The AK platform is an interesting beast. A simple, intuitive and rugged weapon that was a culmination of its era. In many ways married to the 7.62x39mm M43 round, the Russians sought not just to emulate the German pioneering of an intermediate caliber but the weapon design with it. The Soviets found themselves economically and socially in dire straits in the post war period, desperately trying to keep up and surpass the military developments of the NATO powers. It would be an attitude their engineers maintained throughout those developments of the Soviet Union and what would become the Russian Federation.
One example of this is the development of the 5.45x39mm round and the AK-74 which would debut during the Soviet-Afghan War. The Russians had no doubt examined the results of the US M193 55gr 5.56 in Vietnam. Military thinkers at the time were married to the concept of small, high velocity calibers which enabled troops to carry twice the ammunition load. For example, a standard battle load for the M14 was considered (and still is) 120 rounds. Soviet troops would carry two spare magazines in their RD-54 loadout, with VDV and Spetsnaz troops later adopting similar chest rigs holding three mags to what China had developed with their Type 56 AK. This chest rig, by the way, is still incredibly popular in most parts of the world. They were popular in Iraq for making suicide vests.
With that said the logic behind supplying troops with more rounds at lighter weight was one that made a lot of sense. Russia developed the 5.45 with the intention behind the M16. At some point, the weapon developed a bit of a mythos behind it when fielded in Afghanistan. The legend, so to speak, was that it was known as a ‘poison bullet’ among the Mujahidden, ensuring death in an unmatched killing power.
Well…not so much. It is this author’s opinion that much of that was Soviet propaganda. And while the AK-74 is an excellent weapon, I’m not keen on its round.
The first western journalists to cover the then-new weapon was Col. Bob Brown and his team from Soldier of Fortune Magazine. Weapons and Intelligence writer, the legendary late Peter Kokalis, was on the team that initially procured the weapon and ammo in Pakistan and bringing it back to the US for testing by the NRA. The two of them took great pride in getting a one-up on the CIA. Good on them.
In his excellent book Weapons Tests and Evaluations, Kokalis made a number of observations about the little 5.45:
The ballistic performance of the 5.45x39mm cartridge is no better than the .222 Remington. The muzzle velocity is is only 2,950 fps, compared to 3.270 fps for the US M193 ball ammunition. Steel-plate penetration is inferior to the M193 projectile and not even in the same ballpark with our new SS109 bullet, which will penetrate the US steel helmet at 1300 meters. Tests indicate on soft targets, even with its hollow cavity, the 5.45x39mm round has no greater wounding capacity than the M193 bullet.
My own experience, while limited, is similar. Our Afghan partners had an old Muj fighter who was a revered elder among them. He carried two weapons- a Tokarev and a short barreled AK-74, better known in the US as a Krinkov. [ Krinkov is not an actual name for the weapon, by the way, its wholly a western machination. But I digress. ] It was a Peshawar special, made by hand in the gun markets there. We had a hard time finding ammo for it and he couldn’t hit squat with it when he did shoot it, but that’s neither here nor there. He carried both of those weapons as trophies and symbols- both of his service fighting the Russians back in the 80s and his seniority on his team. The younger Afghans didn’t have much use for it. According to them, the little round was hardly a killer. To a man they preferred their Romanian-made AKMs and Hungarian AMD-65s.
The Russians themselves would go on to keep the 7.62×39 AKs in special roles for a number of reasons. In Chechnya they learned that the 5.45 was less than desirable in the woodland environment, failing to penetrate cover and performing poorly in urban combat as well. On both sides of the belligerents, the AKM was sought after to give a performance edge. At that point, in the 1990s, it wasn’t in widespread distribution, both Chechen wars were fought primarily using the 5.45 AK-74 as a small arm.
The 5.45’s performance led to Tula and Vympyl arsenals developing the 8M3 and 8V3, respectively, as an anti-personnel 7.62×39 round much the same way we began to field open tip match rounds for greater terminal performance. The AKM had remained in service through the years as a reserve and special purpose weapon, often being used with subsonic loads and the PBS-1 suppressor, so re-fielding it to special missions units was not a logistical issue.
Those same issues with performance, and the resulting superiority of the further development of the 7.62×39 in both woodland and urban environments lead to much interest in adopting the AK-103 in nations such as Venezuela and India, with both licensing locally-made copies. In my experience the 7.62 performs very well in woodland environments, and the AK, even if run stripped down with no optics, is fast handling enough to make easy center-of-mass snap shots to 100m, and further with training.
So with that said, is there no merit to the AK-74 and its small caliber round? Absolutely not. Despite its shortcomings it is still effective in much the same way 5.56 is in full metal jacket. It is a lightweight, very low recoiling weapon system that lends itself well to recoil shy or smaller framed shooters. And, its still a Kalashnikov. So while my choice is and always will be the 7.62×39 AKM, there’s nothing wrong with the 74.