AK vs. AR: Why the 7.62×39’s Time Has Come

by Josh Wayner

Brace yourselves. Here comes another skirmish in the age-old war between the AK and the AR rifle families. The primary points of contention have always been contrasting ideas of reliability, lethality, and accuracy. The differences have polarized an otherwise likeminded group of individuals. Many of these individuals have even gone so far as to create whole institutions — or churches if you go that far — around their rifle of choice. They claim that their idea is “progressive”, or “constantly evolving”, yet all they end up doing is alienating many of their followers who are then left in an ideological pit because their favorite trainer feels their rifle is not good enough . . .

Division is the device of destruction, and any individual who divides based on selling a propped up product is doomed to fail. That being said, I will take on the issues at hand in a logical and rational manner while attempting to part the vast sea of complete bullshit that surrounds this argument. My breakdown is simple: dispense with the 7.62x39mm round.

The 7.62×39 round is central to all the contentious issues involved with the comparison of these two rifle systems. It’s the reason that the AK has its well deserved reputation for midrange power and barrier penetrating ability. By comparison, the AR, at least in 5.56mm, has gained the reputation of being anemic.

On the contrary, the 7.62×39 is also the reason why the AK is seen as inaccurate compared to the AR. The comparison has always been apples to oranges. A true comparison is seldom put to a real test for fear of showing the supposed weaknesses of each system. 2012 proved to be a year that Americans decided to break with convention and make the 300 AAC Blackout[1] our newest love interest. It has, in a way, made the7.62 x39 superfluous. But more on that later.

There have been many attempts to cram a .30 caliber bullet in the AR. The AR, mechanically speaking, has a difficult time handling the extremely tapered cartridge of the7.62 x39. The direct gas operation common to most ARs combined with the powerful thrust forces imparted onto the bolt by the tapered cartridge, are very hard on the operating system. They also force weaknesses to be built in when chambering an AR in 7.62×39 such as reduced bolt strength, magazines of decreased capacity and odd shape, and increased fouling due to dirtier surplus or imported ammunition.

There have been attempts, some recent, to marry the AR to the 7.62×39[2], but this brings on a whole list of new problems, the first of which is the use of unique and non-standard parts. The AK system, on the other hand, has never seemed to have an issue moving to a smaller caliber.

Because of the decision made by the military during the Vietnam era, the AR has remained in continuous service longer than any other American small arm[3]. Yet, the proponents of the AK have never let the AR crowd forget the jungles it was thrust into. It’s shocking how fresh the problems encountered in Vietnam still are in the minds of some potential AR buyers. It’s truly amazing that these issues have stuck to what is now one of the weapons we know the most about. But you have to keep in mind that the two rifles evolved from completely different design concepts and were intended for different purposes.

The AK system never graduated from its original manufacturing base the way the AR has. It is, and always will be, a child of the Second World War and the product of a society devoid of any reason to advance it. The 7.62×39 has held the AK system back. No matter how many companies make modernization kits or products to enhance the AK’s performance, they are just adding pearls to the pig. ‘

There are certain gun trainers pushing rifles that defy the traditional AK profile, some costing thousands of dollars more than what a standard AK. But at heart, they are just sad imported rifles decorated with the latest in fancy rails and grips. These blinded-up guns don’t offer any advantage. The limits placed upon the AK system are directly related to the American usage of the 7.62×39 round. The low cost of the rifles and ammo, combined with the general inability of the American shooting public to understand the system, have created a culture in which the sole argument for buying an AK is price alone.

The AR family, on the other hand, has evolved by way of an explosion of innovation, where new ideas are constantly introduced and there’s virtually no limit to what a shooter is able to do with their lower receiver. Hunters, competitors, police, soldiers, home defenders and entrepreneurs have all embraced the AR because it can be tailored to meet almost any need.

It fights our wars, kills enemy and game alike, can win national competitions and switch calibers in seconds. It’s truly the arm of the thinking man. Americans have become attached to the AR because it represents the freedom of choice and the kind of non-linear thinking that makes America great.

