AK Rifle 101 For New Gun Owners, Part 3: Shopping Tips and Why You Should Bother

In this final installment of the “AK Rifle 101 for New Gun Owners” series, we’ll talk about a few things to look for when shopping for an AK. It may seem like a lot compared to buying an AR-15. I totally get that, but I’ll also point you to good sources of info where you can learn just about anything you care to. I close the series with an ode to my beloved rifle, which I esteem so highly that I named her. Hey, if you know, you know. Some things are just worth the effort. As noted in the first two articles of this series, this is not, nor is it intended to be, the “complete guide to the Kalashnikov rifle.” If you want that, go find one of the large books written on the subject. This is basic stuff. So, let’s get on with it.

Continued from AK 101 Part Two (2).

An Iraqi soldier trains with what appears to be an original milled receiver AK-47.
An Iraqi soldier trains with what appears to be an original milled receiver AK-47. (kpbs.org)

As with anything else, there are different levels of quality and affordability. Until recently, getting a quality AK rifle usually meant buying an imported or surplus gun because the American-built AKs were either poorly made or very expensive. I’m not going to break down the merits of various AKs, but I will give you an idea of what to look for so you can research on your own. Trust me, the research is where you learn the basics of the weapon system and start learning what appeals to you and what doesn’t. That’s the process I now use with every gun I purchase. It’s worth the time and effort.

A Ukrainian man with his rifle painted in the traditional Ukrainian Petrykivka style.
A Ukrainian man with his rifle painted in the traditional Ukrainian Petrykivka style. Most likely hand-painted, it’s definitely a unique look. (Oleksandr Klymenko via Reddit.com)

Unfortunately, Saiga rifles were banned from import by the Obama Administration in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. You can still find them, but the prices have gone way up since there are no more coming into the country. Given what’s happening in Ukraine, that may be a permanent thing. Happily, there are other good options, including a recent surge of quality American AKs that didn’t exist even a few years ago. That gives you more choices between imports and American-made guns.

The Saiga rifle in its original sporting configuration.
The Saiga rifle in its original sporting configuration. Many of these rifles were converted to AK specs after being imported. Further imports were banned by the Obama Administration. (rediff.com)

The Biden Administration also banned the import of Russian-made ammo, which was among the most affordable on the market since much of it was steel cased. A couple of American firms have since vowed to fill that void, but it remains to be seen whether they can actually do it.

Saiga AK rifle
The author’s Saiga rifle as it was bought after being converted to the AK-103 configuration. It has since been upgraded (see below) (Author’s photo)

When I began this article, I intended to talk about some AK brands that I like and some that I don’t. But when I started researching that, it became obvious that it was just too much. And who am I to tell you what to buy anyway? Plus, lawyers. So, instead, I’ll cover a few things to look for when shopping for an AK rifle.

What to Look for in an AK Rifle

Forged Trunnions

I will make one firm and unequivocal point here: DO NOT BUY AN AK RIFLE THAT HAS CAST TRUNNIONS. That should be non-negotiable. “Alright,” you may say, “but what is a trunnion?” Excellent question. I’m glad you asked. Kalashnikov rifles only have one receiver, unlike the AR-15. Inside that receiver are two trunnions, front and rear. The rear trunnion takes the recoil from the spring in the action and is the anchor for the stock. It takes some pressure and needs to be a good quality component, but it’s not nearly as important as the front trunnion.

The hand in the photo is holding a front trunnion for a Kalashnikov rifle. The importance of quality forged trunnions cannot be overstated. (recoilweb.com)

The quality of the front trunnion can literally make or break your rifle. The front trunnion connects the barrel to the receiver and houses the locking lugs when the bolt comes forward. In other words, it’s where the explosion happens when you pull the trigger. That’s where most of the pressure is contained and distributed. So, it obviously needs to be strong.

Mikhail Kalashnikov understood that and designed the rifle with forged trunnions. Even when the AK-47 evolved from an expensive forged receiver to cheaper stamped sheet steel, the trunnions were forged. They still are today. Unfortunately, some firearms manufacturers in the United States thought otherwise.

