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Seventy-five years is a long time. Most of the tools that were commonly used in 1947 have long since become obsolete — we no longer drive carbureted vehicles with leaded gas and bias-ply tires, or get the latest news via black-and-white TVs and vacuum-tube radios. But there’s one iconic invention of the postwar period that has remained relevant, even after three quarters of a century: the AK-47. It offers rugged durability, mechanical simplicity, and excellent barrier penetration with 7.62x39mm ammunition. It has proven its effectiveness countless times on battlefields around the globe, from Vietnam to the Middle East.
Photos by Patrick McCarthy
Decades of widespread popularity have led to a healthy selection of aftermarket parts and accessories for this platform. However, before starting your first AK project, it’s essential that you know what you’re getting into. Building an AR-15 is a bit like assembling IKEA furniture — as long as you take your time and put the all the pegs in the correct holes, you’ll be OK. Building an AK-47 is more like building custom cabinets. It involves precise measurements, hand-fitted surfaces, and many specialized tools and jigs a novice is unlikely to own. You can always pay a professional to do it for you, but where’s the fun in that?
With this caveat in mind, we set out to examine two approaches to building customized AK-47s. First, we took an off-the-shelf Palmetto State Armory AK with a blue-collar price tag and replaced a handful of components to fine-tune it. Only one part of this build required professional gunsmithing; the rest was done at home on a workbench. Next, we teamed up with the AK experts at Lee Armory in Phoenix, Arizona. With their help, we learned how to convert a bare receiver and a pile of parts into a fully functional custom rifle, pressing in every rivet and polishing every surface for the best possible results.
Read on as we analyze each of these AK-47 projects and consider which one might fit your budget and experience level.
Among devout AK fans, the phrase “mass-produced American AK-47” will usually result in more grimaces than a string of expletives in church. We specify mass-produced because there are plenty of reputable shops in the U.S. that build custom AKs — Lee Armory is one noteworthy example. However, those custom builds can involve substantial hand-fitting, cost, and lead time (as you’ll see in Part Two of this article). If you’re looking for an off-the-shelf AK with a sub-$1,000 price tag, the typical recommendation used to be an imported Eastern Bloc gun such as the WASR-10. Unfortunately, prices for those rifles have climbed rapidly over the last few years, so the idea of an inexpensive, domestically produced AK has become more appealing.
The Palmetto State AK-47 GF3 variant is offered in various configurations, some of which are priced under $800. Each has a hammer-forged bolt, carrier, and front trunnion, as well as a 4150 barrel with nitride finish. The model we selected also included a triangle side folder stock, “cheese grater” upper handguard, and dark red wood furniture. A Magpul 30-round mag comes with the rifle, but we switched that with a Bulgarian steel mag from GunMag Warehouse for a more traditional look.
We encountered two problems with the base rifle. First, the pin through the mag release wasn’t sufficiently peened on one side, causing it to feel loose. The second issue was more substantial — the top bar of the stock wasn’t properly welded to the folding mechanism, so it wiggled up and down when we shouldered it. We reached out to Palmetto State Armory about the problems and were immediately issued a 2nd Day Air return label to send it back for repair. Less than a week later, we received our AK with a brand-new folding stock and mag release. Although we never want to encounter defects, we appreciate that PSA fixed them under warranty with no hassle and a surprisingly fast turnaround time.
Our first modification to the Palmetto State AK was to replace its burgundy-stained lower handguard and pistol grip. We contacted Kalashnicarver, a craftsman in Missouri who specializes in custom AK furniture. After discussing options, we settled on a “Bandito” lower handguard and nearly vertical pistol grip, both sculpted from curly white oak and finished with an orange stain. Kalashnicarver also attached the Sabrewerks ALM light mount directly to the handguard. It positions a SureFire Scout or similar light — such as the Arisaka Defense 300 Series we used — in line with the shooter’s thumb for easy activation.
