East German / DDR AKs – The Best In The World? Part 2: Quality

Vladimir Onokoy
by Vladimir Onokoy

In part one of this series, I wrote about the history of DDR AKs which by many are regarded as the best in the world. In this part of the article, I will describe some experiences I had when I repaired those guns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Primarily I had to deal with MPI-KMs, the folding stock version of East German AKM, which is not surprising since it was one of the most exported DDR AKs that can be found almost anywhere.

From the beginning, I knew about the reputation of DDR AKs, had high expectations, and was carefully looking at tool marks, finish, and overall build quality. So here are my thoughts about the excellence of East German AK.

Fragile plastic parts

Broken handguard, typical for DDR AKs. Baghdad.

DDR AKs were among the first that got plastic handguards, pistol grips, and stocks. And when you’re the first to do something, it is never perfect. And it wasn’t in this case, so I replaced hundreds of those plastic parts on DDR AKs.

Another broken handguard. East Iraq.

I don’t know how they tested those parts during the R&D process, or maybe this plastic somehow degraded after 30 years, but every time I saw East German serial numbers on the weapon list of the incoming inspection, I knew I had to bring a ton of spare pistol grips and handguards.

Broken pistol grip, my apologies for the blurry focus. South Iraq.

I was really glad we had primarily folding stock guns, cause at least I didn’t have to carry a ton of heavy wooden stocks to replace “pebble grain” plastic stocks.

Finish and rusting

Rust on East German AK. Baghdad.

In the late 50s, with the introduction of AKM, the Soviet arms factories switched to a primitive but effective finishing technology: phosphating with “lacquer paint”, which is used to this day at the factory in Izhevsk.

The East German factories were a bit more conservative and decided to stick to hot bluing. There are also rumors that the Soviets wanted to charge a lot of money for the ToT of their surface finish technology, and that is why East German factories went with the proven technology that they already had.

Almost every time I had to deal with DDR AKs, I had to clean out rust. I don’t mind it, it is a pretty satisfying process, but the shortcomings of hot bluing were evident.

Rust on East German AK.

I completely refinished a bunch of rifles to fix the problem. Sometimes rusting was so severe I just wanted to smack the guy who allowed his gun to become so rusty that it seemed that a new life form would soon emerge from the receiver.

Most of the time it was just a surface rust, so it wasn’t a big deal, but perhaps there is a reason East German factories switched to a different finish later on with their AK-74 variant. There were also reports about painted MPi-KM rifles, but unfortunately, I’ve never encountered those.

Rust and broken handguards are the two most prominent problems on DDR AKs

A friend of mine did not believe me when I described those rusting problems. One day we decided to film a video about DDR AKs and he borrowed someone’s AK collection for a week. A couple days later he called me in a panic asking: “Hey man, I left the guns overnight in my glass terrace, and now they have rust spots. I am sorry buddy, you’re right about the finish”. He rubbed some oil on the rust spots and returned the collection to the owner, and I learned two things from it: first, be careful when you are lending your gun collection to someone, and second, even with a perfect condition finish, hot bluing on DDR AKs isn’t very rust-resistant.

Overall quality

Typical workhorse East German AK with rust and chipped handguard.

The build quality of DDR AKs is excellent. I’ve never seen one with smashed or out-of-spec rivets, a wobbling barrel, or trunnion, or a broken bolt. It is good, just the way it should be.

But there was nothing exceptional about this quality. Plenty of tool marks, many broken front sights, a lot of broken folding stocks and sometimes you would find rifles with excess headspace. So, DDR AKs were much better compared to a lot of other guns from other countries but weren’t really above and beyond when it comes to quality.

Machining marks on DDR AK bolt carrier

But why?

Cause the quality of the products doesn’t depend solely on where it is made or what passports the workers at the factory have. The quality comes from an efficiently run manufacturing process, components that are in spec, good machines, and a hundred other things that can be a hit or miss regardless of your geographical location.

