By Charles Q. Cutshaw, Photos by Izmash
In 1993, a mysterious new assault rifle appeared at an arms display at the elite Taman Guards Division outside Moscow. The strange new rifle was displayed alongside the common AK-74 assault rifles and RPK-74 light machine guns which made up the standard armament of the Taman Guards division and was labeled “ASN”- a Russian acronym for Avtomat Spetsialnyi Nikonov. The soldiers at the show could give no meaningful information about the rifle beyond the basic information on the placard on the table above the rifle. Shortly thereafter, data began to emerge regarding the ASN, indicating that it was an advanced combat rifle in the true sense of the word, but its status remained a mystery. The Russian Ministry of Defense recently cleared up the mystery, however, by announcing that the ASN had passed all its troop trials with flying colors and that it had been type classified as the Avtomat Nikonova-94 (AN-94). The number “94” indicates the year that the rifle was officially type classified and adopted for military service to replace the AK-47/AKM/AK-74 series rifles.
The genesis of the AN-94 actually begins with the adoption of the AK-74 by the Soviet military over twenty years ago. At the time, the 5.45x39mm cartridge of the AK-74 was a tacit acknowledgment by the Soviet military of the effectiveness of high-velocity small-caliber projectiles at normal battlefield ranges which had been proven by the American M16A1. The 5.45x39mm round was derived from the M1943 7.62x39mm cartridge. While the 5.45mm’s terminal effects were sufficiently lethal to earn it the nickname “The Poison Bullet” by Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Soviet military was not completely satisfied by the overall performance of the AK-74. The military probably realized that the AK-74 effectively represented the end of the practical development life of the Kalashnikov assault rifle design and that a new rifle would be required by the turn of the century. The primary requirement for this new rifle was that it achieve a probability of hit (or effectiveness) of 1.5 to 2.0 times that of the AK-74. The military also apparently felt that a reduction in recoil was necessary in order to improve hit probability. The AK-74 reduced recoil in comparison to the older 7.62x39mm AK-47’s and AKM’s, but the recoil reduction was due only to the ammunition change and , to a lesser extent, the compensator/flash suppressor design, and was considered inadequate. Accordingly, a program was initiated to develop a new advanced technology assault rifle to replace all of the venerable Kalashnikov family. In addition to greater effectiveness and reduced recoil, the new rifle would also have to meet stringent reliability requirements.
The development program was nicknamed “Abakan,” for a village in Siberia where testing of candidate weapons was conducted. This led to the AN-94 being misnamed “Abakan” when prototypes were first observed in the hands of Russian troops several years ago. “Abakan” was used by the Russians to generically refer to rifles being evaluated under the development program. Subsequently, it was determined that the actual designation of the pre-production AN-94 was Automat Spetsialnyi Nikonova, or ASN. According to Gennady Nikonov, designer of the AN-94, every official Soviet firearms designer submitted a candidate rifle for consideration and no less than eight different rifles were tested during the development program before the ASN was type classified as the AN-94. Interestingly, when queried about the rifle in 1992, the usually plain-spoken Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov refused to comment on the ASN. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t feel I am entitled to give an assessment of the new product.” Kalashnikov went on to say that his son Viktor had a design in the Abakan Competition, hence his reluctance to comment. It is now clear that the Kalashnikov design was an “also ran” in the competition, especially given persistent rumors of protests by Kalashnikov regarding type classification of the AN-94.
The AN-94 assault rifle is in pre-production status at the Izhevsk Machine Factory (Izmash joint Stock Company) and it is a complete departure from earlier Soviet/Russian small arms designs. Lack of money and, probably, Kalashnikov’s protestations prevent the rifle from entering into full production as of this writing (Jan. 1998), but according to authoritative Russian sources the AN-94 will eventually replace the AK-series in Russian service. The AN-94 can be viewed essentially as the Russian counterpart of the American Advanced Combat Rifle or Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW), as it is a complete departure from any rifle ever developed by the Soviet/Russian firearms industry and represents a significant improvement in performance over the Kalashnikov designs that it will eventually replace.
