Buyer’s Guide to the AK Family of Rifles
This article aims to help the first-time AK buyer get the necessary information to make an informed purchase of an AK-47 or AK-74 rifle.
It is not for the current AK owner and collector, and as such, you may feel unchallenged by this information. That is OK. We still love to have you here. Feel free to read along with us, and add any relevant knowledge you may feel appropriate in the comment section.
Here, we are only talking about purchasing the civilian-legal semi-automatic version of the Automatic Kalashnikov Model 47, or AK-47, which goes by many trade names and designations but is still a rose by any other name.
Today’s semi-automatic AK market is flooded with Kalashnikovs, ranging from marginal to excellent quality. You may find that the deciding factor is your “hip-pocket national bank” (your wallet). We can work with you, as well as the buyer with deep pockets, who is ready to purchase but just needs a push in the right direction.
The AK-47 and AK-74 rifles are, by far, the most produced modern small arms in the world. Some estimates are as high as 100 million copies. That means the AK accounts for one out of every five firearms in the world. In addition, they are quite the “bad boys” of the firearms world and for good reason. The AK has earned a reputation for being an extremely reliable weapon under all possible conditions. That is a good thing. Since they are such good weapons, and the full-auto version is relatively cheap on the international black market, they are the choice for many—especially gangs, drug traffickers and terrorists everywhere. In fact, the U.S. military has faced the AK-47 in just about every conflict from Vietnam to the present day—thus, the bad-boy reputation. You already should be over the “not invented here” syndrome, or you would not be thinking about buying one. Believe it or not, and much to their loss, many folks suffer from that malady.
Introduced in 1947, the AK-47 has been in use for a long time. The AK-74 came out in 1974. Pretty easy to remember, huh? Actually, that method of model numbering is common in the European world, where the rifle is simply named after its design or introduction year.
The 7.62x39mm round has good stopping power, favorably compares to the .30-30 cartridge, and is plentiful since countless shiploads of ammo have come here in the last 20 years. In fact, it is virtually a universal cartridge. The AK-74 5.45x39mm round is less well-known. It is essentially the Soviet’s answer to the 5.56 NATO round. For the past few years, inexpensive (and corrosive) surplus 5.45 ammo has been available, but it may be drying up now. New production ammunition still is available in great numbers, so ammo availability is not a factor. The AK is also available in 5.56 NATO for those who need it. however, most folks looking to buy their first AKs will stick with the original 7.62×39 caliber.
The U.S. has imported millions of AK magazines throughout the years. The basic AK-47 mag is a steel, 30-round banana mag. While prices have risen through the years, used surplus and unissued condition magazines still are available at a reasonable price. The great thing about AK mags, because the demand is so high, they now make them new in the U.S. Those are mostly the polymer variety, and most are high quality and very usable. However, the very best polymers are from places such as Bulgaria, which produces the “waffle mag” with the Circle 10 arsenal mark at the bottom. Those are highly recommended if you go polymer. Of course, all the polymer mags are impervious to rust (not including the springs) and are very robust. East German and Polish steel mags are about the best. There is a whole world of information for identifying AK mags because they all are similar (perhaps we will add that information in the future). For now, the number one recommendation is the military-surplus, 30-round steel magazine.
AK rifles are available in two major receiver groups: milled and stamped. This is when you must decide if you want to go high or low dollar. Just about any milled AK will be on the pricey side. That is just the way the market is; a milled receiver will cost you more. To explain the difference between the two, the milled receiver starts life as a solid chunk of quality steel and is then put through more than 100 machining stages until it becomes a finished monobloc receiver. That is the primary reason for the greater cost—all the machine work. The stamped receivers are, just as the term implies, stamped out of a flat sheet of steel and formed in a series of bending operations until the final box-shaped receiver is complete. There are other operations for the stamped version, such as adding the front and rear trunions, spot welding the bolt carrier rails to the inside and installing a number of heavy rivets that are the stamped receiver’s trademark. However, there is something aesthetically pleasing about the solid chunk of steel on the milled receiver, and the action is generally smoother on milled guns. Let your pocketbook be your guide. For your first AK-47, go with the more common 1mm stamped receiver. It is every bit as serviceable as the milled receiver and more than likely will cost a lot less. Look at one of the Romanian models. Be sure it accepts the standard, double-stack, high-capacity magazine, however.
Let’s face it, the days of importing a complete, functioning AK-47 into the U.S. are over. Those days ended on March 14, 1989, when President G.H.W. Bush signed an Executive Order banning the import of 43 different semi-automatic rifles, spawning the term “pre-ban,” which still is used today. If you want one of those pre-ban rifles, by all means get it. The thing to keep in mind is they cost plenty. We are talking about $1,000 to $2,000, or higher for rare variants. That is great, if you have the money. You will get a quality rifle if you buy a Norinco, Polytech, Valmet, Maadi, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian or any other pre-ban imported AK- 47. But you may find yourself owning a rifle so nice that you are afraid to shoot it—especially one that is still new in box (NIB). Do not be afraid to shoot it unless you just want to keep it for posterity’s sake or as an investment that is sure to appreciate. But that is not this article’s focus; we are looking at buying a shooter.
U.S. manufacturers produce their AKs from imported parts kits. Those were once complete, fully functioning, select-fire rifles demilled in the country of origin (or possibly the U.S. importer) to conform to BATFE specs. That means cutting and removing the receiver between the front and rear trunions and carefully removing all the small parts to ship it forward for import. In 2006, BATFE restricted the import of original barrels from those kits. That is just another part to replace with a U.S.-made unit, which in turn, raises the cost of the finished rifle. Those import restrictions have been overcome successfully by many U.S. AK makers. The demand is there to justify all the work of producing the receivers and barrels here. In fact, Arsenal, Inc., produces an absolutely outstanding “Bulgarian” AK made in Las Vegas.
Price is not always a true judge of quality, but most quality AKs will be at least $750. The old phrase “you get what you pay for” is true here. You cannot cut corners and have a first-class firearm. However, fear not because you can get a quality AK at a reasonable price. There are many Romanian AKs that are certainly worth owning. Fit and finish on those may not be the absolute best, but they are very functional and will serve you well. Be sure to closely check the front sight tower (FST) if you decide to go that route. We have seen many FSTs on Romanian and Yugoslav AKs that are not properly aligned (canted left or right) and must be set straight before you can have a successful shooting adventure. If you special order one sight unseen, you may have to have a gunsmith perform that service if it comes in canted.
The decision to buy an AK comes with several choices, one being furniture—the buttstock, pistol grip and hand guards. However odd it may sound, furniture is the accepted term to refer to the exterior parts of the rifle other than the barrel and receiver. There are two major groups: wood and synthetic. Both are equally good.
The Soviet AK started with wood furniture. That is the way to go if you want a traditional AK-47. There are a variety of woods from which to choose, as well as laminated woods. Laminated wood is the best choice for overall durability. You can go with original Soviet-bloc wood or a U.S.-made stock set. If you buy an AK and want to change the furniture, that is easy. You may buy a synthetic furniture AK and want to have wood, or vice-versa. Or you may have a blond Hungarian stock set and want to change to walnut. That also is simple. Sets are available pre-finished and ready to install or bare and ready for you to apply the desired finish. One popular fad is to duplicate the red-toned Russian finish with a gloss topcoat, which looks good on any AK.