ABOVE: ARES Director N.R. Jenzen-Jones firing the L129A1 at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom at Shrivenham in February 2017.
British L129A1 Sharpshooter Rifle
By Ian McCollum & N.R. Jenzen-Jones
With the trend toward so-called “intermediate caliber” cartridges following World War II, several influential studies deemed the range requirements for contemporary infantry small arms to be substantially less than provided by earlier, “full-power” rifle cartridges. In several reports—including the important Hall and Hitchman reports of the 1950s—ranges of no more than 300 meters were anticipated for most infantry engagements. With increasingly responsive and accurate firepower, especially airpower, some later military thinkers envisaged the role of small arms further diminishing. In recent conflicts, particularly Afghanistan, however, infantry small arms have played a more pivotal role than was anticipated on a “modern” battlefield. As one of the authors wrote in two of his recent reports:
“Traditional supporting fires—delivered by heavier weapon systems such as artillery and air-delivered munitions—were often restricted under rules of engagement or operational practices. Meanwhile, opposition forces have increasingly operated from within civilian communities, and military leadership and popular opinion have exhibited a lower tolerance for civilian casualties.”
As a result, infantrymen were frequently forced to engage enemies at longer ranges than anticipated, regularly beyond 300 meters and often beyond the 500-meter effective range of, for example, the U.S. Army’s M4-series standard rifle.
“U.S. Army data suggests that more than 50 percent of the small arms engagements in Afghanistan in 2011 required U.S. Army forces to engage targets beyond 500 meters. For their part, opposition forces would engage International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) units from ranges of up to 900 meters or farther, employing full-power-caliber GPMGs and designated marksman rifles (DMRs).”
This threat “overmatch” has been a driving factor behind the rapid adoption or increased issue of various full-power DMRs and GPMGs by several NATO and other forces, as well as an increased interest in so-called “general-purpose calibers.”
Different armed forces drew on existing stocks of GPGMs, in many cases, as well as purchasing new machine guns chambered for full-power rifle cartridges, such as the Mk 48 as adopted by the U.S. and the FN Herstal Minimi in 7.62x51mm adopted by the New Zealand Army.
These were supplemented by a number of DMR-type weapons, with both modernized variants of available weapons such as the U.S. development of the Mk 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle (EBR) series, and new weapon systems, such as the Australian acquisition of the Heckler & Koch HK417, seeing service.
The British acquisition of the L129A1 followed this same trend, with the British Ministry of Defence issuing a 2009 Urgent Operational Requirement for a self-loading “sharpshooter” rifle “specifically to fill a need in Afghanistan.” The weapon was to be suitable both for use as a DMR and in close-quarters battle (CQB) scenarios.
Various manufacturers submitted rifles; after several testing stages, the final contenders for the role were the Heckler & Koch HK417 and the Lewis Machine & Tool LM7. LMT, partnered with Law Enforcement International (LEI) of the U.K., eventually won the contract. Their offering was type classified as the L129A1 and formally adopted in October 2009, with 440 L129A1 rifles purchased for some 1.5 million GBP. These entered field service by May 2010, and subsequent purchases have since been made.
LMT and LEI partnered to enter the LM7, the export version of LMT’s LM308MWS, into the sharpshooter trials program. This is essentially an SR-25-type self-loading rifle, using the original Stoner quasi-direct-impingement action and a multi-lug rotating bolt. Original guns, acquired under the UOR, were built on machined billet receivers. Later guns have been built around the LMT Monolithic Rail Platform, a one-piece upper receiver milled from a single 7075 T6 aircraft aluminum forging. The weapon’s case deflector has been through three iterations. With the billet receiver guns, a flat-topped “bump” shape was machined and added. This was then adjusted to a forged design, before a customer requirement in advance of the 2012 Olympics was met by modifying the design so that it deflects ejected cartridge cases out at the two o’clock position instead of a typical three o’clock position as is standard on the LM308MWS. According to one industry source, this was so that the L129A1 could be better used from helicopter platforms, such as was seen during the 2012 London Olympics. The concern was that brass ejected at a traditional position would be more likely to fall back into the helicopter and create a safety hazard for the crew. As part of LMT’s Modular Weapon System (MWS) family, the L129A1 features a 16-inch heavy stainless steel barrel that can be quickly swapped out. LMT produces compatible barrels in 13.5-, 16-, 18- and 20-inch lengths.
