Gun Review: Arsenal SLR-106FR (5.56mm AK)

I really like the AK platform and my visit to the Arsenal/K-Var SHOT Show booth was like the delirious wanderings of a sugar-buzzed child in an M&M outlet store. When Farago learned that they had sent me one of their top-end 5.56mm Bulgarian AKs for testing and evaluation, his first response was straight from a line in one of last year’s posts about the SLR-106: “A top-end AK? Isn’t that like the world’s best fire-retardant paper hat?” Au contraire, mon frere . . .

A fire-retardant paper hat is a useless gag gift. A well-executed Avtomat Kalashnikova like this, however, is a rugged and accurate implement of ballistic awesomeness. In response to your query, Mr. Farago, I believe this is the best AK-style rifle ever made.

Overview

The SLR-106 is as close as any American sport shooter will likely get to a genuine AK-101. For those of you not familiar with the phylogeny of the AK platform, it can be summed up in a short Biblical lineage:

Ca. the 47th year of the 20th century Anno Domini, Mikhail Timofeyovich Kalashnikov begat the the AK-47 in the caliber 7.62x39mm. And the AK-47 was fruitful and begat the AKM, which begat the AK-74 in the lesser caliber of 5.45x39mm. And the AK-74 begat the AK-101 in the caliber of 5.56x45mm.

And the AN-94 numbereth not among the sons of Mikhail, though it appeareth like to them in form.

The AK-101 was designed for Russia’s export market after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it’s basically an AK-74 re-chambered for the NATO-friendly 5.56×45. It’s been adopted by armed forces that need to retain the idiot-proof reliability and simplicity of the Kalashnikov design, but want it in a Western-compatible caliber. (And no, I’m not talking .32-20 or .45-70, you wiseacres.) The main advantage for us is that 5.56×45 is a ubiquitous ‘Wal-Mart’ caliber in our corner of the world, and it can’t corrode barrels and gas tubes like Soviet-surplus 5.45x39mm does.

Each SLR-106 model starts its life in Bulgaria as a civilian sporter rifle with a hammer-forged chrome-lined barrel and a straight stock. These are then imported by Arsenal, Inc. of Las Vegas where they’re carefully converted into a semi-automatic AK-101 configuration using enough US-made parts to pass 922(r) muster. The US-made parts list includes the handguards, pistol grip, buttstock assembly, trigger, hammer, disconnector and a few other bits.

A $1K AK – Seriously?

(Or, A Brief Foray Into The AK vs. AR Debate By Your Completely Neutral Observer.)

A lot of American shooters look down on the AK platform because many American-market AKs are…how do I say this? говно. (Look it up.) Most of them are imported as mismatched crates of heavily-used military spare parts which are then haphazardly assembled on American-made receivers of uneven quality.

This production process sidesteps the whole 922(r) issue and shaves hundreds of dollars off each gun’s final cost, but the end result is often a POS that dishonors the Kalashnikov name. Slap-happy triggers, canted front sights, loose magazine wells and misaligned barrels are common in the world of ‘parts-kit’ AKs. But if you’re looking for a reliable modern sporting rifle for less than $500 they’re the only game in town.

Did I just say something about a ‘reliable POS parts-kit sporting rifle for less than $500?’ Yes I did, because most POS parts-kit AKs are still completely reliable. They may be ugly, inaccurate and uncomfortable, but just ask former WASR-10 owner and fellow Arsenal tester James Grant: those kit-built abominations work. I’ve got one of my own – a $370 Bulgarian AK-74 built by Century. My own malenkiy droog has chugged through nearly 3,000 rounds of 1980s-era surplus Soviet ammo with only one failure. And that one was the ammo’s fault.

Now let’s try a similar thought experiment with the AR platform. What would happen if you bought up thousands of de-mil’ed parts kits from broken-ass military M16s and M4s, stirred up the parts in a mixing bowl and then stuck them into generic AR lower receivers with no-name trigger groups? You’d end up with an Evil-Looking (but non-firing) Assault Club or possibly a single-shot rifle. Maybe, if you were really lucky, you’d end up with a manually-operated repeater that sometimes managed to load and cock itself.

