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 Kalashnikovs 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 Kalashnikovs 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. Kalashnikovs 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 didnt expect to keyhole. Our first 5.45x39mm round was Wolfs 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 its currently out of stock. Next, we went to www.AmmunitionToGo.com for 120 rounds of Silver Bears 60-grain FMJ boattail No. A545NFMJ, $24.95. This ammo is manufactured by JSC Barnaul Machine-Tool Plant in Russia, considered the countrys premier ammunition plant. It is non-corrosive new factory ammo with zinc-plated steel cases that dont build up lacquer in the action. Last was Monarchs 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 weve 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.
Heres what we thought of these rifles:
Century Arms WASR-2
Side Folder 5.45x39mm, $600
Lets start with the creepy stuff. The acronym “WASR” stands for Wassenaar Arrangement Semiautomatic Rifle, with the Wassenaar Arrangement being an agreement between 40 countries to control exports of certain items like munitions. (If you want to make the hair on the back of your neck raise up, log on to www.Wassenaar.org and read the “Genesis of the Wassenaar Arrangement.” Who knew such a thing existed? And now, back to our story.)
The WASR-10 (10-round) designation is a post-ban version of the AKM rifle in 7.62x39mm caliber. The WASR-2 is essentially a WASR-10 chambered in 5.45×39. The WASR-series rifle is a semi-automatic version of the PM Model 63, the Romanian variant of the AK series of rifles originally from Russia. Like most other Romanian-made receivers, ours lacked a dimple above the magazine well. Also, our loaner gun did not come with any accessories such as a muzzle brake or bayonet.
Elsewhere, this progeny of the Romanian Cugir Factory had chrome-lined barrels, Romanian wood handguards, a synthetic 30-round AK-74 magazine, and was 922R compliant to use foreign mags. Century apparently replaced the original trigger with a Tapco AK G2 Trigger Group, which provided a improved trigger pull of 3.5 pounds and eliminated trigger slap common with other designs. However, a note on the Tapco website gave us pause: “… G2 Trigger Groups are also not compatible with NoDak Spud NDS-3 and NDS-65 economy receivers. In some cases, the use of these two products together can create accidental double firing of the weapon.” More on that shortly.
The gun also came with a Tapco AK folding stock. We liked the concept of the folder. In a vehicle or in an enclosed space for home defense, a folding stock can drastically reduce the length of the rifle. It also provides a sling attachment point in the knuckle. It seemingly fit our stamped receiver just fine, folding to the right with a tug downward on the stock. However, after a few uses, we cracked the stock when we were adjusting it normally. A good chunk of the composite knuckle broke off, exposing the steel spring and hinge pin. At some point, it will break off completely.
There were a number of other problems as well. The rifles safety lever would get stuck in the uppermost position, wedged under the stamped receiver cover. It took quite a lot of force to bang it loose. Also, we had trouble feeding ammunition from all of our test magazines. Rounds would catch on the ramp leading to the chamber and lock the action open. Additionally, we had a situation in which the charging handle got stuck closed so firmly that we couldnt open it by hand. We had to hold the rifle upside down and bang the handle on the edge of table to finally free it. Moreover, during these operations, the gun wasnt shy about showing us all the sharp edges it has in the receiver area. While trying to free the action, one staffer gouged a half-inch-long wound in a finger.
But this is all prelude to the most serious malfunction: the gun doubled. We noticed it about halfway through chronographing, when our spotter heard a strange report, and then saw an error reading on the chronograph. A second double confirmed the problem, so we switched around ammo and magazines to try to keep the gun from doubling. Because such a malfunction might be prosecutable these days, we chose to shut down testing on the CAI gun.
Our Team Said: The Century WASR-2 had a host of problems, some so serious that we stopped our evaluation.
Interarms Polish Tantal Side-Folder
AK-74 Rifle WZ-88 5.45x39mm, $619
Our Polish WZ-88 Tantal is a standard example of the genre. The karabinek wzr 1988 (Carbine Model 1988) Tantal is a 5.45mm assault rifle designed and produced in Poland in the late 1980s. It is a selective-fire gas-piston-operated weapon that taps expanding exhaust gases off through a port in the barrel to a gas cylinder above the barrel. The barrel is locked against its longitudinal axis by a right-rotating bolt. A spring extractor is contained inside the bolt head, and a fixed ejector rides inside the receiver housing. The fire-control selector lever located on the left side of the receiver wall was marked “C” (fully automatic fire), “P” (semi-automatic fire), and “S” for 3-round burst fire. Our samples lever was locked on S, of course, and as a semi-auto, it isnt accurate to call it an assault rifle.
Design work on the Tantal began in 1984 at the government-owned Oœrodek Badawczo-Rozwojowy (OBR) in the city of Radom, with the first prototypes appearing in 1986. Notably, the wire stock was a copy of the wire stock used on the East German MPi-KMS-72 rifle. The stock on our sample worked well when extended. The light recoil of the 5.45mm cartridge doesnt push against the shoulder much, so its very comfortable to shoot, even with the 3.8-inch-long grooved metal buttplate. However, the mechanism was very tight, and the release lever remained difficult to work when we tried to collapse the stock, even after lubrication with RIG +P grease in the stock joint.
