Do you have a love for all things AK? From accessories to the perfect camouflage for your rifle? How about the history of the AK-47 and its variants? If you want to know about AK-47 variants, and maybe some you have not heard of, you have come to the right place.
First: The Beginning
The AK-47 was designed to provide the Soviet army with a lightweight, durable, and easily manufactured rifle that would work in almost any condition. The rifle needed to be reliable in a wartime environment where dirt, debris, and rough handling were the norm.
So why not use already existing rifles? Other rifles of that time, like the German StG 44, required advanced and precise manufacturing methods. The Soviets needed a rifle that was cheaper and more easily made, and accurate for moderate distances and close-quarters fighting.
In response to this need, Mikhail Kalashnikov designed a new rifle in 1946-1947, with the first version known as the AK-46. The “Kalashnikov’s Assault Rifle, Model 1946” (AK-46) was essentially a modification of the German StG 44 that allowed for increased production.
This first prototype was made in a 7.62x39mm cartridge. It included two variants designed to make it more reliable and smooth shooting, with an option for an under-folding buttstock. The AK-46 never made it to production because the next prototype, the AK-47, improved the design in several ways. Essentially, it wasn’t long before variants to the AK were developed.
Improvements to the AK-46 included moving the charging handle from the left to right side of the weapon to reduce the risk of snagging the left side handle on clothing, a risk with the AK-46. The AK-47 also allowed for quicker disassembly compared to the AK-46.
The AK-47 was easily disassembled by pushing a button on the top of the receiver, a vast improvement over the system of pins used in the AK-46.
Other early changes included a less-steeply angled grip and a 415-millimeter barrel length. The AK-46 prototypes had more steeply angled grips and varying barrel lengths which were modified and standardized in the AK-47. When considered in this context, the AK-47 was the first variant of the AK.
Reasons For the Success
Over time, the AK-47 became the most successful assault-type rifle in history.
- The AK-47 is incredibly durable, with a service life of up to 15,000 rounds.
- The AK-47 is easily made and cheap to produce in large numbers.
- The AK-47 will fire in almost any condition. It rarely jams or misfires and will fire even when dirty.
- The AK-47 is simple to operate and easy to maintain. It has few moving parts and can be field stripped in one minute without the need for tools.
- The Soviets exported large quantities of this rifle and allowed their close allies to use the technology and blueprints to make their own weapons. Some allies were even supplied with tooling and training to make the AK-47.
The AK-47 is considered to be the most widely produced weapon on earth.
What Is a AK-47 Variant?
Strictly speaking, the original prototype, the AK-46, is the only “true” AK-47 rifle. All others are considered variants, including later models developed by the Soviets. With its widespread manufacture, both within and outside Russia, it is understandable that the rifle has undergone modification over time.
The variants are many, producing weapons to suit a particular purpose or preference.
The Basics of Early Variants
In order to understand the variants, it is important to know the features of the original AK-47. The AK-47 included a covered bolt carrier, simplified parts for easy breakdown, a long-stroke piston, and used the same 7.62x39mm cartridge as the AK-46. Sighting range settings are from 100 to 800 meters for this rifle; however, the effective range is 300-400 meters.
The original AK-47 also included a one-piece milled receiver instead of the stamped receiver used in later versions. Milled receivers are made from a solid block of steel with the internal elements of the receiver carved from the steel block, whereas stamped receivers are made from sheet metal that is stamped into the shape of the receiver.
Milled receivers are more sturdy and heavier than their stamped counterparts and more expensive to manufacture. Stamped receivers are easy to identify because they have more rivets holding the gun’s body together.
Different Early Variants
Early variants to the original AK-47 included:
- The second-generation AK-47 added a large muzzle brake and bayonet lug.
- The third generation AK-47 removed the muzzle break in favor of a compensator. The design of the gas block also was dramatically changed.
- The 1948 version changed the charging handle, creating the version used by the Soviets starting in 1949. The designation for this variant was “The AK.” This version retained the folding stock in the AKS variant, with the “S” standing for Skladony, which means folding or collapsible in Russian. This variant is known alternatively as The AK, AK-48, or simplified to just AK.
The 1948 version had several variants not to be outdone as the Soviets continued to modify the rifle over the next ten years. These variants were known by their type (Type 1, Type 2, Type 3).
- The Type 1 was another name for the 1948 version of the AK and was the first rifle produced and introduced in large numbers to the Soviet military.
- Types 2 and 3 included modifications to improve reliability: a chrome-plated barrel and receiver in Type 2; and further refinements in Type 3.
- Type 3 became the most produced mill-receiver version of the AK.
Variants After 1950
If you ever wonder why the AK-47 is the most widely produced weapon on earth, examining the multiple variants provides a basic explanation. This versatile rifle has morphed and modified for years based on each specific need, with differences slight or pronounced in each variant.
Versions of the AK-47 are used in more than 100 countries today. There are probably at least one or two that you might not have heard of with so many variants.
