The Russian army has made several attempts to develop and introduce a replacement for the “Kalashnikov Automatic Rifle model 1974”—AK-74. The “Kalashnikov Automatic” epoch began in 1949 when AK-47s were replacing all older infantry rifles. Over 50 million AK-47s and AKMs were made, most of them outside Russia. Production, on a small scale, continues. After almost 70 years, they are still the world’s most numerous assault rifles in use.
The AK-47 was followed by the AKM in the 1960s and then the AK-74 (which was very similar to smaller caliber cartridges similar to the US M-16) in the 1970s. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the AN-94 assault rifle was designed as a possible replacement for the AK-74. It was first publicly revealed in 1993. The AN-94 design by Gennadiy Nikonov eventually won the competition against other competitive Russian assault rifles, such as the AEK-971. The 5.45×39 mm AN-94’s design is more complex than the AK-74’s. AN-94 is a gas-operated, rotating bolt assault rifle. It has a moving barrel-receiver-gas-drive group for delayed recoil action. The first two rounds are fired in a very high rate mode. The mechanism fires the second shot in the burst quickly enough to allow it to escape before the recoil of the first shot is felt, thus potentially allowing the two shots to hit extremely close together; for example, to aid in piercing body armor, but then the hammer unit switches itself to the low rate mode, and the remaining rounds are fired in the 600 rpm mode. There is no manual rate of fire selector, as everything is done automatically. The process is repeated every time when the shooter puslls the trigger. Due to its rather complicated design, which has a negative effect on its reliability—in particular, higher sensitivity to contamination of parts—the AN-94 was issued only in limited quantities to the elite forces of the Russian Army, police and Internal Affairs Ministry.
The rival assault rifle, the AEK-971 was originally designed and tested during the “Abakan” trials of the late 1980s; it failed in trials, but its development was continued in hopes to sell the gun to police forces and for export. During the early 2000s, small batches of AEK-971 rifles in 5.45×39-mm caliber were manufactured for Russian Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD) troops, but their production ceased in 2006 and was suspended for several years due to the lack of orders. However, circa 2010, a limited production of the modified AEK-971 assault rifle was resumed for the Russian MVD and other Russian law enforcement agencies.
Since 2013, heavily modified versions of the 5.45-mm AEK-971 and 7.62-mm AEK-973 rifles have undergone official Russian army “Ratnik” trials. These new rifles are known as A-545 (GRAU index 6P67) and A762 (6P68), respectively. In December 2014 Russian army officials announced that A-545 (6P67) and A762 (6P68) assault rifles successfully passed Ratnik trials, along with their main rival, the AK-12 (see below). Both systems were recommended for initial batch production and issue for trials in the field.
The AEK-971 assault rifle is gas-driven and has balanced actions with a rotating bolt locking. Balancing means that the AEK-971’s gas drive has two gas chambers and two gas pistons. The first gas piston is linked via a gas rod to the bolt carrier and operates as usual. The second gas piston is linked to a balancing steel weight and moves in the opposite direction to the main gas piston. Both pistons are synchronized through a simple gear. This design is intended to eliminate three of the four elements-of-action impulses, which cause a rifle to move during full-auto fire. The first impulse is received when the bullet moves along the barrel—this is the basic recoil itself. The second impulse is received when the heavy bolt carrier/bolt group moves along the receiver back and forth. The third impulse is received when the bolt carrier/bolt group slams against the receiver in the rear position, and the fourth is received when this group is stopped in the forward position after a new cartridge is chambered.
