Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Straight Talk: The AK-47 in America

If there is any one weapon that is instantly recognizable the world-over, it is the ubiquitous AK-47. With nearly 100 million produced if you count all of the variants, it is the most widely produced military rifle the world has ever seen. The simplicity and ruggedness of the design made it a popular choice for armies the world over. Unfortunately many of those regimes have been brutal, which has resulted in the AK-47’s checkered reputation, especially in the West.

Officially, Mikhail Kalashnikov began work on the AK-47 design in the waning years of World War II taking cues from several contemporary weapons – including the locking lug system used on the M1 Carbine and M1 Garand, as well as the German Sturmgewehr. It was designed around the intermediate power 7.62x39mm cartridge. The initial design was accepted after modification in 1947 and became the Avtomat Kalashnikova - 47, (Kalashnikov automatic rifle, model of 1947). It was then widely produced and exported to Soviet satellite states and pro-Soviet regimes across the world.

As with many military rifles, some started making their way to the United States, even though it was technically the rifle of the “enemy” during the cold war, and importation of fully automatic firearms was difficult. Bringing home “battlefield pickup” rifles was common for veterans of World War II, but far less common in Korea and Viet Nam. Popularity of AK variants in the United States started to soar in the 80’s when importations of Norinco and Polytech semi-automatics started. Unfortunately the increase in popularity didn’t go unnoticed.

With the passage of the ironically (and insultingly) named Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 – specifically its Hughes Amendment – the transfer of fully automatic weapons not registered by (and therefore not manufactured by) May 19. 1986 was prohibited. At that time there were very few fully automatic AK-47’s in the nation, though the number of semi-automatic “sporters” was growing rapidly. As the 80’s came to a close and through the early 90’s, many more came in as parts kits or were directly imported as completed semi-automatic firearms.

The AK-47 and so-called “assault weapons” are also became the rallying cry for groups steadfastly opposed to the Second Amendment. These groups state that they simply want to keep the AK-47 out of the hands of criminals and gang bangers, but in all of their rhetoric they fail to mention that fully automatic AK-47’s (and thus the only ones that could be semi-accurately termed an “assault weapon”) are exceedingly rare in this country – and the few that exist are either expensive collectors’ items or are held by Class III manufacturers, dealers, or law enforcement. The gun banners fail to mention that it is currently illegal to import fully automatic AK-47’s. They fail to mention that it is currently illegal to convert a semi-automatic AK-47 to a fully automatic one. They fail to mention that it takes a fair amount of gunsmithing skill to make that conversion successfully. They also fail to mention why they cling to the misguided belief that criminals willing to break all of the above laws would suddenly comply with an “assault weapon ban.” In fact the Justice Department concluded that the original 1994 ban had little effect on crime rates, largely because “assault weapons” were used in such a small portion of crimes before the ban, and because the ban was largely cosmetic.

Currently, semi-automatic AK variants in the United States are required by law to have a maximum number of imported parts (10). The American made parts are generally referred to as “compliance” parts as they are required to “comply” with Section 922(r). The number of parts varies from rifle to rifle, but for most AK’s there are a total of 16 or 17 parts, which means to build or manufacture a semi-automatic AK you need at least 6 or 7 American made parts, one of which is the specially designed semi-automatic receiver. The receiver design of these semi-automatic AK variants is approved by the ATF – and their criteria are fairly stringent as the ATF doesn’t want individuals to be easily able to convert a semi-automatic firearm into a fully automatic one. There is a whole industry which has built up around parts manufacture for the AK in the United States, with very few of the parts numbered under Section 922(r) requiring importation at this point. As a result of the latest ATF unilateral (and Constitutionally questionable) “reinterpretation” of the law to now ban the importation of barrels , you can even get US made barrels for AK’s and many of its variants at this point.

The semi-automatic version of the AK has now become a common rifle in America, interest was renewed after the sunset of the 1994 ban (as many people incorrectly believe you couldn’t buy an AK variant during the ban). The 7.62x39 round is a good round for game up to the size of a deer, and with 5 round hunting magazines available, a semi-automatic AK can serve well as a short range hunting rifle. They are also excellent bush rifles and varmint rifles as their rugged design and good reliability in adverse conditions means they can take the abuse and still function flawlessly. Of course, given its heritage, the semi-auto AK also works very well as a self-defense or home-defense weapon. The 7.62x39 round is more powerful than the majority of pistol rounds (though less powerful than the majority of rifle rounds), so if the firearm is used in this capacity, you must be cognizant of your surroundings.

Though it is demonized by many (some out of malice, some out of ignorance), the AK and its semi-automatic variants represent an amazing success story. The key is understanding what the AK is, and what the AK is not. In the United States, the overwhelming majority of rifles are semi-automatic. They are not truly “assault weapons” – they are not “spray and pray” weapons. Anyone who tells you differently (see the myriad anti-Second Amendment groups, factions, and organizations) is lying to you. The cartridge used by the AK is not “powerful” except as compared to some pistol rounds. As rifle cartridges go, it’s on the weak side. The AK is not the weapon of choice for gangs, nor is it used in a large percentage of violent crimes. Again, anyone who tells you differently is lying to you, which beg the questions “why must they lie to support their case for legislative action? What are their true motivations?”

In the battle to preserve the Second Amendment, the AK-47 and other mislabeled “assault weapons” represent what many hope is an easy first step in a more comprehensive plan to remove all firearms from the hands of private citizens. It is seen as an easy target because in the past it has been used as a wedge issue to divide gun owners. Labels like “terrorist weapon” have been used when referring to the AK – in a blatant attempt to move public debate from one based on logic and data to one based purely on manipulated emotions. If the law-abiding gun owning community is divided, those who want to abolish our Second Amendment are going to have an easier time reaching their goals. Believe me, if so-called “assault weapons” (in reality semi-automatic hunting and sporting rifles) are banned, next on the list will be “rapid fire weapons” (any semi-automatic rifle or pistol), followed by “long range sniper rifles” (any hunting or target rifle with a scope). If we truly value our freedoms, we must avoid this slippery slope at all costs.

Until next time!


April Hail said...

right on target if you can pardon the pun. rp

Fingolfen said...

Thanks! Rather than waiting for the disinformation campaign, I wanted to get the facts out there first... Unfortunately CNN and the New York Times still trump me on readership by several orders of magnitude...

Anton leRoux-Marx. said...

Happened upon your blog via Google. I'm trying to get info to win a bet. I served on the Namibian/Angolan border on a regular basis for the SANDF. I brought AK cartridges back (picked up after contacts etc) but now have lost them. My main claim for the AK's reliability was the fact that it had a slightly TAPERED cartidge (plus chamber), therefore, if the cartidge moved back (on ejection) a fraction, it would be LOOSE in the chamber (the most common jam with our FN/Nato/SANDF 7.62's.), but now I can't find proof of this on the net. Help. Redafrican@blogspot.com.

Fingolfen said...

Anton - There are a lot of firearms out there with a taper to the cartridge. The reliability of the AK is more due to the simplicity of the weapon design than the cartridge. The AK uses a simple gas piston blow back system. To function properly the cartridge still has to head space properly just like any other rifle cartridge. If a cartridge was loose in the chamber or jammed into the chamber, the weapon wouldn't function properly - even on an AK. However, the locking lug system on the AK is simpler than an FN-FAL or M-16/AR-15 - so there are fewer things that can go wrong. That being said, modern M-4's and AR-15's have very good reliability as well... though the early problems in the 60's and 70's will likely haunt them forever!