The great AR-15 vs AK-47 debate
Now honestly I’m a huge fan of both of these platforms, and I pride myself in being someone who’s able to truly see both sides of the coin objectively, so I’m hoping that readers can view this article and feel like they’ve been treated to a truly objective view of this classic debate.
As I move through this discussion, please keep in mind that when I speak of ARs and AKs, I’m talking about military grade rifles, not some slogged together $499 parts kit AR or AK. This discussion assumes the best of quality for both designs; deviate from that, and all bets are off. Where civilian AKs and ARs are concerned, to come close to the performance I describe in this article, one must do their best to approximate military quality, and I’ll let the reader decide how best to go about that.
How Do You Choose a Winner Here?
Let’s first begin with a discussion of “best”. We must fist establish that “best” is a very subjective term and one person’s “best” is the next guy’s worst. Often times after an objective review of the subject matter of “best” we repeatedly come to the conclusion that “best” is something that really doesn’t exist. So “best” often ends up being an individual’s “personal best” or “best for you.”
One of the problems with infantry weapons is the fact that a single weapon is expected to perform everywhere in the world, under any and all conditions and circumstances. The reality is, every last infantry rifle in the world has failed in that regard. What you expect from your rifle really determines what your “personal best” rifle is.
Let’s begin with the myth that the AK is always more reliable than the AR, because that’s not always true. Many tests over the years by the US military have show that in certain circumstances, the AR has the potential to beat out the AK in the reliability department. As a general rule the AK tends to have an edge here, but the difference is nowhere near the great chasm that the most vocal of the pundits would have you believe.
The main thing with the AR is, you really need to fully understand the weapon system to get the most reliability out of it. Get it wrong, and you’re likely to have problems; get it right, and the reliability is damn close to the AK, and sometimes can surpass it. But here’s the rub, you absolutely need to know what makes an AR tick, and with an AK, they tend to tick regardless of what you may or may not know. But again, lest anyone think the AK is invincible, if you abuse it, the AK will fail just like any other rifle.
So what makes the AR tick?
Over time, the US Army has learned the hard way that the AR’s direct impingement gas system is very picky about the diet you feed it. Early experiences in the Vietnam War showed that using the wrong propellants in your ammunition can have disastrous results in the form of dead GIs lying next to terminally jammed rifles. Since the AR’s direct impingement gas system really does “shit where it lives” by blowing gas and unburnt powder into the upper receiver, you really need to make sure you’re feeding your AR the cleanest, most efficiently burning ammunition the world has to offer. This means, modern USGI or equivalent ammunition. Do this and the “shit where it lives” issue is pretty much nonexistent.
For civilian shooters, the ammo issue really isn’t all that big of an issue. Most civilians won’t be pumping out the volume of ammo that a soldier does in a heated firefight. So for a civilian who’s just enjoying his AR on the weekends, you can pretty much just shoot what you want (within reason of course), and know your AR is likely to function very well indeed. But if we’re talking about battle, then it’s USGI ammunition or equivalent, period.
Now that we’ve established that the AR has some strong ammunition preferences, let’s move to the next item on the list: lubrication. Long held tradition was that you lubricate and then wipe off the excess lubricant so as not to attract dust and debris – which sounds very good and makes sense at first blush. But in the field, US forces once again have learned the hard way that the AR likes to be wet … I mean sloppy, drippy wet! Okay, that might be a touch of an overstatement, but not much of one. American GIs now know that when in doubt, give ‘er a little more lube. Lubricants that have proven to work well are military grade CLP, Mobile 1 synthetic oil, and Automatic Transmission Fluid. It really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that automotive products work so well. The lubrication demands of an automobile engine are far greater than the lubrication needs of a rifle.
Last but not least, you have to take care of the rather poorly designed AR magazine. The straight then curved AR magazine is a compromise design to say the least and has undergone lots of revisions over the years in how they’re loaded and the followers used. Regardless, the AR magazine is made of rather thin aluminum, and it’s not all that hard to tweak one out of shape. When you do, you’ve turned your super cool AR blaster into a very expensive, short range club. In the past 5 years, some real great advances have been made in AR magazines, and some of the newer synthetic AR mags are really bordering on greatness.
Okay back to our debate; let’s talk accuracy. (and another reminder that I’m talking about a battlefield, not Joe-six-pack and his buddies at the range)
While the AR is more accurate, it should be noted that Americans (who tend to shoot mostly from a bench) place way too much emphasis on mechanical accuracy. One should always keep in mind, no one shoots sub-MOA groups in the field, and no one shoots even 3 MOA in combat. All that accuracy that Americans demand doesn’t mean a thing on the field of battle. I’ve never once seen or even heard rumor of an instance where MOA accuracy was what was needed for an infantry soldier on the field of battle. Snipers and Designated Marksmen don’t count; that’s a very specialized role with a specialized rifle and specially trained marksman. (and note, while they rarely use the M16/M4 for their precision marksmanship, this is because of the cartridge, not the weapon)
On the subject of accuracy and the AK, I once read something from writer David Fortier that was one of the most sensible comments ever made on combat rifle accuracy. Mr. Fortier was following a group of Spetsnaz in Chechnya several years ago and when they got into a discussion of weapons he said told his Spetsnaz buddies he much preferred the accuracy of the AR family of rifles. The Russian he was talking to replied, “Just yesterday, I was shooting down power lines with my AK, how much more accurate than that do you need?” Touché!
