May 2016

AK-Pattern 5.56/223 Rifles: We Test Izhmash and Archer

AR-15 shooters will ask, ‘Why buy an AK in this chambering when there is a perfectly good American design for the round?’ We answer this question and more in head-to-head testing.

Putting new calibers in old designs is a popular trend, proving you can teach an old dog new tricks. In this test we look at the classic AK-47 platform chambered in 5.56x45mm to see if the new trick would fit the old dog. Matching a new rifle to an old favorite in caliber means keeping fewer types of ammo around the house, so we wondered how the AK would perform with the smaller 5.56mm NATO round to match our favorite AR platforms. Many AR and M4 variants are now available in a range of chambers, from 22-caliber plinkers to 300 Blackout and most things in between, including 7.62x39mm, so this switch works both ways if you want it to. We recently found two AK-styled rifles chambered in 5.56 NATO that we could perhaps upgrade into something better, if the base rifle functioned well enough to consider making the initial investment. Depending on their performance, these two AK-47 variants chambered in the NATO 5.56x45 round might be nice additions to a collection and would make a great companion to an AR in the same caliber.

Izhmash Saiga Sporter rifle

The Izhmash Saiga Sporter would be a fine base from which to accessorize a field rifle to exactly your liking. It needs a better trigger in particular.

Fabryka Broni Archer rifle

The Archer rifle had a Tapco trigger that we liked, but our test sample showed irritating malfunctions throughout the test despite ammo and mag changes.

We found a Polish Archer, imported by I.O. Interordnance, and an Izhmash Saiga Sport, imported by TGI, Inc., of Knoxville, Tennessee, to compete in a head-to-head contest of fit, form, and function, with considerations toward making modifications. Here’s what we learned:

RANGE DATA

Brown Bear 223 Rem. Fabryka Broni Archer Izhmash Saiga 
Average Velocity  3072 fps  2996 fps
Muzzle Energy  1152 ft.-lbs.  1096 ft.-lbs. 
Smallest Group  1 in.  0.5 in. 
Largest Group  2.2 in.  2 in. 
Average Group  1.6 in.  1.1 in. 
M855 223 Rem.   
Average Velocity  2960 fps  2984 fps
Muzzle Energy  1206 ft.-lbs.  1225 ft.-lbs. 
Smallest Group  0.7 lbs.  0.3 in. 
Largest Group  2.3 in.  2.9 in. 
Average Group  1.5 in.  1.1 in. 
Tul-Ammo 223 Rem.   
Average Velocity  2915 fps  2956 fps
Muzzle Energy  1037 ft.-lbs.  1067 ft.-lbs. 
Smallest Group  0.5 in.  0.8 in. 
Largest Group  3 in.  2.8 in. 
Average Group  1.4 in.  1.9 in. 
To collect accuracy data, we fired five three-shot groups from a bench using a rest. Distance: 50 yards, with a Nikko Stirling 3-9x42mm riflescope mounted on the guns’ rails. The Archer had the top rail supplied. To the Saiga, we added a Leapers UTG 5th Generation quick-detachable Picatinny-style double rail mount MNT-978, $28 from MidwayUSA.com. We recorded velocities using a ProChrono digital chronograph with the first screen set 15 feet from the muzzle.

The Leapers UTG 5th Generation quick-detachable Picatinny-style double rail mount MNT-978, $28 from MidwayUSA.com. It adjusts to fit the majority of side-rail variants and has a quick-detach lever.

The Izhmash with the mount in place, holding the Nikko Stirling riflescope.

Izhmash Saiga Sport 5.56x45mm, $599

GUN TESTS GRADE: B+

Izhmash Saiga Sporter rifle

The Saiga Sporter doesn’t have the classic AK look, but it performed just like the real deal.

ACTION Semi-auto, gas-operated rotating bolt
OVERALL LENGTH 37.75 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT 7 in. 
MAX WIDTH 2.5 in.
WEIGHT UNLOADED 7.9 lbs.
WEIGHT LOADED (w/ 30 rd. mag) 9.1 lbs.
BARREL 16 in., chrome lined
MAGAZINE Detachable box
FRAME Black steel
BUTTSTOCK & HANDGUARDS Fixed polymer
LENGTH OF PULL 13.75 in.
REAR SIGHT Tangent leaf, 100-300m
FRONT SIGHT Hooded post
SIGHT RADIUS 14.75 in.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT 7.5 lbs.
SAFETY Lever style
WARRANTY N/A
TELEPHONE N/A
WEBSITE N/A
MADE IN Russia

The Izhmash Saiga Sport model has the trigger moved backward toward the rifle stock. Also, the pistol grip as found on the Archer is missing. This makes the Sport look less like a traditional AK.

