AR-15 vs. AK-47. 7.62 vs 5.56. 308!! Mil-spec, mil-surp, match grade, green tip, etc, etc, etc. If you’ve been a shooter any amount of time, you’re familiar with these terms. In the internet-land these are hotly debated for some reason, each time by people who’ll no doubt prove this time around that their choice is the right choice, yours is not if you disagree, and whatever they’ve bought is by default the best (because they say so of course, along with it’s high price if talking among champagne elitists or it’s budget price if talking with the buildabag crowd) and every so often it’ll get backed up by unverifiable claims of “someone they know/trained with/watched a DVD of/thought lovingly about once who’s a no-crap SHTF ninja–type baddie” told them it’s what they run…
Yeah, Right. The overwhelming bulk of these people have never fired a shot in anger. Being a gun enthusiast doesn’t make one combat proficient. Pardon me for my genuine disinterest in their ‘opinions’.
What you very rarely hear is discussions about keeping your weapon running, long term. I guess that’s not ninja-enough. Believe it or not, it has little to do with weapon selection itself- it’s a question of logistics. Each of the common platforms have nuances, big and small, that need attention to keep your weapon from being deadlined. Nothing is worse that spending a month or more’s wage on a defensive rifle, an optic, mags and ammo, to have the weapon fail due to a dead trigger spring. It happens. It happened to an SR-25 I was running on a Known Distance (KD) range. Great rifle, but not widely known for its reliability. Even the Kalashnikov, the alleged marquee of reliability, has needs and can fail fairly easily and unexpectedly, especially with some of the lesser-quality brands out there. So all this being said, here’s a few guidelines to follow in order to keep your weapon running, post unpleasant-ness:
- Spare Bolts: Far and away, the only part I’ve actually seen break on the AR-15 platform (aside from the dead trigger spring on the SR-25…but that was different…) is the bolt. Just buy a spare, right? Well, yeah. BUT- Did you check the headspace with a go/no-go gauge? Do you own a go/no-go gauge for your weapon? Did you re-check it after so many rounds out of the weapon (the wear changes the spacing)? Did you test it for function? Is there any binding or unusual wear on the lugs? It goes without saying that the bolt must be quality- proper gas key staking, proper steel and heat treat, and no gimmicks (like the ‘lube-free’ AR-15 bolt…wtf, over?). The Kalashnikov also can have issues with the bolt. Some of the Yugo models have had mushrooming of the rear of the bolt where the hammer strikes- which could cause premature failure. You need to keep an eye on potential stress fractures as well, as some production runs from differing countries/companies have different heat treatments. You also need to understand not all AKs are the same; different countries have variations on their design. So know what you have, and pick up a spare parts kit for yours.
- Use Standardized Parts: Cornerstone to the homebuilt/bubba gun issues is the use of bargain-bin non-spec/non-standard parts. This is endemic to the AR, with all the snake oil being sold, so the watchword for keeping a rifle serviceable is using standardized simple spare parts. Believe it or not, for the money, DPMS makes a good lower parts kit. On the AK, it’s a good idea to pick up a trigger pin retainer plate to replace the shepherd’s hook (you know, that paperclip that keeps the trigger in place and fails far more often than thought). They’re cheap, take all of 10 seconds to swap, and usually will never need replacing.
- Spare Trigger Packs: On the note of spare parts kits, the bulk of those parts are the trigger components. Now if you’re into custom triggers (and there’s some nice ones out there) that’s fine, but understand how it works. I strongly encourage new or inexperienced AR shooters to leave the internals alone- you need to get a feel for a bone stock weapon, and the trigger itself usually breaks in nicely with the weapon over time. In addition, if it’s a standardized trigger, with standard components, one can stock several running spares for all the rifles in the battery relatively cheap. The AK comparatively speaking has a very simple trigger, but believe it or not, can be the largest point of failure on the weapon. As cheap as the Tapco G2 is, if you’re a Kalashnikov kid it’s a great idea to have a spare on hand. Assemble it. The AK trigger is a drop-in component once assembled, but requires a tiny spring that loves to fly away if you have fumble fingers (ask me how I know). Have one pre-assembled so that it becomes simple under duress or less-than-ideal circumstances.
- Know the Points of Failure on Your Weapon: Every design out there, even the mythical Kalashnikov, has failure points in the design. It’s common knowledge that cleanliness is important to keep an AR bolt running (although it’s far more resistant to fouling than commonly thought). But other issues can arise, from the potential problems we’ve already identified to things unforeseen (like gas block issues or bolt hold-open failures) so it’s worth your training time not to just get mechanically better with the manual of arms but also to identify potential issues you may run into. The AKM for example, using a stamped-steel receiver, can suffer from broken rivets if improperly done. A broken trunnion rivet kills that rifle, then and there. Improper heat treatment or excessive wear of the bolt guide rails can cause failure to cycle. It happens. Having a working knowledge of the mechanics of your weapon is critical to being combat proficient- it’s a lot easier for a supporting apparatus to get a weapon running if the operator can diagnose the issue (more on that in a second).
