AK Review: Arsenal’s SGL-20 AK in 7.62×39
It’s no secret I’m an AK fan. Back in the ‘80’s I had one of the first Norinco factory 66 AK’s imported from China, the semi auto version of the famous Chinese Type 56. When I bought the rifle, 7.62×39 ammunition hadn’t even hit US shores yet, and the only ammo I could get my hands on was from cartridge collectors at around $2 a round. I managed to piece together around 20 rounds of Czech 7.62×39 for a small fortune and experience the AK for the first time.
Fast forward a couple of decades and my excitement wasn’t quite the same as my first AK, but I have to say, I was pretty darned jazzed about owning an honest to goodness Russian AK made in the famous Izhevsk Izhmash Factory where none other than Mikhail Kalashnikov himself had worked. I’m a sucker for the classics, and while the SGL-20 kinda falls short of the classic look – it’s more closely matched to the AK-103 of the Century line of AK’s, only the SGL-20 is missing the folding stock of the 103 – it’s about as close as you’re likely to get to an honest to goodness AK-103 here in the US.
The SGL-20 comes into the US as a Saiga sporter and then undergoes its transformation back to its original, as God and Mikhail intended it to look, military configuration. The great thing is, you get a real Izhmash receiver and chrome lined barrel of absolute top quality. And while we’re on the subject of quality, let’s talk a little about that horrible Russian quality.
“Everyone” knows that the Russians just don’t make anything that’s worth a crap right? Well, not so fast. I have read countless reports, seen countless photos, and conversed with a few people over in the areas of conflict around the globe. Wherever there is conflict you’ll find an AK, and when you find those AK’s often they are Romanian, Russian, or Chinese. And when you find these AK’s, most are pretty old, many dating back to the 1950’s. Most are in working order (even though more than a couple have shot out barrels), and the vast majority really show no evidence of swapping parts, meaning they’ve served for nearly 60 years without parts breakage.
So I’m left with the conclusion that many are confusing quality with aesthetics, and the two are not the same at all. Now I’ve encountered some old Russian AK’s in my travels and I’ll be the first to say that the external finish of these old AK’s is very much lacking. Lots of machine marks, casting seams and large wood to metal gaps give off the impression of a very crude weapon. Back in the day, the Russians put attention where it was needed and only where it was needed.
But since the fall of the Iron Curtain that has changed, because my SGL-20 is not some crude slopped together Cold War hammer & sickle. After the Iron Curtain came down, Izhmash had to compete on the open market like everyone else. This meant, they had to make their weapons a bit more appealing to the eye if they were to get their price.
As far as military arms are concerned, the fit and finish of my SGL-20 is nothing short of excellent. Gone are the deep lathe grooves on the exterior of the barrel and visible grinder marks on the gas block. Everything has a high degree of finish, again for a military rifle; no AK will fare well against a Holland and Holland or even a Remington.
Despite the seriously upgraded attention to aesthetics, the actual black finish is very poor, looking like something that came out of a rattle-can rather than a serious military grade finish, but this is literally the only criticism of this rifle, and one that’s very easily corrected. Just use the rifle to death and when the rattle can sem-flat black paint wears off, send it off for a modern baked on enamel like Duracoat or Cerakote.
Furniture is typical black synthetic and a good US made approximation of the Russian “Polyamide” synthetic stocks which helps with our 922(r) compliance. Other compliance parts include a US made MIM fire control group that seems to be of good quality (only time will tell on that one).
There’s a big ruckus about MIM (Metal Injection Molding) parts among American shooters; who tend to be a rather conservative lot. Internet experts would have you believe that nothing MIM is any good and it’s just a way to cheapen up the rifle and save money. This is precisely what was said of investment casting a few decades ago, yet investment casting is an accepted process and associated with good quality. After all, most steel components on AR rifles are investment cast.
But the truth is, MIM is more expensive than investment casting, not cheaper. I don’t want to make this an article on MIM, but suffice to say, MIM is a new casting process that allows for a high degree in the accuracy of the cast metal part, to within thousandths of an inch. Like any new technology, some of the early parts on some guns experienced breakage, but by and large this has been worked out, and MIM is a pretty solid process these days. As a gunsmith, I’ve been using MIM hammers on 1911’s for over 15 years and I’ve yet to have a single failed hammer. But like I said, only time will tell how well the MIM SGL-20 fire control group works out. For now, it’s a nice two stage setup with a light smooth takeup followed by a crisp release of around 5.6lbs (average of 5 pulls with my Lyman digital trigger pull gauge)
Kevin's Arsenal SGL-20
Arsenal SGL-20 Features
At the end of the 16” chrome lined barrel is an AK-74 style front sight base that has the incorporated 22mm muzzle device threads. The SGL-20 comes with the famous ’74 style muzzle brake that is very effective at reducing felt recoil and keeping muzzle rise to a minimum. Unfortunately, that muzzle brake deflects a lot of the muzzle blast and noise right back at the shooter, making the SGL-20 and similarly equipped rifles VERY loud. In fact, that was the chief complaint of the AK-74 during the Soviet/Afghan war of the 1980’s, and many a veteran of that conflict are either deaf or have significant hearing loss. And another note about the muzzle brake, it’s very nicely executed, and lacks the bench grinder marks you see on Soviet era AK ‘74’s, another serious nod to aesthetics and overall quality.
