November 2003

We Try a Trio of 7.62mm Russian Rifles: Arsenal USA Wins The Day

We liked Arsenalís AK-47 product, but SOGís fixed-wire-stock AK Romanian import had problems. Ohio Ordnanceís accurate VZ 2000 CZ-patterned gun was a good choice for the well-heeled.

Ray Ordorica shoots the Arsenal USA version of the AK-47. Despite its questionable accuracy, he liked it the best of the three.

Despite its being the most prolific rifle in history, Mikhail Kalashnikov’s AK-47 is still being manufactured in a vast variety of offerings at locations all over the world. One of those locations is Houston, Texas, where the Arsenal USA Co. assembles AKs using parts from Hungary and some made in Houston. We got one of that company’s rifles for a recent test, pitting the hybrid U.S./foreign product against an imported wire-stocked Romanian-made rifle from Southern Ohio Gun. To complete the group of 7.62mm Russian rifles, we got a VZ 2000 from Ohio Ordnance Works. The VZ-2000 can be mistaken for an AK-47 look-alike, but is actually a close semiauto copy of the Czech Model 58.

All of these semiautomatic rifles fired the .30 Russian Short, which the 7.62x39 is sometimes called. We’ve recently noticed bargain-priced surplus rifles in odd calibers, but two boxes of ammunition can cost as much as the rifle. Not so the .30 Russian Short. We found 7.62x39 ammo to be plentiful and generally not very expensive. If you want to have fun with your AK, it’s nice to know the fodder won’t break the bank.

Here’s what we found when we assessed these guns at the range:

Arsenal USA SSR-85B, $550

The SSR-85B, per the company website, was the result of the marriage of a Polish PMKMS parts set with a Hungarian-made FEG SA-85M stamped-steel receiver. Per the website, the company is currently unable to import any more of the parts sets that made up this particular example of AK-47, so if you want a copy like ours, you may have to do some scouting. However, the Houston-based company appears to be serious about production of AK-47s. It has a variety of AK-47s being made and more in the planning stages, and they look pretty much exactly like our test rifle.

Our 85B’s metal was finished in well-done Parkerizing, and featured a blond hardwood stock set that was imported from Hungary. Some of us didn’t like the light color of the wood, but all agreed it had absolutely excellent finish and inletting. The wood was elm. The stock was slightly larger than all the adjacent metal, which allows for contraction of the wood over time.

The stock was fitted with a ribbed butt plate made of steel. The buttplate was so smooth the ribbing didn’t seem to help hold the stock in place on our shoulder. The black-polymer (U.S.-made) pistol grip was comfortable and appeared to be well made. The U.S.-made trigger was outstanding in its look and finish, and it linked the shooter to the gun with a pull of 5.0 pounds, the best of the three rifles tested. The double-action pull took about 4 pounds to get the trigger to the break point, and another pound to release. The final pound was creep-free and crisp. This was an excellent trigger by any measure.

The overall look was pure AK. There was a welded-on muzzle brake cut at a slant to help keep the muzzle down. It kicked some of the sound back at us, but seemed to reduce the muzzle lift when compared with the other two rifles. The 85B had a totally secure and rattle-free cleaning rod beneath its barrel. The stock had a rear sling swivel and also a fixed loop on the left side of the steel forend cap. A sling came with the rifle.

The safety was the usual long AK lever that blocks the ejection port and prevents cycling the bolt when lifted upward to the “on” position. The rear sight was a ladder type, calibrated to 800 meters. The front sight was the typical AK post-on-a-screw, but it was slanted left as though bent. This anomaly turned out to be caused by the slightly left-positioned front-sight base, and it necessitated the front sight to be shoved as far right as it could go. The rifle still shot slightly to the right, and we thought this should have been properly adjusted by the factory. Though both the rear and front sights can be moved to compensate for elevation changes, there is no way to adjust the rear sight for windage, short of cutting its square notch wider.