Seriously

I’m going to assume we’re already familiar with the AK’s basic design and manual of arms, so instead of continuing my treatise on the AK platform any longer I’ll just illustrate the differences between the SLR-106 and a typical parts-kit AK:

1. Chrome-lined barrel and muzzle brake

Barrels and muzzle brakes get caked with more nasty crud than the rest of a rifle combined. And they’re much easier to clean when their dirty bits are plated with chrome before they get dirty. This is exceptionally important if you’re shooting corrosive Soviet-caliber ammo, but it saves beaucoup cleaning time even with cleaner-burning 5.56 ammo.

Most parts kit AKs are built either with shot-out surplus barrels or with un-chromed barrels of questionable US manufacture. My first Century AK-74 came into my life with a barrel chambered for 5.45×39 but bored and rifled for 5.56 NATO. As the surplus Soviet bullets rattled down the overbored barrel, they produced sideways bullet holes at 25 yards and shotgun-like patterns at greater distances. With my dealer’s help, Century replaced the whole rifle with a correctly-barreled one that shoots fairly straight.

This kind of screwup does NOT happen with Arsenal AKs. The SLR-106′s barrel is made on Steyr hammer-forging machinery and chambered for 5.56/.223 at its Bulgarian birthplace. As an added bonus, it has a 1:7″ twist to properly stabilize just about any 5.56 load out there, including heavy 77-grain bullets.

2. Baked enamel finish

All Arsenal rifles are finished with a manganese-phosphate metal treatment and a baked-on enamel finish, inside and out. It looks and feels considerably smoother than the 800-grit sandpaper finish of El Cheapo AKs, and the beauty isn’t just skin-deep: Arsenal coats the inside of the receiver too.

Like the engine compartment of a vintage E-Type at a Concours d’Elegance, this is absolutely the only time the inside of this AK receiver would ever look that clean.

This enamel finish looks and feels gorgeous, but it’s vulnerable to harsh solvents. Arsenal commands that it be cleaned only with Break-Free CLP, and my friend Tony (who reviewed the Ruger LC-9 last year) knows why. He accidentally scrubbed off some of the enamel finish off his Arsenal SGL 21-94 when he cheated and used Gun Scrubber instead. He was highly irritated, as well he should be – such a vulnerable finish seems a bit odd at the Arsenal’s price point.

I’m not inclined to test this possible chemical vulnerability myself (we don’t deliberately test guns to destruction around here) but the Interwebs are full of stories like Tony’s. Puzzling as it may be, the enamel finish is not a fatal ‘flaw’ because beneath it you’ll find an AR-standard phosphate finish. And if you stick to CLP like you’re supposed to, you’ll never even know it’s there.

3. Two-stage trigger

Take a look at the trigger parts in the above photo and you’ll notice that the single-hook trigger can’t possibly be a Tapco G2. It’s not: Arsenal makes its own 2-stage trigger, with a 4.5 pound takeup stage and a 7.5 pound break. Although that seems surprisingly heavy on paper, it pulls smoothly and breaks very crisply for a combat rifle, with little over-travel and no trigger slap.

Here it is in action:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6njMH9yR7Y

Disclaimer: I was not intentionally color-coordinating my clothing to match the rifle. I’d have to study several seasons of Queer Eye For The Straight-Shooting Guy before I could learn to dress myself that sharply. Joe thinks I did it on purpose, but he knows he’s never seen me that well-dressed in the 17 years we’ve been friends.

4. Spring-loaded firing pin

Most AKs are built with free-floating firing pins, and this works fine since most of them are built to fire steel-cased 7.62×39 or 5.45×39. These have tough Soviet-grade primers which are extremely resistant to slam-firing, even when their firing pins are jammed forward by sand or corrosion.

