By Charles Q. Cutshaw
The author wishes to thank Mr. Valery Shilin of Izmash, JSC, whose kind assistance made this article possible.
The AK100 Series Kalashnikov assault rifles is the latest iteration of the most successful such weapon in the world and probably the most successful military rifle in history. This newest generation of Kalashnikov rifles is manufactured by Izmash Joint Stock Company, Izhevsk, Russia, home of the Kalashnikov Design Bureau. There is no AK-100 rifle, per se. The term is derived from a factory code (Number 100) for Izmash from the “bad old days” of the Soviet Union. There are a number of different versions of the latest Kalashnikov assault rifles. The AK100 rifles’ designations run from AK101 through AK105, caliber and barrel length determining the actual designation. The latest version of the AK-74, the AK74M, is also included in the AK100 family. All are different from their predecessors in their execution while retaining the basic elements of the classic Kalashnikov design that make the rifle so reliable under adverse battlefield conditions. Before discussing the latest products of the Kalashnikov Design Bureau, however, it is appropriate to briefly discuss the history of the AK weapons family, setting aside a few misconceptions along the way.
Mikhail Timofeyvich Kalashnikov is commonly thought to have designed the AK47 while recuperating from battle wounds, but this is not true. Kalashnikov was wounded in 1941 and while recuperating, he did dream of Soviet troops armed with thousands of submachine guns attacking the hated Nazis. But the AK47 did not spring from his fertile mind on the spot. Kalashnikov was released from the hospital and sent home to recuperate, but his hand did not heal properly and the young sergeant eventually found himself working in the political office of a railroad depot in Alma-Ata while local medical specialists continued to treat his wounds. It was while working there that Kalashnikov designed his first weapon, a submachine gun chambered for the 7.62x25mm TT-33 cartridge. Kalashnikov’s design was good enough to reach trial production, but it was not adopted by the Soviet military. What the design got Kalashnikov was the attention of very influential people in the Soviet small arms industry, who recognized his innate genius and ensured that he was first properly trained and then put to work to exploit his remarkable talent for small arms design.
Kalashnikov was assigned the task of designing an avtomat, or assault rifle, in 7.62x39mm, a cartridge which had already been adopted by the Soviet military as the M1943. The Soviets had been very impressed by the German Sturmgewehr (MP43/MP44/StG44, et.al.) designs and began working to improve on them and adopt the assault rifle concept to their own military doctrine. There are several myths surrounding the 7.62x39mm cartridge and the AK-47 rifle that fires it, not the least of which is that both were copied from earlier German designs. In fact, the Soviets had begun working on intermediate cartridge designs as early as 1939 and the M1943 cartridge was the result of that research, not the result of modifying an existing German cartridge. The fact that the Soviet cartridge was adopted in 1943 is virtual proof that the 7.62x39mm was not copied from the Germans as there would hardly have been time between the introduction of the German 7.62x33mm for the Soviets to develop a cartridge of their own based on it. Likewise, the AK47, while probably inspired by the Sturmgewehr concept introduced by the Germans, was not simply a copy of German firearms. There is only superficial resemblance between the AK47 and any of the German assault rifle designs of World War II.
Along with the young Kalashnikov, several other Soviet weapons designers, including Simonov, designer of the SKS, and Sudayev, who designed the PPs43 submachine gun, were working on avtomat designs for the Soviet government. This practice is typical of Russia and the Soviet Union. A number of competing designers will be assigned to develop a new weapon, the competing designs evaluated, and one selected. Compared to Simonov and Sudayev, Kalashnikov was a “Johnny come lately,” and Sudayev’s candidate weapon was considered to be the prime candidate for adoption, as he had prototypes under development and test as early as 1944. Tests of Kalashnikov’s rifle did not begin until 1946, but it was so clearly superior to all others in early testing that it immediately got the attention of the highest levels of the Soviet military. There were a few problems in testing, but these were resolved and the rifle was type-classified in 1947. Sudayev did have a part in the final AK design, however. Kalashnikov’s final design that was type – classified as the AK47 used Sudayev’s magazine. Despite the AK47 designation, the rifle did not actually enter into service until 1949.
Three types of AK47 were produced by the Soviet Union. The Type I AK47 with a stamped sheet metal receiver was manufactured for three years. There have been a number of theories as to why production was transitioned to the weapon that has come to be known in the west as the Type II AK47, none of which is fully satisfactory and all of which are beyond the scope of this article. (See Birth of an Assault Rifle in this issue of SAR) For whatever reason, the Type II AK47 with a machined steel receiver went into production in 1951. This type of AK47 was also short-lived and was noted for its machined receiver that began life as a 5.7lb block of solid steel and emerged 120 machining operations later as a 1.41 lb AK47 receiver. The Type II was also noted for its unsatisfactory method of stock attachment and this type of AK47 was supplanted by the Type III rifle in 1954. The Type III is essentially the “definitive” version of the AK47, as it was the most widely distributed and was produced in the largest numbers. Interestingly, the Russians do not distinguish between different AK47 types; this categorization is a product of western small arms analysts. The Type III AK47 remained in production until 1959, when it was replaced by the AKM (Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniyi).