The synchronous and opposite movement of the balancing weight eliminates all except the recoil impulse, so the rifle becomes far more stable during full-auto fire. Its rate of fire is 900 rounds per minute. The gain in accuracy in full-auto is about 15% to 20% when compared to the AK-74 assault rifle in the same caliber. The AN-94 assault rifle, mentioned above, has a slight edge over the AEK-971 only in short-burst (two rounds only) mode. In full-auto medium or long-burst fire mode (3 to 5 or 7 to 10 rounds per burst) the AEK-971 wins hands down, with a weight of 3.3 kg without magazine, being also some 0.5 kg lighter than the AN-94 and much simpler and cheaper to manufacture. Production AEK-971 rifles have side-folding plastic buttstocks, plastic forearm and fire control grip and use standard AK/AKM or AK-74 30-round magazines (depending on the chambering, 5.45×39 mm (AEK-971), 5.56×45 mm (AEK-972) and 7.62×39 mm (AEK-973). They also feature safety switch/fire mode selectors of various designs, depending on the year of manufacture and factory.
The fire selector allows three modes of fire—single shots, 3-round bursts and full-auto. The A-545 (6P67) rifle features numerous internal and external improvements over the earlier AEK-971.
These include, among other things, redesigned receiver with integrated Picatinny rail on the top, ambidextrous fire mode selector/safety levers, retractable and adjustable shoulder stock and aperture rear sight, ambidextrous safety/fire mode selectors.
The 21st Century Russian Warrior
The time had come for the Russian Armed Forces to enter the 21st century’s demand for modern equipment together with the new “Ratnik” [Eng. for Warrior] set of gear for its infantry. The Ratnik system is the Russian version like the “Modern Warrior” concepts around the world and resulted in the introduction of new body armor, personal communications, wearable computers, night vision devices and personal medical equipment.
Design work on the AK-12 began in August 2011 with the first prototype unveiled on January 24, 2012, but previously the Russian Army had preferred the A-545 (5.45×39 mm AEK-971 rifle, known as A-545 or 6P67) over the AK-12. The A-545 was recognized as a truly modern rifle design, which as a result of its counter-balanced recoil system, was said to offer a 10% to 15% reduction in recoil compared to the AK-12. The AK-12 was not originally accepted for the state trials in 2012. The army subsequently allowed the rifle to be tested under political pressure, albeit at the expense of the manufacturer—the testing of the A-545 and A-762 was funded by the military.
In January 2015 the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) selected two assault rifles manufactured by Kalashnikov Concern as new standard issue firearm for the Russian Ratnik soldier modernization program. One reason cited for the selection of the AK-12 was the existing manufacturing capability of Kalashnikov Concern, while the V.A. Degtyarev Plant would have had to build a new production line from scratch. As a result Kalashnikov Concern won the program on the basis of a lower production cost in cost to effectiveness terms. The AK-12’s quality is regarded acceptable. The two assault rifles manufactured by Kalashnikov Concern selected by the Armed Forces were: the AK-12, chambered in 5.45×39 mm and the 7.62×39-mm AK-103-4. The Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifle is the third generation and a modification of the current Russian standard issue AK-74M rifle for older 7.62×39-mm ammunition. The 7.62-mm-chambered AK-103-4 is equipped with a Picatinny rail, telescopic folding buttstock and effective muzzle device. The AK-103 is technically similar to AK-74M except for caliber and magazines used; any 7.62-mm AK/AKM type magazine can be used in AK-103, but rifles now are issued with new production 30-round magazines made of black polymer. It is primarily intended for export, although some AK-103s are in use by various Russian Special Law Enforcement groups, which prefer 7.62 mm over 5.45 mm for its better stopping power.
The 7.62×39-mm AK-104 is as the AK-103 (a third generation)—a thorough upgrade of the world-known AK-47 and AKM. Having the same caliber, the AK-104 differs from the AK-103 with a shortened barrel and a new flash hider/muzzle brake. The muzzle brake provides for cyclic fire accuracy and further reduces muzzle climb and burst recoil. The folding plastic buttstock is practical when on march, during transportation and landing operations. The weapon can fire with buttstock folded. The forearm, magazine, buttstock and pistol grip are made of high-strength plastic and feature great durability to stress. The weapon has protective coatings for corrosion resistance of metal parts. A side dove-tail mounting rail is available for optical, collimator or night sights. Its weight with bullets is 3.2 kg, and its practical firing range is 300 m. Its shooting mode is safe, full-auto with 600 rounds/min rate of fire.
