The Increasingly American Kalashnikov
For generations, the AK-47 was the spooky gun in grainy TASS footage of May Day parades in Red Square, or seen in the firing into the air, pistol gripped by random guerillas in far off lands.
However, today, Mikhail Kalashnikov’s most famous invention is increasingly familiar to American gun owners while the guns themselves are likewise rapidly becoming Americanized.
In this Article:
Comparison of the Best AK-47s
Below is my list of the best AK rifles for 2021. I list the best choices in terms of value, performance, reliability, and cost.
Click on the name to head to the product page, read reviews and check prices or skip ahead to the list of AK rifles.
|Best Value: Palmetto State AK47|
|Premium Option: Century Arms VSKA|
|Best Folding Stock: Century Arms WASR-10|
|Most U.S.-Made: Kalashnikov USA KR-103|
|Best Wood Furniture: Riley Defense RAK-47|
|Also Great: Zasatva Z70|
What to look for in a Quality AK-47 Rifle
1. Build Quality
With any firearm, the overall quality of the build can make or break your shooting experience. It’s especially true with the AK-47. A well-done AK is a reliable gun that will perform well above most people’s expectations and will likely last a lifetime, assuming some essential maintenance. On the other hand, a poorly built AK is unreliable and a danger to its user.
In the United States, the AK received a relatively poor reputation for quality, particularly in the later years and aftermath of the Cold War. This reputation was due, in large part, to the fact that most AK47s did not come into the US whole. Instead, due to a section of federal firearms law known as 922(r), most of the rifles came into the country piecemeal. These were either “sporter” versions of the AK (with different magazine wells, stocks, etc.) or came in as parts kits (that would then be assembled by the importer or by someone else entirely).
Therein lies the problem. A particular rifle may have, as the manufacturer listed on the receiver, a company that has been making quality AKs for decades. That same rifle may have come into the US as a box of parts in the 1990s or early 2000s, then assembled by someone who has never built an AK. This inconsistency led to market uncertainty, with end-users struggling to make sense of sources for authentic, reliable AK47s.
Things are much better now, thankfully. While many of the duds from earlier days are still floating around local gun stores and shows, there are many better options off the shelf now than there were a decade ago. There are several reliable builders of foreign-produced AKs here in the states. Two significant companies — Palmetto State Armory and Kalashnikov Concern — are producing them right here in the USA.
Generally, buying one of these new AKs is an excellent option for people new to the platform, as they come with a phone line that will still ring and a warranty. But in regards to older rifles, it’s best to determine the gun’s history to make sense of its build and its potential for trouble.
2. Milled Vs. Stamped Receivers
In general, there are two ways to make an AK-47: milling and stamping. A milled receiver starts with a block of metal that is machined into the required specifications. The resulting receiver is heavy but generally very strong. Stamping, on the other hand, begins with a sheet of metal that is folded into place: the result is a rifle that is lighter and much faster to produce but less durable than its milled counterpart.
In the history of the AK-47, both milling and stamping have been used extensively. For example, early, mass-produced AK-47s variants used milled receivers, but the Soviets found them too expensive and time-intensive to produce. Later models (for example, the AKM) switched to stamped receivers.
Besides weight, the main difference a user might notice between a milled and a stamped gun, assuming both are made well, is in the number of rivets. Because stamped guns do not have large blocks of metal where the front and rear trunnions are, those have to be riveted into place. That’s one spot to check for quality: if the rivets look good, sit flush on the receiver, and have no play in them, then your stamped AK is likely good to go.
Neither milled nor stamped guns are the final work in AK manufacturing, and at the user level, the most significant difference you would be likely to notice is the weight. If a particular rifle has the features and performance that you like, then the construction of the receiver is of secondary concern. As always with the AK, the main goal is to establish a general story of the rifle you’re looking at to determine its quality.
3. Barrel Length
Although barrel length itself is not an indicator of quality, there are some considerations you should keep in mind when buying an AK.
The first are the legal ramifications: in the US, any barrel under 16” makes the rifle it’s on a short-barreled rifle, or SBR, which requires an ATF tax stamp to own legally.
AK pistols with short barrels are certainly available, but you’ll be in brace territory (a familiar landscape for anyone who runs an AR pistol). No stocks or forward handgrips allowed — making them fun but challenging to use much beyond 50 yards. Additionally, some states have different laws for handgun purchases as they do rifles, so consult a local expert if you have any questions.
