Along with the AR-15, the AK is one of the most iconic and recognizable firearms of all time. From its first iteration in the late 1940s to the present, it has been one of the most common firearms in the world, used for everything from hunting to self-defense. A legacy of rugged reliability, simple construction and manual of arms, and a very versatile cartridge have made the AK the go-to rifle for a lot of people.
But, in today’s modern world, there’s a very valid concern about whether or not AKs can keep up. When the AK-47 was first invented, optics were only found on sniper rifles, and night vision technology was nothing more than science fiction. It wasn’t designed with weapon-mounted lights or suppressors in mind.
AK-pattern firearms can be modified to function with modern accessories like lights, sights, and silencers, but it takes a bit of know-how. Unlike the AR-15, the AK has no solid upper receiver to attach a red dot or scope to—just a dust cover. Neither does it have a barrel nut to allow for easy mounting of a free-floating rail, or a thread design conducive to secure muzzle device mounting.
Nevertheless, the AK can be made into a modern weapon platform. Below we’ll go over the challenges of adding modern optics and accessories to an AK and explain some of the most popular solutions.
Iron sights are perfectly functional, and for target practice or plinking, they’re all you really need. When you get into competition or home defense though, iron sights will have a hard time keeping up with the speed and ease of use of a red dot. At intermediate to long range, iron sights simply can’t compete with magnified optics.
Whether you choose to go with a red dot, a scope, or a prism optic, you’ll likely find mounting it a bit more involved than with an AR-15. AKs generally don’t have any Picatinny rails from the factory, meaning you’ll need an adapter.
Before you start picking one out it’s important to know that AK accessories are not universal. AK part dimensions can vary based on make, model, and country of origin, so it’s important to make sure any optic mount or handguard you purchase will actually fit your firearm.
One of the most common solutions is a side mount. This style of mount requires your rifle to be equipped with a side rail, but most AKs now come with one installed from the factory. These mounts are very secure, since they bolt to a steel plate attached to the receiver, and allow users to freely access their dust cover for maintenance without affecting their optic or losing zero.
Sadly, side mounts are not without drawbacks. Depending on your rifle, mount, and optic, you may find that your height over bore with a side mount is considerable. The side mount has to be tall enough to clear your dust cover and usually only provides a section of Picatinny rail; you’ll still need a mount or scope rings to attach your optic to the rail. All of those different interfaces add height.
Although, with the recent popularity of extra-tall mounts and night vision devices, some may consider the increased height to be an advantage rather than a drawback.
The other caveat is that not all side rails are perfectly trued to the barrel. It’s not uncommon for side rails to be off by a few degrees, meaning that once you install your side mount, the Picatinny rail section may be slightly off-center compared to your barrel and chamber. Usually, this isn’t a huge deal, as most modern optics have enough internal adjustment to compensate. If you have an unusually canted side rail, though, you may find side-mounts position your optic too far to one side to be functional.
The exception to this rule is the side-mounting system available from RS Regulate, which is a two-piece design that allows for adjustment from left to right, compensating for any cant that may be present in your side rail.
Of course, not all AKs have side rails from the factory, and adding one generally requires a qualified gunsmith. Other options for optic mounting include railed gas tubes, such as those popularized by Ultimak, and railed dust covers.
Railed gas tubes are most popular for small optics, such as micro red dots. Because of how far forward they sit on the rifle, this style of mount cannot be used for magnified optics and can be rather cumbersome with anything heavier than a few ounces. Additionally, railed gas tubes can obscure the iron sights on some AK models, especially those with front sights integrated into the gas block.
Railed dust covers often get a bad reputation due to cheap versions that once saturated the market, but quality designs from good manufacturers can be very solid mounting platforms. These types of mounts replace your AK’s dust cover with one with a Picatinny rail built in, allowing for the mounting of any optic you’d like.
However, you’ll want to make sure any railed dust cover you purchase is of good quality, such as those from Texas Weapon Systems. A standard AK dust cover is made from thin, stamped metal and is often loose enough to be wiggled with nothing more than finger strength. Obviously, this would not make a good mounting surface for an optic—it wouldn’t be stable enough to hold a zero.
Railed dust covers like those from TWS use various systems to enhance stability, such as attaching to the rear sight block or using tensioning screws for a more secure lock-up. Railed dust covers like the TWS models provide plenty of stability for a red dot or even a magnified optic.
We’re big believers in the importance of weapon-mounted lights for defensive firearms, so if your AK might ever be used for home defense or personal protection, you should have a light on it. On an AK, adding a light can be a challenge, but there are a few options available to you.
