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The AK47 Patrol Rifle
Written by Scott Oldham
The AK47—firing the 7.62x39mm cartridge—is a potentially useful addition to law enforcement weaponry. For many years, the rifle was the mainstay of law enforcement across the country. However, with the rapid urbanization of America, the rifle fell into disfavor and was relegated to specialty teams and armories where they were locked away, inaccessible except by special permission.
What changed, however, was that the criminal element has upped the ante on the patrol officer. More and more criminals have access to and are wearing body armor and are themselves carrying rifles, which allow for them to engage officers well beyond the range at which pistols or shotguns are routinely considered effective.
Several of these very high-profile incidents have seen numerous rounds fired into suspects with little to no effect due to the use of ballistic armor and offenders keeping law enforcement at bay with their weapons’ superior range. The highest profile of these incidents was the infamous LAPD Bank of America shootout, which took place on February 28, 1998. As this incident has been exceedingly well-documented, there is no reason to cover the details of the case again, save for the fact that after the shoot-out, the LAPD began fielding U.S. Government surplus M16A1 rifles, allowing patrol officers to carry them while on routine duty in order to counter what was considered a growing threat.
Numerous agencies have procured similar rifles for their officers. But others not having the funds to purchase rifles en masse for all of their officers allowed the officers to purchase their own weapons pursuing a “privately owned, departmentally approved” policy. While the 5.56mm M16 / AR-15 series rifles are far and away the primary choice for this duty, some agencies have seen fit to allow their officers to vary from the mainstream and select other weapons for use as a patrol carbine.
Many weapons have seen use in a patrol capacity other than the AR-15 and its clones. Rifles such as Ruger’s Mini-14 and PC9 carbines, as well as older surplus M1 Carbines, semi-automatic HK MP5s and others, have been authorized and are in current use with a variety of agencies. But there is recent interest in, or permitted use of, the numerous AK47 or AK74 variants.
The AK47 in 7.62x39mm and the later AK74 in 5.45x39mm are some of the world’s most ubiquitous weapons. Yet they have received very little use by American law enforcement agencies. The reasons behind this are completely political and opinion based in nature. Frankly, the thought process has always been that only terrorists, criminals and other “bad-guys” use the AK series weapons, and as such, they have no place in the hands of an American law enforcement officer. While this thought process is still a significant problem, there is a movement (still in its infancy) that sees a growing number of these weapons in the hands of officers on routine patrol duty.
One of the biggest reasons for this trend is that the AK series can be fielded for a significantly reduced cost in comparison to other systems. A basic AR-based system may run in excess of $800 for the basic rifle, with accessories totaling several hundred dollars more. Thus, many officers find it necessary to have more than $1,500 invested in their patrol rifles, a sum many officers find they simply cannot afford. Completely useable AK series weapons from several manufacturers can often be fielded new for less than $500 for the basic weapon with a slew of accessories similar to those available for the AR-15 available at reasonable prices.
While the AK series is relatively inexpensive—it is not cheap. The weapon itself has been proven on every battlefield on the planet. Just as with AR series weapons, there are “tiers” of manufacturers. Some produce higher quality weapons than others. With the AK series, most are entirely serviceable, albeit some rougher than others, from the start. With some of the AR-15 clones, this is unfortunately not always the case.
As more departments and officers have found it necessary to deploy patrol rifles, there has been an increasing call to examine the AK series weapons for use in this capacity. Putting aside the political considerations for the moment, it was decided to carefully examine what the overall cost would be to assemble and field an AK-based weapon system similar to what is commonly deployed with an AR, and after assembled, whether that weapon could perform as well as the AR-15.
The most commonly encountered patrol rifle set-up is the rifle itself with multiple spare magazines, some type of red dot-style optic and a tactical light. Fielding the most inexpensive package possible, a used AK47 in 7.62x39mm was procured from a local pawnshop for $300. To meet Federal 922r requirements, it was necessary to change out several foreign made parts for their U.S. manufactured equivalents. This made the weapon compliable with ATF requirements and allowed it to be equipped with a short fixed stock (or folding stock), a pistol grip and vertical foregrip.
The AK47, which was manufactured by Norinco, was equipped with similar capabilities to other AR-platform rifles but with less expensive equipment. It was equipped with SureFire’s excellent M83 Picatinny rail system, which allows for the mounting of lights, lasers, vertical foregrips and any other accessories that can be mounted on a rail. On this rail was mounted one of SureFire’s 6-volt Classic Universal legacy system lights that was procured for $100 complete with mount on eBay.
Also from eBay was an older Aimpoint 5000 red dot optic, which came in at a very reasonable price of $125. Since we were already changing out various parts and attempting to make the AK as user friendly as possible, the Norinco was also the recipient of an ERGO brand pistol grip, which was added to allow for superior control of the rifle.
All together, the conversion of the used Norinco into a rugged patrol rifle was now hovering near the $550 dollar mark. In adding a single-point sling and four 30-round magazines, the price of the weapon, with its accessories, came in totaling right at $650. That is substantially less than even the most basic, entry-level AR-platform rifle, even if one were found “used.”
In fielding the AK series weapon, what was lost in comparison to AR platform?
While the cost difference in the two weapons systems are obviously quite substantial, what exactly were the performance differences, if any? Again, putting aside the political and media-driven issues, could the AK series platform perform as an adequate patrol rifle?
We tested the Norinco AK47 against one of the most popular makes of AR-15 for accuracy at 50 yards as most patrol level uses of a rifle will be well within that distance. Each weapon fired a five-round group from prone three times, and the results were averaged to give an approximation of what the rifles would be capable of in a best-case, real-world environment.
