Q&A: The AK vs. AR-15 Argument and Lingering Cold War Politics

i’m… so sorry for this question, but google COULD NOT give me an unbiased answer. what are the pros/cons and avg “lifespans” of an AR-15 vs an AK-47? kind of a running gag in the story is the two protagonists are buddies and are always arguing about “mine-is-better-because” but also I want to write the weapons accurately anyway when they’re actually getting used.

So, there’s important caveat here, I’ve spent almost no time with either weapon. Most of my firearms experience has been handguns, with some time on shotguns and hunting rifles. Which, ironically puts in, roughly the same place as a lot of the people who take the AK vs. AR-15 rivalry seriously. They’ve seen them on TV, maybe used them in video games, but that’s about the extent of it.

The tricky part about the life-cycle for a firearm is, it’s per component. Off-hand the M4A1’s barrel is rated for ~7,500 rounds. But, that’s just the barrel, and if the barrel is failing, it can be replaced. Which is part of why the weapons will be examined by an armorer annually or bi-annually, to identify issues. The end result is, you’ll see firearms that are still in service for decades, with parts being replaced or repaired over time. The other side of this is that, if you abuse a gun, you can destroy it before you’ve fully broken it in.

The thing about this debate is, it’s kinda bullshit. You’ll see a lot of personal preference, and that’s valid so far as it goes. If you prefer the AK over the AR-15, that’s your choice. The reasoning doesn’t need to go beyond that. But, both are effective families of rifles. Both have family members that are sub-par. Both exist in a variety of calibers. Both have Assault, Carbine, DMR, and LMG variants. Both have been adopted by other manufacturers and gone far outside the range of, “is this gun better?”

So, the thing about both of these is, it’s not about the guns. The AR-15 design was adapted to the M16, the M4, the P416, the H&K 416, the LVOA-C, the SIG516, the LR-300… look, there are so many guns based off this platform that it’s ridiculous to say, “what are the characteristics of this weapon.” What you say about an LR-300 will not be true of an HK 716. These guns are entirely different weapons, with different design goals.

I mean, even the recently mentioned AAC Honey Badger is, basically, an AR-15 that’s been slightly reworked.

What do these guns have in common? From an engineering stance, a lot. Internally, it’s the same gun with minor modifications, but it’s also manufactured by different companies, to different standards, and potentially with their own quirks.

The Eugene Stoner’s AR platform is both very solid and very customizable. It’s widely used because it works. It has the disadvantage that it requires a fixed stock. The recoil spring travels into the stock, and gives every AR-10/AR-15 platform rifle a recognizable profile. You can immediately know at a glance if the gun you’re looking at is based of this design.

The AK-47 side of the debate isn’t any simpler. You have the AK-47… which you probably won’t see, at least not the Soviet one. You have the AKM which replaced in ’59. You’ve got the AK-74, which was chambered in a smaller 5.45mm cartridge as a response to NATO’s 5.56mm. The design was reworked to the Dragunov. There’s even bullpup variants, like the OTs-14 Groza. The irony is, now we have the AK101 and AK102 which are both chambered in 5.56mm NATO, so we’ve come full circle. I’m also pretty sure there’s a main line AK chambered in .308, but I can’t remember the number. If that’s not bad enough, the Chinese versions are all named, “Type #,” so, their version of the AK47 is (I think) the Type 56. Though, I’ll admit, I have a hard time keeping track.

Except, the AK’s history is a little more complicated. A lot of the design came directly from the German StG44. This isn’t calling Mikhail Kalashnikov a design plagiarist, however, the StG44 is the progenitor of many assault rifle designs, including the AK-47.

The irony is, you’ll never hear the same criticisms leveled at the Galil rifles. They’re Israeli manufactured AKs. However, because they’re sporting different externals, they don’t look like AKs, so the “AKs suck” contingent never give them a second glance. (Or, and I’ve seen this a couple times, they actually praise the Galil.)

There were different design goals with the AR-15 and the AK-47. However, it’s also worth remembering, these weapons were designed at different points in time.

