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A Closer Look at the AK-47: An Icon of Resistance and Power

by Guy D. McCardle Jul 20, 2023
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Two AKs from my friends at Zastava Arms USA. Photo taken by the author at the most recent NRA convention.
Two AKs from my friends at Zastava Arms USA. Photo taken by the author at the most recent NRA convention.

A Solid Actor

If modern warfare takes place in a theater, one actor has continuously dominated the stage, captivating audiences with its relentless performance under the most dire conditions. The Avtomat Kalashnikova, or AK, is an undying symbol of resilience and brute force. The “47” part of the moniker comes from its first production year. You guessed it, 1947.

My personal journey with the AK-47 begins outside the hallowed gates of what used to be known as Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This is where I bought a slightly beat-up specimen from a short round man with a Russian accent. “Never fired, only dropped once!” he quipped, echoing a joke that was making its way around military circles at that time. It only cost a couple of hundred bucks, and that’s a good thing because that’s all the money I had at the time.

This was in the days before the first Gulf War, and I had only ever handled one in training and orientation prior to that. Mine is in good company. A quick search reveals that some 100 million AK-47s and their variants have been made over the years. In many parts of the world, they are as common as ticks on a hound dog’s ass.  This is with good reason; they are simple and effective tools of war.

A big pile of AK rifles found in Iraq
A weapons cache uncovered in Iraq. Photo courtesy of the author.

Voyage Into the AK-47 Universe

My interest in the AK-47 did not stem merely from its ubiquity in those regions, but also from the tales of its legendary reliability and accuracy. In the hands of our adversaries, it appeared to be an ever-reliable comrade, performing beyond expectation even under neglected maintenance and care. The rumor mills buzzed with stories of these weapons, barely cleaned for a decade, firing with deadly precision. The adversary might not have been aiming, but the AK-47 didn’t seem to need much guidance. My curiosity now piqued, I embarked on a personal journey to explore the true nature of the AK-47. I was determined to assess its reliability and accuracy firsthand and discover why it has earned its formidable, rugged reputation.

Questioning Accuracy

A well-known characteristic of the AK-47 is its relative lack of accuracy, especially when compared to other rifles or carbines like the M4/AR-15. However, my experience revealed a more nuanced picture. I found that the AK-47, straight out of the shady gun store, was a decent enough weapon. Truth be told, I haven’t fired it in years. It had its day, though, and back when ammo was affordable, I put thousands of rounds downrange over the decades. Sure, it rattles a bit when you shake it, but that’s part of the charm. I shot about maybe a grapefruit-sized group (a large grapefruit) at 100 meters, and that’s good enough, I guess.

However, the accuracy of the AK-47 cannot be discussed without delving into its construction and the ballistic coefficient of its projectile. The AK-47, a masterpiece of simplicity, has a large bolt that moves back and forth upon firing. This motion creates a significant disturbance in the weapon’s harmonics, which, in turn, affects accuracy. In English, it vibrates the crap out of it. The Kalashnikov is a clunky weapon; there’s just no other way to put it. In addition, depending on the weather conditions, the wooden handguard warps a bit, adding to its character.

The 7.62x39mm cartridge used by the AK-47 has a ballistic coefficient of approximately 0.275, which is less than the 5.56mm round fired by its classic American counterpart. The ballistic coefficient impacts the bullet’s ability to overcome air resistance in flight, consequently affecting the rifle’s accuracy. By a little. No one ever claimed this was a long-range sniper rifle. Many long-range impacts on the enemy were by sheer “spray and pray” dumb luck.

An Unparalleled Symbol of Reliability 

Despite these shortcomings in accuracy, the AK-47 shines in reliability. They are the VW Beetle of weaponry. Hear me out on this one: Both the AK and the Beetle were designed with simplicity in mind. They are easy to use and maintain, even in harsh conditions. They were both durable and withstood rough treatment. Let’s consider mass production. Kalashnikovs and Beetles are among the most mass-produced items in their respective categories. Ever. Almost everyone has been in the presence of them and likely owned one or the other (or both) at some period. They are firmly ingrained in our history. And by “our” history, I mean human history. They have a ubiquitous presence and can be found in almost every corner of the globe.

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