The internal components are of similarly high quality. As Chris Bartocci notes: “In keeping with the original AR-10 design, the bolt and bolt carrier are chrome-plated. Chrome is much easier to clean than most finishes, is corrosion-resistant and has self-lubricating properties. The rifle uses an H3 buffer with three tungsten weights. The bolt carrier has a captive firing pin retainer pin—a major plus when cleaning a rifle in the desert. A cotter pin is easy to lose in the sand, and this design prevents that. The bolt, like the barrel, is test-fired with a proof cartridge, magnetic-particle-inspected and marked “MP” to indicate the testing was done. Also, Lewis improved the hammer/trigger pins by incorporating a swell on one end, making them easier to remove.”
The rifle is issued in British service with a Trijicon TA648-308 6x48mm (ACOG) illuminated optic for precision engagements. The ACOG is fitted with a Picatinny rail to which is mounted a Trijicon RM01 1x Ruggedized Miniature Reflex (RMR) for CQB use. The L129A1 is fitted with a two-stage match trigger with a 4-pound trigger pull.
Unlike some similar programs in the U.S., the British requirement was for the Sharpshooter rifle to fire standard 7.62×51 L2A2 ball ammunition produced in the U.K. at Royal Ordnance Factory, Radway Green (RG). According to Greg Felton from LEI:
“The ammunition criteria stated by the MOD was that the rifle was to be able to use both RG 155-grain sniper ammunition, plus M80 ball and tracer, including de-linked machine gun belts. In the end, during their trials with the various competitors, they found that the 155-grain fired so much better than the standard ball that it was made the official issue ammunition for the weapon. As to what it is “matched to,” [Karl & I] designed the rifle to use both standard ball and 168-grain Match. With a 1:11.25-inch twist it works well with these weights, however, the heavier 175-grain projectiles need a faster twist for the best results at longer ranges.”
The L129A1 was issued at section level in the British Army, with one soldier in eight carrying the rifle. Three soldiers per section would be trained on the rifle, should they need to take over its operation. The relative heaviness of the L129A1 and good field of view of its optic make the weapon particularly amenable to rapid follow-up shots, a key performance characteristic in the DMR role. It has proved effective and popular amongst British forces. One British soldier who spoke to ARES about the weapon described it as “comfortable and easy to shoot.” During our brief time on the gun, we found that to be true. The LM308MWS, on which the L129A1 is based, is also in service with other military and law enforcement customers.
The British Army is currently looking to expand the role of the L129A1, considering issuing it as a sniper support weapon. However, this would involve a change in anticipated targets to include enemies wearing modern body armor, which the current 7.62x51mm ball projectiles are not particularly good at defeating at longer ranges. A new projectile with a mild steel penetrator core (similar in principle to the 5.56x45mm SS109 projectile)—but with ballistics matching the ball cartridges already in service—has been developed to allow the L129A1 to fill this new role if desired.
This article is part of a series of collaborative works produced by ARES Researcher Ian McCollum, who also runs the Forgotten Weapons blog and YouTube channel, in conjunction with ARES Technical Specialist Jonathan Ferguson and ARES Director N.R. Jenzen-Jones. Using access to unique collections facilitated by ARES, the series examines a range of interesting weapons in both video and print formats.
Special thanks to the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom at Shrivenham, for allowing us to handle and fire an L129A1 rifle, and to Neil Grant. This article is courtesy of Armament Research Services (ARES). See www.armamentresearch.com for further original content.
British Submachine Gun Development: An Overview
By Ian McCollum
Great Britain was one of the few countries that went into World War II having undertaken virtually no submachine gun (SMG) development. Not every country had issued an SMG by 1939, but almost all major military powers had been working on experimental concepts. Germany, for example, was developing a number of concept guns during the interwar period, which would eventually result in the highly regarded MP 38. Some countries had already successfully employed SMGs in the First World War and understood their military utility. The British had only a small number of minor SMG developments in the interwar period; none of which progressed past the prototype stage. It was only with the outbreak of hostilities that the British need for such a weapon suddenly became apparent, and its acquisition became a military priority.
As a stopgap measure, two German MP 28/II submachine guns were acquired in Ethiopia, and a plan was set in motion to more or less copy them outright. The result of this reverse-engineering process was the Lanchester. This design was an effective and high quality weapon and provided an option besides the painfully expensive commercial purchase of Thompson guns from the United States–each Thomspon gun costing some three to five times as much as a Lanchester. During discussions with the armed services regarding each branch’s desired number of Lanchesters, the Army indicated they had no need given the acquisition of Thompson guns. While the Royal Air Force expressed a limited interest, this was scaled back by the time the guns were manufactured. The Royal Navy was the primary supporter of the Lanchester concept, asking for the provision of 50-round magazines with the guns, and ended up acquiring nearly all of the approximately 50,000 Lanchesters produced. (In fact, Lanchester SMGs saw limited Naval use into the 1970s, chained to ship bulkheads to provide arms to repel boarding-parties.) However, the Lanchester featured a lot of machined parts and a wooden butt-stock and still proved too expensive and time consuming to produce.
