantly the rifle does have a siderail for mounting an optical sight. The safety is a cross-bolt, and easier to manipulate than that of an AK-74M, so no complaints here. However, the selector lever is separate. It is located on the rear of the left side of the receiver. Forward is Semi-Automatic, the middle position is 2-round Burst, and to the rear is Fully Automatic. I found it awkward to manipulate, especially sliding the selector backwards to Full Auto. I suspect most users simply left it on 2-round burst.
Shooting the AN-94 on semi-automatic is relatively boring. It’s simply a heavy 5.45x39mm rifle. It doesn't do anything out of the ordinary. Accuracy is more than acceptable and it ticks along. This rifle's magic is when you place it on 2-round burst. It fires so fast it sounds like only one round has been fired. The firing impulse is different than anything I’ve fired. You squeeze the trigger, you hear one report, two empties fly in a high arc in the air and the rifle barely moves. For me, as a right handed shooter, I noticed the front sight walked slightly to the right of my aiming point and settled there after each burst. There was no muzzle climb. It simply settled just slightly to the right. When fired on full auto, the first two rounds are fired at 1,800 rpm, and then the rifle kicks down to 600 rpm. 600 rpm is considered the ideal rate of fire by the Russians for a rifle of this weight chambered for the 5.45x39mm M74 cartridge. Due to its weight, balance, low recoil impulse cartridge and 600 rpm cyclic rate the AN-94 is quite controllable on full automatic. The first two rounds sound like one, then the gun woodpeckers along at 600 rpm as the recprocating barrel dances back and forth. It’s quite controllable on full auto and quite fun to fire.
Here are my thoughts comparing the AN-94 to the standard AK-74M it was developed to replace:
- Size and handling-wise the AN-94 Nikonov is larger and heavier than the AK-74M. Due to its weight and balance the AN-94 feels somewhat sluggish. Balance wise it's light in the buttstock with its weight forward. With a loaded 30-round magazine locked into place it feels more akin to a battle rifle than a modern assault rifle. Length of pull is on the short side, not a bad thing. As the AN-94's stock folds to the right, it can be folded with an optic mounted, unlike an AK-74M. Folding to the right also makes the rifle more comfortable to carry slung across your back. The stock folds/unfolds easily with the push of a button and locks securely into place. The pistolgrip is straight out of the AK-74M parts bin, so no change here. The fore-end of the AN-94 is larger and more comfortable than the AK-74M's. One odd point is the AN-94's magazine protrudes at an odd angle. While this didn't seem to noticeably affect the weapon's handling in an adverse way, it didn't help it either.
- Sights: The AN-94's diopter rear sight is simple, robust and provides a clean sight picture. Range adjustments are easily made by simply rotating the rear sight. Each leaf is prominently marked for quick verification under stress. When zeroing the rifle all adjustments are made at the front sight, like an AK-74M. In use these sights provide a superior sight picture, especially in lowlight, compared to an AK-74M for precision fire at distance.
- Optics: The ability to mount optics is extremely important on a modern combat rifle. Like the AK-74M, the AN-94 features a universal side-rail to facilitate the mounting of day/night optics. This allows a scope, red dot sight, or night vision device to be easily installed or removed by simply sliding it onto the rail and locking it into place via a throw lever. In this regards it is equal to the AK-74M.
- Controls: The controls on the AN-94 are an improvement over the AK-74M, but still leave a lot to be desired. The reciprocating bolt handle is conventionally placed on the weapon's right side. The safety is a simple cross-bolt at the front of the triggerguard and is easily manipulated from a firing grip with gloves. Simply push it to the left to place the weapon on Fire. This is a vast improvement over the AK-74M. The AN-94’s selector is a separate lever on the left rear of the receiver. While this can be manipulated with the rifleman's right thumb from a firing grip, it's awkward. If the selector switch is in the rearward position (Full Auto) it's a simple matter to push it forward. However if it is in the forward position (Semi-Auto), or the middle position (2-shot Burst), than it’s very awkward to thumb it to a rear position. The paddle type magazine release is the same as that mounted on the AK-74M. Magazines must be rocked in while angled to the right, and there is no bolt hold-open.
