Caliber - 5.45x39mm
Capacity - 30 rounds (standard; can accept magazines from 5 to 45 rounds)
Action - Gas-operated semi-automatic
Barrel - 16 inches
Weight - ~8 lbs.
After taking my AK-105 through a 3-day carbine course in April of 2007, I started to think about acquiring a full-size AK-74 to outfit with some of the same modern conveniences (improved grip and buttstock, accessory mounting rails, vertical grip, electronic sight). I ruled out modifying my Intrac MkII, since I wanted to keep it as close to the Romanian AIMS-74 configuration as possible. Arsenal Inc. had discontinued production of the SLR-105 rifle on which my AK-105 conversion was based, and prices on remaining examples were heading for the moon. However, AK-74 and AKS-74 parts kits were still plentiful and relatively inexpensive, so I decided to do a build. In short order, I acquired a demilled Bulgarian AKS-74 kit in like-new condition (I immediately resold the folding stock assembly and furniture to recoup some of the cost, since I would be replacing those parts anyway), a NoDak NDS-2 receiver shell, a railed lower handguard and SWIFT safety/selector lever from Blackjack Buffers, and enough additional US parts to maintain 922(r) compliance (including a TAPCO G2 fire control set, SAW pistol grip, and VLTOR RE-47 receiver adapter and buttstock). Shortly thereafter, I responded to a thread on one of the gun boards about an AK "build party" in my area. That event never came to pass, but an acquaintance of mine (who wishes not to be named in this review; I'll just call him "C") saw my post and offered to help me complete the build. Fortunately, he had previously built a number of AKs for himself and others and already had the required tools, so all I had to do was show up at his place with a box-o-parts. I did so one Saturday evening in October 2007, and we set to work.
The Build Process
I explained to "C" at the outset that although I was a fairly accomplished AR builder, I knew dick about building AKs, and that the extent of my "help" would be limited to providing a second set of hands when necessary and soaking up as much knowledge as I could.
We began the build by riveting in the triggerguard and selector stop plate, which was done by hand (we forewent the jig "C" had bought off the internet, because he said it sucked). Then we located and drilled the holes for the front trunnion (the NDS-2 does not have the trunnion holes pre-drilled, since it can be used to build a variety of different AK types), and dimpled the receiver around the holes. Although this is more time-consuming than just countersinking the holes, it is preferable because it provides additional strength. We then riveted in the front trunnion, using a homemade jig and a pneumatic press.
Once the front trunnion was in, we located and drilled the holes for the rear trunnion, which was comparatively easy because there were fewer of them and the stock tang made for a convenient place to clamp. We then dimpled the holes and pressed in the lower right-side rivet. That anchored the trunnion sufficiently, and we installed the upper (long) rivet by hand because we couldn't support the receiver well enough in that particular location to use the press. The lower left-hand rivet was left out for the time being, because we intended to install a Russian-style side scope base, and my friend wanted to fabricate a jig for that purpose.
Next came the barrel. The fact that we were using a demilled kit (i.e. all the parts came off the same gun) was a huge advantage. Since the barrel and trunnion had already been mated once before, we could be reasonably confident that the barrel would go in properly, the holes for the crosspin would line up, and the sights would be straight ("C" had just finished an AK-105 build using virgin parts that gave him nightmares in the barreling department). So we greased up the breech end of the barrel, started it into the trunnion with a mallet, and put it into the press. It was slow going at first; AK barrels are hard to get started because the trunnion isn't parallel with the receiver (i.e. it isn't a straight insertion), so you have to press a bit, then knock nudge the receiver back into line, press a bit more, nudge the receiver some more, etc. At a certain point, though, everything lines up and you can really start to make good progress. Once the barrel was in and the crosspin holes were lined up, I noticed that the sights (front and rear blocks) were canted slightly to the right. "C" told me not to worry, because a lot of times installing the crosspin is enough to straighten everything out. Sure enough; we pressed the pin in, and the sights came right over to centerline. Sweet. We installed the bolt group and recoil spring, and everything fit and functioned like it should. We then checked the headspace using a set of European-spec gauges that "C" happened to have on-hand, and everything looked good. Total time spent was about 5 hours. On another visit shortly after the initial build, we spent another couple hours installing the Russian-pattern side scope rail and putting the final rivet in the rear trunnion, and I opened up the rear sight notch with a triangular file, to make the AK's less-than-optimal iron sights just a bit more optimal.
First range trip with the AK-74 was uneventful; the sights only required slight adjustment to get zeroed, and the gun cycled approximately 120 rounds of mixed commercial and military surplus ammunition without any issues whatsoever. Accuracy was very good; as I had discovered with my AK-105, I could shoot the AK-74 about as well as I could my M4 - I just had to work harder to do it with the AK due to the comparatively crude sights, shorter sight radius and inferior trigger. In my experience, the smallbore (5.45 and 5.56) AKs run rings around their 7.62x39 cousins in the accuracy department. I suspect that's due in equal parts to the greater inherent accuracy of the smallbore rounds themselves, and the fact that the reduced recoil produced by those rounds makes the guns easier to shoot accurately.
What is "Practical"?
Purists will say that the AK is about as "practical" as it gets right out of the box, and if other features were really "needed," Mikhail Kalashnikov would've designed them into the gun. I contend that weapon design has come a long way since the AK was introduced in the 1940s, and that what makes a gun "right" for the Russian army of that era does not necessarily make it so for civilian American shooters in the 21st century. Now, I'm not advocating "fixing what isn't broken" or adding stuff just for the sake of adding it. Even my ARs, which are widely regarded as "a grown man's tinkertoy set," are kept relatively uncluttered and specifically tailored to their intended purpose and my particular tastes and shooting style. So it is with my AKs, as well. For instance, with my ARs, I have found that a vertical foregrip helps me "drive" the gun more effectively, so why not put one on the AK for the same reason? If a collapsible stock makes my ARs more comfortable and allows me to utilize them in a variety of shooting positions and modes of dress, wouldn't it also have similar benefits on the AK? I'm not trying to make my AK into an AR, I'm simply incorporating the same beneficial features into both platforms. An AK optimized to better fit the shooter and fill the role for which it was intended, to me, is the very essence of "practical."
Nits to Pick
My only real gripe about this gun is that the NDS-2 receiver does not include selector detents (the little cuts or dimples that keep the selector from moving when in the "Safe" or "fire" position). I understand why they're not included (selectors differ slightly from one nationality to the next, and the NDS-2 can be used to build a variety of AK kits), but I have accidentally bumped my selector lever out of the "fire" position on a couple of occasions (the extended finger tab on the SWIFT safety makes this especially easy to do). My solution was to use Mr. Dremel and add my own selector detents. They're not real pretty (I don't plan on selling the gun anyhow), but they work.
The Bottom Line
I much prefer the smallbore (5.45x39 and 5.56) AKs to their 7.62x39 cousins. Adding a few upgrades to improve the gun's versatility, functionality and ergonomics makes an already good gun even better, and does much to close the gap with the AR platform. This build was a fascinating project, but having a couple guys and all the right tools sure does help; there's NO WAY I'd attempt this on my own – give me an AR any day! The fact that tribal "gunsmiths" in Pakistan and Afghanistan can build reasonable facsimilies of these guns in austere conditions using only the simplest of hand tools is a testament to the simplicity and robustness of the Kalashnikov design.