American-made AKs have often been regarded as junk because certain companies tried to cash in on the exploding popularity of defensive rifles by putting out a cheap, inferior product. At the center of that was the decision to go with cast trunnions instead of the more expensive forging. If you only put a hundred rounds a year through your rifle, it’s probably not a big deal, but if you shoot it regularly, the cast trunnion’s failure is only a matter of time. And by failure, I mean it will break. If it breaks at the wrong time, or if you haven’t noticed it yet, the gun could literally blow up when you pull the trigger or maybe send some steel flying back at your face. (Pro tip from a non-pro: Always wear eye protection!)

broken cast trunnion
The arrows are pointing to spots on cast front trunnions where the metal has literally broken off. Never fall for the line that cast trunnions are “good enough.” They are not. (akoperatorsunionlocal4774.com)

All it takes to confirm this is a little effort on your favorite search engine or an AK forum. Now, some of those companies, and even some gun people, will try to tell you that cast trunnions are “almost as good” or “good enough.” I call BS on that. Yes, forged trunnions are more expensive. But take it from someone who has learned that quality absolutely matters in the firearms world, with high-pressure explosions happening a foot from your face, do you really want “almost as good,” even if that were true? Get a gun with forged trunnions and don’t listen to that other stuff. It’s a big enough deal that manufacturers will tell you up front that their product has forged trunnions. If they don’t tell you that, be very careful.

Properly Seated Rivets

Rivets are another thing to look for. Being sheet steel, most AKs are held together with rivets. Look for rivets that have been pressed in evenly and have no air gap between the rivet head and the receiver. Again, some people will say it’s no big deal, but if the rivets are holding your trigger group in place, don’t you want them to be solid? Poorly done rivets can work themselves out. The most important rivets are those in the trunnion. Check them regularly. A poorly riveted gun can be a sign of shoddy workmanship elsewhere.

improperly seated rivets
Here is an example of an improperly seated rivet. Some people will tell you this doesn’t matter, but it could be a sign of shoddy workmanship elsewhere. (thekalashconnection.com)

Several American companies have stepped up and started making quality AKs in the last few years. Some are better than others and there are different price points, but each of those companies has committed to including forged trunnions and a better overall rifle than what used to be available. I said I wouldn’t tell you what to buy, but companies like Rifle Dynamics (which has been fantastic from the start), Meridian Defense, Kalashnikov USA, and Riley Defense are making high to good quality AKs. Palmetto State Armory, after a rocky start a few years back, is now making good, affordable guns. Those are the ones who spring to mind. I’m sure there are a few others. Omission is not an indictment. Just do your homework.

AK Rifle brand comparison
AK guys love good rifles and loathe subpar guns. See if you can guess which one uses cast trunnions. (instagram.com/kalash_lover)

What about AK parts kits?

I have purposely refrained from discussing AK parts kits which are widely available. If you have the technical capability, you can assemble your own rifle from these kits. But it requires skill and the proper tools. It’s not a snap together thing. I have no experience with those, and I’ve seen all kinds of differing opinions on their quality. I expect the quality varies like the rifles do. Since I have never done anything with them, I’ll let you do your own research. Just know they are out there.

Nor do I know much about surplus AKs, other than to advise you to be very careful. As a surplus bolt action rifle collector, I’ve learned to ask pointed questions as to quality and condition and to see the rifle in person if possible. Have some kind of buyer protection if at all possible. I’ll point you to some info sources below.

A Polish AK rifle parts kit.
A Polish AK rifle parts kit. Others will look similar. Don’t attempt this if you don’t have the necessary skills and tools. (recoilweb.com)

I will make one small disclaimer about aftermarket parts on AK rifles. Aftermarket stuff might not work on all of them or may need some custom fitting. For instance, I decided to replace the gas tube on my rifle, but when I tried to install it, it didn’t fit. It required a Dremel to fit it to the gun. I didn’t want to fool with that, so I just kept the old one. That’s when I discovered that my experience was nothing unusual. Likewise, some stocks, handguards, grips, whatever may not fit all Kalashnikov models. You can usually make them fit if you’re willing to alter them a bit and have the knowledge and skill to do so. I don’t.

The Zastava guns from Serbia are said to be especially picky about aftermarket parts because of how they are designed. I will say, though, that Zastava products are very good. It’s just one of those things with AKs. They are made in so many places by so many companies that there are often minor but important differences.

Mikhail Kalashnikov with his AK-47 in 2002
Mikhail Kalashnikov, “Papa Kalash,” with his AK-47, in 2002. (wbur.org)

Do Your Research.

I know I’ve thrown a lot at you and then told you to do your homework. I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you where to look. As always, firearms forums contain a wealth of information, and you can ask specific questions. The downside is you never really know who you’re talking to and many of the posters can be condescending and pedantic. When I go to a forum, I spend a lot of time lurking and finding guys that have hundreds, or even thousands of posts. I try to direct my questions to them. It can be time consuming, but I usually get good info if I’m patient.