Therefore, your least legal headache will come from a rifle with a barrel over 16”. Second would likely be a pistol that has a barrel under 16”. The most difficult to own — in terms of time, money, and paperwork — would be a short-barreled rifle (but for some folks, the legal headache is more than worth it).
The next thing to consider is effectiveness. Since we’re talking about the AK rifles, we’re working with 7.62×39 caliber ammunition. There are AK platforms in other calibers, ranging from 9mm to 12 gauge, but in terms of ballistics, let’s keep things simple and refer to the original caliber of the AK-47.
Generally speaking, the more barrel length a firearm has, the higher the muzzle velocity, thus increasing range and accuracy — up to a point. You’re looking for maximum powder burn. For example, a six-foot barrel won’t add any performance advantage for anything shy of a cannon round.
For the AK-47, reducing the barrel length from 16.6” to 7.5” reduces the velocity substantially. Much like the AR’s 5.56 NATO cartridge, a shorter barrel offers less muzzle velocity than a longer one.
From there, it’s up to you to decide what you plan on doing with your AK. If it’s for home defense or close-quarters work, then a short barrel with less velocity can be just fine. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for maximum range out of the cartridge, then more barrel is what you’re looking for up to around 26-inches, which is what you’ll find on the Romanian military marksman rifle the PSL.
For an all-purpose AK, something with a 16-inch barrel is likely the easiest to own legally and will offer the most flexibility.
For most of us, who are coming to the AK from the AR world, the furniture on an AK can seem a little complicated, less modular, and frustrating. In the neverending battle of AK vs. AR, the modularity of the AK, especially early models, is often called into question. These days, however, there are many options to get the most out of your Kalash.
It’s worth understanding that there are nuances to the purpose of certain AK design decisions — take the classic buttstock. The original “Warsaw Pact”-length AK stock is, for many people, short. The design wasn’t due to some desire to conserve resources but rather to work well with heavy winter clothing and body armor. The Soviets spend six months of the year in winter.
Toss on a parka and plate carrier, and the stock length starts to make more sense. Of course, keeping the Germans at bay in Siberia may not be your use case.
The AK is not like the AR, where any Mil-Spec part is very likely to fit onto any Mil-Spec AR. On the other hand, AKs have been produced by dozens of countries over six decades, so sometimes the tolerances on what would be considered the “same” part will vary. Thus, there are types of furniture that will fit on specific series of guns, but not on others.
To ensure compatibility with what you want, look to producers like Midwest Industries and Krebs, who manufacture AK furniture for different Kalash series. This helps to ensure you’re getting a product made specifically for your AK build, and you’ll often get solid add-ons like M-Lok slots, top, and quad-rails. Of course, never hesitate to ask questions in forums or from folks selling AKs.
One workaround is only to consider modern production AKs made in the US, which tend to be very clear about what will and won’t fit and supported by the manufacturer.
You also may need to do a little bit of hand fitting. If your rifle was made in 1989, brought in as a parts kit in 2009, and you get a gas tube from lord knows when you might have to file a little here and shim a little there to get things fitting just right.
With some simple hand tools and a little bit of patience when looking for good advice online, this can certainly be done.
One last thing with furniture is that the stock you can use depends on the receiver. Some receivers are designed to work with certain folding stocks and have a latch on the side of the receiver and a differently shaped rear trunnion.
Products like Magpul’s Zhukov Side Folder are designed to accommodate these broad tolerances but YMMV depending on your AK model. The Zhukov is also telescopic, so you get significantly improved ergonomics and room for a cheek riser — plus the side-folding action assists with storage and transport.
For those interested in using an AR buffer tube/stock feel, the Vltor RE-47 AK Modstock adaptor lets you mount an M4 collapsible buttstock to your AK, so you’ll get adjustability and familiarity all in one go.
Of course, for those uninterested in hunting down the right bits and bobs, the best way to get an that best meets your needs is to find one that already has furniture that you like (or at least something very close to that); you’ll spend a minimum of your time, effort and money trying to track down parts that can be sometimes hit or miss in terms of supply or compatibility.
The Best AK-47s Reviewed
1. PSA PSAK-47 (Best Value)
South Carolina’s Palmetto State Armory changed how the country sees DIY AR-15 builds, enhancements and upgrades.