The AN-94 has appeared on an irregular basis at arms shows and unit weapons displays inside Russia, but unlike virtually every other Russian infantry weapon, the AN-94 at the moment is emphatically not for sale to foreign buyers, per Russian sources. If the Russian military holds true to past practices, the AN-94 will first be issued to elite divisions such as the Taman Guards Division, where rifles undergoing troop trials were first observed. The RPK-74 will probably remain in service, at least until a light machine gun version of the AN-94 is developed.
It is possible that the Kalashnikov-derived 6×49 mm rifle and machine gun that have been shown by TsNIITochmash for potential joint production at numerous international arms shows were one of the losers in the Abakan Competition. The TsNIITochmash design loss was probably due to the fact that the claimed performance improvements over current Kalashnikov weapons was no better than the AN-94. While the Kalashnikov derivatives are based on the existing weapons, thus minimizing training, they would have made a tremendous, probably unacceptable, demand on a logistics system which already has three rifle and light/medium machine gun calibers. The advantage of the AN-94 over the Kalashnikov designs is that it achieves the same or better performance while simplifying logistics by using existing ammunition, not to mention claimed increases in AN-94 reliability over the Kalashnikov rifles. Moreover, the capabilities and overall design of the AN-94 indicate a change in Russian small arms tactical thinking. This will presently be elaborated upon.
The construction methods of the AN-94 were likely another reason for its adoption over the Kalashnikov design. Unlike the Kalashnikov weapons, the AN-94 employs modern manufacturing techniques. The rifle’s furniture is all made of polymer, as is that of the AK-100 family, but there the similarity to the Kalashnikov ends. What appears to be a gas tube beneath the barrel of the AN-94 is actually a fixed rod extending from the stock which incorporates a guide for the rifle’s firing unit (barrel/receiver assembly) at the front and a dual-purpose stud at its center. One purpose of the stud is to stabilize the rifle when on full-automatic fire. The barrel and guide rod tend to resonate on full-automatic and the stud adds weight to dampen the oscillation. The stud also prevents the rifle from sliding back and forth when it is locked into the firing port of a BMP. The AN-94 gas cylinder is located above the barrel underneath the handguard and is quite short. The reason for this will become clear as we describe the rifle’s functioning. The entire operating mechanism of the AN-94 is placed inside the stock, which is referred to in Russian documentation as a “carrier-stock.” The reason for this is the fact that the barrel and receiver are integrated into a firing unit which reciprocates on guide rails inside the stock. The bolt carrier and bolt are carried by and operate inside the rifle’s internal receiver. The AN-94 has two internal buffers, one in the forearm and another at the rear of the receiver. The forearm buffer not only absorbs shock, but accelerates return travel of the firing unit as it moves forward in counterrecoil. The rear buffer boosts forward acceleration of the bolt carrier besides preventing the receiver/firing unit from striking the rear of the stock as it recoils.
One of the key principles of the AN-94’s operation is what has been referred to as a “blow-back shifted pulse,” or BBSP. This relates to the fact that the receiver and barrel assembly reciprocate independently from the bolt and its carrier, although the latter reciprocate in the receiver. A simplified functional explanation of the two-round burst feature will clarify the BBSP principle. When the first round is fired, the entire barrel/receiver assembly begins moving to the rear, taking the bolt carrier with it and compressing the forward buffer. As the bullet passes the gas port, gas is bled off into the gas cylinder, driving the bolt carrier to the rear, thus unlocking the bolt, extracting and ejecting the spent case. The bolt carrier is moving much faster than the barrel/receiver assembly and impacts against the rear buffer, which in conjunction with the return spring propels it forward, temporarily inactivating the sear while stripping a fresh round from the magazine and chambering it. As the bolt locks, the sear is released and the second round is fired before the receiver completes its rearward motion. The bolt carrier and hammer begin their next cycle. In essence, the first two bullets have left the barrel of the rifle while the receiver is still moving to the rear and has not had a chance to impact the rear buffer. As can be seen, the AN-94 is therefore both recoil and gas-operated. While the blow back shifted pulse principle is not all that makes the AN-94 unique, it is the central principle that makes the dual cyclic rate possible.