The GF3 includes a side rail that’s compatible with aftermarket optic mounts, but we decided to go a sleeker route. The Sabrewerks KOP is a two-part modular optic mount system. Its base replaces the rear sight tower, and features slots and a locking pin to secure a variety of interchangeable mounts and rail sections. This is the only part of our build that required gunsmithing, since the base must be pressed and pinned onto the barrel. Lee Armory handled that task with ease. We tried two KOP optic setups: a 30mm cowitness mount with a Vortex Strikefire II red dot and a Picatinny rail section with an EOTech XPS2. Although the latter configuration doesn’t allow iron sight cowitness, we preferred the taller placement and large window of the EOTech for this rifle. If we change our minds, the KOP system makes it simple to switch back and forth.
We also wrapped the metal buttstock’s cheek-piece with paracord — a common mod to prevent burns on hot summer days — and stuck a strip of Talon Grips textured material to the end for improved traction against the shoulder.
We’ve grown used to crisp aftermarket AR triggers, so the original trigger on this AK had to go. An ALG Defense Ultimate trigger reduces weight and shortens pull, and its flattened Lightning Bow shape feels more modern. We also installed an ALG main spring to maintain reliability with a variety of ammo and a recoil spring for softer shooting.
An Echo Nine Three rear sling mount offers an attachment point that doesn’t move based on folding stock position, and a Circle 10 knurled charging handle provides more grip during quick reloads. The GF3 is finished off with a JMac Customs two-chamber muzzle brake. The brake’s external 1.375×24 threads make it possible to add various suppressors or blast diversion shields. We threaded-on a JMac BDS-37 blast shield and a Form 1 home-built JK Armament suppressor; both were very effective in taming the powerful concussion that the brake produces.
Since we intend to run the AK in classes in the future, we needed a way to carry some spare mags. The Parashooter Gear VOLK chest rig pays homage to old-school Chinese rigs that have been widely used since the Vietnam War but integrates modern Swift clips to attach to the Minimalist H-Harness (pictured) or your plate carrier of choice. We increased its capability with a prototype wraparound expansion kit from a local nylon gear maker known as @D3_Supplies on Instagram. This combination offers just enough room for three 30-round mags, a flashlight, two pistol mags, and a few other small items.
Some of you may look at the finished price of this Palmetto State AK build — roughly $1,900 without accessories, or $2,700 with — and say that it doesn’t seem blue-collar. However, keep in mind that AK prices aren’t what they once were, and the days of sub-$500, new-in-box WASRs are long gone. As for hand-built American AKs like our Lee Armory project, the difference in refinement is undeniable, but many of those rifles start in this price range before modifications. That said, there’s good value to be had with the PSA GF3, and our upgrades made it a lot more enjoyable to shoot. It’d be easy to tighten the budget further by starting with a fixed-stock model, using the original slant brake, and/or sticking with iron sights as Mr. Kalashnikov intended.
Stay tuned for Part Two of our AKs Two Ways article series, which will be published soon.
|PSA GF3 AK-47 Triangle Side Folder
|Sabrewerks KOP Platform #1 with long rail mount
|Kalashnicarver custom curly white oak handguard and pistol grip
|ALG Defense AK Trigger Ultimate with Lightning Bow
|ALG Defense High Energy Main Spring and Recoil Spring
|Circle 10 AK Extended Charging Handle
|Echo Nine Three V1 Sling Adapter
|JMac Customs RRD-2C 14F X37 brake and BDS-37 blast shield
|GunMag Warehouse Bulgarian steel magazine
|EOTech XPS2 Grey holographic sight
|Sabrewerks ALM light mount
|Arisaka Defense 300 Series flashlight
Palmetto State Armory > palmettostatearmory.com
ALG Defense > algdefense.com
Arisaka Defense > arisakadefense.com
D3 Supplies > instagram.com/d3_supplies
Echo Nine Three > echo93.com
EOTech > eotechinc.com
GunMag Warehouse > gunmagwarehouse.com
JK Armament > jkarmament.com
JMac Customs > jmac-customs.com
Kalashnicarver > kalashnicarver.com
Lee Armory > leearmory.com
Parashooter Gear > parashootergear.com
Sabrewerks > sabrewerks.com