Kalashnikov with accessories and Russian uniform items. Sturmgewehr 44 with magazines and accessories.
By Walter Hern
Those of us in the shooting world are very familiar with the “What-if” sessions, or “What’s better” discussions that surround our favorite small arms. Walter Hern sent us this interesting article on the outcome of just such a discussion, and we thought we would bring the outcome to SAR’s readers. It is a very interesting comparison, done from the ergonomic view- Dan
I had an interesting conversation with my friend John recently. We were spending a quiet Sunday afternoon at my loading bench, producing mass quantities of ammo, and listening to Tom Gresham’s radio show. The subject of assault rifles came up, and we began discussing which was the better rifle, the German Sturmgewehr 44 or the Kalashnikov. Curiously, we both initially picked the same weapon for similar reasons. Hmm, this subject deserved a little more research. Since John owns each, our discussion led a few weeks later to a greater analysis and a shootoff between the two designs. We also thought it would be useful to bring in some folks with little or no exposure to the two rifles and get their impressions- sort of a fresh perspective.
The Sturmgewehr and Kalashnikov are both products of World War II. The Sturmgewehr was developed first and saw action during the war. The Kalashnikov was developed in the immediate post war period and first adopted by the Soviet Union as the AK47. Robert Cortese did an extensive article on their development entitled “Birth of an Assault Rifle” that appeared in Small Arms Review Vol. 1 No. 12, September 1998, also an article by Charles Cutshaw and Lyn Haywood,” The Worlds First Assault Rifles”, Vol. 3 No. 5. I will only touch upon the development history of these rifles, for those who did not see Mr. Cortese’s article.
Work began in the mid 1930s within the German armament community on an intermediate-power rifle cartridge. This new round would be less powerful than the standard 7.92 X 57 mm rifle cartridge, but more powerful than the 9mm Parabellum pistol round. First World War experience had shown that the rifleman did not need a cartridge capable of shooting out to 2000 meters. One that would be good out to around 500 meters would be fine. A new self-loading rifle capable of fully automatic fire would replace both the bolt-action rifles and submachine guns in the German Army. About a year later in the Soviet Union, designers there decided that small arms development was greatly hampered by use of the rimmed 7.62 X 54 mm M1891 cartridge. They too decided that a rimless design of intermediate power was the way to go. The start of the European war in September 1939 put all of these projects on the back burner for a while.
When development proceeded in Germany, Hugo Schmeisser of Haenel developed a gas operated Carbine to shoot the new cartridge, developed by the Polte Werke. The Walther company also developed a competing design. Test lots of these Machine Carbines, (Maschinen Karabiner) MKb42(H) and MKb42(W) were produced. The Haenel design fired from an open bolt, and the Walther from a closed bolt. Testing showed that that closed bolt operation was superior, and Schmeisser was directed to redesign to that form of operation. Hitler stuck his nose into things by ordering all work on new rifle designs stopped, so another change was in terminology. The new weapon came out as the Maschinen Pistole 43, or MP43. A series of small changes led to the MP44. When Hitler finally heard of this new rifle from Eastern Front commanders, and saw how good it was, he decreed the name be changed to Sturmgewehr, so the stamp at the factories changed to StG44. About 426,000 were produced by the end of the war.
The Russians standardized their 7.62 X 39 mm round in 1943 as the M43. The first weapon developed to fire this round was designed by Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov. His Samozaryadnya karabin Siminova obrazets 1945 (SKS 45) was a self loading carbine fed by a fixed 10 round magazine. Some of these rifles were used during the battle for Berlin in the closing days of World War II. They would remain in first line use for only a few years. In 1947 the Soviets adopted a rifle capable of firing the new cartridge full auto. It was designed by former tank driver Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov. No one knows for sure how many of his Automat Kalashnikova obrazets 1947 (AK 47) in its several variations have been produced, but some estimates put Russian and foreign production at around 75 MILLION.
The Sturmgwehrs we evaluated are German wartime made weapons. One is marked StG 44 and the other MP 44. The Kalashnikov tested was a Chinese made Norinco AKM-47S stamped receiver gun, converted to selective fire by Jonathan Arthur Ciener.