In the same way, Soviet and Russian guns aren’t perfect just because they were made by the original manufacturer, DDR AKs weren’t perfect because the workers spoke German and loved sauerkraut. DDR AKs were built to a standard, but there was no incentive to go above and beyond once that standard was met. The factory was not a custom gunsmith that could charge double for handcrafted guns.

Overall, if you change the handguard and pistol grip on the DDR AK and refinish the gun, it would be one of the best, most durable, and dependable AKs you can find. And while East Germany ceased to exist 35 years ago, I am sure those guns will be used even when nobody would remember what East Germany was.

Vladimir Onokoy
Vladimir Onokoy

Vladimir Onokoy is a small arms subject matter expert and firearms instructor. Over the years he worked in 20 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 contributed chapters to books from the "Vickers Guide: Kalashnikov" series. Email: machaksilver at gmail dot com. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Vladimir-Onokoy-articles-and-videos-about-guns-and-other-unpopular-stuff-107273143980300/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/vladonokoy/ YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/machaksilver

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  • Armed Partisan Armed Partisan on Jan 14, 2024

    The nicest AK I found in Iraq (OIF, 2003) was a mystery; it was a milled receiver AK-47, with only one marking that I could find, and it was a small, stamped CZ logo on the receiver, it was hot-blued (not parkerized or varnished), rather heavy, had a barrel threaded directly to the receiver (which is why I couldn't smuggle it out of the country; couldn't get that barrel off), and it absolutely, positively, was NOT a Vz.58 (I used to own one, and I know the difference).

    I wondered at the time (and since) if it was a "sneak" that was produced off the books for export purposes. For example, there was a bunch of FN pistol clones that were imported into the US a few years ago that were made without markings, supposedly by the Czechs, who had a long relationship with FNH since the 20's that I suspect continued in secret during the Cold War. Perhaps it was an early AK-47 prototype built by the Czechs for T&E when they were developing the Vz.58? It was the most beautiful AK-47 I've ever handled (and I've handled quite a few as a gunsmith and machinist), and it was a real shame that I had to abandon it.

    • See 1 previous
    • Armed Partisan Armed Partisan on Jan 18, 2024

      @Vlad I couldn't say 100% for sure that it wasn't, but as I recall, it looked exactly like the CZ logo found on CZ USA products today. It also was interesting in that it did not have any other markings of any kind, such as the fire selector markings, and not even a SN that I can recall. It was also very well made, with well-fitted wood. Back then, we didn't have smertfones, so I have no photographs, but at that point of the invasion, we were just taking all the AKs that were found, laying them in a line in the road, and running them over with tanks to deny them to the Iraqis (most of whom were happy to see us, at least at that time). This one had been given that treatment, and the wood was cracked, but the reciever only had a tiny hairline crack between the hammer and receiver pin (which didn't effect it's function a bit). I imagine that it was given to an officer or a presentation model that got pressed into service at the very least, but who knows? Maybe a Khyber Pass special that made it there through the global arms market?

  • Jeff Hewitt Jeff Hewitt on Jan 14, 2024

    Looks like not only Lego has problems with brittle brown pieces.

    • Nasty! Nasty! on Jan 18, 2024

      @Jeff Hewitt Plastics with different colors and looks can very much have different strengths, even when it's the same polymer. For a peculiar example, there's the so called "Gold Plastic Syndrome."

      If you have ever seen that certain kind of plastic on toys which is supposed to be gold colored, which has an almost swirly and glittery dark yellow look to it, that kind is generally known to be very brittle. It isn't at first, but the molecular bond of that style of plastic and pigment blend is not enduring, and it weakens a lot over time. Certain toys and videogame cartridges from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, are known to be affected by this, such as some Transformers toys where you cannot actually transform them anymore, because any manual handling is too rough, and any of those meant to spring open into a shape on their own will destroy themselves.

      Then there's also that basic one where opaque plastics will always be more robust than translucent ones.