From Dragunov MA to AM-17 – how rejected designs become future weapons

    Early prototype of AM-17, first public demonstration. August 2016

    Recently, Larry Vickers visited Russia to get some pictures of rare and unique AKs for his upcoming Vickers Guidebook. He also visited the factory in Izhevsk and tried some of the newer weapons, including a compact assault rifle, the AM-17.

    In the video, I talk about the main features of the prototype, also, if you want to see some additional detailed photos of AM-17, you can check out an excellent post by Matthew Moss: https://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2018/05/17/larry-vickers-takes-a-look-at-kalashnikovs-latest-the-am-17/

    However, today’s story is not really about AM-17, it is about where it came from.

    I was always kind of a history buff, and I believe the story behind AM-17 is a fascinating example of the weapon that was way ahead of its time. The weapon I am talking about is Dragunov MA.

    Son of Yevgeny Dragunov, weapons design engineer Alexei Dragunov, with MA prototype

    Son of Yevgeny Dragunov, weapons design engineer Alexei Dragunov, with MA prototype

    Some gun enthusiasts in the US think that Dragunov is just another name of world famous rifle, SVD. But Dragunov is not the name of the weapon, it is the surname of the design engineer who invented it.

    Besides SVD, he also designed a whole line of rifles for the Olympic style shooting, in both 22LR and 7.62x54R: MS-74, S-49, CV-55/56, and MCV-55/56/59.

    Yevgeny Dragunov with the S-49 rifle he designed

    Yevgeny Dragunov with the S-49 rifle he designed

    His biography is quite interesting. At the age of 14, he went to study in a community college, and at 18, he graduated, becoming a professional engineering technologist.

    A year later, he was drafted to Red Army, where his competition shooting background helped him to become a senior armorer. During the war, he fixed weapons for his unit, stationed in the Far East of Russia to defend the border in case of Japanese invasion.

    After the war, he came back to his hometown of Izhevsk and started working at Izhmash factory. His background was unique – great shooter, professional armorer, and trained engineering technologist.

    Before he started working on SVD, he was never deeply involved in the development of any military weapons. As we know, the first weapon he developed for the military was a very big success and SVD remains to be a primary sniper rifle of the Russian army over 50 years later.

    Modern production SVD sniper rifle

    Modern production SVD sniper rifle

    But today we are talking about a less known weapon – Dragunov MA. If it wasn’t for Larry Vickers, this weapon would remain completely unknown outside of Russia.

    One common misconception is that MA was designed as a competitor to AKS-74U for the “Modern” project trials. That would not make much sense since both Dragunov and Kalashnikov worked for the same factory – Izhmash.

    Corporate loyalty was big at that time, and no one would allow the submission of two completely different designs from the same factory for trials.

    In fact, the MA had nothing to do with those trials. Dragunov designed it for a completely different project, which name roughly translates as “compact assault rifle with extensive use of polymer”. He started working on this project around 1976, and in December of 1977, he provided prototypes to the research and testing facility called TSNIITOCHMASH (and yes, even Russians have a hard time pronouncing it).

    The goal of the project was just research and nothing else. Some say that project originated when Soviets learned about Austrian AUG bull-pup, developed in the mid-70s because AUG had a polymer receiver.

    After some testing, all MA prototypes remained in the R&D facility collection for over 40 years, until they were discovered somewhere around early 2014.

    Right away, it was evident that MA could potentially solve two biggest problems AK has; first being the considerable difficulty of weight reduction. The foundation of the AK – the receiver contains all working parts, and there is very little you can do to make it lighter, while at the same time keeping the same rigidity and durability.

    Field strip of original Dragunov MA prototype:1 - upper and lower receiver with barrel and folding stock, 2- bolt carrier, 3- bolt, 4 - trigger mechanism, 5 - recoil spring assembly, 6 – piston, 7 - gas block plug, 8 lower handguard, 9 upper handguard, 10 lower handguard retainer, 11 flashider, 12 magazine.

    Field strip of original Dragunov MA prototype:1 – upper and lower receiver with barrel and folding stock, 2- bolt carrier, 3- bolt, 4 – trigger mechanism, 5 – recoil spring assembly, 6 – piston, 7 – gas block plug, 8 lower handguard, 9 upper handguard, 10 lower handguard retainer, 11 flashider, 12 magazine.

    With MA, all the “important” stuff (bolt carrier, barrel, rail, gas system) is contained in the upper receiver. The lower receiver only houses trigger mechanism, therefore you can make it extremely lightweight.

    The second problem of the AK design – it is very hard to mount conventional optics on it. From an ergonomic standpoint, the most logical place for an optic is receiver cover. But mechanically, a standard receiver cover will never hold zero of any of optic.

    On MA, this problem simply does not exist. You can just mount the optic on the Picatinny rail on top of the upper receiver and never worry about zero shift (unless you have an old EOtech).

    Early AM-17 prototype with an old EOTech red dot sight, February 2017.

    Early AM-17 prototype with an old EOTech red dot sight, February 2017.

    Obviously, AM-17 is not a direct copy of an old MA. In the last 40 years, certain things changed, first being the ergonomics. Original selector lever on MA was located on the right side so you could manipulate it with your trigger finger.

    Note the selector switch over the magazine release

    Note the selector switch over the magazine release

    The new ambidextrous selector is more conventional and definitely more ergonomic. Another feature of the old MA was the takedown lever. To disassemble the weapon, one has to rotate the rear sight 90 degrees – simple and very minimalistic solution. AM-17 has a more conventional system, with two captive takedown pins.

    Original MA stock was brilliant for its time, it was an OVER folding stock with a folding buttpad. In the folded position, it stayed along upper receiver.

    New stock folds to the right side and is adjustable for the length of pull.

    The end result of all the changes, in my personal opinion, is very impressive.

    With the weight of a little bit over 5 and a half pounds, the weapon is extremely controllable. In fact, it was so controllable that I was constantly pushing the barrel down too much, being used to substantial muzzle rise of compact assault rifles. Not in this case.

    What the future holds for the AM-17 prototype? Let’s wait and see.

    Two things that can broaden potential market for the weapon come to mind. First, it would make sense to design a 5.56/223 version of AM-17 with STANAG magazines; second – test the version with a full-length barrel. Will that happen? Nobody knows.

    If you know anything about Russian small arms history, one thing is certain – Russian small arms development moves in mysterious ways.

    P.S. I would like to thank Mikhail Dragunov, son of Yevgeny Dragunov for his invaluable help with this article!

    Vladimir Onokoy

    Vladimir Onokoy is a small arms subject matter expert and firearms instructor. Over the years he worked in 15 different countries as a security contractor, armorer, firearms industry sales representative, product manager, and consultant.

    His articles were published in the Recoil magazine, Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defence Journal, and Silah Report, he also created several video series such as “Gun myths”, “Kalashnikov: around the world”, “Larry Vickers in Russia” and “Kalashnikov: evolution” that are available on YouTube.
    ► Email: machaksilver at gmail dot com.
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