Russia is spending several hundred billion dollars to update its armed forces. But there is resistance to spending any of that to update some very basic weapons, like the assault rifle. Russia is still using the Cold War era AK-74. Some special operations units got the new AN-94 in the 1990s, but most troops are still using elderly (in design and manufacture) AK-74s. The troops want something that can match the improvements in Western assault rifles. The firm that designed most Russian assault rifles since the 1940s has designed a new assault rifle but the Russian Defense Ministry has stalled on even testing it. That resistance has been overcome and now the tests will begin next month. By the end of the year a decision is expected. The troops believe the test is just an excuse to delay the new AK-12 still further.
Last year the two century old Russian firm (Izhmash) that has produced assault rifles since World War II announced the arrival of their fifth generation assault rifle. Called the AK-12 it uses a lot of the basic AK-47 design principles but adds many new features popular in Western assault rifles.
The AK-12 is but the latest in a long line of innovative Russian infantry weapons. Appearing for the first time towards the end of World War II, assault rifles have since become the standard infantry weapon, almost entirely replacing bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles. The first generation AK was the AK-47, in the late 1940s, followed by the AKM in the 1960s, then the AK-74 (which was very similar to the U.S. M-16) in the 1970s, and limited numbers of the AN-94 (a much improved AK-74) in the 1990s.
The AK-12 is a 3.3 kg (7.3 pound) weapon that is 943mm (37.1 inches) long with a 415mm (16.3 inch) barrel. It can be fitted to fire one of four calibers: the original 7.62x39mm of the AK-47/AKM, the 5.56x45mm of the M-16, the 5.45x39mm of the AK-74, or the 7.62x51mm NATO rifle/machine-gun round. The AK-12 can use all AK-47/AKM magazines when firing 7.62x39mm ammo.
There are a lot of small but important changes in the AK-12. The stock is adjustable. The charging handle is easily used whether you are left or right handed. There is an improved safety switch, pistol grip, hinged top cover, muzzle break, iron sight, and (smaller) ejection port. The AK-12 has picatinny rails (the U.S. developed standard for attaching all sorts of accessories). The fire control switch now allows for single shot, full automatic, and three round bursts. The AK-12 is inherently more accurate because of improved barrel rifling. The AK-12 handles more easily, has longer effective range (up to 600 meters), and apparently has the same ruggedness of the original AK-47. That last item is being put to the test as the Russian military has agreed to put some AK-12s into the field, where their performance under combat conditions can be monitored.
The AK-12 is the second attempt since the end of the Cold War (in 1991) to develop a worthy successor to the AK-47. Earlier efforts had not been entirely successful. Part of the problem was that there was not a pressing need for a new AK in Russia. For example, in 2011, Russia stopped buying new AK-74 rifles. Since they already have ten million AK assault rifles (most of them older AK-47 and AKM models) in stock and only a million troops on active duty (and about as many in reserve units) buying more assault rifles was deemed wasteful. This did not stop the purchase of special small arms for commandos and other specialist combat units.
The new policy did not stop work on the new AK-12 (also called the AK-200). This weapon was originally based on the 5.45mm AK-74, which replaced the 7.62mm AK-47/AKM series as the standard infantry weapon towards the end of the Cold War. The AK-74 entered service in the 1970s and twenty years later a replacement was developed, the AN-94. This rifle used the 5.45mm round first seen in the AK-74 but was able to use larger (45-round and 60-round) magazines. The AN-94 also had burst fire (of two rounds, while Western rifles tend to use three rounds).
The AN-94 was supposed to replace all AK-74s in Russian service but due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and sharp cuts in the defense budget, this did not happen. There were also concerns about the mechanical complexity and reliability of the AN-94. That's apparently why the AK-12 was not based on the AN-94. One AN-94 feature that was adopted for the AK-12 was a 60 round magazine.
Meanwhile, an improved AK-74M was introduced in 1991 and is still in service. This is a 3.4 kg (7.5 pound), 94.3 cm (37.1 inch) weapon with a 41.5 cm (16.3 inch) barrel. It has rails for sights and such and can use a 30 or 45 round magazine. Rate of fire is 650 RPM on full auto, and max effective range was 600 meters. The AK-74 looked like an AK-47 and used the same technology.
Some five million AK-74s were built, most before the Cold War ended in 1991. North Korea manufactures a copy of the AK-74 called the Type 98. The AK-74M was the basis for the AK-12, and the two weapons are very similar, with the new rifle having more flexibility and capacity for accessories. Over fifty million AK-47s and AKMs were made, most of them outside Russia. Production, on a small scale, continues.
Meanwhile, several additional AK-74 variants have been developed and put on the market. The AK-101 fires the 5.56mm NATO round and has a 30-round clip. The AK-103 fires the 7.62x39mm round used in the original AK-47, for those who have concerns about the ability of the 5.45mm round to stop enemy troops. The AK-102, 104, and 105 are compact rifles designed for the export market and are available in 5.56mm NATO, 7.62x39mm, and 5.45x39mm calibers. All have 30-round magazines.
The company that manufactures the AK-74 still has export sales, which actually kept the firm in business for the last two decades. Orders from the Russian military declined steeply with the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and export sales were pursued aggressively. It was a matter of economic survival for Izhmash, which has been manufacturing weapons since 1807. Izhmash has also tried to shut down all the unlicensed manufacturers of AK-47/74 weapons. This has not been very successful, as during the communist period things like patents and trademarks were regarded as capitalist degeneracy.