The simplest way to add a weapon light is to replace your handguard with a railed or M-LOK-compatible model. This not only creates attachment points for a weapon light, but also for any other accessories you may need to add, such as an IR unit if you plan to use your AK in conjunction with night vision.
A railed or M-LOK handguard offers a very secure mounting system and is compatible with standard accessory mounts, so adding lights, pressure switches or IR devices is easy.
The primary drawbacks to this option are weight and heat. Wood or polymer handguards tend to be lighter than their metal counterparts, and definitely insulate better. A metal handguard is going to add even more weight to a platform already made front-heavy by an internal piston.
Additionally, you’ll likely find that a metal handguard heats up quite a bit faster too, which can be slightly uncomfortable in any activity that calls for a rapid rate of fire. The issue of heat can be largely ameliorated by wearing gloves, though, so don’t write off metal rail systems just for double taps.
If you’d prefer not to replace your handguard, whether for better insulation or simply for the aesthetic, a railed gas tube is an alternative option, so long as you aren’t already using one for your optic.
A railed gas tube offers considerably less real estate for mounting accessories than a full handguard but allows you to keep your existing lower handguard. It will usually be cheaper than replacing your handguard in its entirety, too.
The reduced mounting space may be a challenge if you need white light and an IR unit, but it’s more than sufficient for a weapon light and a remote switch, especially if you use a combination mount like Modlite’s excellent Modbutton.
A word of caution if you decide on a gas tube-mounted light, though: that tube is going to get very hot. As the name suggests, the gas tube is filled with hot gas produced by the gunshot. It will get very hot very quickly, even under relatively modest use, so be sure to choose a mount and light that can take the heat.
Quality lights from companies such as Modlite, Cloud Defensive, or SureFire should be more than capable of handling the task.
Silencers have been growing in popularity with military, police, and civilian users alike, not only for their tactical advantages but also for safer and more pleasant training. We’d be remiss not to include them in a list of tactical accessories.
Throughout this article, we use the terms “suppressor” and “silencer” interchangeably. Both refer to the same device — silencer is the original name, now used primarily in a legal context, while suppressor is considered to be a more descriptively accurate term, since these devices are not capable of making a firearm truly silent.
Unfortunately, they’re also the most challenging to install on an AK. The largest roadblock is that most standard AKs lack a shoulder on the barrel. A shoulder is a small shelf machined into the barrel at a ninety-degree angle to the bore, which muzzle devices index off of to ensure they are perfectly in line with the barrel.
Without a shoulder, achieving perfect alignment becomes very challenging, and less-than-perfect alignment could mean a baffle strike and possibly even a long wait while the ATF approves a replacement suppressor.
The other primary challenge is that most AKs are not made with silencers in mind; they were designed for flash hiders and muzzle brakes. The threads on AK-pattern rifles can sometimes be off by a couple of degrees, causing anything attached to the muzzle to be slightly angled. This isn’t any big deal for most muzzle devices, but as with the lack of shoulder, it can make perfectly aligning a suppressor with the bore challenging or impossible.
AKs also use an attachment system that simplifies installing and using muzzle devices by retaining the device with a detent, eliminating the need to torque it in place. Once again, while this is secure enough for most muzzle devices, it often allows enough wiggle room to potentially endanger a suppressor.
There are several ways to solve each of these problems. Improper threads can usually be corrected by a gunsmith. The lack of shoulder can be compensated for using an adapter that indexes off the crown and creates a shoulder that can then be used by your suppressor or muzzle device.
Or, to address all these issues at once, you can just buy a Wolverine.
The Dead Air Wolverine is a purpose-built suppressor designed from the ground up for AKs and other Combloc surplus firearms. It uses a unique mounting system that compensates for the lack of shoulder on an AK barrel and is slightly overbore for a 7.62 round, allowing a greater margin of error should the suppressor be a degree or two out of alignment with the barrel.
It’s also designed to reduce back pressure, often saving users the trouble of having to tune their gas system with an adjustable piston. Simply put, if you want to shoot quietly and you don’t want to have to tinker with adapters or enlist a gunsmith for assistance, a Dead Air Wolverine is the way to go.
AKs are some of the most popular firearms in the world for a reason. They’re reliable, versatile, and easy to use. With the right upgrades and modifications, they’re easily a match for any other semi-automatic rifle out there.
We couldn’t cover every accessory, of course. There’s still a whole range of aftermarket grips, safeties, triggers, pistons, and more that you can use to enhance your rifle. But with modern optics, a quality weapon light, and the right silencer, an AK can go from a cool classic to a functional modern firearm ready for duty.