Before we get to the rifle itself, we should note the troubled provenance of this particular rifle and why we’re reporting just about the imported product itself, and not its national availability. The rifle is stamped “TGI KNOX TN” on the left rear receiver, designating that the importer was Tennessee Guns International, Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee. According to a Department of Justice release from March 27, 2014, Charles M. Jones III, former owner and president of (TGI), was sentenced in U.S. District Court to serve one year of probation and 100 hours of community service as a result of his felony conviction for importation of goods (firearms) by false statements. Jones pleaded guilty to the offense pursuant to a plea agreement, the release said. The plea agreement also resulted in TGI forfeiting and relinquishing several thousand firearms and firearms parts that were seized from TGI. Now, TG International, operating out of Louisville, imports and sells parts and accessories from Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Finland, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, and Austria, but does not list any firearms on its website. So, in the nearby module for this rifle, there’s no contact information or other support listed. However, CDNN lists what we believe is a similar or identical rifle for $499, and other vendors may sell it as well.

The rear and front sights on the Saiga are what the AK user would expect — typical ladder design rear and drift-adjustable front.

We prefer to add an optic, which requires the placement of a mount, purchased separately.

The Izhmash Saiga Sport is a Russian-made AK-47-style rifle. While Izhmash is more famous for the Saiga 12 shotgun model and the 7.62x39mm AK-47, the 5.56 NATO model still holds true to the bigger Saiga designs. The first point about the Saiga is also the first thing most people change after purchase, the trigger. The Sport model of the AK-47 is a modification of the original design to make previous versions easier to pass import regulations, most notably the trigger has been moved backward toward the rifle stock. Also, the pistol grip is missing, and the foregrip is longer, covering the gas tube. This makes the overall look slightly less like a traditional AK and more like a hunting rifle with an AK receiver.

The trigger occupies space that usually holds a pistol grip, but the pins in the receiver are all in the original location, so the mechanism has been extended. This creates a 7.5-pound, longer, mushier break on the trigger, and it was very noticeable when stacked up to the Tapco G2 in the Archer. With its rifle stock, it does not resemble a typical AK, and the ergonomics are off as well.

Shooting it more like a semi-automatic hunting rifle with a rough trigger, and less like a normal AK, led to respectable out-of-the box accuracy, with our team averaging groups of 1.37 inches at 50 yards with a scope. We shot the Saiga with a Leapers UTG 5th Generation quick detachable Picatinny-style double rail mount MNT-978, available for $28 from MidwayUSA.com. This mount allows for a scope to be mounted on an AK-47. It is constructed of machined aluminum and is adjustable to fit the majority of side rail variants. It features a quick-detach lever for simple installation and removal. It has STANAG dimensions and 12 slots on the top rail and eight slots on side rail. The best part of shooting the Saiga was the all-day reliability, with no failures in our tests with any ammunition, steel or brass cases, 5.56 or 223 Rem., and both magazines that came with the gun. The Saiga and the Archer each came with one magazine, and they were not the same. Testing both magazines with all three types of ammunition through the Saiga went well, with no feeding or ejection issues.

The main virtue of the Saiga was its all-day reliability. We had no failures in our tests with any ammunition or magazine. If you like the run-all-day nature of the 7.62x39 cartridge and rifle, you’ll probably like this smaller chambering even more because it is easier to shoot.

Our Team Said: The Saiga ended up being exactly what we expected after our experience with its 7.62x39 big brother. This was an AK-47 that doesn’t quite look the part, but sure does work like it. The B+ grade is the result of all the things we wish we could change on this rifle, such as the trigger and lack of a pistol grip. Functionally, our testing with the Saiga was flawless, and as a quick online search or conversation with your local gunsmith will tell you, the conversion process to make the Sport a traditional AK is not difficult or expensive.

Fabryka Broni Archer 5.56x45mm, $900

GUN TESTS GRADE: C

Fabryka Broni Archer rifle

The Archer is definitely tacti-cool, but in our tests, it did not perform as well as it looked.

ACTION Semi-auto, gas-operated rotating bolt
OVERALL LENGTH 35.5 to 38.25 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT 7.9 in.
MAX WIDTH 2.5 in.
WEIGHT UNLOADED 8.8 lbs.
WEIGHT LOADED (w/ -rd. mag) 9.9 lbs.
BARREL 16.25 in., 1-10 RH twist, black parkerized steel
MAGAZINE Detachable box
FRAME Military finish
BUTTSTOCK & HANDGUARDS 4-position telescoping stock, plastic
LENGTH OF PULL 11 to 13.75 in.
REAR SIGHT Tangent leaf, 100 to 1,000m, adjustable for elevation and windage 
FRONT SIGHT Hooded post, adjustable for elevation
SIGHT RADIUS 14.5 in.
TRIGGER PULL WEIGHT 4.5 lbs.
SAFETY Lever style
WARRANTY Limited lifetime
TELEPHONE (321) 499-3819
WEBSITE IOInc.us
MADE IN Poland

One of the additions the Archer includes is a tab on the safety lever (arrow). It makes the safety easier to manipulate and it holds the bolt open.

