This article seems long overdue.
The AK (Avtomat Kalashnikova) is my favorite rifle of all time. The most famous (The AK47) was invented by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947. However, there is one rifle that he invented before the famous AK47, but we’ll get to that below.
These guns are unbelievably reliable. They are also simple to clean, maintain, and fire. And on top of that, AKs come with the added bonus of also being relatively inexpensive.
As Kalashnikov put it himself:
I wanted to invent an engine that could run for ever. I could have developed a new train, had I stayed in the railway. It would have looked like the AK-47 though (laughs).
Mikhail made these guns for moderate distances and close quarters fighting – being accurate up to about 300m (originally). Many good-shots can shoot them much farther than that, but the design specs specifically point toward 300m.
The original AK design has been cloned by many countries, such as China/Bulagaria/Romania. However, despite the differing types of AKs and their cloning, the media tends to just refer to every assault rifle as the infamous “AK-47”.
I hope that this article will clear up any misconceptions about them and showcase the wide-spread differences between the variants.
0. Description of Components
The image below is of the AKM. However, most of the internal components in these rifles are the same throughout the years from 46-100. So (for the most part) it will reliably identify parts of the rifle, regardless of which type of AK we’re looking at.
(NOTE: All images can be enlarged. Click on image, or right-click “View image” to enlarge)
1. The AK-46
The AK-46 was Mikhail’s prototype that would later be developed into the AK47.
It was, as the name implies, originally designed and sought review in 1946.
This first AK rifle was chambered in 7.62x39mm.
The AK-46 had two variants (for a total of 3 generations) created. The second generation of the AK46 was the most important to the addition, however, because it removed the bolt carrier from the outside of the rifle (making it more reliable), while simultaneously refining the prototype to provide the “smooth” shooting we’ve known to come and appreciate from AKs.
An example of the second generation AK-46 is pictured below:
The third generation of the AK-46 didn’t really change anything meaningful besides the stock.
It came with the inclusion of an under-folding buttstock, which has been incorporated into certain variants of all future AKs.
A piece of interest with all AK-46s are that they are short-stroke weapons. Most of the ones we know are long stroke (even the AK-47 implemented long-stroke, so this is the only version that is short-stroke).
If you’re curious about the differences between the two, this article really explains it well. TL;DR: Long stroke is generally better, and is definitely better for AKs.
Check out the field strip for the AK-46:
A good prototype, but I doubt you’ll find anyone that complains about her upgraded version, which is of course:
2. The AK-47
One of the single most important weapons of modern history. Its legacy lives on today as it’s still one of the most widely distributed and known weapons.
This upgrade of the AK-46 comes with a lot of improvements, here’s just a few:
- One piece stamped receiver (and improved receiver shape)
- Covered bolt carrier
- Simplification of parts (for easy breakdown)
- Long stroke piston (that of which is directly into the bolt-carrier itself)
It still used the same cartridge, the 7.62x39mm. As the name implies, it was approved in 1947 and began it’s widespread distribution the same year.
Here it is:
This gun went through a lot of later changes. We’ll go through the transitions in order:
- Second Gen AK47 – Dramatic change in furniture. Large muzzle break was included, along with the ability for a bayonet lug.
- Third Generation AK47 – Furniture remained the same. Muzzle break taken off (replaced w/ compensator), gas block was radically changed in design. Also included the first separate model with a folding stock (similar to the AK-46).
- AK-47 1948 Version (“AK-48”) – Ability for an easily-installed muzzle device. Changed the charging handle to the modern version. This was the weapon that the Soviets accepted into their military in 1949, simply called “The AK” (No numerals).
Number 3 above, whether you call it the final version of the traditional AK, the AK48, or just “The AK” – it all means the same thing.
But that variant also has a fourth name: Type 1. It’s the first in the variant series of traditional AK’s, since it was the first introduced enmasse to the Soviet military.
The Soviets continued to edit and change the AK over the course of the next decade, but never renamed it. So we refer to them by their Type, as in Type 1, Type 2, Type 3. This helps distinguish the differences between the AK-47.
