If you measure the success of a tool by the number produced and the service life of each one made, the AK-47 pattern rifle is one of the most successful tools in human history. More than 100 million have been made in a dizzying variety of models and calibers. Younger shooters may not appreciate the mystique and fear that the AK captured in the minds of Americans during the Cold War. Early American M16s featured 20 round magazines, until troops fighting in Vietnam encountered AK-47s firing .30 caliber rounds on full auto with those distinctively curved 30-round magazines. Suddenly the M16 needed a 30-round magazine of its own, and quickly! Later, when the AK-74 was first seen by western observers, rumors spread that the new Soviet design could chamber and fire our 5.56 NATO ammunition, but our M16s couldn’t fire the Russian 5.45 ammo without exploding. That was never true, but there was no way to disprove it until the CIA paid $5,000 for the first AK-74 captured by the Mujahedeen from Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
Once the Cold War ended and Kalashnikovs became available to the American civilian, the myth and legend of “the enemy’s rifle” fell away over time. I believe we should now judge the AK based on its true performance using modern standards. In 2018, more than 70 years after Mikhail Kalashnikov’s first design was submitted for its military trials, the AK remains a force to be reckoned with, but long in the tooth. This historic design has clearly aged, and deficiencies that once seemed pretty minor are holding it back versus more modern rifles. What’s needed is a Kalashnikov 2.0 for the 21st-century American shooter. I believe the AK has plenty of life left in it! Below, we’ll discuss the top 5 upgrades for your AK-47. With these upgrades installed, your Kalashnikov will be safer, more accurate, more controllable, and more comfortable to shoot.
Speedbump: A Quick Note On Federal and State Law
It is your responsibility to be aware of Federal and State laws regarding legally re-configuring your rifle. Federally, 18 U.S.C. 922(r) defines imported vs. domestically manufactured rifles using a list of 20 generally defined components. This is a very important law, because imported rifles are banned entirely unless they are configured very specifically in ways most shooters find ugly and inconvenient. To keep your rifle legal, it must contain no more than ten foreign parts from the list. For AKs in particular, this means you need a minimum of 5 American-made parts for a rifle with a bare muzzle and 6 American-made parts for a rifle using a muzzle device. All parts on the 922(r) list we will discuss here are American-made, and we recommend always buying made-in-the-USA components for your Kalashnikov so you don’t have to worry about subtracting from your USA parts count. Optics and mounts are considered accessories and don’t affect your rifle’s 922(r) status.
In addition, many states have passed gun control restrictions regarding permissible configurations for your AK. Make sure you know what you can and can’t do before you start ordering parts and wrenching on your rifle. Members of online forums like akfiles.com or https://www.ar15.com/forums/ak-47/ will be friendly and helpful if you politely ask them for help on what you can legally do to optimize your AK.
Top 5 AK Upgrades: Safety Selectors
Modern rifle doctrine in the USA is to engage a rifle’s safety to the “on” position whenever the sights are not on target. Many AR-15 users now train to flip their safeties on even during reloads, because that rifle’s safety design is so fast and intuitive that there is no real penalty for manipulating it so often. Such high safety standards started in American military and competition shooting and are now a huge part of our shooting culture. This culture of safety did not exist when the AK was designed and is often not shared by overseas users of the AK rifle. The standard AK selector requires the user to take their primary hand away from the firing grip to swipe up for safe, down for fire. Compared to the AR-15 and other modern selectors, its slow and cumbersome. The safety’s movement is often overly stiff, and the metal itself can be sharp enough to cut fingers or at least rub them raw with repeated use. Applying modern safety standards to the AK during a high round count carbine class is a frustrating experience, as your safety is slower to use, yet also chews up your right hand over time.