- Support Gear: Basic cleaning gear is carried on the rifle. A two-piece cleaning rod is carried in a cutout in the bottom of the buttstock, and a cleaning kit in a trap in the butt. This is similar to an AK-74M.
- Semi-Auto fire: As to be expected, a nine pound 5.45x39mm is very easy to control on semi-auto. Shot to shot recovery is very quick. The trigger on the test rifle was service-grade but perhaps not as good as a rack grade AK-74M. Ejection is vigorous with the empties tossed in a high arc to 2 O'clock. Practical accuracy is good.
- 2-shot Burst: Thumb the selector back one notch to the 2-shot burst mode and things get interesting. At 1,800 rpm the report sounds like one shot, but two empties arc through the air. There is zero muzzle rise and no perceptible rearward push while firing. I did notice that the muzzle settled slightly to the right of my aiming point, after firing. It did this consistently for me, and possibly is related to my stance. In this mode the rifle feels like it’s on semi-auto except it's putting two 52-grain FMJ-BTs on target instead of one. Some experts conjecture this high rate of fire combined with a low dispersion may increase its likelihood of penetrating a body armor hard plate.
- Fully Automatic: Squeezing the trigger on full-auto sends the first two rounds down range at 1,800 rpm. Then the gun continues to fire, but at a reduced 600 rpm rate until the trigger is released. Firing even 30-round bursts, the rifle remains very stable as empty cases tumble out of the ejection port. Controllability is excellent.
- Heat build-up: After firing 200 rounds through the AN-94 Nikonov in all three modes, the handguard was only slightly warm to the touch.
- Reliability: There were no problems of any sort encountered during my very limited testing. The Russian's claim the mean number of rounds between failures is 40,000 whereas the AK-74M's is 30,000. There are those in the West who wonder about the durability of the metal cable and flywheel feed system. Clearing certain malfunctions also appears to be much more complicated than on a conventional design.
- Take Down: The rifle strips easily and it is much less complicated with few parts than many would imagine. The rifle appears easy to maintain.
- Finish: As much of the weapon exposed to the elements is polymer, finish wear and corrosion should be less of an issue than with an AK-74M. Finish on the metal surfaces appears to be identical to that of the AK-74M. Under hard use this enamel finish protects against corrosion, but only until it wears off.
- Effective Range: The Russians list the effective range of the 7.62x39mm AKM at 400 meters and the 5.45x39mm AK-74M at 500 meters. The AN-94 increases this to 600 meters. This shows a claimed increase of effective range of 100 meters over the AK-74M.
In conclusion the AN-94 Nikonov is an interesting and innovative combat rifle. Mechanically it’s very interesting, although complex in operation. Regarding human engineering it is very much a 1980s Russian design. In this regard it is a generation behind current American thinking. It is known to have seen combat with Russian SPETsNAZ units in Chechnya and other hotspots, but it seems to have faded away. While the AN-94 is a very interesting design, there is little doubt Russian troops will continue to carry Kalashnikov variants well into the future.
AN-94 Nikonov Specifications
- Caliber: 5.45x39mm
- Operation: Blow-Back Shifted Pulse
- Barrel Length: 15.9 inches
- Length with Stock Extended: 37.1 inches
- Length with Stock Folded: 28.6 inches
- Weight, w/out magazine: 8.4 pounds
- Feed: 30/45 round detachable box magazines
- Front Sights: Post adjustable for windage and elevation
- Rear Sights: Diopter, 200, 400-700m
- Cyclic rate: 1,800 and 600 variable
- Finish: Black phosphate
- Manufacturer: IZHMASH OJSC
- Status: Limited issue with select Russian Special Forces units