Like most AKs, this one had no hold-open for the bolt. The bolt closed after the last shot, so unless you were counting, you would not know the gun was empty until the hammer fell on an empty chamber. The ten-round magazine showed slight traces of rust here and there along its welded joints, though we didn’t consider it serious. The mag was at first difficult to insert into the new rifle, but during our shooting tests it became easy to install and remove. By the end of our shooting tests the magazine clearly showed scratches in its Parkerizing from use, though the rifle itself still looked like new, except for the beginnings of the normal scratch on the right side of the action from the safety.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

As with most AKs — in fact, all of them we’ve shot — this rifle was perfectly reliable. There were no failures to feed, fire, or eject. Ejection was more than brisk. Empties were slung into next week. Accuracy was dismal at best, not really a surprise. We tested with Winchester, and two types of Russian ammunition. The Arsenal USA’s overall average accuracy for all shots was about 2.7 inches at 50 yards, pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the always-reliable (so far!) AKs.

Southern Ohio Gun Romanian AK-47, $400

Right off the bat, we’ll tell you we didn’t like this stock at all. It didn’t fold. In fact, it was welded to make sure it couldn’t fold. It was uncomfortable on our faces, and cold to the touch. In winter it would freeze to your face unless you wrapped it with something. We could see no good use for it, in fact, other than as a sample of what used to be available in the line of AKs. A functional wire-stocked rifle could be handy in cars or other tight spots with the stock folded, and would thus be somewhat useful. We thought this one would be far better off with a wood stock in lieu of this useless wire affair.

That having been said, the rest of the rifle was a solid, thoroughly sound AK-47. It was rougher overall than the Arsenal USA version discussed above. The forend was laminated wood, and appeared to have no finish on it at all. Though smooth on the outside, the wood looked to be bare. It appeared to be strong, and it would be a minute’s work to rub linseed oil onto it, which would help its appearance a lot. The top piece of forend wood, that surrounded the gas tube, was loose, and could be rotated slightly. We thought that needed attention.

There was no muzzle brake on the chromed bore (all three rifles had chromed bores). There was a cleaning rod beneath the barrel. It was loose, and rattled slightly. The abutment for the “folding” stock had a sling loop on its left side, and the rifle had the normal sling loop at the front. The left side of the Parkerized, stamped-sheet-metal action held a riveted-on bracket of some sort, for which we could detect no immediate use. We guessed it was a scope mount of some sort.

The overall metal finish and polish was not as good as the Arsenal USA rifle, but thoroughly serviceable and by no means disgusting. The innards of the previously discussed rifle were clearly very well made and nicely finished. The visible inner parts of this Romanian rifle were rougher looking, and didn’t have the nice machining or finish of the other, but all of the parts worked in harmony.

Once again we found the magazine hard to insert when everything was new, but insertion became easier as we went along. However, getting the magazine out was always harder than it ought to have been, we thought. The ten-round mag of this rifle interchanged with that of the Arsenal USA rifle. The safety here was the AK long lever, and again the bolt didn’t stay open following the last shot.

The sights on this Romanian rifle were properly placed in a vertical position, and though the shots weren’t quite centered on target, there was room to fix the problem, unlike with the Arsenal USA version. The rear sight here was calibrated out to 1000 yards.

At the range we found more perfect reliability, as expected. Overall accuracy was a bit worse than with the other rifle. All groups averaged about 3 inches at 50 yards. This rifle showed a slight preference for the Russian hollow-point fodder, but not enough to praise. The trigger pull was long and creepy, but workable. It broke at 5.5 pounds.

Ohio Ordnance Works VZ 2000, $1250

We nearly fainted when we found out the price of this rifle after we had examined and shot it. But that was, to some extent, the result of our ignorance of what we had in our hands. The VZ 2000 is a semiautomatic version of the Czech Model 58 assault rifle, which for a long time was the standard shoulder weapon of the Czech army. Like the AK, it came in a variety of configurations that included folding stocks and bipods. While the Model 58 resembles the AK-47 superficially on the outside, the Model 58 and this VZ 2000 have many inner-part variations and design features that are distinctly different from the AK, especially the fact that the 58 and VZ 2000 are striker-fired, not hammer fired as with the AK. Most noticeable to us, other than the obvious cosmetic differences, was the lighter weight of the VZ 2000, and the fact that the VZ’s bolt remained open after the last shot.

The VZ 2000 test rifle featured a well-machined, solid-steel receiver. All the metal featured a dark-gray finish that appeared to be some kind of paint, or a baked-on coating. In fact, it was “heat cured paint to match original Czech finish,” per the company’s website.