In 1989 the rifle design was okayed for production, then in 1991, the rifle went into service with the Polish Army as the 5.45 mm karabinek wz. 1988 (kbk wz. 88). Our sample, like the originals, use a manually operated safety located on the right side of the stamped receiver. It disables the trigger bar and limits the movement of the bolt carrier. On original Tantals, sliding the safety selector to the top position (marked with a “Z” symbol) secures the weapon, lowering the lever (“O” setting) disables the safety. Our two Interarms samples didnt have these original markings, and both lacked the “S” and “F” markings on the CAIs receiver.
Our Tantals magazine was a double-column polymer curved box magazine with a 30-round capacity. We had no misfires or misfeeds with the Tantal, unlike what we found on the Century rifle. The cold-hammer-forged barrels chrome-plated bore had four right-hand grooves and was capped with a multifunction muzzle brake.
Both the upper and lower handguards were red plastic, and the pistol grip was a frosted black-polymer checkered item, the shape and size of which our testers praised. It attached to the rifle through a bottom slot screw.
The rifle had mechanically adjustable iron sights that consisted of a notch on a sliding tangent and forward post. The rear sights drop arm has a range scale engraved with settings from 1 to 10 (corresponding to firing ranges from 100 to 1000 meters, graduated every 100 meters) and a fixed “S” setting that is the equivalent of setting “4” on the range scale, for 400 meters. Our sight was crisp and easy to manipulate, and the detents in it were crisp. Our testers said the front post was easy to see, and the curved ears framed it for a quick index.
On the barrel of our sample, the bayonet lug sat directly below the front sight tower. If you so fancy, it accepts a standard Polish late-pattern AKM bayonet used with the WZ-88. The muzzle brake was designed to be grenade-launcher capable, but we were fresh out. Instead, we did notice that it was a high-quality milled part. The metal snap ring near the barrel end of the muzzle brake seals off the gap between the grenade interior tube and the brake for proper gas pressurization. The muzzle brake was threaded for the 14×1 left-hand AK standard. Overall, we had high praise for the evenly Parkerized light-gray metal surfaces.
Dimensionally, the Tantals folding stock dropped the guns OAL from 37.2 inches to 29.5 inches when it was laid along the right side of the receiver. That made the gun very easy to maneuver, in part because the barrel is only 19 inches long, including the brake. However, that short barrel also created a short 14.8-inch sight radius, which can affect accuracy, as we discuss below. Perhaps the major dimensional issue we ran into was the guns 10-inch height with a 30-round magazine inserted. That requires a tall rest to shoot off, so its worth considering buying some 10-rounders with your AK so that its easier to shoot off a bench or in an unsupported prone position.
The wire stock has a short 12.4-inch LOP when extended, but that probably wasnt an issue if you were wearing a lot of clothes in a Polish winter. We didnt mind the short stock, though it made us ride up the stock a little more than our shooters were used to. The widest point of the gun occurs across the hooked bolt handle, 3.7 inches, and when the stock folds, it only adds a tenth of an inch of thickness.
Like on the Century, the Tantal had a Tapco G2 trigger in place, the action of which we really liked. However, at 7.3 pounds, it was set substantially heavier than the CAIs 3.5-pound trigger. At the range, the WZ-88 was better than the Bulgarian with two of the three rounds, shooting a 2.9-inch average group size with the Monarch 60-grain boattail, compared to the Bulgarians 4.5-inch result, and a 3.4-inch average group size with the Silver Bear 60-grain FMJ, edging the Bulgarians 3.7-inch mark.
Our Team Said: The Interarms Polish Tantal Side-Folder offered some advantages over the fixed-stock Bulgarian unit that are notable: It shot better with two of our test ammos, and the wire stock gives it CQB flexibility that the Bulgarian lacks.
Interarms Bulgarian Style
AK-74 5.45x39mm, $639
Dimensionally and operationally, the fixed-stock Bulgarian AK-74 is very similar to the Tantal, so we wont cover all that ground again. As we noted previously, the Tantals folding stock gives it an edge in maneuverability over the Bulgarian rifle. But the Bulgarian had some items that we liked. The fixed wood stock had a 13-inch LOP that most of our shooters could handle, but the team much preferred the wood buttstock and handguards over the Tantals plastic forend and wire butt.
As on the Century and the Tantal, the Bulgarian used a replacement Tapco G2 trigger, which was set at the CAIs 3.5-pound trigger pull weight instead of the Tantals 7.3 pounds. However, this didnt necessarily transmit into better downrange performance, since the WZ-88 did better than the Bulgarian with two of the three rounds. However, the Bulgarian shot the best-of-test average group sizes at 50 yards, 2.6 inches, using the Wolf Military Classic 70-grain full metal jackets. We had zero misfeeds or misfires.
Our Team Said: Unless you have a known need for a wire stock, our testers believe the Interarms Bulgarian Style AK-74 5.45x39mm is the best gun of this trio. It shot the best groups with at least one cartridge, had fine fit and finish of the wood furniture to the metal, had a even, dark Parkerized metal treatment, and was overall well mannered. Whats not to like?