American 5.56 and .223 ammunition tends to have more sensitive primers which could theoretically experience slam-fires from dirty firing pins. The SLR-106 prevents this by keeping the firing pin under spring tension and away from the bolt face unless the trigger is pulled. As a shooter you’ll never notice it (because it will never double or run wild) and this is the whole point.

5. No-wobble mag well

The sloppy magazine well on my parts-kit AK74 lets the mags wobble a half-inch from side to side at the bottom, even though I only use the best 5.45mm AK magazines ever made: original Bulgarian ‘Circle 10′ and ‘Circle 21′ 30-rounders. Luckily, my AK74 doesn’t care, but the wobbling can be noisy and distracting.

The SLR-106 does not share this feature: its mag well is tighter than Ebeneezer’s wallet. Admit it: you thought I was going to make some indecent crack like Farago would, didn’t you? Shame on you. Some of the factory-new magazines required extra effort to rock into place the first few times I used them, but after a few uses they were broken in and ready for some Sonny Puzikas Spetznaz-style mag swapping action. (Shown here starting at 0:20)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLE1FqXPLJM

6. Matching original serial numbers

Every Arsenal SLR starts out as a Bulgarian sporter rifle, with matching original serial numbers on many parts including the barrel, receiver, bolt and dust cover. These parts travel together through the conversion process so you’ll never experience the random fit (and random bullet trajectories) of a parts-kit AK.

7. Side-folding stock

Since this is AR-15 country, American shooters don’t have too many options when it comes to true ‘folding’ stocks on their black rifles. The AR just can’t fold, because of its peculiar buffer tube design, and we don’t see many Mini-14 folders these days. Collapsing-stock H&Ks and folding FN-FAL Paras are still, as before, expensive collector’s items.

While AKs can wear any number of folding stocks, most of them are unstable and uncomfortable to shoot from just about any position whether folded or extended. Side-folding wire stocks like those of the Polish Tantal and the Hungarian AMD-64 are lightweight and surprisingly rugged, but their lack of any kind of cheek weld makes these otherwise excellent rifles difficult to shoot accurately. An under-folding AK will give you the iconic look of a qat-dazed Somali fighter or a 1970′s Palestinian murderer, but when you try to put lead on target with one, you’ll realize that their revolutionary chic good looks are only skin deep.

The SLR-106 features something completely different, and its left-side folding/locking buttstock combines the best features of both fixed and folding stocks. This is no aftermarket airsoft-grade folder from an unranked Ebay seller: it is absolutely solid when it’s extended, and it locks firmly in both the extended and folded positions.

This photo (above) shows the folding mechanism in action. To fold the buttstock, use your right thumb to press firmly on the metal button at the rear side of the trunnion. This intuitive action lets the stock swing free to the left of the receiver, where a spring-loaded hook engages a recess in the left side of the buttstock and holds it in the folded position.

To extend it again, press the prominent button on the buttstock (just below the cleaning-kit trapdoor) and a lever unlatches the retaining hook. Swing it back around the rear of the rifle, and it firmly locks back at full extension. The button never jabs your shoulder when firing, because it’s sprung very weakly when the stock is extended.

This interior shot shows Arsenal’s unique US-made locking hinge. It’s CNC machined from solid lumps of metal and the locking catch (at right, above) is chisel-shaped so it will continually tighten itself as it laps against the mating block in the buttstock.

If you’ve got a hankering to sling some lead A-Team style, the SLR-106 can also be fired with the buttstock folded. But unless you somehow mount a laser sight, you won’t hit anything with it beyond 20 yards. I could never hit anything with a folded stock, and neither could Dirk ‘Face-man’ Benedict with his side-folding Ruger (despite all that amazing 1980′s hair) but you can have some fun until the novelty wears off.

For its simplicity, solidity and comfort, the SLR’s side-folding stock ranks as the No.2 best folding stock I’ve ever used. The best one is attached to the FN-SCAR, with an adjustable length of pull and an adjustable cheek riser. Some clever bastard might figure out how to put a SCAR stock on an AK someday, but until then the SLR-106 stock does a fine job.

