I was never much of a fan of the AK-47. I had a bit of experience with them in Afghanistan. During my first tour there, the Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army, and the local Taliban all carried the AK as their standard rifle.
I’ve heard all of the myths; that they will run forever without maintenance, that the round is a one-shot, one-kill projectile, and that it’s so simple to use that anyone with any basic familiarization can fight with it. But I watched AKs jam and break.
I treated patient after patient who was shot – sometimes multiple times at close range – and lived. And I watched soldiers and policemen fail to load a magazine, induce a jam, and deadline the weapon during training and in combat. All that while maintaining the ballistics that were similar to my .30-30 at home. And those AK-47s generally shot a 4 MOA groups on a good day. I was not impressed.
And then a round from an AK-74 hit me from around 600 yards away. The tungsten-cored round went through a thin metal door, skipped off my side plate, and slammed into the thigh of the guy behind me, shattering his femur. I had to rethink the accuracy of the platform, and, in my ignorance, chalked it up to the differences between the 47 and the 74.
My disdain for the gun also grew out of my culture. I grew up in the age of the Soviet Union as a real threat. My dad had been an infantryman, and I was a total arms nerd. Not a gun nerd, an arms nerd. As a 5th grader I even subscribed to a DoD newsletter that simply published lists of US arms stockpiles and compared them to estimated soviet stockpiles. I memorized those lists. So I always saw the AKs in the red column, the weapons of the enemy.
Suffice it to say, my experience with the weapons was not a positive one.
Five years after I came home from my second tour, another 82nd Airborne solider, Lee Johnson, stood at the range at my house shooting an AK. An AK he made himself. He had a couple of them and we both took some time shooting the steel.
These guns didn’t feel like the guns I shot in Afghanistan. These guns were fun. The recoil was minimal, nothing was rattling around, and the gun felt good in my hands. They never skipped a beat, and they were far, far more accurate than anything I had shot in Afghanistan.
And he made them in his garage. After a few hundred rounds I was convinced. I was going to be build an AK, the weapon of the enemy. And Lee was going to show me how to do it.
Lee, his brother Travis (a fellow 1st Infantry Division combat medic), and Gabe Harris own a little company down in Cypress, Texas called the Dead Goose Society Manufacturing Co. where they teach people how to build all manner of AK platform guns.
Prior to our arriving, I asked Lee what his recommendations were on what kind of gun to build. I wanted a rifle in the style I saw so often in Afghanistan. That is, a side folding metal stock, wooden furniture, stamped metal AK-47 with a standard 16″ barrel.
Lee pointed me to the “Khyber Pass” build kit at AK-builder.com as an option, and it looked like just the ticket. TTAG’s managing editor Dan Zimmerman picked a fixed stock polymer furniture model of the same barrel length. Both were in 7.62x39mm.
Dan and I met the DGS team at their shop — AKA Lee’s garage — at 8AM Saturday morning. The shop was pretty basic, and that’s what makes building the AK amazing. The tools consisted of a simple 12-ton shop press, a drill press, some calipers, a spot welder, propane torch, Dremel tool, a mallet and some files.
It didn’t require the myriad jigs, fixtures, and molds that DGS had already made or purchased prior to our arrival, but they sure made the process easier. The additional, absolutely required aspect of the process was the experience that the members of DGS brought to the table.
Teaching these classes, usually on a one-student-at-a-time basis, they’ve taken dozens of people through the AK build process. They’ve seen just about every variant, configuration, and condition there is. Which was a good thing for us, because we definitely needed that experience.
I’m used to ARs. I’m even used to “building” ARs. Even starting with an 80% lower, the AR is pretty exacting, and very standardized. When you buy components, you know exactly what you are getting. Not so with an AK made from “demilitarized” parts and what otherwise appears to be scrap metal.
The kits received may, or may not have all of the parts (mine didn’t). The parts may not match at all (Dan’s didn’t) and they may have had some previous modifications that made their reassembly impossible (again, like Dan’s).
What they don’t include is the part our comrades in the central committee known as the BATF actually call a gun – the receiver itself. For that you get a sheet of steel that’s drilled in a few places. Maybe those are the right places, maybe not. And maybe you just have to start from scratch with a blank piece of sheet metal, again, like Dan did.
Either way, this piece of metal isn’t anything close to resembling something as complete as an 80% AR lower. These look like they range anywhere from 0% to 20% receivers to me.
The great thing here was the attitude of the DGS guys. There were several times that I thought that Dan was going to leave without a gun. But in every instance, the guys simply found another way to build it.
They used another other part, modified it with a drill or a file, from some other gun, or just built something from scratch, to make the build happen. Failure was simply not an option. It felt good to be around a group of people who think like that. It epitomized the weapon, the culture that created it, and the culture building it right now.
The first step was the actual building of the receiver. Using DGS’s fixtures and the shop press, the steel is simply laid over the mold, and pressed down, bit by bit, until I heard the sweet double “pong” of the steel as it took shape. Then more measuring and drilling holes, and now I have a gun.