Another source is gun blogs like the one you’re reading right now. The Mag Life Blog has tons of great writers who know a heckuva lot about everything related to firearms. Most, if not all, of them know a lot more than I do, so I read it literally every day. There are other good blogs out there too.

meme about AK vs AR
There’s a lot of good-natured back and forth between the AR and AK communities. Some of it promotes bad habits. Still funny, though (Reddit.com)

Finally, you can go to YouTube. There are some excellent content creators there and I’ve learned a LOT from them. Again, you have to be careful and spend some time seeing who knows what they are talking about and who is full of crap. Here are several AK guys on YouTube that I trust, in no particular order: Larry Vickers of Vickers Tactical; Rob Ski of AK Operators Union Local 47-74; Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons; Tim from Military Arms Channel; Garand Thumb; Mike from Mr. Guns-n-Gear; Eric and Chad from Iraqveteran8888; and the AK Guy, Brandon Herrera, who has the added bonus of being funny. I’m sure there are others, but those are my go-to guys. The “AK Users Guide” series on AK Operators Union is comprehensive and excellent.

I also like Kalashnikov Group, the official YouTube channel of Kalashnikov Concern, which makes AK pattern guns for the Russian military. They have some outstanding content, some in English and some in Russian, though the Russian language stuff has English subtitles.

Stoner & Kalashnikov with Dr. Seuss character
The endless debate. (breachbangclear.com)

Why Should I Bother with an AK Rifle?

With all that stuff about cast trunnions, canted sights, mounting issues, and parts that might not fit, why bother with an AK rifle? After all, quality AR-15s don’t have issues like that. Even cheap ARs don’t have that much stuff to worry about. Fair enough, and I’ll admit that my number one defensive rifle is an AR-15. That’s the one I train with most often.

AR vs AK cartoon
Cheaper ammo is one argument for buying an AK rifle. (Instagram.com/brandonherrera)

But man, there’s just something primal about a Kalashnikov that speaks to me like no AR ever has. It’s my fun gun, like that wild sometimes-girlfriend you used hang out with on the weekends because she could smoke, drink, and cuss right along with you and your buddies. The AR-15 is like the girl you take to the prom. The AK is the girl you take to the bar with sawdust on the floor.

I Even Named my AK.

I love my AK-103 so much I named her. Don’t judge me. (Author’s photo)

Her name is Roza. I once took her to a shoot at a friend’s farm. Near the end, my friend’s brother, who is a cop, showed up and asked if he could shoot her because he had never handled an AK before. I handed him Roza and a full mag and said, “Knock yourself out.” It was right at dusk and Roza spat orange flame as she roared down the valley. The cop went through the mag, with the last ten or so shots going as fast as he could pull the trigger. He turned to me with a big grin and said, “I think I just got a chubby.” That’s how Roza rolls.

AK rifle right and left profiles
A previous Roza setup. (Author’s photo)

The AK Community is Fun Too.

For the most part, they’re more laid back and they don’t turn their guns into a pseudo dick measuring contest like some AR guys. There’s a lot of good-natured razzing of AR guys and even among owners of different AK rifle variants. Brandon Herrera’s “AR Guys vs. AK Guys” series on YouTube is hilarious. There’s even a Kalashnikov brand Vodka, endorsed by “Papa Kalash” himself, Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Kalashnikov vodka
Kalashnikov brand vodka. Endorsed by “Papa Kalash” himself. (breachbangclear.com)

There is also a near universal loathing of subpar AKs. Most of those are from certain American companies. I say “near universal” because that excludes guys who own those guns, at least until they understand why their guns are loathed in the first place.

Roza’s current setup, which could literally change today if the urge hits me. (Author’s photos)

I’m glad I got an AK rifle before I got into ARs because I think I carried a lot of that attitude over. I do what I want with my guns, and I don’t give a crap who doesn’t like it. Chances are, at any given time, Roza has various grip tape all over her, optics and lights and grips and anything else I want to play with. She doesn’t have a permanent setup and I like it that way. That’s one reason why finding a reliable scope mount is important to me. I’m always taking that thing off and putting it back on. It’s whatever I’m feeling at the time, unlike my primary AR-15, which I’m always trying to fine-tune. There is no fine tuning for Roza. I like her however she is. No matter what she’s wearing on any given day, she’s never far from “Rifle is fine.”

AK vs AR meme
Not far from the truth for some guys (Reddit.com)

So, on the question of why you should bother, my response is “Because they’re fun.” Yes, the AK can be an awesome primary defensive rifle if that’s what you want. It’s versatile and reliable. As the saying goes, if you take care of it, it will take care of you. With a quality AK rifle, that’s no exaggeration.

meme - mongolian shepherd with an AK-47 and snow leopard
The AK rifle can be a mean addition to your defensive system (Reddit.com)

Of all my guns, and I may have added two or three in the last ten years, Roza is the most fun. I don’t even have to think about it. Just make sure you don’t buy yours like I did, which is recounted in Part 1 of this series. Do your homework and you’ll get a rifle that will likely rank among your favorites in a very short time. I’m just glad that Saint Mikhail, peace be upon him, was watching over me that night when I clicked “Buy Now.”

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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