Tuesday, May 3, 2011

History and Development of the Assault Rifle - VIII

In the last few posts, we saw during the development of the M-16 rifle, that the US military had determined that "small is beautiful" and therefore used smaller-caliber, but higher velocity ammunition for their assault rifles. The chief motivation for smaller ammunition was because studies had shown that the side with the most firepower tended to win infantry engagements. However, this meant that each soldier would need to carry a larger amount of ammunition, so the US decided to research smaller calibers, which are lighter and therefore a soldier can carry more of them. Research showed that 5.56x45 mm. cartridges were lethal enough at ranges where most infantry combat took place and so they developed assault rifles around this concept: the M16 family.

The results of this research did not go unnoticed by the Soviets. At that time, the Soviets were using the AKM assault rifle as the standard rifle for their military. The AKM and its predecessor, the AK-47, fire 7.62x39 mm. cartridges. In line with western findings, the Soviets also decided to develop another assault rifle, one that uses smaller bullets than the AKM or AK-47. Of course, they did not want to copy the same 5.56x45 mm. cartridge as used by the West, because the Soviets went to great pains to ensure that their own weapons could not be used against them. Hence, they designed a new cartridge of size 5.45x39 mm. and designed a new assault rifle that used the same basic mechanism as the AKM, but scaled down to use the new cartridge. Since the new rifle and cartridge were developed in 1974, the new rifle was called the AK-74. This rifle is still in use in the Russian military.

AK-74 assault Rifle. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The AK-74 is heavily based on the AKM design, so much so that about 50% of the parts (pins, screws, springs etc.) are interchangeable between the two, even though they are of different calibers. However, the AK-74 also has a bunch of other improvements over the AKM, in order to increase reliability, accuracy and durability. For one thing, the bolt extraction claw is larger on the AK-74 to better extract spent cartridges. The stock is lighter on the AK-74 and was originally made of laminated wood, with cuts on the side to save weight. The stock, pistol grip and hand guards were all later changed to a polymer. The magazine is made of a polymer plastic, unlike the metal magazines of the AKM or AK-47. The magazine also has two extra horizontal ribs in it, which make it impossible to insert it into an older AK family rifle.

Other variants of the AK-74 have folding metal stocks (AKS-74 and its carbine variant, AKS-74U)

A variant called the AK-74M does away with all the wood and the stock, pistol grip and hand guards are all black or plum colored plastic.

AK-74M assault rifle. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.
Note the lack of wood in the above rifle.

The AK-74M also has a mounting rail on the left to attach other hardware such as telescopes. Since the early 1990s, the AK-74M model is the current official rifle of the Russian military and is gradually replacing the older AK-74 and AKS-74 models in service.

The Russians have also designed the AK-101, AK-102, AK-103, AK-104 and AK-105 assault rifles, but these use the same AK-74 design, but are chambered for different calibers instead. For instance, AK-101 and its carbine form, the AK-102, are chambered for the NATO 5.56x45 mm. cartridges and are specially designed for the export market.

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