Wait…what? This bent piece of freshly stamped metal is a gun? According to the law, yes. Madness. After the stamping came the trimming and spot welding of the rails onto the receiver. This is another step that was so different than the AR platform.
The rails are pretty much eyeballed in. Travis used a 3/16″ drill bit to space the rails and hold them parallel. How did he know it would work? Lots and lots of experience.
And it works perfectly. Because Dan and I were building different versions, we each had to drill and cut our receivers a little differently, and since I had a folding stock, I had to add a reinforcement plate to my receiver.
After that the center support was put in, and using a propane torch and a standard kitchen oven, we heat treated the “guns.” All of that sounds simple – and for what we are doing it really is – but it took us about five hours.
I bring that up to point out that nothing in the AK build process is perfect, nothing lines up just right, and everything takes a little finesse, often with a mallet. If everything was so simple, as it is in an AR build, the process would have taken two hours, tops. But it’s not. You are actually building a gun here, not just assembling one.
After a lunch of fajitas and beer, (Shiner’s Prickly Pear is not bad at all, BTW), I took my receiver out of the oven and marveled at its golden shiny goodness, and got back to work.
Now the tedium sets in. So many rivets, carefully pressed, using the 12-ton press, one by one.
The barrel was then pressed into the receiver and the headspace was set using Go/No-Go gauges.
For me, this took a while. The back plate DGS uses for pressing the barrel in had apparently walked off with someone, so they rigged it up using a wrench instead. Again, the DGS guys just made it work.
But this meant that as the barrel pressed down, the wrench would flex. The additional variable in the process greatly added to the time it took, and it was about an hour before I could get my barrel headspaced correctly.
But it was so worth it.
Because now I had a receiver, a stock, and a barrel. Now I had what I could recognize as a gun.
The rest of the build was straightforward, but not short. More extractor trimming, trimming and fitting of the magazine well, installing the trigger and the furniture.
Somewhere in there we ate pizza for dinner. I realized I had run into a little bit of a problem because it turns out I had riveted my forward trunnion onto the receiver about 1/16th of an inch too far back.
Not a problem. I simply had to use a file to remove that same amount from everything behind the receiver to make it fit, including the center column support, the magazine well, and the magazine latch.
Try that with an AR!
Finally, I put the trigger in place along with the safety and then…the moment of truth. I put the bolt assembly in, next the spring, finally the dust cover (which I had to grind a little to fit) and function check the gun.
The action was catchy, hard, and rough. But the gun cycled. When on safe, pressing the trigger made nothing happen, with the safety off, I heard the loud smack of the hammer on the center column support.
Racked back and forth a hundred times or so, and the action smoothed right out. I had a working, functioning AK-47. It took 15 hours to build.
And thanks to all the adaptation and McGyvering, somehow Dan had one, too.
The next day I went to the range with my gun. The gun you build yourself really is your gun and always will be, and it was a pleasure to fire it. Travis had told me to put one round in the magazine and fire it. Then three. Then a full mag. This didn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of the build, or the gun, or me.
Instead, I sprayed some RemOil into the gun, loaded up six 30 round mags and rapid fired them all as fast as I possibly could. Zero malfunctions. The gun cycled flawlessly, kicking steel cases from the surplus TulAmmo high into the air.
At the bench, using bags and the super-short sight radius on the stock AK sights, that same surplus ammo printed consistent sub 2-inch groups at 100 yards. I was floored.
I expected twice that, at least. This was as good as I could shoot my old Winchester 94s, if not better. I now have a folding stock truck buddy, a compact, light weight, semi-automatic .30cal that I can reliably take native game with out to 300 yards.
The next day I put another six magazines through it with more surplus ammo. Again, zero malfunctions and it’s holding that sub 2MOA group. The metal stock, with no padding and some sharp angles, does dig into the skin after a couple hundred rounds. It’s not very comfortable to get a cheek/stock weld on. The safety latch bites into my palm if I slap it down hard. In rapid fire, it’s hard to keep the gun firmly glued to my shoulder.
And yet, somehow, the rifle still feels great to shoot. I just did a video shoot for a TV show, and I could have used any of my ARs, some of which are half MOA guns, with custom Cerakoting, $1,000 glass, QD silencers and $200 triggers. But I didn’t. I shot my AK. Because that bolt carrier slides on the rails like butter now.
It gets better every time I fire it, and the gun is just so damn fun to shoot. And holy crap I made this thing with a bunch of dudes in a garage on a Saturday!
Over the years, I’ve spent a good amount of time, if not enough of it, in machine shops making all sorts of guns. To me, nothing embodies the sense of hope and possibility like a machine shop.
But that weekend we made that process smaller, simpler, and did it among friends. A group of friends, some fellow veterans, worked all day to make what was, at least to me, the weapon of our enemies. And that left me feeling like we hadn’t just spent the day building a rifle, but celebrating the values I most cherish about our nation.
We took ahold of the very weapons used against us, remade them, and used them to feed and protect our families. We did it using what was on hand, what we could find, and what we could make ourselves (with a lot of help from some very skilled instructors).
It was a great day, building a great gun. Thank you to all of the good folks over at the Dead Goose Society for giving me one of the most American experiences of my life.