The Best AK Variants: Modern Take On An All Time Classic

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Looking for a rundown on the best AK variants, from the old-school Russian AK-47’s, to modern custom AK47 versions that take advantage of modern manufacturing capabilities? We’ve got you covered.

The Kalashnikov AK47 rifle is the most popular, and most commonly copied weapons platform on the planet. The design is simple, as reliable as anything made by man can be, and has been used as a base for dozens of other weapons.

AK47 Variants
The AK47 can come in many variations

The problem is how to choose the best out of all these dozens of AK variants.

I love all firearms, but I’ve become “the AK guy” in my circle of friends, and I figured now was as good a time as any to share what I’ve learned.

I know you’re all interested in AKs, and what the best ones are, so let’s dive into the great big world of Kalashnikovs and see what we come up with in the hunt for the best AK variants. Along the way, we’ll go over a brief history of the AK, as well as some of the reasons why these are the best AKs on the market.

Let’s start with…


A Brief History of the Avtomat Kalashnikova

In 1941, Mikhail Kalashnikov, a soldier and self-taught engineer, found himself in the hospital due to a shoulder wound. While recuperating, he struck up a conversation with the man in the adjacent bed, and that soldier asked a good question which basically boiled down to “Why do we have one bolt-action rifle per every four soldiers, and every German soldier has an automatic?”

Kalashnikov also thought that was a good question, so he set out to design one. The result of his efforts, based heavily on his own earlier designs as well as the designs of the M1 Garand, and the SKS Carbine, would eventually become the “automatic weapon of Kalashnikov” (Avtomat Kalashnikova) or AK.

Very straightforward guy, Kalashnikov. He needed a number designation for the rifle, thought for about a second and a half and went with 47, the year.

Over 70 years later, the AK-47 and its variants have become the most prolific small arms platform on the planet. Almost 20% of the guns on the planet are based on it, which is just astounding.

This is partly because the AK platform is simple (both to produce and maintain) and partly because you just cannot break good ones. Of course, that means you have to actually find a good one.


What Makes a Good AK?

The strengths of the AK platform are in its overall simplicity, reliability, and ease of use. The whole point of Kalashnikov’s original design was to have something that would not only be easy to produce, but easy to maintain and use, and easy to keep running in the field, far from an armory and any chance of repair.

That comes with some downsides however.

The AK platform is, typically, less accurate than say, an AR-15 of similar price and manufacturing quality. This is because the looser tolerances and overall lower precision required when making an AK-47.

That doesn’t mean the AK variant is poorly designed…far from it. If you want a gun to keep running in even the most adverse conditions, when it’s full of mud, blood, sand, and sweat, looser tolerances make sense, especially 70 years ago.

More allowance for slop not only makes the gun easier to produce, which was a must for the fledgling USSR when the AK47 was developed, but it also means all that grit and grossness can’t cause a stoppage of the action, and is less likely to cause undue wear and tear as well.

In short, you can run an AK longer, dirtier, and cheaper than an AR-15.

The very best AKs are the ones that take the design specifications and ensure that, even with the loose tolerances, there’s still a high degree of precision and care taken during manufacturing.

This gives you the best of both worlds: you get the accuracy you would expect from a precision-machined firearm (most of it, anyway) along with the AK’s legendary reliability. And the AKs on this list do a great job of marrying the performance we expect from modern firearms with the ruggedness that Kalashnikov demanded all those years ago.


A Note About Stamped Vs Milled Receivers

There is a lot of debate, arguing, mudslinging, and downright propagandizing in the world of AKs about the differences between stamped and milled receivers.

For those who don’t know, milled receivers start life as a solid block of material that are then machined on a mill to remove material. A stamped receiver meanwhile starts life as essentially one or more likely multiple flat sheets of metal that are then bent into the desired shape.

What does that mean for quality?

Well, milled receivers are heavier, and will last longer, but are more expensive. Stamped receivers are lighter, are riveted together, and typically wear out faster. 50 years ago, this difference mattered a lot.

Now however, stamped receivers are lasting well over the 100,000 round mark, which is far beyond what you’re ever likely to shoot. I’ve been shooting all my life, and I shoot for a living now, and I might have shot over 100,000 rifle rounds total across several hundred different rifles, but there’s no way I or anyone else is ever likely to come close to that on a single gun, unless we’re talking about a range rental or a service weapon that’s staying in a military armory for several decades.

So in the end, milled vs stamped basically comes down to preference, and you should focus more on reliable manufacturers than on which type of receiver you’re getting.


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Best Factory AK Variants

There are a number of excellent modern AK variant manufacturers/importers out there that will give you a good value for your dollar, from cheaper models more in the vein of Kalashnikov’s original design, to modernized precision weapons that reflect the 70+ years of firearms development since then…and command a price to match.


Krebs Customs AC18-A2 AK47 

 

If you’re looking for the best and have the spare cash to actually afford it, when it comes to AKs you’re going to probably be looking at a Krebs Customs rifle.

Marc Krebs runs a tight little shop in Illinois, and while he got his start with IPSC handguns, he went on to corner the market in the custom AK47 niche. For two decades, he and the other folks in his shop have been making some of the best rifles around.

The AC18-A2 is one of their newer products, and one that I was lucky enough to test out for myself earlier this year thanks to a friend of mine who wanted to show it off (thanks Kevin).

For your two grand, you get a chrome-lined, cold hammer-forged barrel, a custom M-LOK forend, a custom safety that is worlds smoother than almost any other AK selector I’ve ever used, a Tango Down grip, collapsible Bravo Company stock, and an ALG trigger kit that’s been worked over and smoothed out by the expert gunsmiths at Krebs.