Our test rifle was originally imported by I.O. Inc., based at the time in Monroe, North Carolina. I.O. Inc. has since relocated to Palm Bay, Florida. Fabryka Broni, also known as Łucznik Arms, is a Polish arms manufacturer in Radom, Poland. Łucznik translates to English as Archer or Bowman, which is why the rifle can be found listed as both Archer and Radom in the United States, depending on the seller. Ours was imported by I.O. Inc and is listed as a standalone Archer model on the company’s website.

The Archer is the civilian model of the Beryl military rifle made for the Polish Armed Forces. This design is relatively new, being adopted by the Polish military in 1997, but it is still based on classic AK roots. The civilian version can be loaded out to match most of the military options, minus full automatic cycles and under-mounted grenade launchers. The optional rail, stocks, and handguard make the Archer tacti-cool, but we had our doubts about the top rail holding a zero after cleaning.

Another Archer upgrade is the sizable steel Picatinny rail. Using a detachable LaRue base, we found taking the scope on and off the rifle held zero, which we didn’t expect.

The Archer comes standard with a U.S.-made ProMag polymer magazine that counts towards the rifle’s 922r compliance. Our inspection showed the rifle to be well made, if rough in spots. The Fabryka Broni “FB” inverted triangle logo adorned the left front part of the receiver. The four-position collapsible polymer stock was easy to adjust and had a thick and soft rubber recoil pad that felt good on the shoulder, but which wasn’t entirely necessary to cushion the recoil of the light 5.56 ammo.

Elsewhere, we liked both the magazine-release paddle’s oversized tab and enhanced safety lever, which made the Archer easy to manipulate. The large tab in the middle of the safety lever has a cutout, which holds the bolt carrier’s charging handle, allowing the action to be locked open. The top rail Picatinny mount was made of steel and had a full-length sighting channel so the shooter could use always use iron sights, even with an optic mounted.

Here’s what we didn’t like about the Archer: stoppages. We tried a variety of ammunition and magazine combinations to sort this out, as well as a mid-test breakdown and cleaning, but the gun never ran as reliably as the Saiga, which had no hiccups.

The telescoping stock adds a nice change in ergonomics, and the Tapco G2 trigger made most of the first magazine an enjoyable experience. As we sighted in the scope, we noticed a pattern of failures in the functioning of the Archer. Every second to last round in a magazine jammed. We were using the Brown Bear 223 Remington ammunition to sight in the scope, so we switched to the M855 5.56x45mm and the magazine the Saiga came with and had the same problem, the second to last round in the magazine failed to load. Performing our due diligence, we tried all three ammunition types and both magazines and found that using the M855 or Tul-Ammo in the original magazine worked best, in that it didn’t have a feed failure on that second-to-last round every time, just most of the time. We tried not loading a full magazine, but the only configuration that never produced a failure was two rounds or fewer in a magazine, which leads to a lot of reloading. Overall accuracy was slightly outside of the Saiga at 1.5-inch average groups. We wanted to test the rail mount’s return to zero, so after the testing was finished for accuracy, we field-stripped the rifle, pulling the top rail with scope off and cleaning and oiling the rifle in hopes this might help with our malfunction problems. We were pleasantly surprised with the zero on the scope after putting it back on, seeing no noticeable loss in accuracy after the rail removal. But malfunction issues on the second-to-last round persisted.

Our Team Said: We liked the overall fit and feel of the Archer, and the rail system is a great addition to the AK receiver, but we could not get past the rifle’s feed failures. Also, the Saiga left little wear on the magazines, only minor scuffs on the outside of the plastic, while the Archer chewed up the topside of its magazine like a teething toddler. The gouges in the magazine did not seem to effect the functionality of it in either rifle, but it definitely looked bad, and in the long run might create some functional issues beyond what we experienced.
Another problem is the Archer magazines are expensive and hard to find. A recent check of magazine prices on GunBroker.com showed the proprietary magazines sell for upwards of $40 and there aren’t that many listings.
All in, we would rather buy the $600 Saiga and have it converted with a better trigger and pistol grip. However, a similar supply problem exists for the Saiga 5.56 magazines, and may be worse. Caveat emptor.

Written and photographed by Austin Miller, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.

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