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There are a nearly infinite number of opinions on what makes the best weapon for the worst-case scenario. While it could be argued that the AR is one of the most common weapons owned by citizens in the United States, the AK platform has a not-unsubstantial following as well. At the end of the day, everyone wants a rifle that’s easy to manipulate, maintain, and use effectively. All of these points are intrinsic to the AK platform. While there are some things left to be desired by the Soviet Union’s greatest export, the Kalashnikov is a proven platform that has seen combat the world over. It’s simple, reliable, and easy to maintain. The controls are very easy to use. It can be stripped down and reassembled in a flash, and it’s accurate enough to hit a man-size target reliably out to 300 yards while not being excessively large or heavy. But as with an AR, when something says it's just as good, it's often far from the case. This is a quest for what makes the Best AK47.
What the AK isn’t is refined. This isn’t a state-of-the-art weapon manufactured from aerospace precision machining with a match barrel and competition trigger. It can feel like the Tonka truck of rifles with its sharp edges, cold steel, and dark finish. But those Tonka trucks provide years of faithful and reliable service to American children, just as an AK can do for their parents. But like any rifle (or pistol), there are varying levels of quality in the AK market. Far too many consumers fall into the trap of believing that all AKs are invincible and bargain-basement builds are “good enough.” And the best AK47 doesn't settle.
When assessing an AK, the variants at the higher end of the spectrum include those made by Saiga, Vepr, and Arsenal. These are considered by many as the standard against which any American AK should be measured. Saigas, which are actually made in Russia, are no longer imported. But they can still be found for sale from time to time online or at local shops and shows. All of these brands feature hammer-forged, chrome-lined barrels and properly manufactured and assembled receivers. Whatever brand you go with, be on the lookout for canted front sights, bent/crooked operating rods, magazine fit and lock-up when inserted and head-spacing. Quality manufacturing will get you past all of these, but make sure you do some brand research.
What does the AK lack? There’s a large contingent of folks who maintain that the AK is perfect, and that nothing more needs to be added — cue the “Nyet! Rifle is fine.” meme. On the opposite end of that spectrum are those who wish to tear the rifle down to its barreled receiver and customize everything else to build their best AK47. Your mileage may vary, but there’s a lot of a room between the two extremes to figure out what best fits your needs. Off the starting block, the AK lacks ergonomics. In its stock configuration, most Americans will have a hefty learning curve due to its manual of arms — the physical manipulations required to operate the weapon. The selector, while easy to use, is rudimentary and doesn’t lend itself well to rapid switching from safe to fire or back again.
For those raised on ARs, ACRs, SCARs, or the like, a completely different manual of arms is needed, and consistent practice is the only way to become proficient. Sighting is also a bit tricky; the open design is in many ways similar to a pistol with a simple rear notch and front post, allowing the user to line up the tip of the front sight with the top of the rear sight and center it inside the gap. While it’s possible to become decent with these sights, they aren’t conducive to precision or speed. Another issue is the short stock and small front handguard. Shooting, like anything else, evolves over time, and modern shooting techniques that can give the user better control for faster, flatter shooting at shorter distances (home defense or in and around traffic) will be far more difficult to do given the shorter length of pull and small handguard.
There are a few options that’ll greatly enhance both the use of the rifle (or pistol), give options for added accessories, and improve the manual of arms. The changing of the furniture (stock, grip, and handguard) on the AK is a strong upgrade from basic wood and plastic. Pistol grips, telescoping and folding stocks, and railed handguards that come in an assortment of different lengths offer both better comfort and more accessory options. There are also several paths for optics mounting: a side rail optics mount, or a railed handguard, top cover, or rear-sight adapter. Each of these gives the end user a multitude of choices ranging from red dots to scopes.
Above: Above: Modern, extended-length handguards allow more flexibility in support-hand position while shooting and create additional room for mounting accessories.
The AK selector will never be the most ergonomic one you come across, but there are companies offering modified selectors that allow for use of the trigger finger, making it easier to move the selector back and forth quickly without having to release the firing grip. Finally, there are many aftermarket triggers, muzzle brakes/compensators, and magazine adapters available today. All of these can enhance both ergonomics and modularity for a rifle designed long before there was such a thing as the aftermarket. Building the best AK47 is a little more than plug-n-play with aftermarket accessories, and will demand a bit more from the builder.
The AK has come in two original calibers, the legacy 7.62x39mm and the follow-up 5.45x39mm. After the AK’s introduction in the U.S., there was a surge in desire — which was eventually met — for a 5.56x45mm NATO variant. More recently, there have even been chamberings in 7.62x51mm NATO, .300 BLK, and a quickly growing demand for 9mm versions, which use a host of different magazines depending on who manufactures the weapon.
The original caliber 7.62x39mm is a dependable round. It’s well regarded by sport shooters, enthusiasts, and professionals alike — designed as a short-to-intermediate range round that has devastating effects at close distance. Given the powder burn rate, shorter-barreled AKs perform especially well with this cartridge. The weapon is available with myriad magazine types in both steel and plastic, with surplus and American-made mags plentiful in this caliber. The standard-capacity magazine carries 30 rounds and is heavily curved to aid in proper feeding. The biggest drawback to AK mags, in general, is that they can be difficult to store in pouches that aren’t specifically intended for the AK. This is where the best AK47 will be the one you can integrate with your gear.
