The Best AK-47 Rifles

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.

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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?

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.

AKs are known for being kind of ugly and the Romanian-made WASR-10 is about the homeliest of the bunch. Luckily Century Arms has updated and upgraded the former 5th beauty queen alternate. 

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?

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. 

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.

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, Zasatva’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.

Rob Ski of the AK Operators Union recently deemed the now Z70 as the “Best AK for the money,” after a 5,000-round test with no maintenance.

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?

The AK series rifle
The AK series has been around for over 70 years and has been produced in the tens of millions on at least four continents but on the inside, they still have the same reliable action that has made the gun famous. (Photo: U.S. Army Archives via Springfield Armory National Historic Site)

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.

Best AK-47s - Shovel

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.

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! 

Best AK-47s - AKs brought home from Iraq
In an example of how widespread the AK has become, these two Kalash captured in Iraq in the first Gulf War include a milled-receiver Yugoslavian-made M70 complete with a rifle grenade and a stamped- receiver Romanian PM md. 63/65. The Iraqis also made their own AKs as well.

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. 

A captured example of the AK-47 from 1961
By 1961, a captured example brought to the West by an East German defector was in the hands of the U.S. Army’s Springfield Armory. (Photo: U.S. Army Archives via Springfield Armory National Historic Site) 

Soon enough, American Soldiers and Marines got to see AKs first-hand and up close in a place called Vietnam.

2d Lt. Robert Drieslein with a captured early Type 2 AK-47 in Vietnam, 1968
2d Lt. Robert Drieslein with a captured early Type 2 AK-47 in Vietnam, 1968. (USMC photo)

 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. 

The AK/AKM, along with the Chinese-made Type 56
The AK/AKM, along with the Chinese-made Type 56, were commonly encountered by U.S. troops in the Vietnam war, where it was opposed by the early M16.

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. 

AK-47 ads from the 1980s
AK-47 ads from the 1980s

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. 

Serbian-made Zastava Z70 rifles
Serbian-made Zastava Z70 rifles

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. 

Century's growing U.S.-made AK line
Century’s growing U.S.-made AK line
The Kalashnikov USA KR-103
The Kalashnikov USA KR-103

By 2014, with Russia eliminated from the import list due to sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of the Ukraine, so-called Yankee AKs started to become more prevalent from companies like I.O and Century Arms, for better or worse.

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