According to Russian sources, the AN-94 is disassembled by “traditional methods,” but reliability and maintenance is greatly improved over the AK- series of weapons by the aforementioned use of modern materials and production processes. It is difficult to imagine that AK reliability could be improved upon to any degree, but the Russians claim that the AN-94’s mean rounds between failure is 40,000 rounds, a 150 per cent improvement over the AK-74! Despite improvements over earlier weapons, the Russian firearms industry lags behind the West in terms of computer numerical controlled (CNC) machinery, and it is unlikely that Izmash uses this production methodology to any great degree in manufacturing the AN-94.
The functioning of the AN-94 is unique. As previously mentioned, the AN-94 has a two-round burst fire capability, along with fully automatic fire with a dual cyclic rate, due to the blow back shifted pulse system, a new operating principle which incorporates both gas and recoil operation. The BBSP system has been described in detail elsewhere. The 1,800 rpm
burst is obtained each time the rifle’s trigger is squeezed in full-automatic mode. This rate is so fast that the first two rounds have left the barrel before the rifle begins to recoil in the shooter’s hands. The rifle automatically cycles down to 600 rpm after the first two rounds are fired. To say that the AN-94 is different is an understatement. Not only is the functioning unique, but so is the method of achieving it.
The AN-94’s functioning can best be described and understood in terms of the small arms cycle of operation. It is difficult to describe a unique firearm without having examined it. The technical description of the AN-94 which follows is based solely on data provided courtesy of Izmash Joint Stock Company, not upon actual examination of an AN-94. It is based on the judgment of the authors and is subject to change. Due to length considerations, we will focus on automatic operation of the AN-94, as this captures the essence of its uniqueness.
To fire on full auutomatic, the safety is set on “O,” or “ogon” (“Fire” in Russian.) and the selector is set to “AB,” an abbreviation for “avtomaticheskiy,” or “automatic.” This shifts the disintegrator into contact with one of the shoulders of the trigger plate. The operator pulls the charging handle to the rear. As this is happening, a “special mechanism” carries out
an operation called preliminary feeding, in which a round is apparently removed from the magazine without being chambered. (As this is written, the exact nature of the “special mechanism” and the “preliminary feeding” itself are unclear.) Upon release of the charging handle, pressure of the return spring and rear buffer drive the bolt carrier and bolt forward, ramming the cartridge into the chamber. This operation is repeated every time the operating mechanism of the rifle cycles.
FIRING, FIRST ROUND: Pulling the trigger moves the trigger plate on its axis, releasing the sear, which in turn releases the striker. The striker moves forward under the pressure of its spring, strikes the firing pin and fires the cartridge.
UNLOCKING, FIRST ROUND: Driven by recoil, the barrel/receiver assembly (firing unit) move to the rear on guide rail(s) inside the carrier-stock and begin to compress the forward buffer spring. The bullet passes the gas port, allowing gas to enter the gas cylinder, pressing the gas piston, thereby driving the bolt carrier and bolt to the rear. The bolt is cammed by the
rearward moving carrier to turn and unlock from the barrel extension. It should be noted that the entire barrel/receiver unit is moving to the rear as this function is taking place.
EXTRACTING,FIRST ROUND: As the bolt continues to the rear, it pulls the spent cartridge case from the chamber.
EJECTING, FIRST ROUND: As the spent cartridge case clears the base of the chamber, it is thrown out the ejection port.
FEEDING, CHAMBERING AND LOCKING: As the bolt carrier and striker reach their rearmost position, the return spring and rear buffer press them back forward to feed, chamber and lock the weapon for the second shot. The barrel/receiver unit is still moving to the rear. Since the unit is farther to the rear than when the first shot was fed and fired, the second cartridge has a shorter distance to travel from the magazine to the chamber, thereby assisting in the high rate of fire. This action is assisted by the “special mechanism” that pre-feeds
each cartridge as the bolt carrier moves to the rear. As the barrel/receiver unit moved to the rear, the sear was temporarily deactivated and the striker was thereby allowed to impinge on the firing pin, thus firing the second shot. Whether the hammer/striker follows the bolt forward or presses on the firing pin as the bolt locks is not clear as this is written. The second round fires while the barrel/receiver assembly is still moving to the rear. The bolt carrier and bolt begin to move rearward driven by gas from the second cartridge. The sear is retained by the trigger plate. The “disintegrator” and trigger plate return to their original positions. The rear buffer and return spring drive the bolt carrier back forward, ramming a pre-loaded round into the chamber. The barrel/receiver unit is driven forward by the buffers and a return spring.
