By Frank Iannamico
The Russian AK47 and its many variants manufactured in other Combloc nations is thought to be the most prolific assault rifle in the world. It has been estimated that there have been over 50 million AK’s produced since first appearing shortly after World War II. The rifle was made famous in the mid 1960’s during the Vietnam war in the hands of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong guerrillas (VC). Many of the AK47’s used in Vietnam were actually type 56 assault rifles manufactured in Mainland China. The AK47 had a reputation for being very rugged and reliable under adverse conditions, requiring very little maintenance.
The concept of the assault rifle originated with the Germans late in World War II when they introduced the MKb42(H) machine carbine. The MKb42(H) was soon followed by the MP43 and finally the Stg 44 Strumgewehr. The basic premise of the German idea was to replace two weapons with one, the submachine gun that was a short-range, full-automatic weapon, and the bolt action K98 rifle, a long range weapon. The Strumgewehr was a select fire mid-range weapon that fired the 8mm Kurz round. The 8mm Kurz round was the same caliber as the standard German 8mm (7.92×57) service round, but used a much shorter case at 33 mm (7.92×33), and a lighter 125 grain projectile. Velocity of the 125 grain projectile was 2,300 feet per second.
Upon capturing German Strumgewehrs at the conclusion of WWII, the Russians were interested in the midrange cartridge theory, and immediately set out to produce their own version of a midrange round. The final result was the current 7.62×39 (M43) cartridge and the semi-automatic Simonov SKS rifle to fire it. The SKS was soon followed by the development of the select fire AK47 in the late 1940’s. The AK47 was quickly adopted by the Red Army in 1949.
At the same time period the United States was still using World War II weapons. The US would continue to do so until the late 1950’s, when the controversial M14 was adopted. The M14 was a select-fire, product improved WWII M1 Garand. The M14 was still using a full power round, the 7.62 NATO (.308 Winchester). The 7.62 NATO round was slightly shorter than the old 30-06 round it replaced, but the ballistics were very similar. The closest thing the United States had to a modern assault rifle in the 1950’s was the select-fire World War II M2 Carbine.
At approximately the same time the United States was adopting the M14, the Soviets were updating their AK47’s to the second generation sheet metal receiver AKM. The new AKM used the same 7.62×39 cartridge as the AK47, but the AKM could be produced cheaper and faster. These attributes made indigenous manufacture of the AKM attractive to less developed countries that had limited industrial capabilities.
It was not until the United States adopted the M16 in the mid 1960’s that the U.S. Army had a modern assault rifle.
The .22 caliber cartridge the M16 fired wasn’t exactly a mid-range round, but an entirely new concept, a high-velocity, small 5.56 mm caliber round. The 55 grain projectile could attain over 3200 feet per second from the M16’s twenty inch long barrel. It had many critics, and the M16 had many early problems in the field.
There were many advantages to the new small round. It made full auto fire manageable, and a soldier could carry a much larger ammunition load. What was in question was the cartridges penetration and lethality.
The British government had tried to get NATO to adopt a small caliber cartridge in the early 1950’s, specifically their own .280 caliber round. They had done some research, and like the Russians and Germans, discovered a full power cartridge for an infantry soldier just wasn’t necessary. But the United States insisted on, and got, the .308 standardized as the NATO round.
After a few years in service the M16 and the small caliber, high velocity round had finally proven to be capable of its original task. It now seemed evident that the small caliber weapon was here to stay. All NATO countries eventually adopted the 5.56mm round as the NATO standard cartridge, and many different rifles were designed and manufactured to chamber it.
The M16 after more than 30 years has been in continuous front line service as long as any prior U.S. service rifle. This time it was the Russians who were slow to change. The U.S. M16, M16A1 and M16A2 are now the most prolific small caliber assault rifles in the world.
The Western world was first exposed to the new AK74 rifle in November of 1977. The new Soviet service weapon was chambered for a small caliber, high-velocity round almost two decades after the United States adopted the M16 in 5.56 caliber.