- Use Common, De-Facto Standard Rifles: I really like the Sig MCX. That’s a cool little carbine, and although I haven’t run it with a can, I would be willing to bet it’s a dream to shoot suppressed. But aside from aesthetics, it doesn’t have a lot in common with the standard direct impingement AR. In fact, there’s a lot of proprietary components, such as the bolt carrier and dual recoil springs, which just might fail (and have, which is why it’s been recalled). If no one else in my Patrol is carrying that weapon (or can afford it), and we don’t have running spare components, then in the event my very expensive toy is deadlined, maybe it might be for good. Now I’m ineffective, all because I wanted to be the cool guy. The same for the PTR-91/G3/CETME weapons. Good rifles, sure. Popular in Iran, not so much with Rhodesians (according to Dennis Croukamp). But the HK roller-locked system is unlike anything else found in the wild here in the US, and although no doubt someone will comment to attest to it’s reliability, et. al., once those rollers go belly-up, that gun’s done. Get your spares now. So unless you’re a collector or enjoy cheap magazines for rifles that destroy brass, AND YES, THEY DESTROY BRASS, I wouldn’t bother but then there’s that rule that two is one and one is none if you happen to disagree. Be ready to supply spare parts or have the means to fabricate them. The AR on the other hand, far and away, along with the Garand action (both M1A and Mini varieties) and the AK to lesser degrees, are quite common and therefore are known quantities, so resolving group standards or potential logistical issues will much simpler. Any gunsmith in the world can usually keep them running…a CETME, maybe not. More on this in a second.
- Start Right, End Right. Buy Quality Parts: One of the biggest myths of the current gun culture is that quality must be equated with cost. While you do get what you pay for in most contexts, there’s also a definite law of diminishing returns. Quality, standard parts kits for the AR don’t usually cost a lot. $40-$50, maybe a little more, is about the norm. Spare quality bolts are a little more. The Tapco G2 AK trigger is ~$30. Spare milsurp AK parts, consisting of a spare bolt, bolt carrier and piston with recoil spring is around $100. Not a lot of money if you’re counting on that rifle working for the long haul. But in all cases, buy from a reputable manufacturer. On the other hand, you will reap Murphy’s rewards for being a cheap skate if you skimp on your resupply. Buy from reputable sources, buy from makers who stand behind their product, and buy from those who can tell you where and of what their stuff is made.
- Make Friends with a Gunsmith: There’s gonna be problems that come up that you can’t fix. Billy dropped his weapon during an IMT (individual movement techniques) and bent the barrel at the receiver. Johnny’s gas block just failed. Jeff showed up with a non-standard kludge stick and won’t fire six rounds without binding up. Mike’s well-worn AK just became a runaway gun or even better, broke two rivets on the front trunnion. If you’re training the untrained to become Light Infantry, which is what a lot of this ‘SHTF’ talk boils down to, these things are going to occur. I’ve observed each of these things happen with well trained guys by the way, and while that might be great for a chuckle, it happens more often than you think. It’s also very easy to laugh and say that ain’t us while sitting comfortably in your chair reading this…people do clumsy stuff under duress. A person cannot fix everything themselves, but a good Gunsmith is a great person to know and crucial to an Underground support. In addition to being a de-facto gun guy, he’s going to have a base of knowledge that you don’t, and chances are high he’s also gonna have the means to fabricate the parts that you otherwise cannot. (As an aside, I’ve never met a Gunsmith who wasn’t a pretty serious Survivalist) But along with that, just like a Doctor can’t look at you and just know you have the flu vs. an appendicitis, he needs an accurate description of symptoms, and a Gunsmith’s job gets a lot easier if the shooter can accurately describe what’s going on vs. mah gun just don’t work! -that takes experience and knowledge of the weapon, only gained through trigger time.
Standards matter. It’s not really about whatever your particular preference may be, or even what weapon is better for this or that, it’s about what the group can acquire, standardize upon, proficiently employ, and keep running long-term. In the US that favors the AR-15 the strongest. There are no guerrilla forces I can think of off-hand that simply picked what they wanted, either- it boils down to what the external support supplies them with or is expropriated (but this, of course, is another discussion for another day). So while that may or may not be your concern, creating a standard for your group, adhering to it, training around it’s strengths and limitations, and having a plan to keep those weapons running is critical to your success.