To get an independent, “outside” so-to-speak, set of evaluators in on this, John and I asked our friend Ray and his two sons to help us. Ray Sr. is a career law enforcement officer who regularly qualifies with the MP-5. His sons, Ray Jr., 19, and Joe 15 have both proven to be pretty handy with a submachine gun too. My friend John served in the Army, and Army National Guard as a tank driver and scout. He also shot on the Louisiana National Guard rifle team. I retired from the Air Force a few years ago as a munitions officer, where I spent much of my time working with weapons that had their energy levels measured in megatons rather than foot pounds. Why did we include the two youngsters in this? Combat soldiers tend to be a lot closer in age, size, and weight to them, than to us older folks. Size and weight of the shooter do play a part in shooting a rifle, especially one capable of hand held fully automatic fire.
The purpose of a rifle is to shoot bullets and hit a target. For our evaluation we looked at two broad areas. We looked at how various design features aided or hindered the shooter in operating the weapon and hitting targets. We also, naturally, shot the rifles in both the full and semi-automatic modes to judge the shootability of the designs.
The two designs are surprisingly similar in a number of ways. Both are gas operated, using a gas piston over the barrel fixed to a bolt carrier that moves the bolt. Both feature significant usage of stampings in their production. Some versions of the Kalashnikov were produced with milled receivers and others with stamped. Both feature selective fire capability. The barrels of both are a little over 16 inches in length. The barrel ends of both are threaded to accept a blank adapter. The StG in service features a thread protector, while the AK 47 series is fitted with a simple “sugar scoop” compensator. Both feature open sights with the rear sight mounted forward on the receiver. The cartridges for both are similar, firing bullets of around 124 grains weight. The German Pistole Patronen 43 round is a little shorter and fatter in both case and projectile than the Russian MP43 cartridge. The German round is also slightly slower. Thirty round magazines are standard for both. Both are compact, the StG44 being 37” overall in length and the AK a bit shorter at 34.25”. The StG is somewhat heavier. It weighs in at 11.5 lbs. The AK weighs either 10.58 lbs. or 8.87 lbs. Those versions produced with milled receiver being heavier. In full auto fire both fire at from 500-600 rounds per minute, with the StG having a somewhat slower rate of fire.
There are some significant differences in the two designs from the operator’s point of view. The StG has its charging handle and safety both on the left side of the rifle. Those of the Kalashnikov are on the right side. The magazine release of the StG is a push button on the left side. The AK uses a paddle type release on the front of the trigger guard. The StG features a separate push button for choosing semi-automatic and full-automatic modes of fire. The AK uses three positions on the single safety lever for this function. The handguard of the StG is of sheet steel while that of the AK is of wood, or plastic, depending on where and when it was made. The AK features a bayonet mount, while the StG does not.
Let’s look a little more in depth at the controls on each rifle and what the members of our group thought of them. As noted, the charging handle on the StG is on the left hand side, while that of the AK is on the right. For operation while holding the rifle in the right hand, the left side mounted one on the StG was preferred by everyone. It was easier to grasp and operate, when compared to reaching over the top of the receiver to get to the AK’s. The safety of the StG is operated by a lever convenient to the thumb on the left hand side, while that of the AK is a long lever on the right side of the receiver. To switch from Safe to Fire on the StG, one merely presses down on the safety lever with the thumb of the right hand while holding the pistol grip. For the AK you have to reach over the receiver with the left hand to press the lever down, or release the pistol grip from the right hand to reach forward and press it down. The AK’s safety lever is also relatively noisy in operation. The Semi/Auto selector for the StG is a separate button located above the safety lever. It is pushed from side to side through the receiver. For the AK, selecting Full or Semi Automatic operation is made through the safety lever. All the way up is Safe, one click down is Full Auto, and all the way to the bottom is Semi Auto. Once again, everyone preferred the arrangement of safety and selector as found on the StG.
The ideal trigger pull is often compared with the crisp snapping of a glass rod. That is a description that will never be used in describing the triggers on these weapons. I have used electric drills with better triggers. The trigger pulls on both the StG and AK are long, mushy, and have a lot of overtravel. The StG has a two-stage military-type trigger pull. After a long initial 3 lb. pull, one reaches the second stage that mushily breaks at 4 lbs. with a lot of overtravel. The trigger pull of the AK depends on whether it is in full, or semi auto modes. The semi auto trigger breaks somewhere in a long single 3 lb. pull, with a lot of overtravel. With full auto selected, the pull jumps to 5 lbs. As bad as these trigger pulls were, no one found them too much of an obstacle in hitting the targets. Combat firemarms frequently have heavier trigger pulls to counteract the adrenaline “Rush” experienced in combat.