The AK74 is much like its predecessor the AKM. In fact almost half of the parts on the new AK74 were directly copied from the 7.62×39 AKM. The most noticeable change on the new rifle was the addition of a muzzle brake, to control shot dispersion. The AK74 was widely used in the Afghanistan war. It was used by the Russian troops as well as against them. Many AK74s and AKMs were captured and effectively used by the Afghanistan rebels.
Although the AK74 uses a new 5.45mm round, many of the weak areas of the weapon remain. The safety lever is often criticized as being noisy and difficult to manipulate, and the lack of a bolt hold open device are two problems that still exist. The AK 74 is still a late 1940’s design, even if it has been described as super reliable, easy to maintain and service. There is still a lot of room for improvement.
The AK74 reviewed in this article is a new Russian manufactured AK74, 5.45mm.
The rifle’s quality seemed much better than any previous AKM or AK47. The fit and finish were excellent. The wood was beautifully fitted and finished. It seemed to me however, that although it was brand new and late Soviet issue, the design and technology was dated.
The AK74 had a slightly faster cyclic rate than an AKM and was smooth in the full auto mode, but to me it didn’t seem as smooth as an M16A2. The faster cyclic rate of the M16 is the most likely reason.
It was most definitely easier to handle in full auto than a 7.62X39 AKM or AK47. I really couldn’t tell how effective the complicated muzzle brake was. The weapon fires much like an M16, but again is much more manageable than a similar 7.62×39 weapon in full auto.
The 5.45 cartridges for the AK74 are rather rare and expensive in the United States, but unfortunately so are AK74’s. This AK74 was of course a post ’86 dealer sample, so they are unavailable to most folks.
The AK74’s effective range is documented at 625 meters. The full auto cyclic rate is approximately 650 rounds per minute. The tangent sights are much like the AK47/AKM and graduated out to 1000 meters. The reddish colored plastic magazine has a 30 round capacity. The magazine is similar to those plastic versions available for the 7.62 AKM/AK47 except for an added strengthening rib. There reportedly are also Russian produced, 45 round capacity magazines. The overall length of the standard fixed stock AK74 is 36.6”. Loaded weight is 7.9 pounds. The barrel is a four-groove, right-hand, one turn in 7.8” twist.
The 5.45 (M74) round has an overall length of 2.264” and fires a steel core, 53 grain bullet at approximately 2953 feet per second. The actual diameter of the projectile measures closer to 5.54mm. The 5.45, 53 grain projectile is a full metal jacket design, but the front portion of the bullet jacket is hollow. This design places the center of gravity toward the rear of the projectile. When the projectile strikes an object the center of gravity is upset, and the bullet will tumble violently in soft targets.
On paper, the 5.45×39 round is ballistically similar to the older M193 U.S. M16 round that uses a 55 grain projectile. The current NATO M855/SS109 round with its 63 grain bullet is ballistically superior, especially at ranges over 300 yards.
The AK 74 may be fitted with several different accessories. A 40 mm Grenade launcher, an optical sighting device and a starlight type, night vision scope. In previous AK versions, lack of the aforementioned features was often criticized by Western observers.
There are several variations of the AK74. One model features a skeleton metal folding stock and another model has a wooden stock that folds. The AK74 pictured has a fixed wooden stock. There is also a “shorty” version the AK74U. This model is reportedly for issue to crews in armored vehicle where a compact weapon is desirable.
Handling, examining and firing the AK74 was truly enjoyable. As mentioned earlier, they are for the most part unobtainable for the average collector. This unfortunately is due to the passage of many restrictive gun laws in recent years. It is too bad that many must suffer for the irresponsible actions of a few.
Special thanks to Trident for providing the Russian military camo and medals displayed in the pictures, and for graciously providing the 5.45 ammunition used in the AK74 firing evaluation.
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East European Collectables and Military Surplus
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N2 (November 1997)|