Magazines

Standard 30-round 7.62×39 AK magazines cost less than a McDonald’s Happy Meal, but all the other flavors of AK mags (5.45 or 5.56, or 20-round AMD-65 magazines) are costly and relatively rare. Arsenal rifles like the SLR-106 only ship with a single 5-round magazine (another puzzler for a rifle of this price) so you’ll need to stock up on standard-capacity mags if you want to have any fun. They’re theoretically available in 10, 20 and 30-round sizes, but there’s no reason to buy anything other than the 30-rounders.

Unlike the world’s standard magazines, you’ll never see loose bins of surplus 5.56mm AK magazines at a gun show or LGS. In fact, you might never see them at all unless you look for them online, and even then you’ll be lucky to pay less than $30 each after shipping. Ouch.

But if you pay more for quality magazines, you’ll be glad you did. Just as with other AK variants, this rifle’s original manufacturers still make the best and most reliable magazines. Stick with Russian or Bulgarian mags like the Circle 10 waffle pattern (shown above) and your SLR-106 will never let you down. Succumb to the allure of lower-priced American aftermarket magazines and you’ll wonder what kind of bath salts I was smoking when I told you that the SLR was perfectly reliable.

Accuracy

Early iron-sight function testing indicated that the SLR-106 shot where it was pointed, but a long-term test like this one required some scoped shooting at 100 yards. This testing testing was unfortunately delayed by months when several wasted range trips proved that my Romanian-surplus POSP scope (technically called a TIP2) was a broken-ass POS that couldn’t hold zero. I eventually scrounged a sturdy but hideous side-rail Picatinny mount and a cheap but dependable 3×9. It put the scope way too high and way too far back over the stock, and just getting my eye into the scope’s sweet spot was a literal pain in the neck.

Despite the ergonomic challenges, our 100-yard groups averaged about 2.1 inches with plinking-grade 55-grain Tulammo hollowpoints. I’d brought several brands of 5.56 with different bullet weights, but the jerry-rigged scope setup was so awkward and uncomfortable to shoot that I just couldn’t continue.

I’m searching for a kindler, gentler AK scope mount for the SLR-106, because I want to do more extensive accuracy testing and I don’t want to keep a chiropractor on speed-dial. I’m considering doing the unthinkable and setting up this rifle as an intermediate-range DMR, but that’s a project and review for another day.

In the meantime, 2.1 MOA accuracy is everything you can ask for from a 16″ tactical carbine. It shatters every AK accuracy joke you’ve ever heard and justifies the factory’s considerable investment in Steyr barrel-forging machinery.

Handling

The SLR-106 isn’t naturally as ergonomic as the AR for a host of reasons: the charging handle reciprocates and it’s on the wrong side, the safety is poorly positioned and stiff to operate, the pistol grip is impossibly tiny, the sight radius is too short, and the Warsaw Pact-length buttstock is also too short for most American shooters.

Despite all that, you can run the old warhorse pretty damned fast if you use proper magazine swaps, charging technique and safety manipulation. Precious few of us will ever swap AR mags as quickly as Sonny Puzikas can reload his AK-74. Remember: mindset, skillset, then toolset.

The SLR-106 is still an AK (I’ve been saying that a lot, haven’t I?) but nearly everything about it is more refined and user-friendly than what we’ve come to expect from parts-kit AKs. The trigger is very serviceable, as I mentioned, and the safety lever is slicker than any parts-gun AK I’ve ever handled. The distinctive AK-74 muzzle device reduces recoil and muzzle jump to damned-near nothing, but produces substantial muzzle blast and flash.

At 7.3 pounds without a magazine, the SLR-106 weighs one pound more than a stripped M4 clone, but this isn’t as much of a disadvantage as it appears. Like many Significant Others,  M4 clones rarely stay stripped and slender once they move in with you. When you add grips and lights and bipods and slings, they start to add pounds and inches like a middle-aged hausfrau.

Unlike some Russian matrons, AKs are less prone to this middle-age spread because there’s nowhere to hang all those heavy accessories. The result is that a minimally-equipped SLR-106 will probably stay slimmer and lighter than the AR next to it in your gun safe.

