Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Great Debates: AR-15 vs. AK-47

It’s an argument that’s been around for decades: Which is the better rifle platform, Eugene Stoner’s AR-15/M16 or Mikhail Kalishnikov’s AK-47? Both are used extensively by police and military forces around the world. These two weapons platforms have been going head to head against each other in various military conflicts around the world for nearly 50 years. Still, each seems to shine in their own particular way.

Caliber aside, probably the biggest difference between the two rifles is the tolerances with which they were built. The AK-47 was built to function flawlessly in any condition. The AR-15 was built to be incredibly accurate as well as reliable, but the finer tolerances increase the chances for failure. It’s also extremely lightweight, with most parts made from high strength aluminum with a few critical steel components. The AK on the other hand is almost all steel, making it that much more durable, but also significantly heavier.

Iron sights on the AR platform are much better than the AK, with a rear aperture sight and front blade. The AK by comparison has only a rudimentary Partridge sight system. Scopes are much more difficult to mount on the AK platform, requiring a forward scout style mount or a difficult to stabilize receiver cover or side rail mount. AR rifles by comparison were designed to have optics securely mounted onto the integrated carry handle, or attached to the Picatinny rail on later flat-top models.

Each rifle was designed with certain performance requirements. The US military wanted a precision rifle that was lightweight, very accurate, and which could fire a high-pressure lightweight projectile. The Soviet Union on the other hand wanted a rifle that was tough and nearly indestructible; one which could perform well under the harshest conditions. Both nations got what they asked for.

Below, we evaluate the two platforms on a number of parameters, evaluating their weight, ballistic performance, ergonomics, and price.

AK-47AR-15/M16Superior Rifle
Maximum Effective Range400 yards600 yardsAR-15/M16
Weight (empty)9.5 lbs7.8 lbsAR-15/M16
Weight (loaded, 30 round magazine)10.9 lbs8.8 lbsAR-15/M16
Muzzle Energy1,500 ft.lbs1,300 ft.lbsAK-47
Energy at 400 yards462 ft.lbs536 ft.lbsAR-15/M16
Accuracy (16″ barrel)8-12 MOA6-8 MOAAR-15/M16
ReliabilityFunctions under nearly any conditionProne to failure when exposed to dirt, dust, and mudAK-47
Base Price$350 – $600$750 – $1,500AK-47
ErgonomicsSafety/Selector switch is a bit awkward requiring the user to break their grip on the rifle, cheek weld is virtually non existentExcellent cheek weld, safety/selector switch is easily manipulated without losing sight pictureAR-15/M16
RecoilNoticeable, but easily managed in semiautomaticEasily controllable, even under rapid fireAR-15/M16

Just looking at the side by side comparison, one has to give the nod to the AR-15/M16 platform. It has better accuracy and superior ballistics at long range, but the higher price can be off-putting to some buyers. The AK-47 is clearly superior with regard to reliability and short range ballistics, making it an obvious choice for anyone needing a short range tactical rifle. It’s traits clearly make it the better choice for close quarters urban or jungle fighting where engagements will usually be less than 100 yards.

These ballistic differences disappear when you compare the AK-74 to the AR-15 platform instead of the AK-47. The AK-74 fires a 5.45×39mm cartridge which has a similar performance to the NATO 5.56mm standard round. The AR still wins out on accuracy compared to the AK-74, but the ballistics are the same out to 600 yards. What’s that mean? Even though the effects of a hit on a target at long range would be about the same, with the AR-15 you’re more likely to actually hit your target at 600 yards than if you were firing the AK-74. This is primarily due to differences in bolt design and barrel attachment.

Still, at the end of the day, the customer staring at both rifles has to make a decision. Do you go with fool proof reliability at a lower cost and choose the AK, or do you drop the extra cash on the AR-15, what Caleb Giddings calls “the Lego System of weapons” and have an accurate and modular system that can be adapted to multiple roles and calibers? If you’re like me, you spend even more and get one of each. Which one you choose will ultimately depend on the role you want it to play. Need the ultimate in reliability and close range support? Get the AK. More interested in an easily modified modular system that boasts excellent long range accuracy and ballistics? Get the AR.

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