In an effort to dramatically simplify the Lanchester, the Sten Mark I (Mk.I) was born. The Sten, taking its appellation from the first letters of the surnames of its designers–Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin and “EN” from “Enfield” (the Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield), where the gun was developed. With a development period of less than six weeks, the Sten was essentially a study in removing all the non-essential elements from the Lanchester design. The Sten Mk.1 still featured wooden furniture components and was fitted with a folding foregrip and flash hider and was adopted in March 1941. This design reduction was still determined to be more elaborate than necessary, however, and the Mk.I* was soon introduced. This interim development removed the foregrip, wooden furniture and flash hider. In total, some 300,000 Mk.I and later Mk.I* SMGs were produced. Nonetheless, further manufacturing expediency was sought; within just a few months of adoption, the Mk.I and Mk.I* were superseded by the Sten Mk.II.
The development and production timelines of the various iterations of the Sten gun were astonishingly fast, despite the weapon’s relative simplicity. By August of 1941, the Sten Mark II had entered production. The Mk.II was truly a study in spartan submachine gun design. All the wooden components were done away with. The barrel shroud was shortened to the bare minimum necessary to keep the shooter from burning their hand on the barrel. The stock was simplified to just a single strut and a flat plate. While a crude and simplistic weapon, it was cheap and fast to make, requiring just 5.5 man-hours per gun and costing some 7 percent of what a Thompson had cost. This was a weapon that would rearm Britain and be delivered to resistance movements across Europe–nearly 2.5 million of these weapons were produced between 1941 and 1945. The Sten Mark III was very similar to the Mk.II, but made with a stamped and welded tube receiver instead of a seamless tube. It was developed simply to exploit different manufacturing infrastructure, and more than 800,000 of these were made alongside the Mk.II.
Holding the Sten Mk.II and Mk.III securely has always been something of a problem. While the 1942 manual instructs soldiers to hold the weapon by the handguard, there are images showing that some troops opted to grip the gun by the magazine or magazine well. The design of the gun did not lend itself to ergonomics, and there remained several possibilities to burn one’s hand or introduce malfunctions to the gun by improper hand placement under combat conditions. As the war progressed and the immediate threat of a German land invasion of the British Isles faded, there was time available to make some much-appreciated improvements to the Sten. In the Mk.V guise, a good wooden butt-stock and pistol grip were added, along with a Lee Enfield front sight and bayonet lug (note that while made in some small numbers, no ‘Sten Mk.IV’ was ever adopted). These guns were mechanically the same, but much more user-friendly and ergonomic. The Mk.V was manufactured from February 1944 until the end of the War, with some 527,000 being produced.
With the end of World War II, the time came to retire the Sten and develop a better design to carry the British armed forces forward. The Sten had always embodied a conscious comprise of quality for expediency, but now that compromise was no longer necessary. In the late 1940s and very early 1950s, Britain would test a number of potential replacements.
The Vesely V-42 was designed in Britain by a Czech refugee named Josef Vesely, who applied for patents in 1942 and 1943. The V-42 was a particularly unusual creation, with a clever but complex 60-round magazine comprised of two separate 30-round columns. It failed to get beyond prototype stage, but three other weapons did: the MCEM (Machine Carbine Experimental Model) series, a family of guns made by BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) and George Patchett’s improvements to the Sten design. A number of different trials took place, with the most important in 1947, 1949 and 1951.
The MCEM guns were rather quickly dropped from testing. The example examined by ARES was from the MCEM-2 series (including the later MCEM-4 and MCEM-6), a small submachine gun with the magazine well located in the pistol grip. The MCEM-2 series was first developed by Polish small arms designer Jerzy Podsedkowski in 1944 and trialled in 1947. It may be considered by some to be a “machine pistol.” While large, it could be fired one-handed and is fitted with a fire selector for semi-automatic fire. When fired in automatic mode, it had an unacceptably high rate of fire of approximately 1,000 rpm (later models featured rate reducers). The detachable butt-stock is of a hollow design made of a stiffened woven fabric and is designed to serve double duty as a holster. It also features an unusual bolt design which is charged with the finger, which was likely to cause issues.
The BSA guns were much better and featured a creative charging system in which the front handguard of the gun was, in its entirety, a cocking handle. One would pull the handguard forward and then press it back to manually cycle the bolt. While an interesting design, it was no doubt more complex than was desired. These featured a design layout similar to the earlier Sten and their competitor, the Patchett, and fired at a much more practical 600 rpm. Much like the Patchett, the BSA guns also featured under-folding wire stocks.