The company has been trying to do the same with a burgeoning budget Kalashnikov line, the all-American PSAK-47, which was first introduced in 2015.
In 2020, the company doubled down on the PSA AK-103 Klone which includes not only a forged carrier, bolt and front trunnion, but also an FN-made cold hammer forged chrome lined barrel.
What’s not to like?
2. Century Arms VSKA (Premium Option)
Vermont-based Century International Arms has been a big name in the firearms import game for decades and they got on the train of making 922R-compliant AKs more than 20 years ago.
Since then, they have moved on to crafting an increasingly all-American product through their C39 and later RAS47 series guns, which admittedly had some teething problems.
Then, in 2019, they introduced the VSKA (vis-kuh), or Vermont-Stamped Kalashnikov. Using better build components and showcasing more attention to detail than past rifles, the VSKA has a bolt carrier, front trunnion, and feed ramp machined from S7 tool steel, a nitro-carburized 4140 steel bolt, and chrome-moly 4150 barrel.
The gun’s furniture is Vermont maple, for that cozy New England touch — and is about as close to an American-made AK as you can get.
3. Century Arms WASR-10 (Best Folding Stock)
AKs are known for being kind of ugly and the Romanian-made WASR-10 is about the homeliest of the bunch.
Not very well fit or finished, however, it is a good example of what makes the AK-47 platform great as it will run when needed and requires very little in the way of keeping it ticking.
Also, they are about the least expensive option for a decent Kalash, so who cares what they look like?
4. Kalashnikov USA KR-103 (Most U.S.-MAde)
Florida-based Kalashnikov USA has been making AK-style shotguns and pistol caliber carbines for years but in 2020 they finally announced what people have wanted since Red Dawn came out: a legit 7.62x39mm rifle.
The KR-103 is fundamentally styled after the AK-103, a more current Russian-produced AK variant in the same caliber.
Some 100 percent U.S.-made, it will have 5.5mm forged trunnions and is compatible with most AKM and AK74 parts and accessories.
5. Riley Defense RAK-47 (Best Wood Furniture)
Based in North Carolina, Riley Defense has done only one thing since 2016: produce American-made variants of the AKM/47 rifles.
Their RAK-47 comes in a classic variant with laminated wooden furniture, as well as models with polymer and featureless stocks for customers in restrictive states.
All use a forged trunnion, bolt and carrier.
6. Zastava Z70 (Also Great)
Based in Serbia in a firearms plant that dates to 1853, Zastava has been in the AK game since 1959 and launched the M70 subtype more than 50 years ago.
One of the most popular Kalash in the world, Zastava’s semi-auto NPAP and ZPAP series guns were originally imported to the U.S. by Century and distributed under that company’s banner.
However, Zastava USA was set up in 2019 and they are now bringing in their own guns which get a gentle 922R treatment here once they clear customs.
The History of the AK
A wounded tank crewman in World War II, young Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was able to repurpose himself as a firearms designer, creating a series of interesting, if unsuccessful, sub-machine gun and carbine prototypes in the mid-1940s, learning from each effort.
A poet at heart– he published several books of prose in his lifetime– Kalashnikov grew up hunting in Siberia, a harsh and unforgiving climate.
His experiences on the battlefield and on the Siberian plain helped him, in the end, to craft an almost poetically simple Avtomat, or automatic rifle, which, after a series of evolutions and refinements by more seasoned engineers, produced the AK-47 which was first adopted by the Soviet military in 1949.
What made the AK a great gun?
Using a long-stroke gas piston action with what could be termed “generous” tolerances, the AK could be built with a simple one-piece sheet of steel that could be bent into shape to form the receiver– home builders have famously made them from a repurposed garden shovel– and finished with likewise simple internals.
The toughest challenge to make a functioning AK is to form an accurate barrel and reliable front trunnion.
Using the 7.62x39mm 57-N (M43) cartridge, which was first introduced in 1944 for use with the SKS-45 semi-auto carbine, the AK provided a simple and effective weapon that, only slightly larger than the submachine guns of the early 1940s, could deliver 30 rounds in three seconds flat and, when in the hands of someone skilled in basic marksmanship, still hit man-sized targets out to 500 yards.
The standard AK-47 assault rifle soon morphed through a series of generational updates over the past three-quarters of a century to become the AKM, AK-103/104, AK-109, AEK-973, and others, all in the same caliber.
Eventually, the AK was also ported over to the increasingly popular pistol format, and the AK pistol was born.
