Buyer’s Guide to the AK Family of Rifles

By CTD Blogger published on in Firearms

This article aims to help the first-time AK buyer get the necessary information to make an informed purchase of an AK-47 or AK-74 rifle.

It is not for the current AK owner and collector, and as such, you may feel unchallenged by this information. That is OK. We still love to have you here. Feel free to read along with us, ad add any relevant knowledge you may feel appropriate in the comment section.

Century International Arms M70AB Underfolder Rifle

Century International Arms M70AB Under-Folder Rifle

Here, we are only talking about purchasing the civilian-legal semi-automatic version of the Automatic Kalashnikov Model 47, or AK-47, which goes by many trade names and designations but is still a rose by any other name.

Today’s semi-automatic AK market is flooded with Kalashnikovs, ranging from marginal to excellent quality. You may find that the deciding factor is your “hip-pocket national bank” (your wallet). We can work with you, as well as the buyer with deep pockets, who is ready to purchase but just needs a push in the right direction.

Some Basics

The AK-47 and AK-74 rifles are, by far, the most produced modern small arms in the world. Some estimates are as high as 100 million copies. That means the AK accounts for one out of every five firearms in the world. In addition, they are quite the “bad boys” of the firearms world and for good reason. The AK has earned a reputation for being an extremely reliable weapon under all possible conditions. That is a good thing. Since they are such good weapons, and the full-auto version is relatively cheap on the international black market, they are the choice for many—especially gangs, drug traffickers and terrorists everywhere. In fact, the U.S. military has faced the AK-47 in just about every conflict from Vietnam to the present day—thus, the bad-boy reputation. You already should be over the “not invented here” syndrome, or you would not be thinking about buying one. Believe it or not, and much to their loss, many folks suffer from that malady.

Introduced in 1947, the AK-47 has been in use for a long time. The AK-74 came out in 1974. Pretty easy to remember, huh? Actually, that method of model numbering is common in the European world, where the rifle is simply named after its design or introduction year.

The 7.62×39 mm round has good stopping power, favorably compares to the .30-30 cartridge, and is plentiful since countless shiploads of ammo have come here in the last 20 years. In fact, it is virtually a universal cartridge. The AK-74 5.45×39 mm round is less well-known. It is essentially the Soviet’s answer to the 5.56 NATO round. For the past few years, inexpensive (and corrosive) surplus 5.45 ammo has been available, but it may be drying up now. New production ammunition still is available in great numbers, so ammo availability is not a factor. The AK is also available in 5.56 NATO for those who need it. however, most folks looking to buy their first AKs will stick with the original 7.62×39 caliber.

75 Round Magazine

A 75-round magazine is good to have with an AK.

The U.S. has imported millions of AK magazines throughout the years. The basic AK-47 mag is a steel, 30-round banana mag. While prices have risen through the years, used surplus and unissued condition magazines still are available at a reasonable price. The great thing about AK mags, because the demand is so high, they now make them new in the U.S. Those are mostly the polymer variety, and most are high quality and very usable. However, the very best polymers are from places such as Bulgaria, which produces the “waffle mag” with the Circle 10 arsenal mark at the bottom. Those are highly recommended if you go polymer. Of course, all the polymer mags are impervious to rust (not including the springs) and are very robust. East German and Polish steel mags are about the best. There is a whole world of information for identifying AK mags because they all are similar (perhaps we will add that information in the future). For now, the number one recommendation is the military-surplus, 30-round steel magazine.

AK rifles are available in two major receiver groups: milled and stamped. This is when you must decide if you want to go high or low dollar. Just about any milled AK will be on the pricey side. That is just the way the market is; a milled receiver will cost you more. To explain the difference between the two, the milled receiver starts life as a solid chunk of quality steel and is then put through more than 100 machining stages until it becomes a finished monobloc receiver. That is the primary reason for the greater cost—all the machine work. The stamped receivers are, just as the term implies, stamped out of a flat sheet of steel and formed in a series of bending operations until the final box-shaped receiver is complete. There are other operations for the stamped version, such as adding the front and rear trunions, spot welding the bolt carrier rails to the inside and installing a number of heavy rivets that are the stamped receiver’s trademark. However, there is something aesthetically pleasing about the solid chunk of steel on the milled receiver, and the action is generally smoother on milled guns. Let your pocketbook be your guide. For your first AK-47, go with the more common 1mm stamped receiver. It is every bit as serviceable as the milled receiver and more than likely will cost a lot less. Look at one of the Romanian models. Be sure it accepts the standard, double-stack, high-capacity magazine, however.