Scope Mounting

Optics-mounting options are limited for any AK, and the SLR-106′s folding stock limits them even further.

AK side-rail mounts are a poor choice, because they keep the stock from folding. If you plan to use an AK rail mount, there’s no reason to spend the extra money for a folding stock you won’t be able to fold.

Krebs and ‘Beryl’ style dust cover rails are no choice at all for the SLR-106 because the folding stock has no tang screws to attach them to. Ultimak rails are a great choice for red dots, but they’re too far forward for magnifying optics.

One remaining option is the Strike Industries Rail shown above. Amazingly affordable at just $45, it seems fairly sturdy but I haven’t tested it extensively enough to recommend it yet. It replaces the rear sight leaf, and the center groove even serves as a crude back-up sight.

Other published reviews suggest that the best scope-mounting solution is probably the Dog Leg Rail from Texas Weapon Systems. It allows (hopefully) repeatable mounting of red dot sights and magnifying optics, but I didn’t score one for testing so that review will have to wait.

Reliability

Part of the legendary reliability of the AK platform has been attributed to the heavily-tapered 7.62×39 and 5.45×39 cartridges. The slightly cone-shaped cases are believed to funnel themselves into (and be extracted from) filthy rifle chambers more easily than NATO rounds.

The SLR-106 challenges this conventional wisdom by achieving the same absolute reliability with the straighter-walled 5.56×45 cartridge while shooting hundreds of rounds each range day between cleanings. The Arsenal gave exactly zero failures in nearly 1,000 rounds fired: absolute perfection for a tactical rifle.

SUMMARY

Arsenal AKs like the SLR-106 cost much more than parts-kit guns because high-quality new parts and scrupulous assembly practices cost real money. Many shooters will ask why they shouldn’t just spend that money on an entry level AR from Bushmaster, S&W, Rock River or Armalite. The answer of course is that you can certainly do that, but what you’ll get is an AR.

If you like AKs – as I unabashedly do – you might be willing to spend a bit more for a good one: a most accurate and refined version of the most rugged and reliable rifle in history. An SLR-106 is still an AK, with most of its ergonomic shortcomings, but to most American shooters (who are familiar with crude parts-kit rifles) it is a nearly oxymoronic impossibility: a really darned nice AK.

When you get your hands on an SLR-106, your opinions about the AK platform are likely to be revised upwards. Way upwards.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Caliber: 5.56x45mm NATO/.223 Remington
Barrel: 16.25”, 1 in 7” rifling, chrome-lined.
Overall Length: 36 7/8” extended, 27 3/8″ folded.
Weight: 7.3 lbs without magazine.
Action: Long-stroke gas piston operated semi-automatic rifle.
Finish: Black or tan (tested) polymer furniture, phosphated steel barrel and receiver with baked-on black enamel finish.
Magazine Capacity: 5-round detachable box magazine (included), 30-round magazines available and highly recommended.
Price: $1,050.

RATINGS (out of five)

Accuracy: * * * *
Above-average inherent accuracy for a tactical carbine (especially with low-grade ammo) but scope mounting options are limited.

Ergonomics: * * *
It’s a recoilless 5.56mm AK with a decent trigger, but it’s still an AK. Most of  its ergonomic faults can be corrected with a handful of carefully-chosen aftermarket parts like an Ergo Grip, Krebs Safety Lever and a red-dot sight. Add half a star with those improvements.

Reliability: * * * * *
Absolutely you-bet-your-life reliable when you use Bulgarian magazines. Use lesser mags at your own risk and only after extensive testing.

Customize This: * * *
The AK aftermarket is huge, but the SLR-106′s parts and furniture are so well-made that you won’t be temped to replace many of them. Mounting a scope is tricky, however, and mounting a light or laser is equally so.

Overall Rating: * * * *
AK reliability and improved AK ergonomics with AR accuracy, AR ammo and an AR price tag. It’s better than you ever thought an AK could be.