The last couple of years have seen gun owners’ ranks swell by as many as eight million people. If you’re one of those, let me say “Welcome!” Whatever your reasons for buying your first firearm, we’re glad to have you in our community. With few exceptions, I think you’ll find that if you like guns, we’ll like you. Most of us don’t care what your political or social views are. We bond over shooting, collecting, hunting, whatever. The shooting sports are numerous and varied and chances are you’ll find others who share your interests.
One thing I noticed when I started getting more into firearms about 15 years ago was the sheer volume of information put out by people who often talked over my head. Heck, I still feel that way sometimes and I do this for a living. One of my niches here at The Mag Life Blog is writing for people like me: non-experts who love the firearms scene. So, with that in mind, I thought it would be useful to write something about one of my favorite rifles in a way that appeals to folks who might be taking their first steps into an often-confusing world.
I’m the first to admit that I’m no guru on the AK rifle or any other firearm. But I’ve owned an AK since 2013 and, if you’re thinking about buying one for the first time, I can give you the basics and point you toward more detailed info. Perhaps I can save you from a mistake or two along the way. If you’re already an AK guy or gal, you’re quite welcome to read too. Just understand that I’m not Larry Vickers or Rob Ski. More on those guys later in this series.
Nor is this series of articles meant to be the all-inclusive guide to the AK. There are whole books on that. Let’s start with the basics of what a Kalashnikov Rifle is, and then I’ll relate how I bought my AK—a cautionary tale in which I got extremely lucky.
AK Rifle 101: What Exactly is an AK?
That’s kind of a loaded question but we can hit the basics. Designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov between 1945 and 1947, the AK rifle started as a carbine length mid-caliber infantry rifle that was adopted by the Soviet military and first issued in 1949.
Designated “AK-47,” it features a gas operated piston system, as opposed to the gas blowback system of the AR-15/M-16/M-4 family of rifles. The main variants of the Kalashnikov are the AK-47, AKM, AK-74, AK-74M, AK-100 series, and AK-200 series. There are many more subvariants. “AK” stands for “Avtomat Kalashnikova,” or “Kalashnikov’s Automatic.”
Most AK variants have stamped sheet steel receivers, with only key parts like the barrel, bolt, bolt carrier, and trunnions made from forged steel. I’ll explain about trunnions in Part 3 of this series. They’re important. Some rifles, however, are forged and milled steel throughout, as the original AK-47 was. Forged steel is of higher quality than the stamped steel, but it’s also heavier and more expensive, which is why the Soviets moved to a stamped receiver beginning with the second generation AKM.
The Kalashnikov rifle, or “Kalash” if you’re Russian, is manufactured to looser tolerances than its American counterpart, meaning a quality rifle can take a lot of abuse, including water, rust, dirt, mud, and ice and keep firing. Of course, those things have limits. No gun can function if its action is clogged with mud or other foreign material. Not even the personal rifle of Mikhail Kalashnikov himself. That same quality AK can also run for a long time without lubrication. I don’t recommend that because even AKs wear out, but it can do it. But why tear up your rifle if you don’t have to?
The AK system is simple to take apart and maintain. Much easier than an AR-15. There are no small parts to lose unless you start taking the bolt apart, which is rarely necessary. I have zero mechanical aptitude, and I’m not kidding. Mechanical stuff just doesn’t make sense to me. My view is that God created mechanics to do that stuff for me. So, when I say that it’s simple, it really is. I can tear it down and put it back together easily, with only one or two small screw-ups along the way. Normal people will have no problem whatsoever.
The AK rifle was used by the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, China, and countless other countries. The Soviets shipped them all over the world in exchange for political and diplomatic favors, or just to sow discord that might be exploited later. Modern Kalashnikov variants are still the standard service rifle of Russia and several Eastern European countries, and they are used by military and paramilitary organizations the world over. Of the estimated 500 million firearms in the world in 2004, 100 million were AK variants. Three quarters of those were AK-47s or AKMs.
The Kalashnikov has become a symbol for freedom fighters (or insurgents, depending on your point of view) all over the world. It is featured on the Coats of Arms of East Timor, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, as well as on Mozambique’s national flag. It was a part of Burkina Faso’s Coat of Arms from 1984 to 1997, when it was replaced by a spear. Many “liberation soldiers” of Mozambique supposedly named their sons “Kalash” when the war ended.