Both designs feature open sights. No apertures or ghost rings. The rear sight of the StG is graduated from 100-800 meters and has a “V” notch. The front is a sloping blade with a protected hood over it. The AK rear sight is graduated from 100-800 meters as well. It may also be set in a “battle sight” setting. It features a “U” notch. The front is a post, adjustable up and down for elevation zeroing. The carrier may also be pushed from side to side, to allow windage zeroing. The model tested had a hood over the front sight. This hood had a hole in its top to allow a tool to reach the post for adjustment. In both designs the rear sight notch is around 19 inches from the face of the butt. The StG rear sight is mounted about 3/8” higher above the bore line than that of the AK. No one had any real preference for the sight picture of one rifle over the other. Several folks mentioned both could be improved if the front sights featured protective wings, as on say a Garand, rather than the hoods.
The stocks on both designs place the top of the butt just above the boreline, to better control muzzle rise during shooting. The length of pull, or distance between the trigger face and the butt plate, is different. The StG has a 14 1/2 inch pull, while that of the AK is only 13 1/4 inches. The longer pull, and higher sights of the StG allow for a better cheek weld and more natural head position when shooting. The head must be forced into position to acquire the sights of the AK. Everyone commented that the StG felt much better to hold in shooting position, and that it was easier and quicker to acquire the sights. One “furniture” area where the AK showed a definite advantage was with the handguard. The StG handguard is a sheet steel pressing. The AK we shot uses wood. After only a short amount of shooting, the StG handguard gets very hot. While this may have not been too disconcerting on the Russian Front in January, it definitely was an annoyance in Louisiana in the summer. A cotton work glove from my shooting bag, normally used for brass pickup, was soon being worn by all on the left hand while shooting the StGs.
The magazine release on the StG is a button on the left side. The AK uses a paddle on the front of the trigger guard. Neither rifle lets the magazine drop free, they must be withdrawn with the hand. The StG magazines are merely inserted into the magazine well, while those of the AK must be hooked at the front and then rocked into position. Opinions were pretty evenly divided on which system was preferable, both being deemed acceptable.
The shooting portion of our evaluation was done at the Bossier Machinegun Club range. Located in northern Bossier Parish, Louisiana, it has berms at 25, 100, and 200 yards. These rifles are combat weapons, not bench rest guns. The StG 44s tested were over 50 years old; therefore, we did not shoot them for groups from the bench. From previous experience all are capable of 2” to 3” groups at 100 yards. For targets we used cardboard silhouettes, and the ever popular 2 liter plastic soda bottle. The shooting impressions we were interested in were, felt recoil, controllability, and target pickup on multiple targets in both semi and full auto.
During our semi auto firing, everyone said that the StG had a softer recoil than the AK. The AK’s recoil was not objectionable, even for the lightest shooters, but it did feel sharper. The StG was also viewed as more controllable. The sights stayed on target much better. Again, the AK was not viewed badly in this area, just not as good as the StG. This also played a role in judging the rifles on their ability to engage multiple targets. The StG could rapidly shift from target to target, while more time was required to bring the sights of the AK on the new target.
The full auto firing was done in short bursts of 2-3 rounds. In “rock and roll,” everyone preferred the Sturmgewehr by a wide margin. Recoil and muzzle rise were significantly greater with the AK. The StG was much easier to control. Target acquisition and hitting with multiple shots were far easier with the StG. It was also markedly easier to engage multiple targets with the StG. Though we had initially intended to shoot only on full auto out to 100 yards, experience showed that the StG was capable of hitting a silhouette with automatic fire at 200 yards. With the AK at that range, the first round would be on target and the second lucky to hit the berm.
Why was the StG easier to shoot? Three main factors seemed to contribute to this. The StG is heavier by about 2 lbs. than the AK. This weight helps cut down the effects of recoil and muzzle rise. It is also firing a slightly slower round. This again contributes to lessened recoil and muzzle rise. This plays a role in controllability when firing in semi auto, but is far more noticeable in full auto. Primarily, the StG “fits” better. The higher sights, and longer length of pull, enable the rifle to held more naturally and properly. This greatly aids in sight acquisition and controllability, and makes the rifle much more shootable.
When John and I had our first discussion of these rifles, we both picked the Sturmgewehr as the better of the two. Bringing in outside friends to help with a more in depth examination only confirmed our initial opinions. In order to prevent bias, neither of us had mentioned which we preferred. When asked, all three said, that given the choice, they too would prefer to take the StG into battle. Ray Sr. told me something that makes a pretty good conclusion for this article, “Good thing the Germans didn’t have it in 1939.”
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V3N10 (July 2000)|