By Lynndon Schooler
In typical paradoxical fashion, the Soviet Union’s greatest tragedy and greatest triumph were a singular event. The Soviet Union’s “Great Patriotic War” from 1941–1945 cost over 20 million Soviet lives by conservative estimates, but to Russia’s collective conscience still to this day, this sacrifice saved the world. The bloodied but empowered and battle-hardened nation then stood in Berlin at the precipice of new geopolitical greatness, but forever burned into the soul of the nation was the seething cruel waste of life due to a lack of strategic, technical and tactical innovation early in the War, compounded by logistical and ideological constraints. The national myth perpetuated the idea that victory could be achieved nonetheless on heroism alone, and the triumph in the mind of Soviet and modern Russian society is widely recounted not as what the Soviet soldiers accomplished with their equipment and circumstances, but what they did despite and in defiance of their equipment and circumstances. Innovation means both victory and saving lives.
The Soviet Union took this harsh lesson and resolved to master their equipment and circumstances for the next war and so began the 50-year arms race that has never truly ended. In a microcosm of this arms race, which spanned from belt-buckles to the highest levels of material and particle science, the rifle which the soldier held became a critical touch point that the common serviceman could relate to. Built directly to address the combat realities of the previous War, the Kalashnikov pattern rifle is easily the most recognized and most encountered small arm on the battlefield today.
The Kalashnikov has been in constant development over the last 50 years, and though some patterns have lasted in service for decades, the Kalashnikov concept remains fluid in some elements; others are resistant to change. Russia’s machine shops and design bureaus have never stopped working to create “the next AK.” To date, innovations have altered receiver construction, caliber and modularity in an effort to make the weapon lighter and more lethal to address emerging threats. These changes follow two tracks: changes to the gun’s core construction and function and alterations in the weapon’s modularity and furniture. Travel along these tracks has made the modern AK look far different from the first trial prototypes made at the Kovrov-based factory in 1947 and the 1948 work at factory No. 74 of the Izhevsk Machine Building Plant (aka Izhmash, now Kalashnikov Concern).
As is well-documented and discussed, the weapon began as an experimental stamp/welding construction and was further simplified into a milled design. As stamping technology improved, the weapon was refined further into the stamped AKM, whose receiver has resisted change for over half a century. The most modern AK-12 and the AKM, despite their beginning with different calibers and production by two different countries, are nearly identical. Moreover, despite all the changes from the Type 1 to the popular AK-103, such as rails, folding trunnions, boosters and more, the basic bolt and bolt carriers in all AK rifles have seen very little change from the original.
Naturally, the Soviet Union was very observant of the developments and trends in NATO countries. Western innovations have been constantly examined for usefulness in their application to Russian systems, addressing their advantages and then developing a counterpart. Apart from the weapon concept itself, which was innovative if not revolutionary for the Soviet state in its use of an intermediate cartridge, the first modular innovation was a request by the Soviet authorities to allow the AK to function as a grenadier. As part of a “combined arms” initiative, AK designers incorporated an underbarrel “accessory lug” under the cast gas block of the AKM and the AK-74 to allow the first attachment other than a bayonet to the weapon. In the late 1960s, the writing was on the wall for high-speed micro-calibers, punctuated by the success of the M16 and 5.56mm cartridge. As the U.S. invented the XM carbine series of rifles in their new lightweight, high-speed caliber, Soviet authorities also requested compactness (a perennial request for each iteration of the gun), which was not addressed until the late 1970s.
Birth of the AKS-74U
The AKS-74U was the first mass-produced shortened AK, seeing service among Russian vehicle operators and aviators in Afghanistan and in Syria. One design requirement from its trials was that it should not exceed the width of a soldier’s shoulders, a feature once thought needed for everyday operation of the weapon; the distinct booster is needed for proper functioning in extreme cold temperatures only. The AK-74 and the 5.45mm cartridge were evolutionary steps to competing on par with peer and near-peer threats. To this day, the AK-74-style booster, when paired with the 5.45mm projectile, is one of the most controllable setups designed to date.