It was George Patchett’s gun–first prototyped all the way back in 1942–that would prove the winner. Patchett, working at the Sterling Armaments Company in Dagenham, essentially worked to refine the Lanchester/Sten design for modern service. He designed a low profile folding stock, moved the grip assembly forward on the gun and most importantly developed a new and much-improved magazine for his gun. Where the Sten had used a single-feed magazine prone to jamming (adopted in a rush as a copy of the MP 28/II magazine), Patchett instead employed alternating-feed (sometimes called “dual-feed” or “double-feed”) geometry. He added rollers to the magazine follower and gave the magazine body a slight curve. The result was one of the best submachine gun magazines designs ever produced. Magazines are a critical component for automatic firearms, and especially otherwise simple blowback-operated submachine guns, and Patchett’s design would propel his weapon to adoption in 1953 as the L2A1. It was subjected to a handful of minor improvements before entering mass production in 1955 as the L2A3. Produced by the Sterling company and becoming commonly known as the Sterling SMG, Patchett’s gun would remain in British military service until 1994.
This article is part of a series of collaborative works produced by ARES Researcher Ian McCollum, who also runs the Forgotten Weapons blog and YouTube channel, in conjunction with ARES Technical Specialist Jonathan Ferguson and ARES Director N.R. Jenzen-Jones. Using access to unique collections facilitated by ARES, the series examines a range of interesting weapons in both video and print formats.
Special thanks to Neil Grant and a confidential source. This article is reproduced courtesy of Armament Research Services (ARES). See www.armamentresearch.com for further original content.
Russian AN-94 Self-Loading Rifle: Overview and Technical Analysis
By Jonathan Ferguson
While a capable and reliable service rifle, the AK-74 was only ever intended as a stop-gap for the then-Soviet armed forces when it entered service in 1974. By contrast, the move to the small caliber, high-velocity (SCHV) 5.45 x 39mm cartridge was seen as a permanent one, mirroring the adoption of 5.56 x 45mm by the United States a decade previously. In embracing this concept, both nations sought enhanced accuracy and a flatter trajectory, as well as the advantages associated with a lighter-weight cartridge. Unlike the U.S., Russia had already adopted and refined an “assault rifle” in a so-called “intermediate” caliber that more easily lent itself to caliber conversion. Adopting an interim SCHV variant of the AKM would act as a large-scale field test of the new cartridge, using a battle-proven rifle design. The new cartridge, coupled with an added muzzle brake, would enhance accuracy and reduce muzzle climb in rapid and automatic fire, thus increasing hit and kill probability. Importantly, it would also buy sufficient development time to design a scratch-built successor that could incorporate the latest thinking and perhaps provide an edge over NATO in small arms design.
By the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Russian Missile & Artillery Directorate (Glavnoye raketno-artilleriyskoye upravleniye MO RF or “GRAU”) and the TSNII TOCHMASH research institute had laid the theoretical groundwork for formal trials. Two promising ideas emerged from their research. The first was a so-called “balanced recoil” system, in which the mass of the bolt carrier and piston were matched with an equivalent counter-mass. This reduced recoil for the firer, at the expense of greater overall weight. The other was what would later be dubbed in the U.S. Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) trials as “hyper burst;” a means of two or more projectiles within a very short space of time in order to minimize disturbance to the shooter’s hold and sight picture. The Russian design competition to find a new service rifle thus began in 1979, before the ACR trials, and lasted longer, ending in 1992.
Contrary to pervasive myth, it was not named Project Abakan after the Siberian city where testing was to be conducted. Maxim Popenker has pointed out that “ABAKAN” was simply a code name, and in fact trials were conducted at TSNII TOCHMASH in Klimovsk. This became an informal nickname for the winning rifle. Twelve design teams entered, the top two both representing Izhmash products. The more conventional AKB project was led by Victor Kalashnikov (son of the famous Mikhail), but lost out to the ASM series of Dr. Gennadiy Nikonov. Nikonov’s team produced a series of prototypes between 1979 and 1992, all designed around the concepts of a very high rate burst and delayed felt recoil, together dubbed “blow-back shifted pulse” (“pulse” here meaning “recoil”). The known examples, interestingly beginning with a bullpup design, are detailed and illustrated in a Small Arms Review article by Valery Shilin (Vol. 5, No. 4). Perhaps inevitably, feedback received from troop trials led to the sliding magazine being fixed in place, necessitating the infamous pulley/follower arrangement but preserving a more conventional “manual of arms” and shooting experience (no doubt also eliminating a potential new failure mode of magazine obstruction!). It was also thought that three shots per burst were excessive, and so this was reduced to two in order to conserve ammunition.
