The 9mm versus .45 ACP seems to be an unending debate in the gun world, and each side has no shortage of loyal and vocal proponents. But there’s another third rail in firearms discussions: the American AR versus the Soviet-designed AK.
We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom on the matter—the AR is refined but unreliable, while the AK is crude but rugged—but is there a little bit more to the story?
Plenty, it turns out.
I’ve always felt that both designs have gotten a bad rap. Does the AR require detailed maintenance to run in tip-top shape? Of course it does. Is the AK a little rough around the edges when it comes to handling and operational characteristics? That is clearly fact. But, both of those points are only the start of the differences between the two.
In the AR’s defense, it (in its M16 and related sibling forms) is the longest serving U.S. military service rifle in our country’s history. And, as a result, it benefits from more than a half-century’s worth of hard-earned design refinement through its use in numerous conflicts around the world. And if you believe you can let an AK become a rust bucket and expect it to fire, you are going to get an unpleasant surprise. It, like all mechanical things, requires at least rudimentary levels of attention and care.
The truth is, both of the designs have their strengths and weaknesses. They were designed by two very different men (Eugene Stoner created the AR and Mikhail Kalashnikov came up with the AK) with two very different approaches to firearm makeup. Stoner looked to design a futuristic weapon that took advantage of the most modern of materials, while Kalashnikov wanted something that could be produced simply and cheaply and that would go “bang” every time you pulled the trigger.
I decided to take an in-depth look at both to see if one is truly superior to the other. For the fairest comparison, I chose to compare the features and capabilities of civilian-legal, semi-automatic versions of both designs. For the AR, I elected to go with one configured in the general pattern of the U.S. Military’s M4 Carbine.
For the AK, I used one based on the modernized AKM variant of the design introduced in the 1960s. Both of them are comparable in overall size and general handling characteristics. For simplicity’s sake I will refer to them as simply AR and AK in the rest of this story.
The core operating systems of the AR and the AK are where the designs of the guns diverge the most. Both are gas-operated repeaters with rotating bolts that lock into corresponding lugs/recesses, but that is where the similarity ends.
The AR employs what is known as a “direct gas impingement system,” in which gas is tapped off the bore and run through a hollow tube along the top of the barrel and into the receiver. The bolt carrier of the AR features a “key” that cups the end of the gas tube. As gas is forced back through the tube, it pushes the bolt carrier assembly rearward and cycles the action. The downside is that ultra-hot fouling is blown all inside the receiver area of the AR, dirtying the gun quickly. The benefit of this system is that it is very light and that the AR tends to be accurate due to a minimal amount of mass slamming back and forth.
The AK takes a very different approach. It employs what is known as a “long-stroke piston system,” which means a large and heavy piston is attached directly to the bolt carrier group. An advantage is that tapped gas drives the piston rearward, and fouling is quarantined up in the gas tube above the barrel rather than in the action. Another advantage is that the large mass of steel slapping back and forth helps ensure the action cycles reliably. The downside is that accuracy can suffer for that very same reason.
Another area where the two designs differ is in their chamberings. While both adhere to the modern theory of the “intermediate cartridge” (post-World War II thinking determined that a round that could combine the long-range power of a rifle cartridge with the controllability of a submachine gun round was the ideal balance), they are still quite different.
The AR round is the 5.56x45mm (known to many U.S. shooters as the .223 Remington). The 5.56mm was designed around the concept of a lightweight .22-caliber round that relied on its velocity for its power (and also allowed a soldier to carry more ammunition due to its small size and light weight). The AK’s 7.62x39mm follows a similar theme, but uses a much larger and heavier .30-caliber projectile. While the 5.56x45mm is effective out to a longer distance, the 7.62x39mm really starts to lose steam at 300 or so meters. Also, the AK round tends to produce stout recoil, although both it and the 5.56mm are pretty manageable.
Operationally, the two designs are quite different as well. In general, I view the AK as being designed with a lowest common denominator mindset—keep it as simple as possible so anyone can learn to use it quickly. For the AR, to me there is almost a Rube Goldberg-like approach to the design. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there is a lot more complexity to how you employ an AR than an AK.