Real talk—in real life the shooter gets sick and tired of working the clunky AK safety lever constantly and starts to “cheat” at safety discipline. During an AK class I was attending as an assistant instructor, I watched as a student transitioned from standing to kneeling position, to shoot from behind a barricade. As he plopped down into the kneeling position with his AK across his chest, the corner of a spare magazine in his chest rig caught his trigger and fired a round into the mud—about three inches in front of his left knee. His finger was off the trigger the entire time, but he had gotten lazy and left the safety off in his hurry. Only the luck of which knee was up and which knee was down saved him from his own negligence that day.
The solution is an aftermarket safety selector lever like those offered by Krebs Custom. A carefully shaped tab extends horizontally from the Krebs selector so you can keep your hand on the pistol grip while your trigger finger reaches up and flicks the safety up and down. The result is much faster, instinctive manipulation with no finger abrasion over time. Tension can be adjusted by simply bending the safety’s arm a smidgen in towards the receiver or out away from it, so the lever can flick up and down using just your trigger finger. As a bonus, a cut-out notch in the top of the safety lever can be used to trap the AK’s charging handle when pulled fully back for a sort of “bolt hold open”. This little notch helps tremendously at shooting ranges or in carbine classes where locking the bolt back is required for safety reasons at certain times.
Faster and safer; there is no disadvantage at all to an upgraded safety selector lever. Installing one doesn’t just modernize the rifle, it modernizes how you use the rifle.
Top 5 AK Upgrades: Optics
Now that you can run your Kalashnikov like a 21st-century shooter, you should aim it like a 21st-century shooter as well. Factory stock AK iron sights feature a wide front sight, narrowly notched blade rear sight, and a short sight radius distance between the two. They are slow to acquire and problematic to adjust today, and they weren’t any good in 1947 compared to other rifles of that time either. So why didn’t Mikhail Kalashnikov copy the M1 Garand’s excellent iron sights, for example? First, adjustable peep sights like the Garand’s are expensive to make, requiring careful machining and many small parts. This makes the gun more expensive and slower to produce—the exact opposite of what you need when you have millions of conscript infantrymen desperate to trade in their outdated bolt action rifles for a modern weapon. Second, the AK was never designed to be an accurate target rifle. It was designed to hit targets with controlled bursts of full-auto fire at relatively short range while the rest of the Motor Rifle Platoon does the same thing. Any threat past 150 or 200 yards can be dealt with by the machine gunners, the designated marksmen with their SVD “Dragunovs,” and that massive T-55 tank rumbling around behind you. Therefore, AK iron sights needed to be cheap and fast to make, and hard to bump out of alignment by accident. They are a huge pain to adjust, they are slow to acquire, and the sight radius is short enough to hurt practical accuracy.
For American shooters in 2018, even police and military shooters, rifle iron sights are now an “emergency use only” item. Sight in your AK irons and enjoy the challenge of shooting the way soldiers of old had to, but no matter what kind of shooting you do with your AK, you’ll be much better with a good optic. AKs and red dots go together like peanut butter and jelly. If the red dot sight didn’t exist, we would have to invent it just to add it to the AK. There are two great mounting options to choose from. Many AKs feature an antiquated but solidly designed “side rail” riveted onto the left side of the receiver. Side rail mounts slide on from the rear and lock in place with a large lever, curving over the top of the rifle to place the optic above the dust cover. The side rail works well, but if your AK features a stock that folds to the left, you won’t be able to fold your stock with the mount in the way. In that case, or for rifles with no side mount, the way to go is the Ultimak system. Ultimak replaces the gas tube ahead of the handguards with a high-quality 1913 MIL-STD “Picatinny” rail that is locked firmly in place using metal bands around the barrel. Micro red dot sights in low base 1913 mounts like the Primary Arms MD-RD-AD will mount on perfectly, allowing you to get a “co-witness” through those iron sights in case of a dead battery. This setup makes getting a quality sight picture on your target so much faster, so much more instinctive, it’s almost like cheating compared to the iron sight struggle. For a tactical, defensive chunky peanut AK that won’t be asked to engage targets much beyond 100 yards, the red dot is your strawberry preserves.
