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What Are The Design Limitations of the AK-47?

By August 31, 2015AK-47

In the previous entry, I discuss the origins of the AK-47, and the factors that influenced it—not just in terms of engineering, but economic and tactical concerns. Factors like, what the Soviets had in place in terms of industry, and what they expected warfare to look like in the immediate future. All these came into play when they selected the rifle they would standardize on for the next several decades.

However, at this point, the Soviet Union is gone, and here in the US market, private industry has much a much higher level of industrial machinery and technical expertise readily (and cheaply) available than the Soviet Union ever had. Some of those limiting factors just don’t apply here, in the US, and especially now, over sixty-five years later.

To be sure, we at M+M, Inc. were already getting significant improvements in AK-47 performance. With new, Romanian-manufactured parts, and CNC-machined improvements, the information we were getting back from the field was that our M10™-762 rifle was performing very well indeed, and we continued to experiment and develop upgrades to improve the rifle, working with a platform still imported from what was once a Soviet satellite country. We just didn’t think that was the best we could do, and we started thinking about improvements which the old platform couldn’t accommodate.

There were always two factors that had to be taken into consideration. The first, most obvious feature of the AK platform, the thing that made it such a worldwide success, was reliability, and anything that “improved” the rifle simply couldn’t have any detrimental impact on that reliability, or it was no improvement at all.

That reliability came from two major features. The first was the large cylinder/piston actuator that sat above the barrel. So many successful platforms had used this system over the last half-century, it was a given that any “improved” AK-derivative would retain that system. The Garand rifles of WWII, the M14 rifles that replaced them… in the last few years, major manufacturers have even started putting cylinder/piston systems on AR-15 platform rifles. That’s a very convincing argument in favor of cylinder/piston systems. In fact, the only real downfall the system had was the effect of preventing a truly free-floating barrel. In other words, cylinder/piston systems are great for reliability, but they can interfere with accuracy, especially as the gun heats up. The best way to improve on that aspect was to find a way to float the barrel of the gun without giving up the cylinder/piston arraignment.

The other major feature that lent the AK such remarkable reliability was the relatively loose tolerances of the parts. It was probably an artifact of the limited precision machining available in the old Soviet Union, but it was a serendipitous circumstance, as it turned out. AK rifles were famous for eating up the dirtiest ammunition, in a wide array of specifications, and coming back for more. Those loose tolerances were one reason for that ability. With modern machinery, we could choose tolerances much more stringent, but the question became one of optimization, rather than maximizing close tolerances. In other words, at what point do tighter tolerances interfere with reliability, rather than increase accuracy?

Accuracy was the other factor that warranted consideration, if the rifle was to be improved. The most reliable automatic combat rifle in history had only one real limiting factor: It wasn’t as accurate as many other rifles available, albeit typically at much higher prices, which was reflected in the shorter effective combat range of the rifle, typically stated as three hundred meters, while the AR-15 claimed almost double that figure. “Accurate enough,” became the catch-phrase of AK aficionados around the world. And so it was. With a hit rate of eighty-percent-plus in an eighteen-inch target at three hundred meters, it was accurate enough for most combat purposes. That’s better than most soldiers shoot, anyway.

Those two things were what any re-design had to accomplish: retain reliability, and improve accuracy. If we could do that, we will have improved the most successful combat rifle in the world, ever.

In the next post(s), I’ll tell you how we did it.