In 1990, the U.S. and German hyper burst candidate, Heckler & Koch’s caseless G11 rifle, was shelved along with all of the other entrants in the ACR trials. Instead, a compromise measure was adopted in the shape of the burst-fire M16A2 (1983) and M4 carbine (1994). As an aside, in recent years the limitations of this compromise measure have been recognized, and the fully automatic function has once again supplanted it in the M4A1. By contrast, the Soviet Union apparently set far more stock by the hyper burst concept. The final Nikonov prototype was the ultimate winner of the Abakan contest and was assigned the store’s number 6P33 by GRAU. In 1994 it received the service designation “AN-94” and was formally adopted with the intention of replacing the several AK variants then in service.
The Nikonov rifle features a variable rate of fire, with a two-round burst mode operating at 1800 rpm and a conventional automatic mode at 600 rpm. To achieve this, a combined gas- and recoil-operated system was coupled with a unique feed system. Simply put, two cycles of the gas system are completed for every one of the recoil system. Thus, two rounds are fired before the recoiling firing unit strikes the rear buffer, although only a few millimeters before, as the high-speed footage reveals. Only when both shots have been fired is the full momentum of both mechanisms imparted to the firer, causing the muzzle to rise. The long, rearward-inclined travel of the recoiling barrel and firing mechanism (described together as the “firing unit”) substantially reduces felt recoil and muzzle rise even in this mode of fire. With the weapon’s fire selector set to “AB,” or automatic, the first two shots are fired at the high rate, after which normal cyclic fire takes place at the circa 600 rpm rate. Whereas in normal automatic fire, the bolt travels with the firing unit on its full travel, slowing the rate drastically.
Technically speaking, the system is primarily gas-operated, but this mechanism sits within a recoil-operated firing unit. Feed arrangements are unique. Although supplied by a standard AK-74 magazine, the weapon actually feeds from a unique intermediate position, which is served by the distinctive pulley wheel and cable. Contrary to popular belief, this is not part of a balanced recoil system. Indeed, the AN-94 is not a balanced recoil weapon, and the reduced recoil that it offers is achieved entirely by the firing unit as detailed below. The pulley simply positions cartridges in this intermediate position for feeding. “Balanced recoil” describes a system using counter-mass to reduce felt recoil and therefore increase hit probability. This was an entirely separate concept also trialled as part of “Abakan.” None of these designs was successful in the trials, but the Koksharov AEK-971 has since been further developed and re-evaluated for military service. In any case, located between the magazine and the chamber is a separate follower under spring tension. This is necessary, as Maxim Popenker puts it, to “…transfer the rounds from stationary magazine and into the recoiling receiver.” As soon as the firing unit begins to recoil, there is no longer sufficient room for the second cartridge for a burst to be chambered. This is why early prototypes featured a moving magazine: to preserve spacing and alignment for feeding purposes. This secondary follower is superficially reminiscent of the elevator in a lever-action rifle, but the Nikonov rifle goes further, using it in conjunction with the recoiling firing unit to very rapidly feed, chamber and fire two rounds in one combined cycle. Also unlike a Winchester elevator or a Maxim breech face, there is no stacking or “queuing up” of cartridges. There is only ever one cartridge either on the follower or in the chamber.
Feeding from the magazine to the secondary follower happens during the operating cycle, While the empty case is being extracted and ejected. The trigger mechanism is also unique to this type, lacking the conventional disconnector and pair of sears. Instead, a large flat trigger plate (“tripper” in the patent) connects the trigger to the only sear. The former tilts when the trigger is pulled, in order to pull down on the sear and release the hammer for a shot. To change firing modes, the selector switch is depressed and slid forward or backward. Because a projecting plunger on the bottom of the sear (“pawl” in the patent and “pin” in the parts catalogue) rides under a shelf in the trigger plate, this alters how and when the trigger is disconnected from the sear, and therefore whether or not the hammer is captured or allowed to travel forward with the bolt carrier. A simple cross-bolt safety (when pressed to the operator’s right) prevents this plate from being depressed and therefore a shot from being fired. It is disengaged by the index finger of the firing hand, as per other trigger guard safeties (e.g., as on the M1 “Garand”).