In designing the new AK-12 rifle, Concern Kalashnikov decided to stick with the classic layout of the AK-47, the combat-proven rifle with high reliability and simplicity. Thus the Kalashnikov AK-12 assault rifle became the latest incarnation of their iconic Kalashnikov the AK-47 assault rifle. The company says AK-12 is a fifth generation AK-pattern rifle that considerably increases the accuracy of shooting. It is featuring several ergonomic improvements; for example, a bolt catch, accessory rails and a telescopic buttstock. The AK-12 has also a lower recoil impulse than the AK-74M and combines reliability with precision. The webmaster and author of World Guns, Mr. Maxim Popenker, calls the AK-12: “Avtomat Kalashnikova, 2012,” since the AK-12 first was displayed to the press in January 2012. The AK-12 assault rifle is a gas-operated, selective fire weapon using traditional “Kalashnikov type” action with long-stroke gas piston and rotary bolt locking. The bolt group is noticeably lightened to decrease recoil and improve accuracy in full-automatic fire. The barrel has improved rifling for better accuracy. The muzzle brake is revised with a NATO-standard external diameter of 22 mm. That allows launching of rifle grenades of foreign manufacture. The receiver is redesigned. Key modification is a new top cover of a more rigid design. It is hinged at the front and opens up and forward for disassembly and maintenance.
Top cover latch release lever is located at the rear of receiver, right side, behind the safety lever. Safety/fire selector unit is also revised to provide more ergonomic ambidextrous switch with four positions (Safe, Semi-auto, 2-rounds bursts, Automatic–2015 version). Safety/selector levers are located above the pistol grip, at both sides of the rifle. Charging handle is moved forward to be removable attached to the gas piston and can be installed on either side of the gun. When the rifle is fired, the charging handle reciprocates along with the bolt.
New side-folding, telescoping adjustable stock is provided for AK-12. The Kalashnikov AK-12 assault rifle features an integral Picatinny rail at the top cover and additional accessory rails at the top and both sides of the fore-end. Bottom section of the fore-end is available in two versions–with a rail (to accept various “tactical” accessories like lights and fore grips) or a plain one (to accept standard 40-mm grenade launchers like the GP-25 or GP-30). The rifle can accommodate night vision and holo-sights (red dot) target indicators. The rifle is fed from 30-round AK-74 box magazines, but 60- and 95-round magazines are also available. The AK-12 features a bolt catch device which is controlled by a lever located at the front of the trigger guard, above the enlarged magazine release lever. It must be noted that this bolt hold-open device works only with modified magazines.
The AK-12 also features a redesigned integral iron sight. The steel front tactical rifle sight is mounted upon the gas block (the 2015 prototype version). The adjustable rear sight has a reversible (rotating) blade with aperture (diopter) on one side and U-shaped notch on another. To switch between options the user has to raise the rear sight and then rotate the blade through 180 degrees to either side. The basic feature of the new rifle is its modularity. It will serve as a basic platform for designing of over 20 modifications of small-arms weapons of various purpose and caliber. AK-12’s composition allows operating it single-handedly and can be converted for left- or right-handed use. The Russian army is expecting that the price of the AK-12 will be 25% more than the AK-74M. The MoD also increased the number of ordered Ratnik systems from 50,000 to 70,000. The AK-12 is set to be used by only the elite Russian units equipped with the Ratnik system.
Meanwhile, a carbine variant of the AK-12, chambered in 7.62×39 mm, was selected by the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO) to replace its current AKS-74U and AK-104 carbines and AK-103 rifles. The remainder of the Army is expected to use an upgraded AK-74M, developed by Kalashnikov under military requirements. When this author spoke with one representative from Concern Kalashnikov and asked for the status in June 2016, the representative said that the company at present had three prototypes.