Mikhail Kalashnikov’s iconic assault weapon has a new lease of life
Anyone who keeps up to date on the world’s trouble spots will be familiar with the sight of Kalashnikov assault rifles. From the original AK introduced in 1949, to the improved 1959 AKM variant – the most common – with its numerous copies this simple and reliable automatic weapon has spread to every corner of the world and fallen into the hands of every rebel, insurgent or terrorist group. The Russian Armed Forces use the modernised, small calibre AK-74M and variations on the design have been produced in Finland, Israel and South Africa. In total at least 70 million AK-series rifles have been produced.
That’s not enough for Izhmash, the official manufacturer of the AK series. The world is a more complicated place than it was in the Cold War days when the first AKs were made, and different allegiances mean different choices of rifle calibre – often as much of a political as a military decision. To stay competitive in this market Izhmash have developed a new series of rifles based on the tried and tested AK design, but incorporating modern features and available in a choice of calibres that should suit everyone. The available options are the classic 7.62x39mm, the Russian standard 5.45x39mm and the NATO 5.56x45mm. To attract armies looking for a rugged NATO-standard rifle at a low price Izhmash are offering the AK-101.
Externally the AK-101 looks almost identical to the AK-74M. It has a very similar black synthetic stock and the familiar large muzzle brake. There are differences, though. The most important is the chambering. The AK-101 fires 5.56mm ammunition and its barrel is rifled to suit the NATO SS109 round. Because of its design it can’t accept standard M16-style magazines, and uses the normal front-locking AK type instead. Magazines are available in both metal and plastic variants depending on preference; they’re all rugged, with the synthetic ones being lighter and the steel variety almost indestructible.
Ergonomically not much has changed since 1949, so in this respect the AK-101 struggles compared to more modern designs. The safety catch can’t be operated with the thumb of the firing hand, for example, and the cocking handle is on the right side of the weapon. These failings aren’t unique to the AK, of course – many western armies live with them in their designs, too. On the bright side the old-style Kalashnikov collapsible steel stock is gone. The new model looks like a standard plastic rifle stock, but it folds to the left and locks securely against the weapon body. Because it’s a full stock rather than a skeleton model it’s more comfortable to use, and there’s also space inside for a cleaning kit.
The days of every infantryman using iron sights are long gone, and the AK-101 has been adapted to allow for the use of optics. Because of the design it’s impossible to mount a scope rail on top of the receiver because the light steel cover isn’t stable enough, so a mounting rail has been securely fitted to the left side of the weapon. Scope mounts can be fitted to that to allow almost any Russian or western sight to be mounted. There’s a recess moulded into the side of the stock to accommodate the scope rail. If required the standard handguards can also be replaced with a rail interface system, allowing the user to attach laser modules, forward handgrips or grenade launchers.
The AK-101 doesn’t have a lot of the features found in a modern rifle like the HK416, but it does come with a much lower price tag and it’s a solid, reliable weapon. For a nation that wants to adopt NATO standard calibres but currently uses AKMs it also has the advantage of not needing an expensive retraining programme – anyone who can use an AKM will get along just fine with the new rifle. Along with its compact AK-102 carbine variant this updated rifle is likely to keep Mikhail Kalashnikov’s classic design on the battlefield for a while longer yet.