Weapons: Kalashnikov Goes Full NATO

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October 1, 2018: There is now a version of the AK line of assault rifles (the AK-308) that fires the standard NATO 7.62x51 rifle ammo. Known to civilians as the Winchester 308 round, the 7.62x51 has been a NATO standard since the 1950s. While largely replaced by the 5.56/45 round in the 1960s and 70s, the 7.62mm is still widely used for sniper rifles and vehicle mounted machine-guns. The Russian company that manufactures the AK line of weapons has, since the 1990s, come up with a lot of new designs, mainly for the export market and these new weapons were often chambered for the Western 7.62mm and 5.56mm (or whatever a large purchaser wanted). The AK-308 recently shown is a prototype and is basically the new Russian military rifle (AK-12/15) chambered for the 7.62x51 rather than the 5.45x39 (AK-12) or 7.62x39 (AK-15 and AK-47).

The AK-308 is 885mm (35 inches) long with a 415mm (16.3 inch) barrel and a folding stock. Empty weight is 4.1 kg (nine pounds) and it uses a 20 or 30 round magazine. Rate of fire on full automatic is 700 rounds a minute and max effective range is 800 meters. AK-308 has a Picatinny rail and attachments for grenade launcher, suppressor and bayonet. In short it is a 7.62mm rifle any Western soldier would immediately be able to handle even though it is obviously based on the original AK-47 design. The AK-308 is actually based on the AK-103 which was itself a version of the 1970s AK-74. The latest Russian assault rifle, the AK-12 also can be adapted to fire 7.62x51 but the AK-308 design is competitive with the AK-12/15 weapons which are the latest generation of Russian military rifles.

In mid-2017 Russia selected the new AK-12 assault rifles as part of its new “future soldier” (Ratnik) set of gear for its infantry. The government is having trouble finding the money to buy as many Ratnik systems as it wants (70,000 or more). So far 25,000 Ratnik systems have been delivered with priority going to special operations troops (including airborne, airmobile and marine units).

The basic AK-12 fires the same 5.45/39 round as the current AK-74 and costs 25 percent more. The AK12 outperformed the AK-74 in extensive field tests and the troops prefer it over the AK-74. In 2014 one major change was made to the original (2011) AK-12 design that lowered manufacturing costs and fixed some problems found in field testing. The new version (codenamed AK-400) won the competition (with rival rifle designs) in 2017. The AK-12 can also be provided in a version that fires the old AK-47 round (7.62x39mm) that was introduced in 1944 and is still popular in many countries. The AK-12 also keeps the basic design principles of the AK-47 alive into the 21st century.

This all began with a Russian World War II veteran, Mikhail Kalashnikov, who came up with a brilliant rifle design that so impressed his bosses that they named it after him. AK means Avtomat Kalashnikova which literally translates as “Kalashnikov Automatic”. This was no fluke. Kalashnikov had always been into mechanical things and grew up in Siberia where rural folk could own a rifle for hunting. Thus he was familiar with how rifles operated in addition to being a mechanical genius. Kalashnikov was conscripted in 1938 and because of his small size was assigned to a tank unit. There his ingenuity and mechanical skills came to the notice of his superiors, who praised and encouraged him. He was badly wounded in combat in 1941 and while he spent six months recuperating came up with some innovative ideas for a new rifle design, instigated by complaints he heard from wounded infantry soldiers. He wrote to the senior officers who had praised his skills before the war and was transferred to a weapons development organization. Among his many innovations and designs over the next five years was the AK-47, which began replacing all older infantry rifles in 1949. Kalashnikov died in 2013 but until the end he hunted and innovated, backing things like the Ratnik concept.

The Ratnik system is the Russian version of an American concept pioneered in the 1980s ("Land Warrior") and resulted in the introduction of new body armor, personal communications, wearable computers, night vision devices, and personal medical equipment. Several European countries have followed, especially the German Infanterist der Zukunft (“Infantryman Of The Future”), and Russia did the same but was delayed by cash shortages and debates over whether a new infantry rifle was needed. Unlike the United States, Russia included a new rifle design (AK-12) as part of its Ratnik gear. There was a lot of opposition to the AK-12 within the Russian high command, but at the troop level there was an even more vigorous and louder call for something to replace the Cold War era AK-74.

The entire Ratnik collection underwent final acceptance tests in late 2013. All the items of Ratnik (firearms, body armor, optic, communication and navigation devices, medical, and power supply systems plus uniform items including knee and elbow pads) have been tested and accepted. The new rifle was more of a problem until the government finally backed the AK-12. Initially, only elite troops got Ratnik while the rest of the ground forces will be stuck with the AK-74 and Cold War era infantry gear into the 2020s although the military expects the 100,000 or so special operations, SWAT and professional (contract) infantry will all have Ratnik by 2020. It will be decades before the AK-74 disappears from Russian military use.

How the AK-12 came to be was quite an epic undertaking. The Russians have made several attempts to develop and introduce a replacement for the AK-74. Some new designs even made it into combat. For example, some special operations units got the new AN-94 in the 1990s while most troops continued to use the elderly (in design and manufacture) AK-74s. The troops wanted something that could match the improvements in Western assault rifles. The firm that designed most Russian assault rifles since the 1940s designed a new assault rifle (AK-12) in response to that but the Russian Defense Ministry stalled efforts to even test it. That resistance was finally overcome and the AK-12 eventually passed the tests and outperformed competing designs.

It all began in 2012 when 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 added 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 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. Over fifty million AK-47s and AKMs were made, most of them outside Russia. Production, on a small scale, continues. It is still the most numerous assault rifle in use.

The original AK-12 (code named AK-200) was 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 7.62x39 of the AK-47/AKM, the 5.56x45 of the M-16, the 5.45x39 of the AK-74, or the 7.62x51 NATO rifle/machine-gun round. The AK-12 can use all AK-47/AKM magazines when firing 7.62x39 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 was put to the test, as the Russian military has had a growing number of AK-12s into the field since 2015, where their performance under combat conditions that could be monitored.

The AK-12 was not the best (from a technical point of view) candidate for Ratnik. The A545 was a more modern and efficient design, but the AK-12 proved more rugged and Russian troops are not big fans of radical change when it comes to basic stuff like rifles. 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. 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.

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. This proliferation of models is meant to handle niche markets, which manufacturers of cheap AK-47s are not interested in. The AK-12 will be another something special, in this case a new assault rifle for Russian 21st century infantry.

 


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