Me personally, I have hit man-sized targets out to 500 yards with a 7.62 AK and I don’t need anything more than that from a general purpose infantry rifle.
On an open field of battle like Afghanistan where ranges are often rather extended beyond what a “general purpose” infantry rifle was designed for, the AK has proven to be lacking. Not so much for its lack of accuracy (although that certainly doesn’t help), but the more curved trajectory of the AK’s cartridge makes long range hits very difficult for anyone but the most seasoned riflemen. It should be noted this is much less a problem with the AK-74’s 5.45x39mm cartridge which has a much flatter trajectory than the 7.62x39mm, and served the Soviets rather well during their little scuffle in Afghanistan. I really don’t recommend standing out from cover at 500 yards with Spetsnaz soldiers pointing their -74’s at you.
Where long-range shooting is concerned, a flat trajectory makes all the difference. The biggest problem in long-range shooting is not so much the marksmanship challenge of shooting the rifle, but range estimation. Beyond 300 yards, every yard you add makes range estimation errors much less forgiving. If you miss judge the range by 25 yards at 300 yards, generally you can still score a hit. Do that at 600 yard and it’s a solid miss, simple as that. So a flat trajectory is really helpful in the heat of battle. And although the 5.56 doesn’t do much damage beyond 225 yards, consider that a hit with a 5.56 is better than a miss with a .30 cal bullet.
Also, American shooters are downright offended by the open sights of the AK, but I’m here to tell you, those sights are excellent; it’s just that American shooters really don’t know how to shoot traditional open sights for maximum long range precision… oh, they think they know, but they really don’t. There is nothing wrong with the traditional blade and post open sight if you truly understand how to use them. In WWI, soldiers were making 800 yard hits with sighting arrangements that were inferior to that of the AK, so it’s not the sights, it’s the shooter. This is not to say Americans are some sort of marksmanship rejects; just that culturally, America embraced the aperture sight early on and have had a strong preference for it ever since.
In some types of urban combat where good barrier penetration and overall length of the weapon need to be short, the AK can better choice than the AR. The 7.62 bullet has superior penetration against hardened cover, and when people are struck with the 7.62 at close range, they tend not to stay up and say “Thanks you sir, may I have another.” On the other hand, there are times where the limited penetration is a strong asset in urban combat, proving once again, that it all depends on what you’re doing.
Here’s where the AR really pulls ahead based purely on the merits of the design. The ergonomic design of the AR is simply fantastic; very well thought out. The AK clearly didn’t take human engineering nearly as much into account. The AR has simple controls that are just plain “right there” where you need them. Things like safety operation and magazine changes are intuitive, easy and fast.
This is not to say you can’t change an AK magazine just as fast, or quickly and easily manipulate the safety, because you most certainly can. But I believe anyone who’s not taking that “Ford vs. Chevy” positional stance will have to admit the ergonomics of the AR have it all over the AK.
Another real edge of the AR is the more modular design. Notice I didn’t say modular, but more modular because the AR isn’t a true modular rifle, but it’s about half way there. The AK is pretty much “what you see is what you get.” The modular nature of the AR allows field armorers to just swap top ends in a pinch if a barrel is bad or some other show stopper with the upper half. The AK is pretty tough on an armorer if a barrel needs to be swapped, but on the positive side, it’s pretty darned rare that something is so bad you have to swap a barrel on an AK. AKs are famous for serving for decades with all the original parts still in the gun – so much for their supposed “inferior quality”. The reality is, an AR will break parts much more frequently than an AK. On the bright side, those parts are often much easier to change out when they do break.
Training, the Equalizer
The last thing to think about is training, and here’s where everything all evens out. If you train earnestly with either weapon and train the right way, the difference in actual combat performance will be very little. The guys with the ARs will out score the AK guys out at range, and the AK guys won’t have to baby their rifles and magazines nearly as much. The AR is easier to train a soldier to hit a target, no doubt about it. But that same soldier will have to pay much more attention to the maintenance of his weapon, and he really has to baby those magazines.
I could really go on and on. Honestly, both weapons are truly excellent in their own ways. As a general purpose, general issue infantry rifle, the AK can be the better choice if your options for support and training are limited. If you have good resources for training, can be assured that you’ll always be issued genuine USGI ammunition, and always have access to good lubricants (CLP, ATF, synthetic motor oil, etc), then the M16 series is a great choice.
I have always had a strong desire to be well drilled and trained with any weapon I put in my hands. If I’m shooting at bullseyes on paper, I’ll tend to score better with the AR. But if I’m running through CQB drills, I can get the job done just as well with the AK, and with much fewer worries; it all equals out in the end.
I hope this demonstrates that there’s no such thing as “better” – but rather, which is best for the job you need to do. To say one is “best” and the other is a piece of crap is just opinionated hyperbole. Both rifles are capable of fine service in most situations. Do I have a preference for one over the other? Yes I do, but I’ll tell you which one I prefer when you tell me what we’re going to be doing and were we’re going.