What if you want to stretch the effective range of your Kalashnikov further? Returning to the side rail mounting system, small but effective fixed power prism scopes make a solid “do it all” choice. At Primary Arms we designed our 3x and 5x prism scopes with modular bases that can be removed by the user, leaving the scope body compatible with ACOG style mounts. You can snag a high-quality side rail mount from RS Products, add their ACOG upper section to it, then attach your prism scope body. This way the prism scope sits as low as possible over your AK’s dust cover, so hopefully you won’t need to mess with installing a cheek riser on your stock.
For the most flexible optics set up possible, grab a low power variable scope like the new Primary Arms 1-6×24 First Focal Plane scopes with the ACSS Raptor reticles. One model is calibrated for the AK-47’s original 7.62×39 caliber, and another model is calibrated for the AK-74’s 5.45×39 round (also for 5.56 NATO). At 6x, the ACSS reticles in these scopes can help you reach all the way out to 600 yards with a good Kalashnikov and quality ammo. At 1x the reticle shrinks down for a sight picture that looks a lot like a red dot, with a huge field of view surrounding a small CQB horseshoe in the center. A 1-6x low power variable scope is the most flexible choice of all, giving you great speed up close and great magnification for medium range. The only disadvantages are increased cost, size, and weight. Are the advantages worth it? I personally believe yes– there is no reason why the factors that make 1-6x scopes so great on AR-15s are any less true for AK rifles.
Top 5 AK Upgrades: Triggers
Now that you can see your target faster and more clearly using your optic, you’ll want more accuracy out of the rifle. Honestly, most of us can’t shoot well enough with those iron sights to tell that our AKs aren’t very mechanically accurate, but once you’re seeing the center of the target plainly with a 3x or 6x scope, you’ve run out of excuses to miss. So what’s the best way to accurize your AK with the tools you already own? The trigger! The factory AK trigger pull is long, heavy, and often gritty. You wouldn’t put up with that on a nice pistol or on an AR-15, would you? Don’t write off a poor trigger as just “the nature of the beast.” That’s not true anymore. Proven match trigger companies like CMC and ALG offer triggers that drop into place inside the AK with little to no magnification. Usually, the only thing that can go wrong is if you have an extra tall and ugly rivet inside the receiver holding the trigger guard in place. A little bravery with a Dremel and you can shave that rivet stub down without much trouble, or maybe ask your friend who has a steadier hand….
Both the CMC and ALG triggers offer a vastly improved shooting experience over the factory setup, with a shorter length of pull, less weight, and a crisp clean break that you can predict and count on time after time. It really is a feat of engineering to put an AR-15 style match-grade trigger’s feel into the old Kalashnikov, but that’s exactly what you get here. As a bonus, rapid-fire and double or triple taps are SUPER fun and addictive with these triggers installed. Who needs full auto anyway?
Top 5 AK Upgrades: Muzzle Devices
The AK’s felt recoil isn’t awful right out of the gate, but recoil reduction makes the rifle much more pleasant to shoot and can help out a bunch in competition or tactical style shooting. By adding a quality muzzle brake, you maximize the benefits of the other changes discussed above. For example, with less felt recoil your sight picture is faster to re-acquire after each shot, so your red dot or scope seems to function even better than it did before. The most effective method of reducing recoil is to attach a muzzle brake to the end of your barrel. These muzzle devices work by taking the force of the expanding gas blasting out from the muzzle and re-directing it in a different direction, so that the gas pushes forward and down on the muzzle brake instead of being wasted. Since the brake is firmly attached to your rifle, the whole rifle gets pushed forward and down, counteracting the “up and back” felt recoil of your shot.
What about the factory muzzle brakes? The AK-74’s original “window” muzzle brake is very effective, and it’s debatable how much improvement you’ll see by switching it out for a more modern design. The “slant brake” often found on classic 7.62×39 AKs hardly qualifies as a brake at all. I can’t tell the difference between how my underfolder shoots with that muzzle device versus just a bare muzzle.