The metalwork was excellent throughout. Unfortunately, the authentic stock looked like it was made of bits of wood pressed together and bonded with epoxy. The stock’s resemblance to inexpensive house siding didn’t endear the rifle to us in the slightest, never mind that it’s supposed to look that way. Again, as with the Romanian AK-47, the upper forend “wood” was loose in its metal retainers, though not as loose as on the previous rifle. There were provisions for a sling, and the steel butt plate was curved enough to significantly help the rifle stay put on our shoulder.

Instead of the common AK sheet-metal lever safety, this one had a milled, three-position rotating lever on the right side of the receiver, just above the pistol grip. Forward was Safe, but the middle detent didn’t seem to do anything. It was probably the full-auto position of the original design. The rearmost position was “fire,” which put the lever in uncomfortable contact with our trigger finger. The lever was large enough that part of it could be ground off to reduce or eliminate this problem.

The rifle came with four 30-round “banana” magazines, and a case to hold them. There was also a sling and cleaning kit. The magazine was released in a manner similar to that used on the AK-47, by pinching forward on the protruding lever. In this case, the trigger guard was bent out of the way on the left side to give the thumb access. The VZ 2000 did not accept AK magazines, nor did the AKs accept this one’s mags. Magazine changing was easy and positive, and the mags fit snugly, as did the AK’s mags.

The sights were very similar to those on an AK-47. The rear was a ladder type, marked to 800 meters. It had a clearly cut, square-bottom notch. The front was in a tall and somewhat streamlined base, and consisted of a screw-mounted flat-top post for fine-tuning the zero, very similar to Kalashnikov’s design. All three rifles had curved protective wings for the front post.

At the range we got a treat with the VZ 2000. It was not only reliable, it was also accurate. It shot exactly where it looked, which we appreciated. It liked the Russian fodder better than the U.S., the reason most likely being the size of the bullets used in each. With the Winchester ammo groups averaged over 3 inches, but with the Russian ammo we got 1.3-inch groups on average. The trigger was long, heavy, and slightly creepy. It broke at 7.5 pounds.

We liked the fact that the bolt stayed open after the last shot. There was a small button in front of the trigger guard that permitted locking the bolt open for cleaning. Takedown was via a cross pin at the rear of the action, and was a bit more difficult than with the normal AK, we thought. Workmanship on all the parts we could see was excellent.

Gun Tests Recommends
Arsenal USA SSR-85B, $550. Our Pick. We liked this rifle a lot, though we would have liked more accuracy out of it. The workmanship was just great throughout the rifle, and we would not hesitate to choose this one if we were in the market for an AK-47. It was an attractive rifle overall, and appeared to be made with care, something often overlooked on mil-spec rifles. The trigger pull was a dream. The rifle came with a sling, cleaning kit, trigger lock, manual, and with “a certification of compliance with Federal regulations.” Arsenal USA maintains that this rifle complied with all Federal regulations at the time of its manufacture. It was designed to accept all normal (standard) AK-type double-stack magazines. Be sure to check local and state ordinances before fitting your rifle with high-capacity magazines. If you want a well-made AK-47, this Houston-assembled version is one of the best we’ve seen.

Southern Ohio Gun Romanian Wire-Stock AK-47, about $400. Conditional Buy. Our overall opinion of this rifle was strongly clouded by its nearly useless stock. Resting one’s face on it caused the rear of the receiver to just touch our nose, and each shot could have been harmful if we hadn’t been alert to the sharp metal on the rear of the recoiling receiver. The rifle was well enough made that for those who just had to have an AK that looked like this, we could recommend buying it. But we felt most shooters would be better served with a real butt stock.

Ohio Ordnance Works VZ 2000, $1250. Conditional Buy. The only fault we could find with this rifle was that we would have liked a better trigger, and for its price, that ought to have been taken care of, in our opinion. However, the pull is most likely authentic. The rifle was certainly well made, and to our knowledge there are no other sources for the Model 58 (also known as VZ-58) rifle extant. So if you want one, this is it. Note that this design does nowhere near as good a job of keeping dirt out of the bolt raceway as the shrouded AK-47, but for most shooters, that won’t matter. The gun was pleasantly accurate, something uncommon in our experience with rifles that shoot this cartridge. The VZ 2000’s only real problem was that its price would deter many buyers. For those who want to build their own, Ohio Ordnance Works offers a receiver kit for $795, made of 4140 heat-treated steel.