The relationship between Russia and the U.S. in Kalashnikov innovation is symbiotic. The U.S. market was able to identify the needs of the AK rifle in both modularity and core design, either simultaneously or perhaps earlier than the Russian establishment. While unsuccessful for decades in constructing a viable “all-American AK,” U.S. innovators were able to create revolutionary accessories that were imported and deployed by Russian servicemen, before Russia’s arms producers made their own analogues. Nonetheless, U.S. companies are fascinated, perhaps correctly, with tackling domestic production of the AK by following Russian methods as closely as possible. This is partly to collect on Russia’s mystique and cultural cache tied to the Kalashnikov, but more likely to follow good construction practices learned through experience. Kalashnikov U.S.A. famously purchased the technical package of the Vityaz from Izhmash to reproduce the weapon as closely as possible without the need for reverse engineering.
However, even with the newest AKs from Russia, U.S. innovators still have worthwhile additions to the design that have yet to be incorporated by Kalashnikov Concern. I recently have admired the Occam Defense rail system which I’m in the process of testing to see the possible benefit of adding AR-15 iron sights, force multiplying accessories, including red dot, white light and infrared laser mounting solutions. From a manufacturing standpoint, the use of the rail noticeably speeds up production. The use of an adjustable gas block allows the user to tune the weapon’s performance to different ammunition, cold temperatures or suppressor use. The results are a design-expedient reproduction of the recoil impulse of balanced and recoil-tuned automatics such as the Russian Sport Rifle SR-1. Other U.S. designers have played with the idea of converting the rifle to operate using a short-stroke gas system. I have recently tested this concept (which happened to be a 1940s AK concept as well) and noted that it aided greatly in suppressor use, reducing excessive gas exiting into the operator’s face.
The U.S. AK industry continues to dominate in trigger advancements from competition semiauto triggers from ALG Defense®. Although Russian AK weapons, even for civilian use, use three fire control group pins instead of two (in compliance with U.S. law on machine guns), U.S. triggers have not infiltrated the Russian market, despite their superior performance.
Firing mode selection and accuracy remain at the core of next-generation Kalashnikov development. The most modern Avtomat has burst mechanisms, reportedly new barrel tolerances and rifling, increasing accuracy to 2 MOA. Through testing in Orenburg, I confirmed the successful deployment of these features in the AK-203 and AK-12. Other recent adaptations to the system are ambidextrous selectors and an aperture rear sight.
Radical innovation with a greater potential to surpass western designs in modularity and performance, as in the first iteration of Vladimir Zlobin’s AK-12, were met with resistance due to manufacturing and economic constraints. As the modern AK-12 and its derivatives incorporated rail systems to allow for the mounting of accessories, the weapon platform has effectively been playing catch-up with the success of its NATO counterpart. These innovations, while formally constructed, eventually were applied originally to less modular platforms in the consumer secondary market and adopted by special operators with the flexibility to considerably alter their rifles. The Texas Weapon Systems and M1913 rail gas tube by UltiMAK™ come to mind. Likely, the AK is disadvantaged in modularity based on its construction. Without a monolithic “receiver top,” all modular top rail accessories are imperfect solutions that cannot have the accuracy performance and reliability of alternative designs. However, as the rifle was designed without the foresight of future advanced accessories, it must endeavor to adapt within the constraints of its elemental construction, or alternatively, abandon the removable/hinged top cover design altogether.
The Future of the Kalashnikov
Despite these challenges, there is still a place for the Kalashnikov on the battlefield, as innovation continues to keep the design well alive. However, existing and future innovation will need to be bolder and more creative to meet the challenges of tomorrow. The U.S., for better or worse from the Russian perspective, will have a major role in this. We have the AK-hungry market, the design shops and the entrepreneurial freedom to explore AK innovation with greater agility than the Russian state. As new production technologies, such as 3-D printing become more accessible, this trend will only grow. The Kalashnikov has yet met its peak of perfection and is far from the end of the line. Just as the AK of today in form and function is a far cry from the personal work of Mikhail Kalashnikov, so too shall the AK of the 21st century continue to evolve on the back of innovation.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V25N1 (January 2021)|