I’ve written a lot about the AR-15 and M1 Garand rifles, and after a time I will have written nearly as much about the EM-2, M14, and FAL. One rifle, though, hasn’t been the subject of very much of my writing, in part because reliable historical information on it is difficult to acquire in the English-speaking world, and in part because my focus has so far been elsewhere.
I would like to change that now. This is a gun that has earned at least as high a place in the hierarchy of 20th Century firearms as any one of those other weapons, and you wouldn’t find a shortage of people who would argue that it is the most important. It is also, out of all of the rifles thus far mentioned in this post, my favorite type.
I’m talking about Kalashnikov’s avtomat, and what follows are some of the reasons to like it as much as I do.
It is its own cutaway model
The AK allows the user to “get under the hood” in a way that few other rifles do. The receiver cover comes right off, giving AK owners the unique ability to instantly convert their rifles into a firing cutaway model:
As Rob Ski often demonstrates, an AK user can simply and quickly vivisect his rifle to spend quality time with each individual part. How much this matters to the infantryman is not for me to say. For someone like me, though, who enjoys tinkering and toying with mechanical things to find out just how they work, the AK offers a lot more idle recreation than the AR-15.
Each rifle tells the story of how it was made
The AK today represents the Old World of manufacturing holding its ground against modern total-interchangeability mass production. Many AK parts are file-fitted, and most manufacturers still sort components according to tolerance to achieve a fit. In contrast, manufacturing disciplines pioneered in the United States have since helped reduce or eliminate variations in parts that would prevent any given manufactured part from fitting with any other part. The AR-15 rifle constitutes a set of thoroughly-standardized parts; take any given bolt, and it will headspace properly with nearly any given barrel extension (many AR-15 builders, in fact, don’t even bother checking headspace on their builds, even if their bolts and barrel extensions from different sources). The Kalashnikov rifle is very different; for example, special attention must be paid when pressing the barrel into the trunnion, to ensure that headspace is correct.
This has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, the AR-15’s high level of parts interchangeability makes assembling one easy; on the other hand, the Kalashnikov’s Old World manufacturing paradigm has made it the favorite of Third World gunsmiths, most notably those of the Khyber Pass region in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It’s this different theory behind the mass production of the AK that has caused so many headaches for American Kalashnikov manufacturers, but it’s also something that I find highly endearing. Each rifle is unique, and carries forward a tradition of manufacturing that is much, much older than that characterizing the AR-15. A European-made AK carries much of the appeal of a surplus firearm – even if it isn’t. The whole rifle is a construct of file marks, bent sheet, and manual milling operations. Almost all parts carry with them the evidence of the hands that helped make them, even the magazines (and even the polymer ones!). Maybe that’s why the AR-15 market is characterized by an unending desire for infinite customization, and the AK market less so. It might be more than just a desire for simplicity – each AK already is unique in a way that each AR-15 is not.
Today factories in Europe and Asia still churn out AKs by the thousands using older, more personal methods than the CNC milling, forging, and casting that makes the AR-15 so cheap and consistent. Sure, I’ll say that because of this the AR-15 may be the better weapon of war, but I can’t give up my appreciation of the visible record of human work.
The 5.45mm is a ballistician’s delight
If 5.56mm represents the first generation military service small caliber high velocity round, then 5.45mm represents the second. The configuration of the 5.45mm is decidedly superior to the 5.56mm; despite having a lighter bullet moving at lower velocity, the 5.45mm’s better ballistic shape allows it to perform better at range, with more energy and velocity, and less drop and drift than the 5.56mm 62gr projectile when fired from comparable rifles. This means comparable ballistic results with a lighter weight and lower-recoil round, and that’s definitely something worth appreciating.
While the 5.56mm currently has the better bullet selection in the Western consumer market, it’s easy for me to appreciate the “ballistician’s delight” that is the 5.45x39mm Soviet.
The Kalashnikov is the heir to the Garand’s crown
Every criticism I have of the M1 rifle has been addressed in Kalashnikov’s adaptation of it, and all the best design characteristics are retained. The mediocre moving parts mass ratio has been augmented so far as to be the gold standard, the gas system has been appropriately shortened, lightened, and made more durable and repairable through a riveted semi-flexible linkage between the piston rod and bolt carrier, the en-bloc mechanism has been deleted in favor of extremely robust detachable box magazines, and most importantly the receiver has been closed off from the elements, protecting the locking surfaces, moving parts, and feed geometry against debris ingress. Likewise, the Garand’s excellent trigger mechanism and bolt group have been preserved in simplified form, and the excellent anti-pre-engagement mechanism of the M1 soldiers on in the Kalashnikov.
It’s not hard for a gun nerd like me to get excited about a rifle design that has the kind of pedigree that the AK does.
It is General Winter’s own rifle
It’s very difficult to make a self-loading rifle that works well in the cold. When temperatures fall, lubricants gel and harden, steel shrinks slightly, and ammunition produces much lower pressure levels providing less power to cycle an action. The Kalashnikov scores extremely well in cold weather performance; a fact that reflects very well on its designer, however unsurprising it may be that a Russian firearm would perform well in these conditions.
One shouldn’t discount Garand’s influence on the Kalashnikov’s sub-zero supremacy, though. As related in Lt. Col. Roy Rayle’s book Random Shots: Episodes In The Life of A Weapons Developer, the Canadian-born gun designer had intimate knowledge of the advantages of using loose clearances everywhere but in the areas (such as the locking mechanism) where it was essential to have a tight fit, a practice dutifully carried on by Kalashnikov and his team when designing his avtomat. This generous gift to the moving parts allows the drain of water which might freeze, and helps prevent the seizing or binding of parts in the cold. It is – in short – the essential ingredient in designing the superior winter rifle.
Kalashnikov freely admitted that Garand’s rifle was a major influence on his work, and communicated this to Dr. Edward Ezell during the writing of the latter’s excellent The AK-47 Story. It’s therefore worth remembering the praise so often lavished on Kalashnikov for designing his rifle with loose clearances first belongs to John Garand.
Living in the subtropics, excellent performance in the cold is not the highest priority for me, but the engineering that went into achieving that performance is certainly something I appreciate.
It has Hollywood good looks
The aesthetics of Kalashnikov rifles feel very unique to my eyes. They combine the industrial, workmanlike architecture of the European craftsman-worker tradition with the svelte curves and lines characteristic of Russian small arms design. Mikhtim’s avtomat simply looks iconic in a way that few gun designs do, and there’s a certain conveyance of the exotic when I hold a military-style example. There are of course mentions to be made of the rifle appearing on flags and coats of arms, and being a favorite prop for Hollywood villains, but those thoughts cross my mind but rarely when considering the appearance of my avtomats. More often, I appreciate the aesthetics for reminding me of all of the above, and for coming together to compose the overall character of the rifle.
And what a character it is!