Nearly every author who writes about the Avtomat Kalashnikova with anything positive to say, lauds the rifle’s legendary reliability – and with good cause. At a time when select-fire and fully automatic firearms tended to be overly sensitive to fouling, dirt and debris, the AK stood alone. To the average joe, the little Soviet lead-slinger seemed to not only shrug off neglect, but thrive with it.
While the rifle’s reliability is often over-stated, its magazine doesn’t receive the same amount of praise. Today, that makes sense; most firearms ship with, or utilize a reliable magazine of some variety. But back when the Avtomat was first conceived, detachable magazines tended to be relatively fragile an somewhat unreliable unless kept clean.
In fact, the STANAG – the universal AR15/M16 magazine, didn’t begin to approach the levels of the original AK magazine until the introduction of the Magpul PMAG in 2006/2007.
But why is that? The technology behind all box magazines are basically the same with minor variations. Yet, some are irrefutably more reliable than others. – So what makes the AK’s magazine so reliable?
Whether tube, fixed, rotary or box-type, magazines have historically been made of steel. Notable exceptions include the Glock’s polymer magazines, and the original M16 aluminum mags, but most firearms that came before these used steel mags.
If that’s the case, what makes the AK’s steel mag unique?
For starters, it doesn’t just use steel, but thick, welded and folded steel. The spine of the steel AK magazine consists of two 0.75mm pieces of steel spot-welded together with 6mm of extra material to reinforce.
The front of the magazine is the same, but lacks the spine’s protrusion – but still gains in the use of heavy gauge, welded-steel. The outer body of the magazine consists of the same .75mm steel, but with pressed ribs for added strength and tensile resistance. The result, is a magazine that is literally impossible for an average human to crush using only their hands.
This durability ensures the magazine will retain its shape, and feed rounds consistently. The Soviet’s built these magazines to outlast the soldiers carrying them, and it shows. It’s why steel magazines will pop up in arid locations in the hands of farmers using them as spades – the steel is heavy duty enough for hard use and abuse.
Another aspect that lends itself to the Soviet magazine’s die-hard reliability, it its positive lock-up. Where Western rifles, like the M16 and M4, are secured inside a magazine well with a tab inserted into a small notch in the body, AK mags take a more pragmatic approach.
If you’ve ever heard the term, ‘Rock and lock’ you have the general gist of how these mags insert in an AK rifle. They interface with the Avtomat’s receiver with two portions of a thick, 2mm collar that surrounds the top of the magazine.
The first is a heavy duty, milled tab that engages the magazine release lever attached to the trigger guard. The second is a notch milled out of the opposite side of the same collar. To insert, the shooter inserts to magazine at approximately 45 degrees tilted backwards, and drags the front of the magazine (where the notch is) along the inside of the magazine well.
Once the notch catches on the locking tab inside the receiver, they rock the rear of the magazine up and back, until the magazine’s tab engages the release lever with an audible, ‘clunk’.
This is slower than the M4’s push-button release, but is more fool-proof. The AK magazine is either in or it’s not. Soldiers running an AK won’t run in to the issue Western soldiers face of not fully seating a magazine in the well, firing a round, and dropping a mostly full magazine into the dirt. That isn’t to say it isn’t possible, but it’s much less likely to occur with this more positive system.
Magpul’s anti-tilt follower was seen as revolutionary when they introduced it for the M4’s STANAG magazines – but the Soviets had been running these for decades before.
The follower on a magazine, is the component that interfaces between the feeding spring, and the cartridges themselves. Every magazine uses them, except for the Boberg XR9/Bond Arms Bullpup pistol – but that’s a different story entirely.
For every other firearm, the follower is necessary to ensure that the cartridges being pushed towards the action, stay under consistent pressure while maintaining proper alignment. Magazine followers fail, when dirt/debris is introduced to the inside of the magazine, and cause the follower to bind.
Another way they fail, is when the rounds inside apply uneven friction inside the magazine body, and the follower itself tilts forwards or backwards. When this happens, the rounds can’t properly reach the chamber, and the gun normally encounters a failure to fed (FTF) or what the IDF calls a, ‘Type 1’ malfunction – action close, unable to fire. (in this case, because the chamber is empty)
The AK magazine follower prevents tilting, by incorporating long pieces of steel on the follower that act as guiding tabs. These tabs prevent the follower from tilting more than five or so degrees in either direction. These tabs also increase friction, but the magazine spring is sufficiently stout to compensate for this.
While these features make the AK magazine very robust, the trade-off is weight. While the ribbed magazines are lighter than the original slab-sided ones, they are by no means, ‘light’. Still, if reliability is your mantra, few magazines can outlast the venerable, steel AK magazine.