The AK, however, is trapped by the limits its design have imposed and the fact that the only viable commercial option is the 7.62×39, which in a way is reminiscent of the line of thought used by the rifle’s creators; the AK was intended to limit user choice. The overall lack of inherent accuracy, poor build quality and horrible triggers found on most off-the-shelf AKs extend to almost all makes models. Given its shortcomings, the AK system has lasted longer than it ever had a right to.

The wide availability of the 7.62×39 is another problem that confronts the cartridge. A quick Internet search reveals that a case of 1000 rounds of 123gr FMJs runs $239.00 shipped. This is for foreign steel-cased ammo. American made FMJs run a whopping $700.00 per thousand shipped. Ammunition of comparable quality such as a case of 1000 5.56 62gr green tip round runs $500.00 shipped[4]. The new 300 AAC Blackout retails approximately $550.00 for 1000 rounds of 115gr ammunition[5].

The point is the market for the 7.62×39 — and the AK itself — is reliant on inexpensive imports. This is also a handicap as the ammo tends to be a great deal less consistent than American manufactured rounds and may be subject to, God forbid, future ammunition importation bans.

But the biggest blow to the 7.62×39 came recently in the form of AAC’s 300 Blackout. This round will, over time, eclipse the 7.62×39 in America. One of the primary arguments against the AR has always been the 5.56/223 round. It has a rep for spotty lethality and poor terminal effect. Bullet development in the last decade has largely solved this, at least civilians, whereas the military is still issued ammunition of debatable quality. ‘

The .30 caliber, though, is and will probably always be the favored bullet diameter of American shooters. There’s a mental association with this bullet diameter that dates back more than a century. It has been chosen over other (possibly better) options developed by designers of classics such as Garand[6].

The .30 caliber almost instills confidence in the shooter. Despite its small size, my own 300 AAC Blackout pistol was hailed as a “real gun” by several individuals who fired it. That came after drilling targets at 300 yards out of an 8.5 inch barrel. My own AK-74 was fired alongside it, but only merited a passing “that’s cool, man.”

With the 300 Blackout, Americans now finally have a means to use a standardized, SAAMI-accepted cartridge in their ARs that matches or beats the 7.62×39. Better yet, it does not require extensive modification to the AR platform to use like the 7.62×39 would. The ability to deliver a .30 caliber bullet out of America’s sweetheart in a way that’s backed by a growing number of companies demonstrates the American public’s desire for .30 cal confidence in their weapons.

The 300 Blackout represents a chance for the AR to rise above the persistent belief  of some that it’s a toy or lacks the lethality of the AK. The Blackout has the ability to kill (commercially, of course) the 7.62×39. It’s a death that should be welcomed for the sake of furthering a superior platform.

Overall, the 7.62×39 has been the reason for much strife in the shooting community. The 300 AAC Blackout may be able to rehabilitate the reputation of the AR in the power and lethality departments. The modern AR is every bit reliable as the modern AK, but in a different way.

The combination of mechanical functionality, repeatable intrinsic accuracy and definitive lethality are paramount to a successful weapon design. The AR excels at all of the above, and does so in a way that doesn’t limit the user. The 7.62×39 fired from an AK is a thing of the past; a relic kept alive by widespread distribution, low price and perceived superiority. The Mp3 player surpassed 8-track for lots of very good reasons. There may still be a few who argue that the 8 Track is pretty mean with a good set of speakers, but that doesn’t make them right.

[1] http://300aacblackout.com/, October 4, 2012

[2] http://www.rockriverarms.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=category.display&category_id=558, October 4, 2012

[3] Rose, Alexander. American Rifle-A Biography. 2008; Bantam Dell Publishing.

[4] http://www.ammoman.com/, October 4, 2012

[5] http://www.cheaperthandirt.com/, October 4, 2012

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.276_Pedersen October 4, 2012