The AKM marked the return to a stamped receiver, but one that was far different from the original AK47. The AKM receiver was more complex than the original AK stamped receiver, but it reduced weight and production costs over the machined Type II and Type III versions with no sacrifice in reliability. The AKM was also the first production AK to incorporate a muzzle device to offset muzzle rise on full-automatic fire. This version of the AK remained in production until 1974 and is the “definitive” Kalashnikov rifle, if such a claim can be made. The AKM was produced in greater numbers and by more countries than any rifle in history. It is still in production in some countries, but was replaced in Soviet use in the mid 1970s by the AK74. One version of the AK-100 Series is essentially an updated version of this rifle, as we shall see.
The AK74 is the direct predecessor of the AK-100 Series and the latest AK74 version, the AK74M, is included as a part of the AK100 family. The AK74 was originally developed to reduce recoil and increase accuracy according to authoritative Russian sources, but the rifle was only partially successful in achieving those goals, despite having a very effective muzzle brake/compensator. This ultimately led to the development of an entirely new rifle, the AN94, which will ultimately replace the AK series in Russian service. Meantime, the venerable AK has been upgraded into what is probably its final permutation, making use of modern materials and manufacturing processes along with modifications to enhance the weapon’s operational capabilities. The new rifles were developed in the late 1980s when Izmash was approached by several customers who wanted new rifles in both 5.56x45mm and 7.62x39mm. Another factor was that Russian military orders for the AK74M were significantly declining in the wake of the Cold War’s end. Implementing different calibers was not difficult; tooling costs were minimal and the result was a much wider diversification of the AK product line, enabling Izmash to better meet the needs of its customers.
All versions of the AK74M/AK100-Series rifles have several features in common. All have a folding stock of a new and improved design, hard phosphate coating on exposed metal parts, glass-fiber reinforced furniture and a new bayonet. Magazines are all polymer, regardless of the rifle’s caliber. All retain the proven Kalashnikov operating gas operating system, rotating bolt and select-fire capability. Sights are typical Kalashnikov, round post front and tangent rear, with “U” notch. The sights are graduated to 1,000 meters, hugely optimistic for weapons of this class, which in the hands of average soldiers are capable of an effective range of no more than 300 to 500 meters. All of the new rifles have a standard mount on the left side of the receiver which accepts any one of several optics or night vision devices and all will accept the GP15/GP25/GP30 underbarrel grenade launchers. The stock cannot be folded with the optics in place.
Standard versions of the AK100 series include the AK74M in 5.45x39mm, the AK101 in 5.56x45mm (.223 Remington) and the AK103 in 7.62x39mm. The latter rifle is essentially a modernized and improved AKM. Izmash also manufactures carbine versions of the standard rifles. These not only have a shorter barrel, but also a modified gas system and AKS74U-type compensator/flash suppressor. In 5.56x45mm, the compact AK100 is designated the AK102; it is designated AK104 in 7.62x39mm and AK105 in 5.45x39mm.
As mentioned previously, these rifles probably represent the ultimate development of Kalashnikov’s superb rifle. No matter how good a firearm design, there is only so much that can be done to upgrade it before it no longer meets military requirements. There is little remaining that may be done to further improve the basic Kalashnikov design, which is truly the most successful small arm in military history both in terms of longevity and numbers produced. The latest Russian service rifle, the AN94, is quite different in concept than the AK rifles it will eventually replace and it signals a new direction in Russian small unit infantry tactical doctrine. Despite this, AK rifles remain viable military arms and the AK100 Series can compete with the latest rifles of most manufacturers on an equal footing. In terms of both reliability and accuracy, current versions of the AK are the peer of any other military rifle. Indeed, Izmash claims that their latest Kalashnikov product will equal or surpass the accuracy and mean number of rounds between failure of any competitor, as confirmed by testing at Izmash. Tests are not only for accuracy and simple test firing, however, but also include dust, salt fog, cold and hot climate and drop tests from several aspects. The weapon must function after each test.
The latest iterations of the Kalashnikov are clearly intended for export, where they would be attractive to nations seeking modern but proven rifles in 5.56mm NATO or traditional Russian calibers at very reasonable prices. AK100 rifles can be purchased for only US$230 FOB Izhevsk. Regardless, the AK100 Series carries on the Kalashnikov tradition of robustness, reliability and proven effectiveness at a very reasonable price. How well they sell, though, may well be determined not by the rifles of western manufacturers, but by earlier Kalashnikov rifles of both Russian and foreign production. During the Cold War, AKs of all types and national origin were provided by the millions to many governments and insurgent movements, and a huge number of these rifles remain in service. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, a serviceable AKM recently could be purchased for the local equivalent of US$14.00! Although rifles such as this are probably not in the best condition, they can be counted upon to fire when the trigger is pulled and this, coupled with the ridiculously low price, makes them a far better bargain for a poor African or Central American tribesman than anything the west or Izmash currently has to offer. Current sales do not approach a volume any where near that of Cold War days, but are sufficient to keep the lines open, US$6.5 to $8 million per year. Regardless of how well the AK100 Series sells, however, Kalashnikov rifles of some sort will be in the hands of the world’s military and para-military forces for the foreseeable future, whether they are beat-up vintage AKMs or current production AK103s.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N12 (September 1998)|