The AK-47. Popular and ubiquitous, it was made throughout the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and to this day, in its original form as well as the AK-74 version. Cheap to make and easy to maintain, it was exported heavily to the rest of the world by the Soviets, both as a revenue generator and as a form of military assistance to allies. The end of the Cold War led to the American civilian gun market being flooded with many variants of the AK-47.
Many felt this piston-driven design was a far superior service weapon to the M16, chiefly because of its high reliability, which was all the more attractive because of the problems that plagued the direct-impingement M16 in its early years.
(more)The fact that the original cartridge threw a much larger bullet downrange was another key advantage that fans of the AK-47 cited. That advantage was removed when the Soviets debuted an updated version called the AK-74 and a new cartridge for their new gun, the 5.45x39mm. The Soviets apparently saw the success that flak jackets had in reducing American casualties in Vietnam, and decided on a 2-pronged strategy to address it. First, they issued flak jackets to their own troops (not all troops, but a large percentage of them). This wasn’t out of humanitarian concern, but rather as a way to reduce medical losses in units. Their second change was to go to a smaller, higher-velocity cartridge. The 5.45x39mm offered 2 advantages over the old round: a new bullet design offered better penetration of NATO helmets and armor, and the new smaller bullet reduced the logistic burden of supplying troops with ammo (a serious concern when poorly-trained conscripted troops equipped were with full-auto-only assault rifles).
Sidebar: To address the new phenomenon of Soviet troops with body armor, NATO adopted a Belgian-developed bullet for the M16, the SS109, which was much heavier than the original round (62gr vs. 55gr) and had a steel penetrator at the front of the bullet. This new bullet did indeed penetrate armor better. But it traveled slower, did not fragment on impact, and needed a faster rifling twist to be accurate. Thus began the complaints about the 5.56mm’s lack of stopping power.
I have never been a big fan of the AK-47. The reason is simple: lack of accuracy. The stamped steel receiver and loose tolerances (to ensure reliability) sabotage the accuracy potential of any AK-47. Accuracy is one of the strong points of the AR15 design; so much so, the United States had to investigate a unit serving in combat in Iraq because their high percentage of headshots on their adversaries led to rumors of a prisoner massacre. (It wasn’t a massacre, just the result of M16s equipped with Trijicon ACOG scopes).
Compounding this problem is a design flaw that the AK-47 shares with it’s predecessor, the SKS: no way to solidly mount a scope. The stamped receiver of the AK-47 makes it hard to solidly mount a scope on top of it. That isn’t purely a Soviet problem; I have seen the welded-on scope mount of an Armalite AR-180B fall off of its stamped receiver. (Armalite was working on an improved method of attaching their scope mounts to the AR-180B; no word on what the result was).
The usual method of adapting the AK-47 to take a scope is to use some kind of side mount. No matter how heavy and rigid such a mount is, it cannot help but flex. And that makes it impossible to achieve true accuracy with a scope. I don’t like this kind of mount, and that is one of the reasons I haven’t purchased a Springfield M1A. (That, and the ammo limitations of the M1A).
While the SKS has a milled steel receiver, and some clever manufacturers have offered scope mounts that fit over the receiver or even incorporate the mount into a replacement cover, the upper receiver cover must be removed to clean the gun. As such, it fits loosely, and that makes a solid mount for a scope (and any chance of a repeatable zero) impossible.
I have seen some “forward” scope mounts for AK-47s and SKSs that replaced parts of the gas piston system. Once again, not exactly a solid way to mount a scope.
Inaccurate guns just don’t excite me. Thus, while I can appreciate the history of the AK-47, I do not have any strong urge to own one.
Compounding my lack of enthusiasm is the plethora of mix-and-match AK-47 pattern rifles available on the market. There are lots of companies importing guns and parts of guns, mixing and matching. I realize that importation is tricky, but to me, the whole situation sounds like a crapshoot.
The SKS is much more affordable, and as long as you stick with the non-Chinese guns, it can be a very useful utility gun. The Yugoslavian version (M59/66) is very nice, with a rifle-grenade adapter that looks like a flash suppressor, and an intact bayonet (which you can’t get on a Russian or Chinese SKS). The iron sights are pretty good. And the price is usually right.