Operation in Detail
Common Features (All Firing Modes)
With a projectile travelling down the bore, the recoil-operated firing unit starts moving fractionally before the gas-operated bolt and carrier, compressing the front buffer. The latter is driven by a long-stroke piston running inside the gas tube, which is located on the firing unit and concealed under the upper handguard. The carrier group, which has its own return spring, begins a normal gas-operation cycle by extracting and ejecting the first fired case but, thanks to the counter-recoil pulley, also pushes a second cartridge into the feeding position on the follower at the same time. It then returns forwards, picking up this second cartridge and chambering it. At this point, with the firing unit almost at the rearward limit of its travel, the second cartridge is fired, and the gas system again cycles the bolt and carrier. However, despite having reciprocated once already, the carrier group is still (overall) moving to the rear due to the ongoing recoil of the firing unit. The firing unit has moved further back by this point, and the carrier moves further back within the outer receiver on this second cycle, even though it travels the same distance within the firing unit for both shots. In effect, the chamber has moved backwards, so the bolt carrier group must also move further to the rear. This is visible in high-speed footage captured by Larry Vickers and his team (watch the bolt handle). A fraction of a second later, both mechanisms reach the rear of the receiver together, and at the same time, thanks to the pulley, another cartridge is being pushed onto the secondary follower by the appropriately named “pusher.” First the bolt carrier and then firing unit return to their forward positions, and the next cartridge is picked up from the follower and chambered.
With the bolt locked into the firing unit, the firing pin is shrouded by the bolt carrier, protecting it from out-of-battery discharge. On engagement with the barrel extension the bolt is pushed back, protruding its rear from the carrier and putting the back of the firing pin in contact with the closed hammer. This system has been described as “slam-fire,” but this firing pin safety system means that this is not quite accurate. The firing pin cannot reach the primer until the bolt is fully locked. This locked-together mode of operation only occurs on the second shot of burst or automatic fire, when the selector is set accordingly. Detail of the trigger mechanism and its three modes follows below.
With the selector switch slid all the way to the front and the trigger pulled, the weapon cycles as detailed above. As it travels rearwards, the pawl (#48 on the patent drawings) attached to the sear is permitted to slip off the rear of the shelf (“long cam,” #56) on the trigger plate, quickly disconnecting the trigger from the sear. The hammer, which has been automatically locked into the bolt carrier when it fired the cartridge, recoils with the carrier and strikes the top of the sear. This not only re-cocks it, but pushes it sideways, unlocking it from the carrier for a second semi-automatic shot. The carrier is then free to return home within the firing unit, before the firing unit itself starts to move forwards again, with the bolt closed and locked. The pawl then meets the trigger plate again and is pushed inwards by it. This allows it to pass forward along the outer edge of the long cam (56) on the trigger plate. If the trigger remains held, the pawl (48) stays pressed in and out of engagement. When the trigger is released, the pawl can pop back out underneath this shelf, ready to be pulled down again for a second shot. This is how trigger reset is achieved.
Note: the first two shots in Automatic Mode also take effect as follows.
Prior to firing the first shot of a burst, the pawl (48) starts out behind the front angled projection (“short cam,” #57) of the trigger plate. On the first shot, the pawl travels rearwards along the trigger plate as the firing unit recoils, and as in the other modes, it slips off the rear of the long cam. Importantly, however, it does not achieve this until the first shot has been fired. The middle position delays the trigger reset long enough for the bolt and carrier to complete the first cycle within the firing unit. Effectively, the trigger is pulled, the first shot is fired, and the firing unit and bolt/carrier both start travelling backwards. By the time the sear travels backwards far enough to slip off the back of the trigger plate, the bolt, locked into the carrier, has overridden it and is on its way into battery, where it fires the second shot.
The diagram showing the relative starting position of the pawl and trigger plate is useful and yet potentially misleading, since at the end of its return, the pawl now stops in line with the short cam (57) on the front of the trigger plate, which projects further out than the continuous shelf (56). Provided the trigger is held, this short cam holds the pawl and therefore the sear down; this, in turn, allows the hammer to remain locked to the bolt carrier and the second shot to be fired when the bolt carrier has returned forward, but just before the firing unit reaches the rearward most position of its travel. This is sometimes referred to as “slam-fire,” but in fact as described above, a firing pin safety prevents the hammer from being released until the bolt has fully locked. At this point the pawl slips off the back of the long cam (56) and finally disconnects. The trigger is released, and the pawl–also a plunger–is pressed in and resets for the next burst.
This is the most confusing aspect of the operation of the AN-94. In lieu of an animation of burst fire, see the semi-auto equivalent here (and the photo below under “Automatic”). This time index represents the end of the return forward stroke of the sear in semi-automatic. The picture would be almost identical in burst mode, with two crucial differences. First, the trigger plate (marked in yellow) is slid slightly forwards, just shy of being centrally aligned with the round pin of the cross-bolt safety. This places the pawl directly beneath the front projection on the trigger plate, where trigger pressure keeps it down and out of the way. Because the pawl cannot slip off the back of the trigger plate’s long cam shelf, the sear is not pulled downward, and the hammer is not released. The second major difference from the animation at that time index is that the hammer would appear still locked into the bolt carrier, ready to fly forward with it to fire the second shot of the burst as described above, and before the firing unit hits the rear of the receiver.