Buying My AK: Don’t Do it This Way
Relating this story is kind of embarrassing. I’ve been shooting rifles since I was eight or nine years old. My Dad owned lots of guns and he taught me early on how to handle a gun safely and properly. He was the type who insisted that we check the chamber every time we picked up a gun, even if we had just seen someone else check it. My brother and I got yelled at more than once over that and it didn’t take long to sink in. He once took away my 20-gauge shotgun because he didn’t see me check it. I had done it when he was out of the room but that didn’t matter. I got the message.
But we were a family of deer hunters. AR-15s and such weren’t really a thing back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Even when their popularity took off after the “assault weapons” ban expired in 2004, I never thought I would own one. I just didn’t feel the need. I had my deer rifle, a few military surplus bolt action rifles since I love history, and my old 20-gauge. That was it.
Things began to change when I got my first concealed carry permit in 2011. I started paying more attention to the cool guy stuff I saw on the interwebs while researching which carry gun I wanted to buy. I seriously didn’t even own a handgun until 2010 and it was a military surplus gun. I thought the “tactical rifle” stuff was interesting and all, but still didn’t feel the need.
I did a 180 right after the Sandy Hook tragedy. I was as appalled as everyone else, but it suddenly looked like the opportunity to buy an AR or AK would be gone, maybe never to come back. Like many other folks, I don’t like to be told what I can and can’t do, including what guns I can buy. So, I decided right then to buy one. The problem was, I knew nothing about them. Oh, I pretty much knew how to handle and shoot an M16A1 from my ROTC days in the early 1980s (not that I was any good, but I knew the controls and could make it go bang) and I knew that AKs were reliable. That was really the extent of my knowledge.
To me, an AR-15 was an AR-15, and an AK was an AK. It never occurred to me that all ARs were not built by Colt or that all AKs were not built to the same specs. Told you it was embarrassing. It gets worse. I dived headfirst into the panic buying that hit the firearms market in late 2012 and early 2013. I decided I wanted an AK because I believed they were more reliable than ARs. I based that opinion on the “fact” that “everyone” knew it. Seeing a pattern here?
So, with God as my witness, I pulled up whatever search engine I used at the time, typed in “AK-47 for sale,” clicked on the first one I saw and bought the damned thing. Right there. Took less than ten minutes. Now, let me be clear: DON’T EVER DO THAT. It was incredibly dumb. Fortunately, I got extraordinarily lucky.
Beginner’s Luck: Rolling a Seven on the First Try
Turned out the rifle I bought was a Saiga AK-103 conversion. Saiga is a civilian brand of sporting rifles built by the Izhmash firearms factory in Izhevsk, Russia. Izhmash is where real AK military rifles are built by Kalashnikov Concern, which is THE AK company in Russia. Basically, Saigas are AKs made in the same factory as Russian Army guns but with a few changes to make them look more like hunting rifles.
Those changes also made them eligible to be imported into the United States, where a few companies, mainly Arsenal, converted them back to the original AK configuration. They are damn good guns. Keep in mind that I was still oblivious to all this. I got mine from a company that is no longer around due to shady business practices, and I was fortunate to get one of their last guns before they went under. As it was, it took five months to get my rifle, since they sold it to me before they had even received it from Izhmash. Again, luck overcame my sheer ineptitude.
When I picked up the rifle from the FFL, I was excited to see that it was marked “Made in Russia by Izhmash.” I hadn’t expected a Russian gun. It was at this point, way after I should have, that I began looking into what Izhmash was and actually learning something about AK rifles, where they come from, and who makes them. That’s when I understood how lucky I’d been with my rifle and resolved to never make that mistake again.
Now, just in case you’ve never bought a gun online, let me clear something up. Despite the deliberate misinformation coming from certain politicians and organizations, buying a gun on the net doesn’t mean they ship it to your door. I wish that was the case. But the law requires it to ship to a Federally licensed gun dealer (FFL) who, for a fee, performs a background check before transferring the gun to the buyer. If the buyer doesn’t pass the background check, the gun is returned to the seller. The background check process is exactly the same as walking into a gun store and making a firearms purchase. So don’t believe the propaganda.
So, now that you know what an AK rifle is and how NOT to buy one, stay tuned next week for part two in this “AK Rifle 101 for New Gun Owners” series, in which we’ll cover some features of the rifle like caliber choice and ergonomics. The goal is to help you decide if you want to buy an AK and some things to consider before making that purchase.