Gun Review: Arsenal AK-47 SGL-21 Rifle

A few months back, while trying to decide what gun to take with me to an upcoming Appleseed clinic, I attempted to run Wolf, Tula and all varieties of Bear 5.56 ammunition through my Bushmaster M4gery. Not only did the rounds not cycle properly, they often left a case so stubbornly jammed in the chamber that I had to brace the charging handle of the carbine against a table and hit the stock with a 10 pound rubber mallet to dislodge it. I wasn’t just frustrated, I was pissed. Imagine if I had been defending my family when the gun seized up and required tools to fix…I’d be a dead man. Now you can argue that I should have a sidearm and be able to transition to it  the rifle, yadda, yadda, yadda. But the bottom line is, if it doesn’t work with the lowest common denominator and it isn’t an F-class target rifle, it has no place in my safe . . .

 

I ended up buying a steeply discounted SIG 556 Patrol in .223, which ran like a top with every POS ammo I could feed it. It functioned flawlessly regardless of magazine so long as the gas system was adjusted. This got me hooked on purpose-built, piston-driven rifles. They weren’t as accurate, but at the range I was using them (200 yards, max) it didn’t matter. The SIG is great but I wanted something with a little more “Oompf” without a huge increase in ammo costs. That ruled out anything in .308. I was leaning towards a classic AK in 7.62×39, but I wasn’t a fan of the AK’s ergonomics, short sight radius, and its awkward optic mounting process.

There was also a much more significant issue; my previous experiences with the weapon system. You see, the first semi-automatic rifle I ever bought was a Romanian WASR, and not just any WASR. This AKM variant was the poster child for every internet-rumored issue that ever allegedly plagued the WASR. She had canted sights, magazine wobble, uneven finish, vicious trigger slap and parts so loosely fitted that the dust cover once flew off after a string of 60 rounds.

My first experience with an AK had confirmed every rumor I’d ever heard – she was ugly, poorly made, inaccurate and heavy as hell. But despite all that, the gun was reliable. She never jammed and was a total breeze to strip and clean. Frustrated at my inability to hit a pie plate at 100 yards more than twice in a mag’s worth of ammo, though, I swore off AK variants forever. But you know the old adage, “Never Say Never.”

After countless hours of forum research and what felt like years of YouTube videos (or was that just one NutnFancy video?) I had decided to take the plunge again. But this time I wasn’t going for the bottom of the barrel WASR, I decided on a mid/high-end Arsenal rifle built on a Russian receiver.

I was initially going to purchase something from Krebs Customs but the lead time was too long once I had the money from my recently sold Bushy in hand. Since my last AK rifle was mighty old-school with a wooden stock and no sight rail, this time I wanted something a little more modern – something that resembles an AK-103 but in OD green. The AK-103 is internally identical to the AKMs of yesteryear but with the the addition of polymer furniture and an AK-74 style muzzle break.  The super-aggressive muzzle break doesn’t just look great, it really tames the recoil of the 7.62×39 round down to just above a .223.

While I waited for my local fun shop to receive the package from Atlantic Firearms, I eagerly wrung my hands, visions of Wolverines and resisting a Soviet invasion danced in my head. I was antsy, I wanted to slay my demon and prove that I could, in fact, master the Kalashnikov rifle system.

I stocked up with a thousand rounds of Tula 7.62×39 FMJ, a couple boxes of Silver Bear soft point and a dozen surplus steel magazines (and a 75-round drum just for fun). The magazines and ammo arrived before the rifle which gave me a little time to inspect and clean the mags.

Here are a few things I noticed: It’s significantly easier to load an AK magazine than one for an AR. I assume this is due to the increased surface area for my thumb to push on. The mags are also tough as nails. If I ran out of ammo and the gun was taken from me, I could bludgeon someone to death with the damn thing if I really had to. Which probably explains why farmers in poor countries utilize the magazines as planting tools.

Despite the toughness, the magazines, because they are constructed of steel and not polymer, are susceptible to denting which would halt their function immediately (in all fairness, GI magazines for the AR family of rifles are just as susceptible). The magazines come standard with a “modern” feature that only in the last couple of years came into black gun vogue: the anti-tilt follower.

I’m sure you’ve had enough of the potato and broccoli side-dishes and now want to get on to the main course – the meat of the review, the SGL-21. The 21 is a bit of a born-again Kalashnikov in that it came into this world as a hunting carbine in “sporting configuration” at the Izhmash factory in the Russian city of the same name.

After traveling stateside to the guys over at Arsenal in Las Vegas, the former Saiga carbine undergoes a transformation into its new, more militaristic configuration. Many people argue that it’s much simpler to do the conversion yourself and cheaper. That may be, but also assumes that you’re handy with tools, don’t have a job or kids and don’t place any value on what little free time you have remaining. I will gladly fork over a few hundred extra to know that the conversion was done by someone more capable than me, and whose work is guaranteed.

But I digress. Arsenal’s SGL-21 is built like a tank and features very little in terms of creature comforts. As with all Kalashnikov derivatives, the controls are far from ideal. Magazine changes require two hands, the safety can only be articulated by Hercules and the length of pull is only ideal if you’re either from South East Asia or wearing body armor.

