A reader writes:
[Should I b]uy an[..] AR or an AK? If an AK, any suggestions?
Man, you just opened a can of worms. And I’ve got a crowbar to open it even further. Let’s get this thing rolling.
There’s a popular table out there from 7.62x54r.net that I’d like to use to start the conversation. There’s another column about the Mosin Nagant, but that’s another story for another day.
|Stuff you know if you have an AK||Stuff you know if you have an AR|
|It works though you have never cleaned it. Ever.||You have $9 per ounce special non-detergent synthetic Teflon infused oil for cleaning.|
|You are able to hit the broad side of a barn from inside.||You are able to hit the broad side of a barn from 600 meters.|
|You can put a .30″ hole through 12″ of oak, if you can hit it.||You can put one hole in a paper target at 100 meters with 30 rounds.|
|You can intimidate your foe with the bayonet mounted.||You foes laugh when you mount your bayonet.|
|Your rifle can be used by any two bit nation’s most illiterate conscripts to fight elite forces worldwide.||Your rifle is used by elite forces worldwide to fight two bit nations’ most illiterate conscripts.|
The AR-15 and the AK-47 (I know there are variants, we’re using the generic name here) were born out of two very different societies with very different cultures, and had two very different design goals. They fill a similar role, but these differences mean that each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses and may be better or worse suited to the task in mind. C. J. Chiver’s book The Gun does a fantastic job of going into those differences in great detail, but I’ll give a quick synopsis.
The AK-47 was designed by a post-WWII Soviet Union. They had just suffered through over a half a decade of warfare where the use of poorly trained conscripts in large numbers proved to be a winning tactic. Guns like the Mosin Nagant and PPS-43, which were simple to use and maintain and could be readily mass produced on basic equipment, provided that capability. Even the most uneducated Ukrainian peasant could be taught how to operate them quickly and efficiently. The AK-47 was a continuation of that design principle, creating a weapon that was easy to produce in large numbers, virtually maintenance-free and easy to operate.
The Soviet experience from WWII taught them that close quarters street to street fighting was going to be the focus of the next great war. Events like Stalingrad and the Battle for Berlin taught them that the long and accurate Mosin Nagant was too big to maneuver effectively (hence the shortened M38 and M44) and overpowered for typical combat distances. By the end of the war it was not uncommon for entire units of soldiers to be armed with only PPS-43 submachine guns due to their effectiveness at close range. The close distance relieved some of the need for accurate fire, meaning that tolerances could be looser and production made easier.
The ammunition chosen for this new firearm was the 7.62×39 round. The 7.62 caliber bullet provided adequate penetration and meant that the same machinery used to manufacture other weaponry (such as basically everything produced since 1891) could be used to manufacture barrels and bullets for the new gun. The shorter case, 39mm instead of 54mm, meant that less powder and brass would be needed for each round and the recoil would be more manageable in fully automatic fire.
Americans have always had an infatuation with accuracy at distance. Marine Corps — I rest my case. The U.S. Army had come to some of the same conclusions as the Soviets about WWII, specifically that engagements took place at short range and that fully automatic weapons were the way forward, but were unwilling to relinquish the idea of the American Rifleman. The ideal rifle and cartridge, they dictated, needed to reliably penetrate the helmet of an enemy soldier at 500 yards. Eugene Stoner and ArmaLite developed such a weapon, using the same machined aluminum that they used (until then) for airplane parts. The result was an accurate and lightweight weapon that was adopted by the U.S. Air Force as the XM16E1 and later the M16.
The ammunition chosen for this new firearm was the 5.56x45mm cartridge. U.S. Army testing indicated that, at high velocity, a .22 caliber bullet would have the same equivalent power as a 7.62 round but drastically reduce the weight of the ammunition required to be carried by soldiers. The smaller cartridge drastically reduced recoil and the materials needed to produce each round while maintaining a penetration capability to the satisfaction of the U.S. Army.
