By Paul McCain
Like countless other red-blooded American males, I was attracted to the AR-15 rifle platform simply because it has been the rifle of choice for our military for a very long time. Some would say too long. I’ve grown to appreciate the numerous features of the AR in its semi-automatic configuration, the so-called “modern sporting rifle” version, that continues to make it a very popular military, competition and even hunting rifle. The chief features that I find most attractive include the AR’s innate modularity, its accuracy and effectiveness when used in the way it was intended. But . . .
Is it the be-all and end-all in assault rifles? [Note: I’m using the term “assault rifle” in its more technical sense, to describe a select-fire rifle, chambered for a cartridge that falls between a pistol cartridge and a high-power rifle cartridge, and that uses a detachable box magazine]. I’ve also developed a nearly equal admiration and fondness for the AK platform. Is that heresy? Depends on who you ask, I guess. But I’d like to suggest we not make this a matter of either/or, but rather both/and.
My first exposure to the AK came, of course, via media and other news agencies. It seems whenever there is a bad guy in the world there is an AK in his hands. And Hollyweird loves to reinforce that well-earned stereotype. For better or for worse, the AK, in the eyes of most Westerners, is the truly “evil rifle.” I can’t think of a more instantly-recognizable weapon silhouette, even among people who know nothing about rifles, than an AK. Maybe the 1911 handgun comes in second.
There’s absolutely no question that the AK design Mikhail Kalashnikov invented was a masterful use of, and improvement on, existing rifle technology, including of course the revolutionary design of the first true “assault rifle” that Hitler himself dubbed the “Sturmgewehr.” In fact, in more recent years Kalashnikov admitted that he worked side-by-side with the inventor of the StG 44 himself, Hugo Schmeisser, to improve and refine the AK. It seems Mr. Schmeisser was “invited” to take up residence in Ijhevsk after the war, with the Soviet Union making him and a number of other German small arms designers offers they could not refuse.
The M1 Garand was also instrumental in Mr. Kalashnikov’s design. Warning: this paragraph will cause AK fans to go into fits of apoplexy at the thought that the AK design was not handed down from the heavens to Mr. Kalashnikov, you know, like Mr. Browning’s designs were provided to him on golden tablets.
Thanks to Hitler’s stupidity, the Germans only fielded the StG 44 in any appreciable numbers toward the end of World War II. The StG 44 was was chambered for a so-called “intermediate” cartridge, the 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge, a compromise between the larger 7.92x57mm used in the standard issue bolt-action German Karbiner 98, and the 9×19 pistol round used in their handguns and submachine guns. What put the AK head and shoulders above the Sturmgewehr was the cartridge it was built around: the 7.62 x 39 round which still today remains the hardest hitting standard round used in an assault rifle configuration. There are many valid arguments to be made that the 5.56 NATO cartridge is underpowered for a number of the applications it’s being required to fulfill, and that our troops deserve a more robust round. (Hint: Why not just adopt the 7.62 x 39mm?)
The AK is elegant in its simplicity, with field stripping down to the bolt taking a matter of seconds without requiring a single tool. Cleaning is easily done and reassembly also very simple. The AK is famous for its generous tolerances allowing it to keep functioning in conditions that will cause an AR to sputter and choke.
Reloading the AK is a bit more time consuming than an AR, but with practice you can reload one nearly as rapidly. You have to get used to the fact that you can’t manipulate the bolt with the weapon on safe, and you generally do not have the bolt lock back on the last round, though with Yugoslavian mags it does hold the bolt open for a very positive “out of ammo” indication, other than simply a “click” but no bang when you pull the trigger.
With a folding stock the AK is easily carried snug to the body with minimal length of the weapon banging around. The typical milsurp magazines that are easily available for the AK are built like tanks and unlike an AR’s USGI standard mags, you can load them right up to the top with thirty rounds, rather than needing to download to 29 or 28 rounds to assure seating on a closed bolt. The down side of those tank-like mags is that they’re heavy and when loaded up with 30 rounds of the much more robust 7.62×39 cartridge, you’re carrying quite a load with five or six mags in a chest rig.
The other plus of course is the cost of ammo for the AK. My latest case of AK ammo ran 20 cents a round, including shipping. Compare than to 40 cents or more for commercially loaded 5.56 brass-cased ammo. AKs have no problems with steel-cased rounds because they were designed with looser chamber tolerances to accommodate steel-cased. ARs aren’t as fond of the stuff, though I know many use steel-cased in their ARs. The argument goes that the amount of money you save on steel-cased can be put toward replacing a barrel or other internals if you have to. My AR stops functioning, well, no matter how much lube I have in it, after about 300 rounds of steel-cased ammo. Brass is no problem. I went through 500 rounds the other day in my AK training class without a single problem.
Accuracy? Ah, yes, the AR vs. AK debate is perhaps most fierce when the discussion turns to “accuracy.” It all comes down to what constitutes “good enough” in a combat situation. A two-inch group at 100 yards? Or a six to eight inch group at 100 yards? The purpose of combat accuracy is to deliver as many rounds as necessary on target to stop it and put it down, for good.
It makes no difference how “accurate” a rifle is as long as it’s effectively delivering those rounds on target. Everyone knows that neither an AR nor an AK is intended to be a long-range rifle platform. Granted, you can modify an AR to build yourself a longer range rifle, and you can throw a scope on many AK variants out there. But in either case, the AK and the AR are truly classically designed “assault rifles” with the understanding that modern combat engagements are most often going to happen within 200 yards or less. Gone are the days of masses of infantry slugging it out at 600-1000 yard distances with their long guns.
Let’s wrap this up. A fellow student in our AK operator’s class the other day said to me, “You know, I own a lot of firearms, and a lot of ARs, but if I had to pick just one to ride out a real emergency situation, I’d have to go with the AK. I know it will prove ultimately to be more reliable and have the highest probability of not breaking down on me at a critical moment or malfunctioning on me if I can not keep it squeaky clean and lubed properly at all times. Plus I can afford to keep nearly three times as much ammo for the AK on hand than I can for my AR.” Hard to argue with that.
What about you? Where are you on AR v. AK, or perhaps better put, AR and AK? Does it have to be an either/or proposition? Can we not appreciate the pros and cons of each platform and use them accordingly? For me I’ve come down to the position that it’s AR and AK, not either/or. Must there be an endless cosmic struggle between AR and AK fans until the end of time?