The 5.45 is the little brother to the 7.62, offering a couple of unique advantages. The 5.45mm slug is generally lighter and faster, lending itself to increased range and accuracy. It also produces a lighter, quicker recoil impulse that aids in rapid follow-up shots. Genuine Russian ammo in this caliber features a unique hollow core (not to be confused with a hollow point as seen in defensive pistol ammo) that makes this round particularly aggressive against soft tissue. The trade-off with the lighter bullets is less mass, thus reducing its effectiveness against intermediate barriers like glass, drywall, and car bodies. Nonetheless, its improved performance will aid in longer distance shooting, if that’s a priority for you.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration imposed a series of trade sanctions against Russia that included a complete ban on the importation of 5.45mm ammo. There are other sources for it, ranging from the Red Army Standard ammo being produced in the Balkans to Hornady’s ballistic-tipped load. While current prices are still on par with 7.62x39mm or commercial .223, the dirt-cheap prices once seen in this caliber (think $100 per 1,000 rounds or so) aren’t likely to come back anytime soon. When considering the best AK47, consider your ammo source.
Above: The addition of Picatinny rails to the AK means that accessories such as weapon lights, optics, and vertical grips can all be added to suit user preference.
Even though the introduction of 5.56 AK variants came about over two decades ago, it wasn’t until years later that AKs in this caliber became commonplace, when several former Soviet states joined NATO and converted to this chambering. As with 5.45mm, the ballistic advantages of the 5.56 are readily apparent. The lighter round aids significantly in recoil reduction for the AK platform, as well as providing for longer range potential. While 5.56mm/.223 provides the greatest ammo selection by far, there’s a specific catch-22 for 5.56mm AKs. Magazines are a major issue and, when you can find them, they aren’t an economically viable option for many shooters. Sourcing these magazines from reputable manufacturers can run in excess of $50 per mag, depending on availability.
The .308 and .300BLK are both anomalies in the AK world, but they’re out there. Again, sources for these magazines will require one to dig deep into their budget. The increasing number of 9mm AK variants are a relatively new entry into the market, especially for civilians. These are truly meant for short distances and can make a great complement to your sidearm if you’re able to share ammo and/or magazines. The 9mm round has an assortment of ammunition types available, and these statistics have been covered to exhaustion in other forums.
How well is the AK really suited for home defense, mobile protection, or survival? The AK has been used by many nations with great effectiveness in all of these roles. So the real question becomes more a matter of what the individual end user wants. In short, what exactly do you feel the need to be ready for, and does an AK fill the role for you? What is your best AK47?
Above and Below: A multitude of side-folding stocks and mechanisms can keep the AK trunk and duffel bag-friendly, while still affording excellent terminal ballistics.
In home defense, an AK properly outfitted with red dot and weapon light will provide an excellent weapon that’s easy to use and can provide effective fire even through barriers or against opponents with body armor. The round of choice, in my humble opinion, would be 7.62×39. This allows better performance out of short-barreled weapons while still providing the shooter anti-personnel and anti-vehicle capabilities with battlefield-proven wounding ballistics. In my opinion, either a short-barreled rifle (registered SBR) or pistol variant would best suit the general-purpose survival role, as they offer the user better mobility in tight spaces like hallways or stairwells as well as more practical options for storage. The 5.45 and 5.56 options can also be highly effective, but to maximize performance a longer barrel will be needed. The 9mm variants offer a high degree of convenience in terms of ammo cost, availability, and cross-compatibility with sidearms, but one may find that the 9mm has limitations in penetrating cover or when dealing with opposition wearing Level II or III body armor.
For protection on the move, either while bugging out or evading a threat, the best AK47 can fit the role of a truck gun, especially if one has to bail out of the vehicle to move to a safer location on foot. With options like folding stocks or braces, the user can easily store the weapon more discreetly while utilizing a longer barrel to maintain the capability to engage targets at further distances than pistols or shotguns. A setup like this would provide the user with the ability to “stretch the legs” of the platform and engage accurately out to 200 yards and beyond while still retaining the mobility to move around stationary vehicles. The best AK47 cannot be a one-trick pony.
Above: With a variety of calibers available now, including boutique offerings in 6.5 Grendel and even the bleeding-edge 6mm ARC, long-range AKs with magnified optics are a viable option if built correctly.
The final point is long-term survival in the grand sense, which includes both defensive engagements and hunting. Due to the AK’s ease of use, low maintenance needs, and inexpensive replacement parts, it’s very well suited for this role. While it’s effective in its stock configuration as both a defender and game-getter, it can be upgraded with relative ease to improve performance and handling. While steel configurations will require more attention than aluminum due to rust, the robust overall design will stand up to substantial abuse and periodic neglect if necessary. The loose tolerances even allow room for field-expedient repair in more desperate times. Several members of our team have come across AKs around the world held together with nails, tacks, and tape.
If you plan to press your AK into service to put food on the table, keep in mind that even medium game will likely require the larger 7.62x39mm or .308 chambering for best effect. For small game and varmint hunting, the smaller calibers will do just fine. The best AK47 for survival isn't just one that will keep the scavs at bay. While there aren’t quite as many options as for ARs, dedicated AK suppressors are available, as are thread and muzzle adapters that would allow the use of suppressors made for other rifles of the same caliber. In a survival situation, this could help tremendously with not spooking a herd and not announcing your position to others as easily.
In the end, no one weapon is perfect. But the AK, for all of its flaws, brings with it a host of advantages. Regardless of your needs, the AK and its robust aftermarket provide the end user with a reliable, modular, and lethal package. This is one classic that has only gotten better with time.