Initially, the M16 (AR-15) had issues with reliability. This was due to a mixture of bad ammunition, shoddy production on Colt’s part, and poor maintenance in the field. It wasn’t the soldier’s fault — early XM16E1s were issued without cleaning kits and touted as never needing to be cleaned. The failures took a toll on soldier’s lives and led to a congressional investigation. Modern AR-15s fixed these issues with chrome lining and proper finishing but still remain sensitive to wear and tear.
Yes, they do (preemptive rebuttal). Have you ever seen an AK complain that its gas piston is 1/100th of an inch too short? No. But I’ve seen an AR do that with its gas rings. So there.
OK, that’s interesting, but which is better?
Heh, nice try. I’m not falling for that trap.
The different environments in which the guns were designed mean that the two rifles fill two very different roles. Let’s compare and contrast some of these differences, perhaps in a chart-like manner.
It’s a simplification of the facts, but it gets the point across. All values are relative to the other weapon and are binary, there is no “middle ground.” Cost, by the way, includes ammunition and cleaning costs.
I just want to take a second and explain the one thing I know people are going to get pissed off at: the maintenance and cleaning rows. “Cleaning” I determined based on how fast and how easy it is to field strip the weapon, which the AK takes the cake. Maintenance, on the other hand, is decidedly difficult with an AK where the main components are riveted or welded together. On the AR platform the entire thing can be taken apart and put back together with a screwdriver, a large hammer and a wrench.
The idea of one being “best,” though, depends on what you want it for. To give you an example, here are a couple case studies.
Case study 1: Alice
Alice is a college student. She has a little bit of money (enough to buy a new gun) but income is slow, so cheap is good. She wants a semi-automatic magazine fed rifle for home defense as well as “zombie preparedness,” but mainly imagines using it at the local 50-yard range. She doesn’t have the cash for fancy upgrades or expensive parts, all she needs is a gun that can run cheaply
Alice’s best option is the AK-47 or one of its variants. The short ranges at which it will be used, plus the added mass of the bullets make it ideal for home defense, zombie eradication or use at the relatively short range he has at his disposal. Also, because she’s a lazy college kid she’s not as likely to clean her gun so the AK’s dirt tolerant action is perfect for her.
Case Study 2: Bob
Bob is a young man with a steady job. Not a very well paying one, but steady, so a big investment isn’t an issue. He wants a semi-automatic magazine fed rifle for use in 3-gun competitions and varmint hunting at longer distances. He expects to be able to buy some fancy gadgets for his gat down the line.
For Bob, the AR-15 is the ideal weapon. His targets are a little further away than Alice’s, and require much less force to penetrate. Plus, lighter ammunition and recoil will help Bob in his 3-gun competitions.
OK, so really now. Which is better?
There you go again trying to make me choose one.
Which one is best for you really depends on your planned use. Close-in fighting for cheap bastards really belongs to the AK-47, while long range engagement for those who want accessories really is the domain of the AR-15.
In the end, shooter’s preference rules the day. But I’ve owned both, and I like both. Just for different reasons. Here are my personal opinions on the matter:
- AK-47: Mechanically fascinating, satisfying to work the action, recoil is fun, no need for improvement and runs like a Swiss clock forever.
- AR-15: Precision instrument, low recoil, low weight, tons of accessories, easy to swap out parts, ergonomic.
Fine. Both are great guns. But which do you recommend?
Finally, a good question and one that I’m happy to answer. Neither rifle is necessarily “better,” but I do have a personal preference.
In my personal opinion the fact that an AR-15 is lightweight, low recoil and highly accurate makes it the superior choice. The platform also allows the shooter to change calibers either with a new upper or a conversion kit, and can be made to fire the extremely cheap .22lr round. The high customizability of the gun also makes it very appealing, as it can be molded to fit your exact need. A little extra investment up front can make all the difference.
TL;DR: If you can only buy one magazine fed semi-automatic rifle and are on the fence, get an AR-15. But if you’re leaning towards one or the other go with your heart and you won’t be disappointed.
And now we brace for the incoming storm of trolls.
If you have a topic you want to see covered in a future “Ask Foghorn” segment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.