Teaching a comrade to fish
In the interest of “teaching a comrade to fish” the weapon proved popular enough to be made by Soviet satellites or allies such as Bulgaria, Communist China, East Germany, Egypt, Hungary, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia– albeit with local tweaks to the design– after a simple transfer of technology, either official or unofficial.
Tens of millions of users cannot be wrong!
Far from being a relic of the past, while the gun was augmented by the 5.45x45mm AK-74/AK-12 models in Soviet/Russian service, the 7.62x39mm Kalashnikov remains in top form and a new version, the AK-203, was just adopted by the Indian Army, the largest military with the exception of China, who hope to produce 700,000+ in a domestic factory with Russian assistance.
Importantly, all these variants use the same style action with its easy-to-learn nomenclature and weapons manipulation process.
In short, a Soviet motorized infantry rifleman in 1949 could grab a ride in a wormhole, pick up a dirty and unloaded AK-203 of today, and figure out how to get it up and running in about 30 seconds.
Enter the Commercial AK
When it comes to Americans and the Kalash, the first CIA intelligence reports on the gun surfaced in 1953, and photos of the gun, a weapon whose existence until then was kept as a national secret by Moscow, went mainstream in 1956 when Hungarian rebels captured a few during the uprising in that country and were photographed by admiring Western journos.
Soon enough, American Soldiers and Marines got to see AKs first-hand and up close in a place called Vietnam.
While many captured AKs were recycled for use in special operations, a few were brought back home to the U.S.– both with and without approval—with at least one “third pin” Kalash famously seen at Wounded Knee in the hands of a Vietnam vet in 1973.
However, the increasingly iconic gun was not available on the American consumer market, except for AK-ish Finnish-made Valmets, until Egyptian-produced Maddi ARMs were brought into the U.S. by Steyr beginning in 1982.
These same hard-to-find ARMs were seen extensively in the original Red Dawn, both in the hands of the faux Russkis and the hardy Wolverines.
This whet the American appetite for General Kalashnikov’s Avtomat in any form and soon the call was answered by Beijing, who crated up semi-auto-only Type 56 rifles under the Norinco umbrella and shipped them to rows of Southern California import houses, who in turn flooded the market with a buffet of bargain Chinese-made AKs, complete with all the fixings.
With Chicom Kalash pouring into the country at prices lower than what any domestic maker could attempt to produce a rifle, it kept competition away, that is until the 1989 and follow-on 1994 bans on Chinese-made rifles and pistols killed the golden goose with ATF red tape.
The newfound demand, created by a generation of widespread China Sports rifles and amazingly cheap ammo in bulk, was soon met with a new supply as the Cold War thawed and newly capitalistic firms in Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Yugoslavia quickly turned out Arsenals, Cugirs, Kalashnikov/Saigias, and Zastavas to give the hard-working American gun owner what they wanted.
According to gun industry trade groups, between 1990 and 2016, some 4.6 million modern sporting rifles– largely AK variants– were imported to the U.S. from overseas, proving the land of Coca-Cola and apple pie to be the world’s hungriest consumer for the rifle.
However, after 1994 these guns required “Section 922R compliance” which meant they had to be imported in a “sporting” configuration and then reworked with a variety of U.S-made parts that ensured the firearm went on the market here with no more than 10 of 20 key components coming from overseas.
As this sometimes required a lot of work and yielded a growing industry in American-made AK parts, it was only a matter of time before all-U.S.-produced Kalash hit the market.
By 2014, with Russia eliminated from the import list due to sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, so-called Yankee AKs started to become more prevalent from companies like I.O and Century Arms, for better or worse.
- AK-47: Survival & Evolution of the World’s Most Prolific Gun, Marco Vorobiev
- The Gun, C.J. Chivers
- National Shooting Sports Foundation (MSR numbers)
- Shooter’s Bible, various editions incl Vol. 111: The World’s Bestselling Firearms
- Vickers’s Guide: AK Kalashnikov, specifically Vol. 1, Larry Vickers
- Dirck Halstead, A Sioux activist triumphantly brandishes his AK-47, 1973
- An AK created from a shovel
- TASS Russian News Agency
- Christopher Eger, Three pipefitters from Corvin Passage
- Jon Rydberg Section 922R Compliance, October 25, 2013
- Royal Armories, Avtomat Image
- AK Barrel Testing
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