I’m very anal about protecting my hearing, and with very high quality ear muffs, the noise is still very loud and can even leave you with a ringing in your ear; a very bad sign. If I were considering this rifle as a serious defensive piece, I’d forego the classic look of the ’74 style brake and substitute a Bulgarian slotted flash suppressor to cut down the considerable muzzle flash of the AK and the deafening noise. Unfortunately, America hasn’t much embraced the 22mm front sight base and there are very few after market options for 22mm muzzle devices; bummer.
The SGL-20 comes with a Circle 10 Bulgarian synthetic waffle magazine, which is the gold standard for military rifle magazines. This steel reinforced synthetic magazine is a wonderful piece of quality design and engineering. The magazine body is rigid without being brittle. It’s heavy in comparison to most any other synthetic magazine, yet still a touch lighter than the steel AK magazine, and it functions flawlessly.
The standard steel AK magazine is an outstanding magazine by design with only one flaw, it’s made of steel and steel eventually will rust. For us civilians, chances are we’ll never be able to kill a steel AK magazine, they’re just made so damn well. But if you demand the best of the best, sir…then you’ll love the Bulgarian waffle magazine your SGL-20 comes with.
Okay, now let’s talk about a trip to the range. One thing rather nice is the SGL-20 comes from the factory already sighted in, and by already sighted in, I mean my rifle center punched the target at 150 yards with the first pull of the trigger; now that’s just nice. Shooting a variety of Russian and US made ammo, my SGL-20 shoots very well thank you, with Wolf 123gr FMJ being its favorite and averaging 2.8 MOA all day long. Some will be surprised that the steel cased Russian ammo tended to shoot better than the brass cased Winchester, which came in at 3.6 MOA on average; I’m not surprised at all.
Russian 7.62 ammo has always been very good quality and extremely clean burning. After shooting the first magazine through the rifle, I took a peek down the barrel and it looked completely unfired; I mean not a trace of unburnt powder to be found anywhere. After the second magazine (that’s 60 rounds), there were only slight hints the rifle had been fired. At 100 rounds, I just didn’t feel like there was any need to clean the gun, and it could stay that way for the next year. Oh, and do I need to mention the rifle functioned flawlessly with no failures of any sort…that’s a given with an AK, right?
Sights are typical tangent rear with a square notch, and round post front that’s fully adjustable provided one has a sight adjustment tool. Needing tools to adjust sights is strange to Americans, but it’s quite common in Europe where military rifles are often sighted in either at the factory or by a designated armorer, and then left alone. The thought is that most actual soldiers really aren’t riflemen and if allowed to fiddle with the sights, they’re more likely to just screw things up horribly. Really now, if there’s a switch or dial on a rifle, admit it; you’re going to mess with it.
The AK sighting arrangement is universally loathed by American shooters because Americans embraced the aperture sighting arrangement long decades ago. But most Europeans, especially East Europeans find the sights to be more than adequate. To make the AK perform, one needs to know how best to use the sights it’s equipped with, rather than trying to find some half assed way to put a peep sight onto a rifle that’s particularly unsuited to such an arrangement.
The human eye in the simplest form is a collector of light. We are drawn to light even more than we are drawn to moving objects, and if you keep that in mind while shooting, that mindset will serve you well at the range. When shooting open sights, we’ve always been taught to focus on the front sight, and that’s right; sort of…well, most of the time.
When we align the sights, we want to ensure that the front sight is flat and in line with the top of the rear sight and we want to watch that front sight, that’s fine for shots up to around 150 yards. When things stretch further, there’s one super simple trick to getting the most accuracy out of these sights that most are unaware of; we return to eyes as a light collection source. After lining up your sights and just before you begin your complete focus on the front sight, pay close attention to how much light is coming through on either side of the sight, and make sure it’s equal amounts. Keep that in mind as you ease your focus onto the front sight and begin your slow squeeze on the trigger. A simple little thing that can make a world of difference in your shooting of the AK, and who knows; you might find yourself no longer cussing AK sights.
To keep up with the times, I did eventually drop a USGI Aimpoint CompM2 red dot on a KVAR Kv-04 scope mount. This setup changes your cheek weld to a chin weld, but switching to such an arrangement takes only seconds (for me at least) to get used to.
Well all in all, I’m delighted with the SGL-20, it’s just a great rifle; accurate and reliable. One small criticism is that Arsenal didn’t go full tilt and add the folding stock to make it 99.9% AK-103; that would have been the cat’s ass. But even without the folding stock, the SGL-20 is about as good an AK as you’re likely to get your hands on these days.
And being that the AK is very popular in the US these days, there’s no end to the amount of accessorizing you can do. If you like that classic look, you can pick up some laminated wood and a Bakelite magazine and be chillin it old school in no time. Or you can add any number of new stuff to make the AK fit any and every need you can think of. I say long live the SGL-20, and thanks to Arsenal for bringing us the real deal. Now if only I could afford a bottle of Kalashnikov Vodka.