After accepting the new rifle for military use, the Soviets ran into some problems producing them, and it wasn’t until a decade later that they managed to manufacture enough of them for their military to really standardize on the new rifle.
The first hurdle, which I mentioned previously, was the stamped, sheet metal receiver. The Soviets liked that aspect of the AK, since stamped metal parts are cheap and can be produced rapidly, and it also contributed to making the rifle lighter in weight. However, problems with welding parts to the stamped metal showed up immediately, and the rejection rate in the factories was unacceptable. The short-term solution was a heavier, machined version of the receiver, but the downside there was the machined receiver made the rifle heavier, and cost more to produce.
Chosen for Cost and Reliability, Not Accuracy.
Interestingly, the Soviets discovered that the machined receivers improved the accuracy of the AK significantly. With less flexibility, and perhaps because the welding aspect of the production was much easier, and therefore more precise, groups fired from rifles built with the more rigid machined receivers demonstrated something in the neighborhood of a thirty percent reduction in size, on average. But accuracy wasn’t what the Soviets were emphasizing, and they didn’t pick the AK for small groups. They picked it for being cheap, reliable, and adequate for three hundred meter ranges. Further, while the machined receiver made a more accurate firearm, it was also a slightly less reliable firearm. Without the “flex” in the receiver, there were more stoppages—jams—when the gun was fired. To be sure, it was still a reliable firearm by world standards. It just wasn’t the same level of reliability which the original, stamped receiver had demonstrated.
Eventually, the Soviets solved their welding problem with the stamped receivers by shifting to rivets for attaching the guiderails, and perhaps they improved their production techniques as well, so that by 1958, they were producing AK rifles at a very rapid pace, and they were good rifles, ideally suitable to Soviet needs and doctrine. The new rifle began showing up in many combat theaters around the world, and its reputation grew. There were a very few modifications made over the years, and many Soviet satellites and ostensible allies began producing their own, some with greater success than others, but even the poorest examples were combat effective in most situations, and it seemed that the harsher the environment, the more the rifle’s inherent advantages became evident.
The Sweet Spot
While the Soviet exercise was a success in terms of meeting their goals, it was also very revealing. Anyone in the AK business, becoming familiar with this background, had to ask the question: If stiffer receivers shoot better, but more flexible receivers are more reliable, cheaper, and lighter, could there be a “sweet spot,” a compromise between the two, which gave the best of both? And were there other aspects illuminated by the Soviet project, which could likewise be adjusted to maximize the accuracy of the rifle, also without hurting reliability?
The answers to both those questions, of course, were a resounding yes, and I bent myself to exploring the possibilities. Beginning with the receiver, as the most obvious point of compromise in the Soviet project, there were a number of things that could be readily improved upon. Most obviously, there is now a far wider range of metals available here than Mr. Kalashnikov had to work with in 1947, in the Soviet Union. And the machinery available to stamp such receivers out of sheet metal is much superior to what he had, as well. But the larger problem the Soviets had, over sixty years ago, was with welding guiderails to their stamped receivers, and riveting the parts was a practical, if somewhat inelegant solution. There had to be a better answer.
Guiderail Improvements was the Key
The guiderails were not the only part spot-welded in the original AK rifles, either. The piston in the gas system was (and still is) also welded to the bolt carrier, and if that weld is stressed and broken, the rifle cannot cycle. Moreover, spot-welding in the field is a tenuous proposition. The likely reason it was used at all, either in the guiderails or in the piston system was probably only because it was cheap, and allowed a cash-strapped Soviet Union to produce rifles at a lower cost.
I determined to do away with both spot-welding and rivets altogether in my new design. To begin with, the piston would now be attached with a removable pin. By extending this pin, and using it as the charging handle, it yielded the added benefit of an ambidextrous charging handle.
The real challenge, of course, was the guiderails. In the AK rifles, these guide rails tended to twist and distort with each shot fired. Because they were anchored to the relatively flimsy and flexible sheet-metal receiver, that was likely to be where the stamped AK lost accuracy, compared to the milled receiver that had been used early on. It’s likely that a somewhat more rigid receiver would have yielded a compromise; some improvement in accuracy without as much weight gain, and without as much degradation in reliability. Better, though, would be to do away with isolated guiderails entirely, and eventually, that’s what I did. By designing a true “upper receiver,” and integrating the guiderails into that unit, there are no welds or rivets to degrade over time. The new guiderails are machined or casted as an attached, integral part of a front trunnion. Further, with this design, the rails could be readily made more rigid without relying on the lower receiver to support them. And finally, the recoil of the rifle could be better isolated, and kept in-line on the axis of the bore of the rifle, which I expected to further enhance accuracy.
With this much done, I began to realize I had a very viable new design… on paper. And it was destined to remain on paper for the time being. Because having come this far, I wanted to look into a few other things before building the new rifle. I had been thinking towards the one major shortfall of the AK rifle: accuracy. And now I wanted to see if I could find a way to integrate the gas piston/cylinder system into a floated barrel.
That, I thought, we be even more of a challenge.