The American Patriot has many choices when it comes to selecting a semi-automatic rifle for range, personal/home defense or tactical use. Two of the most popular are based on designs that date back more than 60 years but thanks to decades of development and refinement, continue to be among the most practical and popular options for today’s shooters: the AR-15 and the AK-47. There are pros and cons to each, so let’s take a closer look. Can we declare an outright winner in this head to head comparison of the AR vs. the AK? Read on to find out.
Designed in the late 1950s by Eugene Stoner, the ArmaLite AR-15 was first tested in combat by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War before being adopted as the standard issue M16A1 service rifle later in that conflict, a decision that did not come without significant controversy. In the more than 50 years since, the AR’s design has evolved with changes to barrel length, weight and twist, stock design, and provisions for optics and other accessories, but the basic operating system remains largely unchanged. Today, the AR-15 in its M16A4 rifle and M4A1 carbine iterations soldiers on as the basic infantry rifle of the U.S. military, and semi-automatic clones manufactured by dozens of companies are by far the most popular modern sporting rifles sold in the United States.
The creation of famed Russian arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK-47 assault rifle was conceived late in World War II in an effort to equip the Soviet army with a single weapon that could replace both the standard infantry rifles and submachine guns then in service. Firing a newly developed intermediate power cartridge, 7.62x39mm, the AK-47 was officially adopted by the Soviet Union in 1947 and quickly proliferated throughout the Communist bloc thanks to technology sharing licences, eventually being manufactured in more than a dozen countries including Bulgaria, Romania, China, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland. With restrictions imposed on imports of new military-style rifles from abroad, plus outright bans on rifles from several countries, including Russia, the bulk of currently available AKs are either built with a mix of foreign and domestic parts or entirely manufactured in the United States.
Head to Head Comparison
The best way to compare these two platforms, at least on paper, is to examine a few key factors that should inform your decision to choose one platform over the other. We’ll highlight a few key points about each rifle and give our opinion on which one “wins” the category.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, prior to the import restrictions on foreign semi-automatic rifles, AK-47 variants from China, Romania and other countries flooded the market and were significantly cheaper than civilian versions of the AR-15 from Colt and the few other domestic manufacturers that sold them. With foreign-built AKs now available from only a few countries, most of which cannot be legally imported with certain “military style” features, the supply of AK rifles has decreased as demand has increased, resulting in a dramatic rise in prices. On the other hand, the proliferation of U.S. companies building AR-15 parts and complete rifles has driven prices downward to the point that complete AR-style rifles can be purchased for as little as $500 or less, or assembled by the home builder in virtually any configuration imaginable. Advantage goes to the AR.
Originally offered in 5.56mm NATO, and still the most popular chambering, AR-style rifles are available today in many caliber choices, including 9mm Luger, 300 Blackout, 458 SOCOM, and even 7.62×39. The AK-47 and its variants were exclusively chambered in 7.62×39 until the mid-1970s, when the Soviet Union, at least partly in response to the success of 5.56mm, adopted the AK-74 chambered in its own version of a high-velocity, sub-caliber round. The AK-74’s 5.45x39mm round delivers similar ballistic performance to the NATO round but due to import restrictions and limited sources of domestic U.S. production has become increasingly difficult to find in recent years at the low prices it once enjoyed. AK-style rifles are also produced in 5.56mm by several manufacturers, but are far less common than the other two calibers. Advantage to the AR.
Neither the AR or the AK was originally equipped with an optical sight, being “iron” sighted in both instances as adopted. But as the needs of military and civilian users have evolved, so have the choices in sighting equipment. The availability of AR rifles with upper receivers machined for modular Picatinny rail mounting systems opens the door for virtually unlimited options for sighting systems, including fixed and variable magnification scopes, red dots, backup iron sights, and more. With its relatively flimsy sheet-metal receiver cover, mounting optical sights to AK-style rifles was historically a difficult task. But the introduction of side-mount rails combined with high-quality aftermarket accessory mounting brackets have made modern optics more common on AKs in recent years. Advantage to the AR.
Accessories & Customization
Although the home-grown AR platform enjoyed a considerable head start in accessory availability for many years, the AK has begun catching up recently. Thanks to the popularity of both the AR and AK platforms, there are nearly endless options to customize both types of rifles, ranging from adjustable stocks, muzzle devices, optics and mounts, slings, trigger and fire control groups, magazines and more. As the most popular modern sporting rifle in America, parts availability for the AR platform is unsurpassed. Advantage to the AR.
In an era of steel and wood battle rifles, the AR’s extensive use of aluminum and composite materials in its construction set it apart as a “space age” design when it debuted and its light weight has always been a hallmark of the platform. With an even wider variety of lightweight components available today, it’s easy to build a full size AR-15 style rifle under six pounds or even less. Initially designed to incorporate lightweight, easy to manufacture sheet metal stampings, early problems with high-volume AK-47 production forced the Soviets to adopt a forged and milled steel receiver. Eventually the Soviets perfected the stamped steel version and adopted it as the AKM in the mid-1960s. Today, both milled and stamped AK versions are available, with stamped rifles enjoying a weight advantage of about two pounds. But even the lightest AK build will typically outweigh an AR by up to several pounds. Advantage to the AR.
Earlier we briefly mentioned the reliability issues that plagued the AR-15 early in its service life. The AR is a battle-tested design, but it does require more frequent maintenance and a religious lubrication routine to ensure trouble-free operation, especially in harsh conditions. By comparison, the AK is legendary for its hammer-like ability to function with little or no maintenance. Advantage to the AK.
Intended primarily as front-line infantry rifles, neither the AR or AK was designed to be a target rifle. Both are capable of delivering effective accuracy at the ranges most frequently encountered in modern combat, typically up to about 300 yards. But with its tighter tolerances and inherently accurate design, the AR platform is capable of providing excellent accuracy when set up for precision work with heavier weight barrels and high-quality ammunition. The AK, although capable of good accuracy at most useful ranges, definitely lags behind the AR in accuracy potential. Advantage to the AR.
AR vs AK: Who wins?
Strictly on the basis of our scores, the AR-15 platform looks to be the clear winner based on cost, weight, ease of customization and available caliber choices, despite its reputation for being harder to maintain than the AK. But don’t discount the AK’s reputation for rugged SHTF reliability. Every American Patriot should own at least one AR-style rifle, but an AK is a great second choice for shooters