Arsenal SLR Series

Arsenal is a name you’ll hear brought up often by anyone talking about the best AK47 on the market (assuming the person running their mouth knows what they’re talking about).

They import rifles primarily from Bulgaria and assemble them and add US-made parts to comply with the various laws around importing firearms into our wonderful country. They primarily work with stamped receivers, and they offer a huge variety of configurations and optional extras for you to pick from.

Arsenal SLR Series AK47 Variant
Arsenal SLR Series AK47 Variant

I like their rifles because you just can’t break them, and they’re still affordable even if they are pricier than the imported AKs we used to be able to get our hands on before import restrictions were tightened. They are notably cheaper than fully custom guns still however.

I particularly like their 107R (7.62x39mm) and 104R (5.45x39mm) models, and have shot a few thousand rounds through each, and I’ve had no issues to speak of other than a stiff safety selector on the 104R that quickly wore in.

Overall, Arsenal makes great stuff and I could spend this whole article talking about their offerings, but they do have one other product line I have to mention.


Arsenal SAM Series AK47

Arsenal’s SAM series is one of their newer lines, but every rifle in this line is still just as reliable and well-made as all of their other products.

The SAM series is special because each rifle utilizes a forged and milled billet receiver, instead of the stamped receivers in the SLR series. These receivers have been tested by places like Battlefield Las Vegas that see thousands of rounds through their guns every week and not one has ever had a receiver fail, and some of them have over half a million rounds down the barrel.

Arsenal SAM Series AK47 Variant
Arsenal SAM Series AK47 Variant

Personally, I think that’s an absolutely unreasonable number of rounds to need to expect from your AK variant, but as far as torture testing goes, that’s a pretty compelling argument. And there’s something to be said for a gun that you have categorical proof you’ll be able to pass down to your kids, or grandkids.

These guns are accurate, especially by AK47 standards, and they’re still just as rugged and reliable as you could possibly want them to be.

What’s not to love?


Palmetto State Armory PSAK GF3

For one thing, the price. Thankfully, there are a number of budget options still available even after import restrictions and whatnot eliminated a lot of the mid-tier AKs that were available.

Thankfully, PSA is, as usual, here to save the day with affordable guns of fairly good quality.

The first generation of their PSAK line was a little shaky, but I’m willing to overlook some missteps from a first time manufacturer. Their second and third gen AKs have only improved, and now their GF3 line is making serious waves.

The GF3 rifles utilize a hammer forged trunnion (the most common failure point on a stamped AK) and were torture tested up to 10,000 rounds, which I’d say is a good number for the average user to look at.

They haven’t been out long enough to definitively say they’ll last as long as the Arsenal options, and to be honest I would be surprised to get that kind of reliability out of them, but for a new American manufacturer and for the price, it’s impossible to not recommend them.


WASR 10 AK47

The Romanian WASR 10 is still available despite recent arms import restrictions, and is the most common foreign-made AK-47 around at the moment.

They’re also some of the cheapest.

Quality-wise, they’re…okay. They wouldn’t be my first choice, but firearms are both my passion and my livelihood, so I have a bit more invested in my collection than most shooters. For those on a budget, something like the WASR 10 makes a lot more sense.

WASR 10 AK47 Variant
WASR 10 AK47 Variant

The overall fit and finish on these is mediocre at best, and the machining tolerances are about what you’d have gotten from the early post-WWII AK-47s of old, but don’t let that fool you. These things shoot.

I’ve owned three at this point, and still have my favorite one in the safe, and I don’t think any of them have ever had a malfunction. Don’t get me wrong, they are “minute of bad guy” accurate at best, but they will run all day, and will absolutely eat anything you throw at them.

My one problem with mine is that I had one that liked to tear up case heads during the extraction cycle, especially on cheaper brass ammo. A simple switch to cheaper steel ammo was enough to solve that issue though.

If that’s not enough for you, here’s the AK Operators Union beating the hell out of their WASR for 10k rounds. I strongly suggest watching their reviews of any AK variant you’re looking to buy.


Zastava M70 O-PAP

Zastava is a Serbian manufacturer that knows a thing or two about the AK platform. They still make some of the very best Yugo-pattern AKs and have been doing so for decades.

Their M70 O-PAP uses surplus wood furniture for the stock and forend, and a black synthetic grip for that old-school look we all love. The O-PAPs use a Yugo cold hammer-forged barrel for a much longer life, a reinforced trunnion, and a Yugo-style RPK receiver (machine gun receiver) for even more reliability and durability.

My M70 is possibly my favorite AK just because it was my first, but it’s also the one I have the most rounds through. I have never, not once, even a single time, had any sort of malfunction in the several thousand rounds I’ve put through it.

I’ve also never cleaned it, and the only real issue I’ve had was with one of the factory magazines that came with it which I think was old USSR surplus. Whatever, AK mags are cheap and plentiful.

Bottom line, the M70 O-PAP (not the N-PAP) works, and works well.


Parting Shots

There are a great many different AK options out there, some good, many bad, and a few that are truly great. These AKs here will run all day and night, and won’t let you down. I’ve tried to include something from every budget range here so that anyone can own an AK-47 and be proud of what they have.

Which of these AKs is your favorite? Is there one that you like more than all the rest? Let us know in the comments!


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Matthew Collins is an active contributor here at GunBacker. He’s enjoys both competitive shooting and gunsmithing. When you don’t see him at the range, you can catch him on Instagram and other gun related websites.

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