Other variants included:
This variant is the AK “modernized” in response to new requirements for a lighter and more accurate version of the rifle. Modifications included:
- Improved sights for greater range (+200 meters)
- Reduced weight (over 2 pounds reduction)
- New stamped receiver and receiver cover
- Recoil reduction through a new inline buttstock
- A host of other modifications that made the AKM the most widely used variant in history
The AKM has a long list of variants of its own. Some estimates indicate more than 40 variants of this rifle have been created.
A new design was introduced in 1974, the AK-74. The most significant aspect of this variant is the change to the 5.45x39mm cartridge. The smaller round, in combination with the muzzle break, makes the AK-74 one of the lightest recoil rifles made. Other changes were minor including improved front sights, incorporation of more plastic materials (magazine and pistol grip), with some later versions of this rifle using only polymer furniture.
As with the AKM, this variant spawned other offspring with changes in stocks, rails, and other features. In 1991, the AK-74M version became the official infantry weapon in Russia.
The only difference in the AK-101 compared to the AK-74M is ammunition. This rifle is chambered in 5.56x45mm and includes modifications to the barrel, receiver, and magazine associated with the change in round.
This was the first rifle in the AK-100 series and made for easier export since the 5.56 round is fairly standard around the world. The 100-series also included different barrel lengths and a 7.62x39mm version, increasing the overall number of variants for the AK again.
The AK-12 is the most recent of the AK rifles. Of course, it also has variants, but the basic AK-12 has the following changes, primarily to the inner workings of the rifle:
- Chambered in 5.45x39mm
- Fires at 700 rounds per minute and a range of 800 meters
- Relocated safety switch and charging handle
- Side-folding stock and other small changes.
The AK-15 variant is a military rifle currently used only by special forces in Russia. It is intended to replace the 100-series, specifically the AK-103. This rifle is chambered in 7.62x39mm and has some changes in the gas tube and foregrip, and reverts to the traditional AK-74 traditional lever.
Because this rifle is only used by special forces in Russia, all the details of this variant are not known.
Variants Across the Globe
Because the Soviets did not patent the AK-47 and some countries reverse-engineered the rifle, making their own versions, variants of the AK-47 have been manufactured across the globe. This combined with Soviet allies' production of the AK, ensured broad distribution of the AK-47 concept. Whether licensed or unlicensed, production was based almost exclusively on the AKM variant.
More than 30 countries have produced AK-47 variants, and more than 80 countries are using the rifle today. North Korea developed several variants, with the most unusual version known as The Type 88.
This AK-47 variant can carry up to five times as many rounds as the typical 30-round magazine and uses a smaller and lighter 5.45mm round compared to the AK-47 traditional round (7.62x39mm). The increased capacity is accomplished through the use of a helical magazine.
Although the 5.45mm round is smaller and lighter, an estimated 100-150 rounds (as opposed to the traditional 30 rounds) significantly increase the weight of the rifle.
Other lesser known or rare AK-47 variants include:
The Type 81 is a Chinese AK-47 variant manufactured to bridge the gap between its outdated Type 56 AKs and a new rifle and improved rifle that eventually became the QBZ-95. The Type 81 used a gas chamber of Chinese design and included improvements such as a more modular design, longer barrel, greater accuracy, and the ability to launch rifle grenades.
Production of this rifle also was a test of the Chinese ability to independently develop small arms instead of adapting to designs created by others. Overall, the design was a success with increased reliability, durability and accuracy.
This rifle is a good example of a reverse-engineered AK-47. Known as the RK 62, it was adopted as Finland’s service weapon. Its most recent configuration is still in use today. These rifles are expensive due to the meticulous manufacturing process in Finland and improvements to the design.
The tolerance and quality of the metal used in this design are a significant improvement over the standard AK. These rifles were used as the basis for Israel's Galil.
Israeli IMI Galil
The IMI Galil was first manufactured using the Valmet RK 62 receiver and designed to serve as an assault rifle, submachine gun, and light machine gun. The rifle is chambered in either 5.56x45mm NATO or 7.62x51mm NATO cartridges and includes a similar method of gas operation compared to the RK 62 for increased accuracy.
The completely redesigned integrated flip-up tritium sights also increase accuracy and sight radius. Other innovative modifications include a bipod that can be used to cut barbed wire.
If you are lucky enough to get your hands on an AK-47, you have a pretty historic firearm in your safe. You can make it a truly unique piece with a camouflage gun wrap specifically for the AK-47.
It is clear that the basic AK-47 has had many changes since its first introduction in the late 1940s and it would be almost impossible to describe all the variants Although there have been changes in ammunition, internal and external parts, and mechanisms, the basic look and legendary reliability has been retained.
Even though some of the AK-47 variants discussed in this article are difficult or impossible to obtain, there are many options if you are looking to purchase a high-quality AK-47. What is the Best AK-47?
Only you can decide. Whatever rifle you choose, add an additional layer of protection with a vinyl wrap that helps protect your rifle and gives it a modern look.