The AK-47 was designed in the aftermath of World War II. It was one of the first assault rifles. In some ways, it’s more analogous to the M14, developed 7 years later, or the FN FAL, which was originally prototyped to use the same 8mm Kurz round as the StG44. (Though, by the time the FAL entered service, it was chambered in 7.62 NATO.) Another contemporary would be the H&K G3.

They’re all venerable guns. They’ll get the job done. Yes, they have distinct quirks, but the extensive rivalry ends up more in the range of people who never touch them, rather than something you’ll see from an actual combat veteran. It’s a rifle, it kills people.

I might get a little bit of hate for this, but, frankly, if you’re thinking about using any of those mid-century ARs, there are better options. If you could pick between an FN FAL, or an FN SCAR, the SCAR is probably going to be the better weapon. It represents 50 years of firearms development that the original FALs didn’t benefit from.

Is the AK a good gun? Yes. Without question. Their durability is somewhat overstated, but they are very easy to operate and maintain. You can’t abuse it and expect it to work perfectly, but it’s a solid piece of mid-century hardware. Like a lot of automatic rifles from that era, it’s not the most accurate weapon, but it will put a bullet where you want it at medium range.

Depending on what you’re doing, there are updates. There’s been iteration on the AK design over the years. You can get them chambered in 7.62x39mm, 5.45mm, or even 5.56mm NATO. (Like I said earlier.) The AKs starting at 106 use an entirely different gas system. This isn’t even addressing the AK-12, and I’ll come back to that one in a minute.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the AR-15 platform. It was the product of nearly 10 years of assault rifle design and testing. The FAL, M14, and AK-47 all saw extensive use in conflicts before Stoner developed the AR-10. The AR15 was a second generation Assault Rifle (or, third, if we’re counting the StG44 as it’s own generation.) It was built off of lessons learned. It was chambered in a smaller Remington .223 cartridge to give it better recoil characteristics, because that fit with the way assault rifles actually saw use. Something that the AKs would adapt back with the AK-74. Turns out, you didn’t need the firepower of 7.62 NATO at the ranges where combat was taking place.

The M16 has a bad reputation for reliability. There’s a lot of political history here with adoption process for the M16. The very short version is that the US Army’s tests were heavily biased against the weapon, with the testers deliberately abusing the guns to degrade their performance.

Even after the Army was ordered to adopt the rifle, they issued them without cleaning kits, billing the weapons as, “self-cleaning.” This meant that those M16s would foul and fail at a staggering rate.

Like I said, if you abuse a gun, it won’t work right.

Is the AR-15 platform solid? Yeah. Absolutely. It’s had 60 years of updates and iterations. The modern M4A1 is a very good rifle. It’s reliable if the user doesn’t intentionally abuse and neglect it. It’s accurate. It’s a good gun.

Now, I was going to say, the modern incarnations of the AR platform are very very modular. You can mount a stupid amount of extra hardware to them. Except, modern AKs have also copied that. The AK-12 features a modular rail system similar to what you’d find on a modern M4A1. If you want a red dot sight, and a vertical grip, you can now mount those on an AK, without having to replace the entire lower furniture, and attaching a separate bracket down the side.

Is the AK more reliable than the M4? Probably, but not to a meaningful degree. You should be maintaining your gun regardless. Keep your gun in good working order, and it should outlive you. Is the M4 more accurate than the AK-47? Probably, but I wouldn’t want to wager any money when you’re trying to compare the M4’s accuracy to the modern AK incarnations.

The entire argument between the AK-47 and the AR-15 platform isn’t about the guns. It’s a dick measuring contest left over from the Cold War. Like two people bragging about why their pickup truck’s brand is better.

This is why you’re having a hard time pulling the bias out of the discussion: The bias is the discussion. In the discussion, the guns are distorted to the point of caricature. In reality, they differences are far less significant.

These are both solid weapon platforms. The original AK-47 is dated, but there have been significant updates over the years. The original M16 had some issues, but the modern incarnations of the AR-15 platform are very versatile, and varied.

-Starke

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