- Type 1: As seen above. (This also includes the AKS version Type 1, a different version of the Type 1 which pretty much just changed the stock to the underfolding version. I’m not going into detail about the AKS because they are practically the same thing, except with a collapsible stock for compact reasons.)
- Type 2: Designated in 1952. Had a chrome-plated barrel and receiver (to further improve reliability). This version also had an awesome lightening cut directly above the magazine as well, which makes it awesome for collectors.
- Type 3: Receiver further refined. Stock attached for better usability. Omitting of unnecessary things that were added to the Type 2, and a plethora of other awesome changes. This was the big gun, that changed the Soviets from SKS’s to AKs. This was also the most abundant of the milled-receiver versions of the AK.
Here’s the breakdown:
The Type 2 is on top.
The Type 3 is on bottom.
If I hadn’t told you, could you tell the difference? There are a few specific pieces that give it away!
3. The AKM
This is a pretty common variant of the traditional AK. It stands for “Avtomat Kalashnikov Modernizirovanniy”, AKA: Modernized AK.
It was approved for full production in 1959. By this time, the Soviets had the mass production capabilities post-war, allowing these to be made enmasse.
The scientists behind the new developments built them off of the Type 3 AK-47 model.
The changes (improvements, by some standards) are numerous, including:
- New stamped receiver
- Receiver cover (w/ reinforced ribs)
- Improved hanguards
- Inline buttstock (recoil reduction technology)
- Relocated gas ports (On gas block)
- Lighter bolt carrier
- Slant cut muzzle brake
- General improvements for the full-auto fire rate and accuracy
- Weight reduction of 2.2 lbs
- The sights on AKM gained an additional 200 m
- The AKM is parkerized instead of blued (Like the Type 3 AK-47)
- Modified trigger and springs assembly
- Incorporated a hammer release delay device
- Barrel is now pressed and pinned to receiver
The AKM is also the most widely used AK variant in history. It spawned a ridiculous number of other variants from it, probably over 40 in total around the world. The gun has been used in every continent, and is widely deployed in previously-declared Warsaw Pact countries.
Here’s the traditional AKM:
As mentioned above, it created a number of variants. I couldn’t possibly attempt to address them all, but I’ll give you a list of the more common ones here:
- AK-56 (Chinese version, was originally based off Type 1 AK-47, but they upgraded it after they got ahold of an AKM and studied it. Very heavy use in Asian countries.)
4. The AK-74
Based off the AKM designs, this variant finally changes the cartridge to 5.45x39mm. Because of this, all the internal parts were changed slightly to incorporate the new cartridge efficiently.
As you can probably imagine if you have read this far, this was designated “AK-74” Because it was an AK made in 1974. Surprise, surprise!
Overall, the changes were minor. It was a modernized version of a modernized version of the AK. They did change the magazine receiver, so the old magazines could not fit in it correctly (it’d be the wrong type of ammo anyway).
It also featured improved front sights, a thinned bolt (for unlocking the bolt), and a 90-degree gas port to reduce port shearing from prolonged firing
They incorporated a lot more plastic instead of metal into this rifle (such as the magazine and the pistol grip), and some later versions of the AK-74 use entirely polymer furniture.
It also has a nice lineup of offspring, including:
- AK-74M (5.5mm hinge-pinned sidefolding buttstock, newer version of AK-74)
- AKS-74UB (added a silenced under-barrel grenade launcher, freakin’ awesome)
All of which have other small changes (such as stocks/shorter length/changed furniture/rails).
With the combination of the muzzle brake and the smaller round, the AK-74 is one of the lightest-recoil rifles in history. And likewise, the full-auto feature was incredibly easier to use as well.
Here is the AK-74:
5. The AK-74M
I know this is a variant of the AK-74, yet another modernized version of it, but I have to put it in its own section.
It would be unjust for me not too. The firearm designers looked to this weapon to build upon the newer versions.