The AR-15 averaged a group size of 1.5 inches using Federal’s American Eagle 55gr FMJ loads. The Norinco AK47 averaged 2.0-inch groups using Winchester “white box” 123-grain FMJ ammunition. Both of these averages, both using inexpensive FMJ ammunition, are well within the scope of accuracy that would allow for their use as a patrol weapon.
Both weapons were then subjected to a “limited” endurance test by firing six magazines as fast as they could be loaded into the weapon; this was to mimic what would be the worst-case patrol usage. As expected, neither weapon exhibited any problems, feeding and firing every round without issue. It was, however, during this portion of the test that one of the AR system’s true advantages came into sharp focus—superior ergonomics.
The AR-15 is without a doubt one of the most ergonomic weapon designs to ever be fielded in large numbers. During the six magazine endurance test, which admittedly was not a true endurance test but rather a proof of ability test, all evaluators found that it was much easier to change magazines and get the weapon back into action quickly with the AR-15 design than with the AK47 design.
This enhanced performance was due to several factors, not the least of which is the ability to simply insert the magazine into the AR in a conventional manner rather than the “rock and lock” method required with the AK platform. Also noted here was ability of the AR users to leave their strong hand on the weapon and in control while performing magazine changes and charging the weapon. Users of the AK found that while some people are capable of doing so, this was a much more cumbersome operation with this platform than with the AR design.
Also in the realm of ergonomics is the placement of the manual safety. With the AR, this is a very well designed lever located on the left side of the weapon that is capable of being manipulated with the thumb of the strong hand while still retaining a grip on the weapon. With the AK—on most variants—the safety is a large lever on the right side of the weapon that is not at all easy to manipulate. With most people, the strong hand must come completely out of the firing grip to either apply or disengage the safety.
Both weapon designs have been thoroughly tested in every climate on the planet and have proven themselves in combat for the past three and a half decades—so further, “endurance” testing would be pointless. What this test did is allow for the weapons to get extremely hot and provided for the operators to judge the now-hot weapon based on how well they could use it without gloved hands. In each case, both weapons were judged to be very usable but the AR clearly got the nod as the most desirable weapon. This again was due to the ergonomic placement of controls, which keeps the hands away from any part of the weapon that is susceptible to heat transfer.
In terms of ballistics, both weapons offer true rifle-caliber wounding effects that simply dwarf any other handheld weapon in common law enforcement use, especially when utilizing properly constructed hollow or soft point rounds. The 7.62x39mm round is very similar to the older .30-30 Winchester round common to deer hunters across this country. But care should be used in selecting loads for either weapon as use of full-metal jacketed ammunition may not have the desired or anticipated effect. The 7.62x39mm basically gives 30-caliber ballistics at recoil levels much more controllable than the 30-caliber, 308 Winchester.
The AK series platform can mechanically and intrinsically serve well in the capacity of a patrol rifle, but two factors make it an up-hill battle against its selection: politics and the media. The media is acutely aware that the AK47 has a history of use by enemies of the United States and has portrayed this weapon as something that only terrorists or other enemies of the state would use. Likewise, the weapon has been used in several very high-profile criminal incidents, which has also led to the view shared by much of the American public that this weapon has “no legitimate purpose.”
For an American law enforcement officer to be armed with an AK47, no matter how appropriate, the public reaction and perception will figure strongly into whether or not administrators allow the use of such a weapon.
While the possibility of an agency approving the use of a true AK47 might seem remote, there are agencies that think they can successfully defeat this media-induced perception and thus allow the use of the weapons system. There are also departments that realize they must allow the use of this weapons system due to a lack of agency funding; without allowing this option, their officers might not be able to afford patrol rifles at all.
Overall, the AK series weapons are more than useable as patrol rifles and could potentially find a home in patrol cars across the nation if one is prepared to deal with the media-induced reaction that their use will bring about. For those who can manage the public opinion of their use, the AK47/74 series can become a workhorse weapon at an extremely attractive price.
Scott Oldham is a supervisory sergeant with the Bloomington, IN Police Department where he is assigned to the Operations Division as patrol supervisor, as well as being one of the team leaders for the department’s Tactical Unit. He and his partner, Sergeant Mick Williams, provide contract instruction on a wide range of subjects, including tactical and patrol-based skills. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2008
Rating : 8.5
Excellent article, but ergonomics issues are based on the experience of American policemen who are not trained to use AK. As we in Russia are used to utilize the AKs, no problems ever arise from the safety lever placement. It is similar to differences in using Beretta 92 pistols which has different direction for engaging safety from other pistols. Moreover, for example, Polish policemen do most actions with AKs with their left hand, so it is just a matter of previous training and preferences.
Submitted Jul 5 at 10:14 AM
Great to see this article. Its definitely a step in the right direction towards choosing a rifle based on performance rather than political trends.
I would have like to have seen some information outlining where the 7.62x39 outperforms 5.56, namely through intermediate barriers. To focus simply on ergonomics is not the whole picture. The MP5 I carried for years didnt have a great safety either SEF model, but was still an outstanding weapon.
This article should also allow us to stop calling it an AK47! The name is the demonizing feature. Its the equivalent to calling an AR15 an M16 assault rifle. The SLR series from Arsenal are usually not even recognized as an AK variant by the casual observer.
Good article and great call on the part of the editorial staff to publish it!!!!!!
Submitted Sep 23 at 8:57 AM
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