The AR has a host of controls. At the top half of the upper/lower receiver system, there is a non-reciprocating “charging handle” that is T-shaped and located at the upper rear area behind the rear sight/carry handle.
You pull the handle rearward to charge the action, and then it locks in the closed position during firing. The upper receiver (in modern AR variations) also has a shell deflector behind the ejection port and dustcover as well as a “forward assist” button to the rear of those. Pushing the forward assist button gives you a means to ensure the action is fully seated. The safety is a rotating lever located above the pistol grip, and the magazine release is a button located just below the ejection port.
Magazines drop freely when the release is pressed. There is a bolt catch/release located on the left side of the rifle above the trigger guard area, and the action locks open on an empty magazine. Standard on M4 Carbine-type designs is a collapsible stock that is adjustable for length of pull.
The AK takes a very different approach: simple, simple, simple. To charge the action, simply retract the reciprocating charging handle that is attached directly to the bolt carrier group. To use it as a “forward assist,” just push forward on it. The safety is a large rotating lever on the right side of the receiver that also acts as a dustcover when engaged (to close up the channel the charging handle runs back into when cycling). The magazine release is an ambidextrous paddle located forward of the trigger guard. Magazines rock in from front to back, unlike AR magazines that fit straight up and in and also drop free.
Now you know how to operate both guns. How will you hit the target? Sights and the means of attaching optics is another area where the designs differ notably. The AR (on A2 and later modern variants) has a very refined sight set up. The front sight is a winged and protected elevation-adjustable post, while the rear sight is a dual aperture unit that is adjustable for both windage and elevation.
Another innovation you will find in most modern ARs is a removable carry handle system that reveals an integral Picatinny rail atop the upper receiver. Although this “flat-top” receiver is technically a development associated with the A4 variant of the AR design, many people erroneously dub these ARs as “A3” models. Regardless, the result is a simple and solid means for attaching an optic.
It should come as no surprise at this point that the AK is different. The sights of the AK are simple and somewhat unrefined. The front sight is an elevation-adjustable post protected by heavy wings, and the rear sight (located forward of the receiver and behind the handguard) is a simple sliding tangent notch unit.
Although it offers a crude sight picture and a somewhat short sighting radius, it gets the job done. Most AK rear sights are marked out to 1,000 meters (some are at 800), which is notably optimistic considering its 7.62x39mm chambering.
When it comes to mounting optics, the AK is not as well off as the AR. The AK features a removable top cover (which is the reason that the rear sight is set so far forward) that makes the gun very easy to disassemble and clean, but its instability makes it wholly unsuited for top-mounting a scope. On most AKM variants, there is a side-mount optic rail on the left side of the receiver that can be used to “dogleg” optics over the receiver.
Other options include “scout-position” rails on the upper hand guard as well as sophisticated mounts that connect at both the rear trunnion of the receiver and the rear sight base. However, all of these options are obviously not as simple as that of the flat-top AR system.
Due to the nature of the AR’s design, you can easily swap out stocks, pistol grips, fore-ends and more in seconds. Also, and even more significantly, by swapping the barreled upper receiver assembly by popping two pins (and if needed, the magazine) you can switch chamberings in your AR in moments. The AK most definitely is not capable of this.
I hope that you come away from this comparison with the info you need to determine which rifle is right for you. For what it’s worth, I own several of both!
(Note: These specifications are based on civilian-legal, semi-automatic variants of the designs and are intended as general estimates to represent each class of firearm.)
AR (M4 Carbine configuration)
CARTRIDGE: 5.56x45mm (.223)
BARREL: 16 inches
OA LENGTH: 32.5-35.75 inches
WEIGHT: 7 pounds
ACTION: Direct gas impingement
SIGHTS: Dual aperture rear, post front
AK (AKM configuration)
BARREL: 16 inches
OA LENGTH: 37.25 inches
WEIGHT: 7.5 pounds
STOCK: Laminated wood
ACTION: Long-stroke piston
SIGHTS: Sliding tangent rear, post front