June 2011

AK-74 Showdown: Polish and Bulgarian Rifles Beat a WASR-2

It was a close battle between two Interarms AKs, the WZ-88 and a Bulgarian wood-stocked model. The Century Side-Folder exhibited a host of problems that made us sour on it.

The AK-47 is one of the most efficient and widespread assault rifles ever built. Soviet weapons designer Mikhail Timofeevitch Kalashnikov conceived of the basic mechanism while recovering from wounds he received in a tank battle in October 1941 near Bryansk. Though his idea pivoted off the German concept of the assault rifle, Kalashnikov came up with his own design that led to several variants of the mechanism being built in the 1940s. In 1946, substantial revisions to working prototypes by Kalashnikov’s assistant Aleksandr Zaytsev made the resulting 1947 model, the AK-47, especially reliable. The Soviet army officially adopted the AK-47 chambered in the 7.62x39mm Soviet as its battle rifle in 1949, and large-scale distribution of the weapon began in the mid-1950s.

More than 20 years later, although Kalashnikov’s AK-47 and its follow-on variant, the AKM, had proven their effectiveness on battlefields worldwide, the Soviets wanted a lighter version of the AK to compete more effectively with the M16. So Kalashnikov updated and refined the AK-47 to create a smaller-caliber variation, the AK-74, which appeared in 1974 chambered in 5.45x39mm.

We recently tested three versions of M. T. Kalashnikov’s AK-74 to see which one we would recommend to the Gun Tests readership. The first was a Century Arms WASR-2 Romanian Side Folder 5.45x39mm, $600, on loan from a friend of the magazine; and two guns from Interarms, the first a Polish Tantal Side-Folder AK-74 Rifle WZ-88 5.45x39mm, $619; and the second a Bulgarian Style AK-74 5.45x39mm, $639. This version of the Kalashnikov design first saw service with Soviet forces in Afghanistan, where the 5.45x39mm round was dubbed the "devils round" or "poison bullet" by the mujahadeen.

One of the first issues we need to address is the problem of the 5.45x39mm bullets "key-holing" when they strike a target. According to Century Arms literature, "While barrel-twist rates have a slight effect on performance of the bullet, as we learn more about the 5.45x39mm cartridge, it is generally accepted that the bullet upset phenomenon is an intentional design attribute calculated to avoid over-penetration of a target and maximize energy transfer."

Century goes on to explain that the longer the bullet is in proportion to its diameter, the more twist is needed to stabilize it, and a low-velocity bullet requires a faster twist to stabilize it.

For our test, we chose some standard fodder that we didn’t expect to keyhole. Our first 5.45x39mm round was Wolf’s Military Classic 70-grain FMJ No. MC545BFMJ, a Russian-made steel-cased non-reloadable non-corrosive pick. We bought several 25-round boxes at online retailer www.CheaperThanDirt.com a while back, but it’s currently out of stock. Next, we went to www.AmmunitionToGo.com for 120 rounds of Silver Bear’s 60-grain FMJ boattail No. A545NFMJ, $24.95. This ammo is manufactured by JSC Barnaul Machine-Tool Plant in Russia, considered the country’s premier ammunition plant. It is non-corrosive new factory ammo with zinc-plated steel cases that don’t build up lacquer in the action. Last was Monarch’s FMJ 60-grain boattail, available at some Academy Sports stores in the South. It cost $8.79 for a 30-round box.

We ran the velocity numbers on a Competitive Edge Dynamics M2 Chronograph, a lightweight, compact system with a large, easy-to-read LCD screen ($200 from Brownells), and had on hand a Magna-Matic Corp. Standard AK Front Sight Tool (#100-005-933, $31, also from Brownells). The hardened steel tool enables fast, easy, precise windage and elevation adjustment on a variety of Kalashnikov-type rifles, and we’ve learned the full-circle clamp is stronger than C-clamps. The T-handle from the circle clamp serves as a wrench to adjust the sight post for elevation. It sure beats using needle-nose pliers to drift the front sight.

Here’s what we thought of these rifles:

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