The AK Magazine — Plastic or Steel?

Long before Magpul became a household name, we were debating the pros and cons of plastic magazines. While the concept took off in the AR platforms, AK fans had to suffer through some real dogs before the first kickass plastic AK magazine became readily available here in the states.

Three very different types of 30 round mags.
Three very different types of 30-round mags. How much do their differences matter?

But how do the new mags perform?

A look back.

Bakelite. Those of us who like wood on our Russian rifles also have a soft spot for the really exquisite beauty of the old burnt orange bakelite mags. Bakelite is light, and somewhat strong–it was hugely popular in the 50s for everything form automotive parts to phones to magazines–but it degrades and becomes brittle very quickly.

bulgarian, bakelite, and steel AKM AK magazines
A Bulgarian, a Bakelite, and a Steel AKM magazine walk into a bar…

Surplus bakelite mags come in batches but get snapped up fast. My gut tells me that fewer and fewer ever make it to the range.

Steel or plastic?

Most of the AK mags you’ll find in circulation are going to be made of steel or of plastic (or possibly nylon). The technical composition of both varieties can be important but is rarely ever understood by the end user. If “plastic” has a negative connotation, you’ll likely see “polymer” in the marketing materials.

feed lips on AK magazines
Feed lips? Some brag about steel, but steel bends.

For me, it comes down to aesthetics. Steel mags look great in guns with wooden furniture. And they look great in more modern guns. The plastics, especially those in rainbow colors, have a distinctly modern look.

I’ve got a couple of go-to brands. I own several AKs and shoot them regularly. I’ve yet to have any meltdowns from these mags.

Bulgarian Imports

My go-to 7.62×39 mag is a Bulgarian steel import. These are painted black, heavy (even when empty), and built to take a beating.

Bulgarian steel import AK magazine
The Bulgarian import mags are exceptionally well built. These are all steel construction.

Cleaning them can be a chore, but I’ll often blow them out with the sprayer, dry them, and spray in a bit of oil and that’s all they need.

These sell for under $20 and are often much less when they’re on sale.

Magpul MOE 7.62×39 Mags

Magpul uses a nylon blend, which is what gives these mages the classic muted black color. Nylon is great because it doesn’t suffer from the brittleness that plagues a lot of plastics.

Magpul MOE 7.62x39 AK mag
The Magpul MOE 7.62×39 AK mag.

There are options available with steel-reinforced locking lugs, and the MOE version which is almost all nylon. I’ve used these MOE mags regularly since their launch and have never worn one out or broken a catch. That said, we all know these won’t last as long as steel.

And that’s reflected in the price. If you need mags, lots of mags, this is a great option. They normally sell for $13.25 but are often on sale.

US Palm

My Century AK—a Romanian build and a solid example of an entry-level, no-frills rifle—shipped with a US Palm. These are gaining more traction now.

A US Palm 7.62x39 mag. The smokey clear body helps you see what's inside.
A US Palm 7.62×39 mag. The smokey clear body helps you see what’s inside.

The steel AK magazine provides strength through stamped ridges. The polymer mags, like the MOE above and these from US Palm, have to build that framework up even more, and on the exterior.

US Palm has used this to maximize the grip surfaces on these mags. They’re no more or less slick than any of the AK mags I’ve used, despite the plastic construction. US Palm calls this “Waffle and Tread.”

There are two varieties of these, too. Some of them have the baseplates bonded to the body during construction, making the polymer design that much stronger. The others—usually two-tone or clear—don’t.

An important note on the clear version: everything has a trade-off. You can see your rounds, which can be really useful. Clear plastics, though, have a reputation of being more brittle than their colored counterparts.

How much more brittle? I’ve yet to break one. And I don’t baby these things. They hit the dirt and get slammed into and out of rifles and thrown in the truckbed empty and stepped on during drills… No broken mags.

US Palm has steel-reinforced lugs, too. Prices range from under $10 to under $20.

What do failures look like in an AK magazine?

They’re rare. Rust is common. The springs and followers and lugs need love. Inside the mags, where you aren’t really looking too often, can rust.

Keep your steel mags clean and oiled, though, and you can leave them alone—even loaded with rounds—for years.

Three AK Magazines.
How about locking lugs? Steel is strongest. Then polymer reinforced with steel.

How many rounds? That’s a hot debate. I know some folks who won’t top off a 30-round AK magazine. The fear is that the added compression will keep the top round from feeding.

Both steel and polymer mags can get crushed out of shape. Nylon, though, is more likely to return to shape and remain functional, though I guarantee there have been steel mags pounded back into working order with rocks. That’s what makes the AK the AK.

A Bulgarian steel mag in an all-black AK still has a classic look to it.
A Bulgarian steel mag in an all-black AK still has a classic look to it.

Plastic has a lifespan that is far shorter than steel. When exposed to light, it tends to break down. This takes ages, and may not happen in your lifetime, but it will happen. And the plastics will wear differently. Running plastic on steel, in and out, and onto the ground, and then back through the cycle again… It takes a toll. Be mindful of wear, though, and these will outlast you.

Plastic that breaks is done.

While feeding issues are rare, you may get double-feeds, stove pipes, failures to eject, and other issues. How many of these originate with a mag is debatable. I can often trace problems back to the ammo, or the gun.

Watch for wear on these lugs. This goes for all of the mag types.
Watch for wear on these lugs. This goes for all of the mag types. All three of these are on their very first range trip.


For those of you looking at foreign AK builds, we still have to count how many parts were made where. The regulation that guides this is often reduced to a simple nickname derived from the longer statute: 922R.

Imported rifles and pistols have to be rebuilt state-side. In doing so, some of their parts have to be made in the US. US Palm and Magpul mags are “922R compliant,” which means they can be counted, legally, as US-made parts in your import gun’s build, and can help with the legality of that gun.

This is minutia, for sure, but it can be the deciding factor.

No matter which direction you want to go, now just might be the best time to pick up a new AK magazine (no matter when you’re reading this).

David Higginbotham is a writer and editor who specializes in everyday carry. David is a former backcountry guide in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Boundary Waters Canoe Area who was a college professor for 20 years. He ultimately left behind the academy for a more practical profession in the firearms industry and was (among other editorial positions) the Managing Editor for a nascent Mag Life blog. In that Higginbotham helped establish The Maglife's tone and secure its early success. Though he went on to an even more practical firearms industry profession still, he continues to contribute articles and op-eds as time and life allow.

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