It’s a discussion that has preoccupied some gun enthusiasts for decades. Which is better between the civilian-legal versions of the two primary military weapons of the Cold War superpowers: the AR-15 or the AK-47? I’ve owned both, so I figured that was as good a reason as any to pretend my opinion counts for anything and get to work.
As time has marched on, the positions have shifted a bit as economic realities changed. That’s why some older discussions on the internet might give you some bad information that’s not relevant in this day and age. What was true seven or eight years ago may or may not be true today.
Ultimately, though, it all boils down to which is better. To do that, we’re going to look at a handful of criteria where we’ll compare the two weapons and then discuss the differences. Once we’ve gotten through the whole thing, we’ll take a look at the whole assessment and make a judgment.
Before we start, however, let’s address one myth that tends to fly around in this discussion, and that is the claim that the Soviet’s were arming a conscript army while Americans were volunteers.
The M-16 was adopted by the United States military in 1964. That was during the Vietnam War, a time when a sizeable percentage of our combat forces were draftees. In other words, conscripted soldiers made up at least a portion of both militaries.
Now, with that bit of history out of the way, let’s get into the meat and potatoes.
Once upon a time, there was no debate. The AK-47 could be had for far less than an AR-15, which made it very attractive to new shooters wanting a so-called “assault rifle” on a budget. In fact, many people wanting to get into tactical-style rifles gravitated toward the AK to start with.
However, things change.
While my first gun show had AK-47s for $399 each, today finding one for that price should be a big warning sign. A quick look over on Gunbroker shows that many AK-47s have a price tag of over $1,000. There are a number of reasons for that, and I don’t have the space to go into all of them, but the days of inexpensive AKs are over. While there are a handful that are priced a bit better–the lowest price for an actual 7.62×39 AK was around $700–they’re still pretty pricey.
AR-15s, however, seem to have a bit of a range in price. Budget AR-15s can be had for around $600+, and the choices are plentiful and from brands ranging from Core 15 to Smith & Wesson. The top end for AR-15s seems to be “how much you got?” Realistically, you can spend several thousand dollars on an AR if you want to, but that’s up to you.
I’m going to give the edge to the AR-15, here. Though, if AK’s are plentiful and inexpensive where you are, please adjust accordingly.
The original AK-47 weighs a little over 8.5 lbs, with an empty magazine in the weapon.
By contrast, the stock AR-15 weighs around 6.5 lbs in a similar state.
In other words, you have a two-pound difference. Additionally, the 7.62×39 round of the AK-47 is a heavier round than the 5.56×54 the AR-15 is chambered in. In a fully loaded rifle of each, the difference in weight is even more noticeable. That makes the AR-15 the clear winner on this one.
Now, that said, weight changes as people add stuff onto a weapon, and the AR platform is notorious for having a plethora of accessories (addressed later). So, if you add too much stuff to your rifle, you negate weight savings.
When it comes to discussion on power, there’s a lot to unpack. Frankly, an entire post could be written on the topic. A few of them, in fact.
The general consensus is pretty clear; the 7.62×39 round is a more powerful round than the 5.56 round. That’s not really up for debate. It’s a bigger, beefier round that hits with more punch. Now, that size comes with costs. For example, see what I said about weight previously. However, that’s neither here nor there in this part of the discussion, so it won’t be a factor.
The key point to remember here is that 7.62×39 is legal to hunt deer in a lot of places where 5.56/.223 isn’t.
The power difference clearly goes to the AK-47.
Once upon a time, this was another big factor that drove a lot of people to the AK-47 over the AR-15. Back then, there was a whole lot of surplus ammo to be found, and that drove the costs of ammunition for the rifle down.
Those days, unfortunately, are over. The surplus stuff has pretty much dried up, which means you’re either shooting old stuff you have stocked or you’re spending a lot of money.
SWG Gun took a look at the costs earlier this year, and what they found pretty much supports what I’ve seen through the years.
Both cartridges are readily available from many retailers that carry ammunition and are also available in bulk. We have listed the prices of the ten rounds we have used in our comparisons. We listed a price for 20 rounds, but you can save some money when buying these cartridges in bulk.
In today’s market, both cartridges are going to be around the same price. The 7.62×39 might be a little more expensive, but it’s not by a whole lot. And both of these cartridges have certain rounds that go for cheap and others that cost a pretty penny.
As far as options go for specific rounds of both cartridges, you will have a much wider selection of 5.56x45mm ammunition than the 7.62×39. This goes for jackets and bullet weights, and bullet designs.
Basically, the higher end ammo is really close in price for the two weapons while the lower you go, the bigger the discrepancy. However, at no point is the difference that much for a box of 20. If you buy in bulk, though, you may see more variance.
I’ll give this one to the AR-15, but only by a hair.
All the ammo in the world won’t make a hill of beans if you can’t hit what you’re aiming at. All the practice in the world won’t help if your weapon is destined to miss everything anyway.