An enormous variety of muzzle brakes are available for the AK, but not all of them will fit yours. Most AK-47s chambered for 7.62×39 usually use a 14×1 “left hand” thread, and AK-74s chambered in 5.45×39 use a much larger, unmistakable 24 x 1.5 “right hand” thread. Yugoslavian-style M92 pattern AKs are chambered in 7.62 but use a unique 26 x 1.5 “left hand” thread. Muzzle devices intended for AR-15s chambered in 7.62×39 will NOT fit an AK-47 chambered for the same caliber. If this wasn’t complicated enough, be wary of custom gunsmithing. A lot of AKs were imported into the US with bare muzzles or welded-on muzzle devices, then turned and threaded by local gunsmiths later. Make sure you know what thread pitch is on your rifle before you start seriously shopping.
What brake to get? My experience is, the more gas being re-directed by the muzzle device, the more effective it will be, but at the price of noise, muzzle flash, and concussion. There’s no free lunch, you always trade the benefit of recoil reduction for increased noise and blast. Imagine the path of the expanding gas as it leaves the barrel and enters the muzzle brake, trying to expand rapidly in all directions. Designs that allow most of the gas to exit from the front and feature smaller holes in the sides will be less effective in controlling recoil, but won’t increase muzzle report much either. Designs with large “windows” in the sides of the muzzle brake are excellent at reducing recoil, but noise, flash, and blast go up significantly. Other shooters to your left and right at the local shooting range benches will hate you and your rifle.
The Lantac “Drakon” is an excellent example of a very effective muzzle brake that has less noise and concussion than you would expect, given how the design looks. The Drakon really tames the 7.62×39 AK without setting your eyebrows on fire at the same time. The VG6 Epsilon AK brake falls into the same category and is a bit easier on your wallet. “Hybrid” muzzle devices that find a middle ground with some recoil reduction and some flash suppression are a new trend that is gaining popularity. Primary Weapon Systems was the original company to explore this technology. Their “flash suppressing compensator” is good enough that FN attaches one to every SCAR 16s and SCAR 17s rifle that leaves their factory, but you don’t have to buy a $2700 SCAR to enjoy the benefits of that design. PWS makes muzzle devices optimized for both AK-47 and AK-74 rifles.
There are lots of online forum discussions and YouTube videos comparing different muzzle devices, and everyone thinks their favorite is the most efficient or the best value. But you don’t have to overthink it—there’s also nothing wrong with simply buying the one you think looks the coolest on your Kalashnikov 2.0. Why wouldn’t you want your rifle to look awesome?
Top 5 AK Upgrades: Handguards, Stocks, and Pistol Grips
When the AK was designed, all stocks and handguards were wood, everywhere. Bakelite pieces came later; they look deliciously foreign and old-school but can be fragile. Classic style AK furniture has some very real disadvantages. The short handguards restrict your hand placement to being further rearward than many American shooters prefer, and they get uncomfortably hot in a hurry. If your hand slips forward, you’ll burn yourself on the metal retaining clip that holds the handguards in place, leaving a nasty “U” shaped blister in the palm between your thumb and forefinger. Go on, ask me how I know! Out back, the original length stock is too short for taller shooters, and the pistol grip is like holding onto a dog bone.