This upgrade featured a default inclusion of the optics rail, and the hinge-centric buttstock mentioned above. The AK-74M became the official infantry weapon of all Russian military branches in 1991, and continues to serve today, which is yet another why I can’t leave it out.
It also has all black furniture, making it look like a mobile tank:
6. The AK-101
Don’t be fooled. This gun is an AK-74M clone-copy. The only difference is that it is chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO, and the barrel, receiver, and magazine have been re-sized to fit the new ammunition.
This was done so it could be the AK version that could be more easily exported, as the 5.56 is the standard ammunition in many places around the world.
But it was the first of the AK-100 series. And they did have some cool advancements I’d like to mention:
- AK-102: 12.5 variant of the 101, meant for export.
- AK-103: An AK-101 rechambered in 7.62x39mm (Remember the first AKs?). It’s a replacement for Spetsnaz and other special units in the Russian geo-political sphere.
- AK-105: Shortened barrel (12.5). Also has a combination front sight along with replacement of the traditional gas block on the rifle. This means the length has been reduced, but the weapon can still use standard gas tubes/furniture.
See a traditional (AK-101) one here:
7. The AK-12
Finally, we’ve reached the most recent AK. This new firearm brings a lot of changes to the inner workings of the AK, and has two variants as of this writing: The AK-12 and the AK-15.
- Uses 5.45x39mm
- Has a firing rate of 700 per minute
- Includes a maximum firing range of 800 m
- Is compatible with magazines from the AK-74
- Is based off of AK-74M
- Has relocated charging handle
- Has relocated safety/selector switch
- Includes side-folding stock
- Changed the handguards and gas block to have abundant Picatinny rail space
- And a couple of other small, internal changes to improve accuracy with full-auto fire
- Is the newest Russian AK, currently only for special forces military/LEO in Russia
- Seeks to replace the AK-103
- Is chambered in 7.62x39mm
- Made several changes to the gas tube, foregrip, and magazine well. It looks like it has got a new barrel, but I am not 100% sure on that one
- Still has a 700 firing rate, along with the other specs
- Returns to the AK-74 traditional lever, instead of the switch which the AK-12 used
- And probably a few other changes from the AK-12 I am forgetting, but you get the general idea. This one is closer to the AK-103 and traditional AK-74M than the AK-12, but with improvements from its predecessors.
Here is the AK-12:
And the AK-15:
Differences Between AK-47 Summary
As you can tell, the line of AKs have had a long and sometimes confusing history.
They have regularly switched between different types of ammo, levers, and internal parts – but the AK line has kept the general look and reliability of the weapon a high priority.
While the original AK (AK-46) never made it mainstream, her children (AK47, AKM, and AK74) sure did. They are some of the most well-known weapons, and have become some of the most prolific weapons of all time.
And the next time someone refers to a weapon as an “AK-47“, feel free to school them and tell them what the gun actually is. Because more often than not, it’s not a traditional AK-47.
I hope you found this useful, if you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comments below!
There have been a couple re-occurring questions since I first published this article. So I’ll make a quick announcement to clear them up.
1) What about the common US AK’s? Aren’t they AK47’s? Which do you recommend?
The most common AK in the U.S. is the “WASR 10 GP“. It is not an AK47. It is a post-ban version of the AKM. GP stands for “general purpose“. It is made in Romania.
The N-PAP is also popular but it is really a standalone made by Zastava in Serbia. It’s more of its own creation but if one was going to compare it, I’d put it next to the AKM category as well.
Neither the N-PAP nor the WASR 10 is “better“, per se. It depends on personal preference. I would chose a WASR 10 over an NPAP any day for any reason, but I may be biased so take that with a grain of salt if you’re looking to buy one. I’m not here to review them, they are both awesome guns but I just prefer my WASR.
2) How the heck do you keep that dang gun clean?
Yeah, they are incredibly messy. I think the AK rifles are just made to become an abyss of blackness after a single bullet. It’s how they like it. Embrace it.
Feel free to leave more questions/discussion in the comments or just send me a message. And many thanks for stopping by!