Slid all the way to the rear, the pawl (48) cannot slip off the long cam of the trigger plate until two shots have been fired as per burst mode above. The rifle then shifts into 600 rpm automatic fire. You can see the shift occur in the sequence of fire shown in the widely circulated Larry Vickers video. With the pawl held down by the trigger plate for even longer than in burst mode, the sear is also retained, and the hammer remains locked to the bolt carrier. As a result, the second shot is fired at the high rate as per two-round burst mode; that is, just before the firing unit hits the rear of travel. With the trigger held down and the firing unit continuing to move rearward, the plunger finally travels far enough back to slip off the back of the selector and resets, catching the hammer on the next return stroke.
The pawl plunger slips off the back of the long cam on the trigger plate, which occurs at the rearward stroke of the cycle in automatic mode. It is not easy to see, but without a cutaway, this is the only way to observe the actual operation of the AN-94 trigger mechanism. The light grey selector plate is visible at center-left, just in front of the darker grey pawl plunger.
On the forward stroke, because the trigger plate is so far forward, the plunger is now able to slide all the way to the laterally projecting shelf (57 on the patent drawings) on the front of the trigger plate, where an angled surface on the rear allows it to pop back out, just before it reaches its fully forward position. It is now popped back out and positioned under the flat front projection on the trigger plate, meaning that provided the trigger remains held and there is ammunition in the magazine, the hammer is automatically tripped as the bolt closes.
When the cross-bolt safety is pushed to “?,” a projection under the trigger plate prevents the latter from tilting and therefore the trigger from moving. In turn, because the trigger cannot move, its nose remains in place in a notch cut into the lower right corner of the firing unit, physically barring it from moving further back than a couple of millimeters unless the trigger is pulled. Thus even with the safety disengaged, this prevents the weapon being inadvertently placed out of battery by an environmental obstruction (such as cover or a firing port) or by the body of an enemy.
The wedge-shaped component on the front of the trigger plate runs in a groove on the underside of the pusher. When the safety is engaged, this wedge is pushed into a slot in the pusher, preventing it from moving. Because this is connected via the cable to the carrier, the carrier is also unable to move. Thus the weapon is prevented from being cocked in a parallel to the uppermost position on the AK’s much simpler selector/safety lever (albeit the latter permits “press checks,” and the AN does not).
The production weapon differs from the final prototype only in detail, other than its club-shaped butt-stock, replaced with a derivative of that found on the AK-100 series. In fact, all of the furniture and the main receiver (“housing” in the parts catalogue) are made from the same black polymer as the AK-100 series, but none of the furniture is interchangeable. Indeed, the only components (i.e., not accessories) on the entire weapon that are interchangeable with the AK family of rifles are the front sight post and sling swivel. Even the pistol grip is a different moulding and the magazine catch a different steel pressing. The gas system, bolt and provision for ejection are heavily inspired by the AK, however. According to Jane’s, metal components such as the firing unit are produced from aluminium alloy investment castings and are laser welded. The barrel features 4 RH rifling with one turn in 195mm. Barrel and chamber are chrome-lined, giving a minimum service life of 10,000 rounds. The two-chambered muzzle device is actually a combined brake, flash and sound suppressor, designed to swirl and control expansion of the propellant gases to disrupt, cool, and reduce pressure differential. Typical muzzle brakes produce a lot of sound and flash in their effort to reduce and/or redirect recoil energy. Importantly, the muzzle brake also provides the necessary precise timing for the two-round burst feature to work.
Also unique is the rotary rear diopter sight, which incorporates five non-adjustable apertures. A battle sight is marked for 200 meters and incorporates two cavities for Tritium inserts. The remaining four apertures cater for 400 to 700 meters. The unusual shape of the front sight protector with its flat top and wide notch is designed to accommodate the front optional Tritium element and also allows for quick alignment for reaction shooting at close range. However, in practice, the presence of two front sighting points may prove confusing. On the AN-94N variant (which appears to be the production standard), the standard Soviet/Russian mounting bracket is provided on the left side of the receiver, envisaged for use with either a 1L29 ×4 optical sight or an NSPU-3 night sight. Standard mounting bracket is provided on the left side of the receiver, envisaged for use with either a 1L29 4x optical sight or an NSPU-3 night sight. The standard issue bayonet is of the 6×5 second AK-74 pattern (first issued c. 1988), although unlike that weapon, the AN-94 will not accept AKM pattern bayonets. Unusually, on the AN-94 this attaches to a lug on the right side of the barrel (with a traditional ring over the muzzle) and sits at an horizontal angle in order not to interfere with the moving barrel/firing unit or the fitment of an under-barrel grenade launcher.