These issues weren’t even on the radar in the late 1940s, but in 2018 we can do so much better. Whether you have a standard AKM stamped receiver setup, a milled receiver, or even the somewhat unusual Yugoslavian type, you can get a significant upgrade from multiple quality brands. Up front, many shooters prefer an extended handguard like the Magpul “Zhukov.” The Zhukov handguard extends past the gas block area of the barrel, keeping heat away from your hand even if you like to reach towards the muzzle. It’s M-LOK compatible for easy accessory mounting—hanging a weapon light on your AK is suddenly super easy. If so much plastic isn’t your style, other companies make extended rail systems from aluminum that make your old AK look downright futuristic. Midwest Industries Gen 2 rail systems are well thought out, often incorporating a mounting plate specific to Aimpoint T1 or Trijicon MRO red dots in the same position as the Ultimak mount. This positions the red dot low enough to ensure that you can “co-witness” your AK’s iron sights and use them in an emergency. Midwest Industries makes versions with 1913 MIL-STD, M-LOK, KeyMod, and even their own proprietary accessory attachment system. You can choose from standard or extended-length systems, so there are plenty of options available!
Don’t underestimate the difference that a new stock can make. Kalashnikov 2.0 beats the standard AR-15 here because it can be fired with a folding stock in the forward position. The Magpul Zhukov stock features an adjustable length of pull, folds to the right so it won’t interfere with your side rail mount on the left, and accepts add-on risers so you can fine-tune your cheek weld to match your favorite optic. Magpul also makes a stout, affordable fixed stock option that accepts the same risers and offers a bit of storage space for a cleaning kit, batteries, or whatever else you can think of. Using an adapter to fit an AR15 stock to your Kalashnikov is another popular option. Shooters who own and shoot both AKs and ARs can use their favorite AR15 stock on both for a comfortable, familiar feel when using either rifle platform. For a “Dragunov” look and feel, the Hera Arms CQR thumbhole stock is packed with features normally found on precision rifles. The Hera CQR is also one of the best choices around for AKs that must be configured with a thumbhole stock to stay in a legal configuration.
Lastly, you really should get rid of your AK’s “dog bone” grip. A wide variety of grips are available for the Kalashnikov now and all of them are a big improvement! Normally I don’t care for finger groove style grips, but I have to say that the Hogue rubber overmolded grips work extremely well for me. The comfort level compared to factory grips is like night and day. I also like the Magpul MOE+ grips. They fill your hand to naturally place your trigger finger in the right spot and are also rubber overmolded like the Hogue grips.
One word of caution. Whether it’s a handguard, stock, or grip, many times mounting surfaces are made just a bit oversized, and some careful trimming is required to get the fitment just right on your personal AK. I believe this is deliberate because different AKs from different manufacturers can vary a LOT in their measurements. The manufacturers figure it’s better for you to carefully trim excess plastic or aluminum than have to return their part for fitting too loosely. You can use a needle file kit, a razor blade, or even a Dremel tool if you are brave enough, but whatever you do, go SLOW and just remove a little bit of material at a time.
Honorable Mention – Ammunition Selection
An honorable mention for accurizing the AK goes to ammo selection. You can’t expect serious accuracy improvement while continuing to feed your rifle the bottom of the barrel ammo. You know the stuff I mean—steel cased and assembled in a town far away, where you wouldn’t want to drink the water. That stuff is just fine for taking classes, plinking, whatever—the AK was designed to munch on cheap ammo without complaint. But modernizing the rifle’s potential means modernizing your ammo as well. Try something developed in this century, like the 123-grain ballistic tip Hornady “Black” loading. Your AK might just surprise you with how accurate it can be.
The Harmony Of Optimized Components
Each recommendation above will improve part of your Kalashnikov shooting experience if you only choose to upgrade that single part. Many shooters will take a piece by piece approach, applying one fix at a time with weeks or even months between ordering their next part. But when your AK has been carefully upgraded in all five areas, you’ll find that your new parts interact with each other to make your rifle function better than the sum of all its parts. The first time your trigger finger effortlessly flips the safety to “fire”, your hand shifts just slightly on the ergonomic pistol grip, and your trigger breaks crisply to fire your round at exactly the moment you intended, you’ll understand that the combination of these upgrades transforms the AK shooting experience. You’ll enjoy the best of simplicity, reliability, ruggedness, AND modern ergonomics and sighting systems that make no excuses to anyone. Go out there and start building your Kalashnikov 2.0!