Thankfully, Arsenal addressed the latter of this issues by offering a NATO-length stock that adds an additional 1.375” of length for larger shooters and I opted for one. One of the first things I noticed when I picked up my SGL was the quality feel of the rifle, especially when compared with an early model WASR. The magazine locked up tight with no wobble, the dust-cover snaps firmly into place, and the Tapco G2 Single hook trigger totally eliminates any trigger slap and aids the user in more accurate shooting.

Speaking of accurate shooting, I was astounded by the inherent accuracy of the Arsenal, at least when the barrel was cold. I was able to shoot 2-shot groups at 50 yards that touched when utilizing a rest and optics with Tula ammo. These groupings expanded at 100 yards and averaged just over 2”. While certainly no sniper rifle or DMR replacement, this baby can hold its own for certain at short to medium ranges.

Unfortunately, the groups rapidly grew once the rifle began to heat up. After 75 rounds of rapid fire from a Romanian drum, the gun was again placed on a rest and fired at 100 yards. The result were 4” groups, not exactly great. The rifle still shoots minute-of-bad-guy, but at 400 yards we can extrapolate that the gun would group at approx 1 ½ feet, assuming no shooter error.

What that means for a combat shooter is even if they do everything correctly, the rifle may still miss. I’m sure these groups could be tightened up with a bull barrel and match ammo, but that would sort of defeat the purpose of the Kalashnikov.

True to reputation, the SGL-21 suffered zero malfunctions after 600 rounds. It did, however, begin to gunk up something fierce so I gave it a wipe down with CLP and continued firing.

The gun’s yawn-inducing reliability juxtaposed with its snappy recoil. While many people who’ve never handled or fired an AK purport from umpteenth-hand sources the obstreperous nature of the AK, their claims couldn’t be more inaccurate. The rifle is heavier than the average lever-action and the cartridge kicks less than an under-loaded .30-30. This combination lends itself to a comfortable, yet lively package.

The gun is a blast to shoot, more recoil than your M4, but much less than most bolt-guns in hunting calibers. For a while I only owned rifles in .223. While exciting at first, I wanted to feed the beast with something a little more powerful. Not for any pseudo-science stopping-power reasons, just pure enjoyment.

I’m aware that the terminal ballistics of the 7.62×39 cartridge leaves much to be desired, but this doesn’t bother me. If I ever wanted to take the gun hunting, I could grab a box of Hornady’s Super Shock Tip ammo and call it a day. It’s a good medium for when I don’t feel like taking the soft-shooting SIG Patrol out and I’m not quite up to the recoil of my old 1903a3’s powerful 30-06.

Speaking of shooting for enjoyment, I like being able to positively identify my targets before engaging them. For me that means mounting an optic. Since this AK has a rail on the side I wanted to use something that would be specific and authentic to the military rifle I was trying to replicate. After much searching I concluded that a POSP fixed 4x scope with Simonov reticle would be ideal. It would give me the BDC similar to what the ACOG utilizes but on a reticle designed for use with the exact weapon system I was utilizing.

Aesthetically, the Simonov reticle appears to be just like the Dragunov style featured on COMBLOC sniper rifles. The primary difference between the two lies in the Bullet Drop Calculator or BDC. The Dragunov style reticule’s BDC was calculated from the ballistics data of the 7.62x54R cartridge, whereas the Simonov one is based on the ballistics of the 7.62×39 round.

While the Dragunov and AK rifles have different scope mounting brackets, the Belarusian optics manufacturers make scopes in both reticules for both weapon platforms, so be careful when you purchase your own. Another aspect of the AK that falls a little short of what one would like is the impossibly high mount of its scopes. They have to clear the dust cover enough for the gun to be stripped and disassembled. This makes achieving a solid, repeatable cheek-weld difficult at best.

Ratings (out of five stars):

Style * * *

She ain’t elegant, but she’s dressed to kill and always puts out.

Ergonomics * * *

I can’t help but feel I’m being generous with this. The magazine changes are a pain in the ass, the gun is covered in sharp edges, the charging-handle requires the user to remove his dominate hand to operate and the pistol-grip was designed for pygmies. The small dimensions of the gun also translate to a universal fit, and man woman or child can shoulder and fire a Kalashnikov comfortably with minimal training.

Specifications:

CALIBER: 7.62X39
TYPE ACTION: SEMI-AUTO
BARREL LENGTH: 16.25 inch (MUZZLE BREAK NOT INCLUDED)
OVERALL LENGTH: 33.5 inch
WEIGHT: 7 LBS, WITHOUT MAGAZINE
RATE OF TWIST: 1:9.44 inch
METAL FINISH: MATTE BLACK
HINGED FLOOR PLATE: NO
OPEN SIGHTS: YES
PRICE: $775-$900

Ratings (out of five stars):

Reliability * * * * *

100% reliability due in no small part to somewhat loose tolerances and a self-regulating gas system. The AK is second only to bolt-guns and breach-loaders in terms of going bang when you pull the trigger.

Customize This * * * * ½

While fairly extensive, most of the aftermarket parts for AK rifles are cheap and inferior to OEM, with products from Midwest Industries and Kreb’s being the exception, not the rule.

Overall Rating * * * *

A robust firearm with lively properties and unfailing reliability, the AK is a great survival tool, but it’s very difficult and occasionally painful to use under duress.