The AK-47 is notorious for being an inaccurate rifle. Some chalk this up to the ammunition most people get. Others chalk it up to the looser tolerances of the AK platform. It doesn’t matter. The reputation is still there.
Based on my own experiences, it’s there for a reason. The AK is what I call a “minute of bad guy” gun, meaning it’ll probably hit the guy you’re aiming at if you’re not at extended ranges and do your part correctly. This means you’ll probably hit any game your hunting under the same circumstances.
However, hitting your target and putting a living target on the ground are very different things.
The AR-15, on the other hand, tends to be far more accurate. The 5.56 round and tighter tolerances provide for a platform that has more inherent accuracy than its competitor. Further, the platform can be made even more accurate with aftermarket additions, something that just isn’t available with an AK-47 style rifle.
The edge on this one goes to the AR-15.
It doesn’t matter what the weapon can do if you can’t trust it to go bang when you pull the trigger, and one of these weapons has a nasty reputation on this front as well.
This time, it’s the AR-15…sort of.
You see, the similar M-16 rifles were notorious for jamming in Vietnam, and it wasn’t because of the full-auto parts either. Instead, it was a combination of factors that are still the source of some debate, even today.
By contrast, the AK-47 is a notoriously tough rifle that will run no matter what you do to it. You can supposedly bury it in the mud and gunk for a year, pull it out, run a cleaning rod through the barrel to make sure it’s clear, then go to work.
Of course, neither of these reputations are quite accurate. They have their basis in the reality–I’ve personally witnessed them through the years–but they’re not quite true.
I’ve had my own AK jam, and I’ve never had a jam with either AR-15 I’ve had, so maybe my experience is wonky. However, I’ll also be the first to tell you not to trust the experiences I’ve had with my own weapons.
Through the years, I’ve seen remarkably few AKs jam, and most of those were either magazine or ammo issues. Meanwhile, I’ve seen more ARs jam. These are often maintenance issues as well as the obligatory magazine and ammo problems.
Neither are common, however. So, while you can trust your life to an AR, I’m still giving the edge here to the AK.
Something that people need to consider with a firearm they plan to do more with than just take to the range is how comfortable it is to manipulate.
Most guns have a certain amount of comfort when shooting them. Even the supposedly non-ergonomic firearms of today are lightyears ahead of some earlier firearms I’ve handled, as far as comfort goes.
When shooting either the AK or the AR, the ergonomics are a wash. Both are comfortable rifles with a pistol grip. Both can be found with fixed or collapsible stocks, so there’s no real difference there.
That means we need to look at other characteristics of the weapon, such as how you fight with it, and that’s where the difference is made.
Magazine changes with the AK require you to first take hold of the magazine, work a lever with your thumb, then rock the magazine out of place. You then have to rock a new magazine into place. While not awful, it still requires you to handle the old magazine directly.
By contrast, the AR-15 doesn’t require that. You can drop the magazine with a press of your index finger while your weak side hand is going for a new mag. This speeds up the magazine change process a fair bit.
Further, getting the gun in the fight is faster with the AR. You can take the weapon off safe and close the bolt, thus chambering your first round, and be ready to roll all while aiming the weapon.
With the AK, the controls are on the right-hand side. Taking the weapon off safe requires the swing of a lever-like control downward on the side and physically racking the bolt back and letting it slam forward.
Again, not impossible to do by any stretch of the imagination, but it is slower. Because of this, I give the edge to the AR-15.
Some may feel that there’s no need to modify any rifle, ever. That’s their right.
Just like it’s my right to think they’re wrong.
Any gun has the potential to be both improved and personalized, and neither of these weapons are any different. They’re also both popular enough that there are a ton of options to make the weapons fit you a bit better. In fact, there are some modifications out there that completely change the look of a rifle. And I mean completely.
However, the more accessories you add, the more weight you add. That said, if you’re the one who has to lug it around, do whatever you want to the thing. Both have a ton of options.
I’m willing to bet there are more accessories for the AR than the AK, but I’m not confident enough in that to give this to the AR. Instead, I’m going to declare this one a wash.
Now, I’ll admit that I’m a little biased, but that’s only because I went through all of this decision-making stuff before. A few times, as a matter of fact. Since I looked at these factors before, why would I reach a different conclusion now?
While I consider the AR-15 to be a superior weapon system in almost every way, there are a few other factors to consider that aren’t listed above.
For one, let’s talk about the 7.62×39 round. That was something that worked out in the AK-47’s favor. However, the Soviets eventually developed the AK-74, which shoots the much smaller 5.45×39 round. In other words, the power was a trade-off and they opted to go with something lighter.
I should also note that with regard to weight, I compared the standard AK to the AR. The AKM is out there, and it’s a lighter AK that does change the dynamics of what we’re talking about. If you like the AK in every way except for the weight, then the AKM is definitely an option to consider.
Finally, allow me to say that if you’re wanting a rifle for personal defense, you’re not likely to go wrong with either of these weapons–at all. Both will run just fine and keep you safe and sound.
So what about you? Which do you prefer?