The Russians claim that the probability of a first round hit by the AN-94 is 1.5 to 1.7 times better than that of an AK-74 by actual troop testing in combat units. Russian sources have also stated that the overall efficiency of the AN-94 is “twice that of the AK-74 and fifty per cent greater than the American M16.” Whether the Russian who made this statement was alluding to the M16A1 or M16A2 is not known, but presumably the reference was to the M16A1, as the M16A2 is significantly improved in terms of general performance over its predecessor. Regardless, it is clear that the AN-94 has achieved the design requirements established by the Russian military.
The AN-94 apparently is equipped with optical sights as standard. These are the familiar 1L29 4x optical sights which have been used on the AK-74, RPK-74 and PKM weapons for several years. The AN-94 also has unique “iron” sights. The rear adjustable peep sight is a “wheel” canted slightly to the right of horizontal with apertures at different elevations for adjusting aimed fire. According to Russian sources, the AN-94 is sighted out to 1,000 meters, but the increments of adjustment of the iron sights are not known as of this writing and 1,000 meter accuracy with the light 5.45mm bullet is questionable. This “canted drum” arrangement is similar to that used by Heckler & Koch, but appears to be easier to use. Each aperture is clearly marked on top with its sighted range and a quick twist by the rifleman allows him to change his range almost instantly, even with gloves or trigger-finger mittens, unlike Western rifles which must be laboriously adjusted in order to make a change in sighted range. While the AN-94 sights do not allow for precise changes like those of, e.g. the M16A2, they appear to be well-suited for the quick adjustments necessary for accurate combat firing.
In addition to using the same optical sights as earlier weapons, the AN-94 also accepts the familiar GP-25 40mm underbarrel grenade launcher. The AN-94 bayonet is similar to earlier designs, and may well fit older rifles, but the blade design is somewhat different than that of Kalashnikov rifles. AN-94 bayonets that have been observed lack the “sawback” feature of older designs and the point is apparently nearly symmetrical while retaining the wire – cutting capability of earlier bayonets.
The AN-94 probably reflects a change in Russian infantry tactical thinking. There are a number of design features on the rifle that support this notion. First, the rifle’s selector switch goes first from “safe” to “semi, “ indicating that “semi” is the preferred firing position, the best for achieving accurate aimed fire. All AK-series rifles go from “safe” first to “full auto,” because massed automatic fire was paramount in Soviet small arms tactics at the time of the rifle’s design in the late 1940’s. Accurate aimed fire was a secondary consideration. The sights of the AN-94 are another indicator that the AN-94 is a new departure in Russian small arms thinking. Unlike the rudimentary iron sights of all AK rifles, the AN-94 rifle features a fairly sophisticated system of iron “peep” sights which allow for quick changes in battlesight range. Moreover, the 1,800 round per minute two round burst feature of the AN-94 is stated by Russian sources to be specifically intended to raise the probability of hit and to increase the effective range of the rifle. These requirements are the antithesis of fully automatic massed fire which achieves hits by sheer numbers of rounds fired towards the target.
In sum, Gennady Nikonov has apparently developed a thoroughly modern replacement for the venerable Kalashnikov series of assault rifles which have dominated not only Soviet/Russian, but the world’s military small arms market for nearly 50 years. There are other significant military rifles, but none can compare with the Kalashnikov series, with some 50 million AK-47’s, AKM’s and AK-74’s manufactured since 1947. It now seems, however, that Mikhail Kalashnikov’s landmark design has finally been overcome by modern technology. The Russians have wisely chosen to begin replacing the Kalashnikov rifles in their own military while the AK’s are still serving satisfactorily. Even so, the latest versions of the Kalashnikov assault rifles, the AK-100 series, chambered not only in 7.62x39mm, 5.45x39mm, but in 5.56x45mm NATO, and produced with the latest phenolic furniture and the same optical sights as the ASN, will ensure the presence of Kalashnikov assault rifles on the world’s battlefields for many years to come.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N6 (March 1998)|