A GP-25 or GP-30 30mm under-barrel grenade launcher can be fitted, mounting to the buffer housing under the barrel, with a rear mounting point on the handguard. A rubber butt pad is provided for fitting to the rifle’s stock when a grenade launcher is installed. A standard AK cleaning kit is supplied in a butt-trap, but due to the lack of space for a cleaning rod up front, a two-piece rod is housed in the front of the butt-stock.
Observers have claimed a two-fold increase in effectiveness over the AK-74, although this appears to be based on the success of the burst mechanism in placing two shots on a man-sized target at typical battlefield engagement ranges, rather than on verifiable combat engagements. In other words, two hits for the price of one. Small Arms Review reports Dr. David Bolotin’s opinion that the AN-94 is also “1.5 times more effective than the American M16A2,” presumably on the basis that the M16A2’s three-round burst feature increases hit probability slightly over the AK-74. Popenker claims a single hole may be made at 100 meters given a sufficiently trained operator. Larry Vickers was only able to achieve dispersion of two inches at 20 meters, but this was without prior training and from the off-hand position. However, even with more practice firearms writer David Lake was only able to improve this to 2-inch groups at 50 meters. Whatever the specifics of capability, the Abakan program unquestionably achieved its goal of increased hit probability and lethality, at least under certain conditions. However, the price of this increased effectiveness is high, due to the complexity and associated costs of materials, manufacturing, maintenance and training. Introduction of the type also coincided with a post-Cold War period of reduced military funding, something that had entirely killed German adoption of the H&K G11 rifle around this time. Another cost due to mechanical complexity is in user ergonomics, which have been criticized and were found by ARES staff to be somewhat difficult. The weapon is also relatively heavy and ill-balanced, and when loaded and fitted with an optical sight, weighs as much as a DMR of larger caliber. Of course, the intent here was to increase the effectiveness of the average infantry soldier rather than to train every man as a designated marksman. Optical sights were also uncommon when the rifle entered service.
While the AN-94 was officially adopted, it has not seen extensive issue and therefore only limited service. Published sources, including Jane’s Infantry Weapons and The World’s Assault Rifles by Nelson & Johnston, report usage in First Chechen War of 1994-1996, and one example was in evidence in a YouTube video filmed in Crimea in 2014 (since deleted, but verified by ARES staff). The primary and likely only state military users are Russian Special Operations Forces, specifically paratroopers. Another image circulated online shows a naval infantryman with the weapon. Other sightings of the type are at gun shows, parades and on military exercises. Many of the examples with visible receiver markings are revealed to be MMG factory-made inert guns, such as the example used for the images in this article (see note, marked with an asterisk*, below). The AN-94 appeared in promotional literature as late as February 2015, but by the time the new www.kalashnikov.com website had been launched in Summer 2016, the weapon was no longer featured as a product. Large scale manufacture seems to have begun around 2002; although the relevant patent was applied for in 1998, the official parts catalogue was not published until January 2003. It is not known when this production run ceased or how many examples were completed. However, limited sales may have occurred. In 2002 a U.S. government report claimed that 20 examples had been sold to the Provisional IRA. Beyond the initial production models (AN-94 and AN-94N with sight rail), there are no confirmed variants or improved models. A 7.62 x 39mm variant was reported as early as 1998, and two photographs have since emerged that do appear to show examples in this chambering. As an attempt to court the user’s ongoing preference for the bigger 7.62mm bullet, this is plausible. Confusingly, however, in 2015 Kalashnikov Concern’s Head of Media denied that such a variant had been produced. If the photos are genuine, this variant must be extremely rare, perhaps produced for limited troop trials only.
Today the type remains in limited service, as trials continue to replace the AK family of weapons. However, with attention once again on balanced recoil systems for any “high tech” replacement, and considerable effort being put into further product-improved Kalashnikov variants (including the AK-12 with its conventional three-round burst), it seems that the AN-94’s days are numbered. International patents on the design even began to lapse in 2010 “because of non-payment of due fees.” Nonetheless, the weapon represents a tremendous engineering answer to a long-standing question in small arms design. It may have failed as a service rifle, but Nikonov’s design is nothing short of brilliant.
*Note: While the AN-94 in the Royal Armouries’ collection is a factory-made inert (MMG) example, as shown in the ARES photographs included in this article, ARES personnel had access to a “live” example from another confidential collection. This example could not be photographed for security reasons.
Special thanks to the National Firearms Centre at the Royal Armouries, the relevant staff at another, confidential, collection and to D.E. Watters for a tip regarding the 7.62 x 39mm AN-94.