Manufacturers

Let’s face it, the days of importing a complete, functioning AK-47 into the U.S. are over. Those days ended on March 14, 1989, when President G.H.W. Bush signed an Executive Order banning the import of 43 different semi-automatic rifles, spawning the term “pre-ban,” which still is used today. If you want one of those pre-ban rifles, by all means get it. The thing to keep in mind is they cost plenty. We are talking about $1,000 to $2,000, or higher for rare variants. That is great, if you have the money. You will get a quality rifle if you buy a Norinco, Polytech, Valmet, Maadi, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian or any other pre-ban imported AK- 47. But you may find yourself owning a rifle so nice that you are afraid to shoot it—especially one that is still new in box (NIB). Do not be afraid to shoot it unless you just want to keep it for posterity’s sake or as an investment that is sure to appreciate. But that is not this article’s focus; we are looking at buying a shooter.

AK-47

The AK-47 is reliable and affordable.

U.S. manufacturers produce their AKs from imported parts kits. Those were once complete, fully functioning, select-fire rifles demilled in the country of origin (or possibly the U.S. importer) to conform to BATFE specs. That means cutting and removing the receiver between the front and rear trunions and carefully removing all the small parts to ship it forward for import. In 2006, BATFE restricted the import of original barrels from those kits. That is just another part to replace with a U.S.-made unit, which in turn, raises the cost of the finished rifle. Those import restrictions have been overcome successfully by many U.S. AK makers. The demand is there to justify all the work of producing the receivers and barrels here. In fact, Arsenal, Inc., produces an absolutely outstanding “Bulgarian” AK made in Las Vegas.

Price is not always a true judge of quality, but most quality AKs will be at least $750. The old phrase “you get what you pay for” is true here. You cannot cut corners and have a first-class firearm. However, fear not because you can get a quality AK at a reasonable price. There are many Romanian AKs that are certainly worth owning. Fit and finish on those may not be the absolute best, but they are very functional and will serve you well. Be sure to closely check the front sight tower (FST) if you decide to go that route. We have seen many FSTs on Romanian and Yugoslav AKs that are not properly aligned (canted left or right) and must be set straight before you can have a successful shooting adventure. If you special order one sight unseen, you may have to have a gunsmith perform that service if it comes in canted.

Furniture

The decision to buy an AK comes with several choices, one being furniture—the buttstock, pistol grip and hand guards. However odd it may sound, furniture is the accepted term to refer to the exterior parts of the rifle other than the barrel and receiver. There are two major groups: wood and synthetic. Both are equally good.

Wood Furniture

UTG Quad Rail for Romanian WASR AK Rifles

The UTG Quad Rail works well on Romanian WASR AK rifles.

The Soviet AK started with wood furniture. That is the way to go if you want a traditional AK-47. There are a variety of woods from which to choose, as well as laminated woods. Laminated wood is the best choice for overall durability. You can go with original Soviet-bloc wood or a U.S.-made stock set. If you buy an AK and want to change the furniture, that is easy. You may buy a synthetic furniture AK and want to have wood, or vice-versa. Or you may have a blond Hungarian stock set and want to change to walnut. That also is simple. Sets are available pre-finished and ready to install or bare and ready for you to apply the desired finish. One popular fad is to duplicate the red-toned Russian finish with a gloss topcoat, which looks good on any AK.

Synthetic Furniture

Command Arms 6-position adjustable stock for stamped AK receivers

Command Arms makes this six-position, adjustable-stock stamped AK receiver.

Synthetic AK furniture appeared in the late 1960s or early 1970s. East Germany may have been the first to use a plastic furniture set, also known as pebble finish, which was medium brown. It is not the most robust choice because it looks like more of a PVC plastic as opposed to the later, tougher, glass-filled nylon; but you may like the look. Later, the Bulgarians created black synthetic furniture. Some like the all-black AK look best. As with the wood options, changing looks is easy. Synthetic furniture sets now are available in OD green, plum and black—to name a few. You may even find them in various camouflage. Stencils for doing your own multi-color camo also are available. And, you can buy your AK with a standard AK-length buttstock or the longer U.S. or NATO version, which adds about 1.25 inches to the overall length and is more comfortable for taller shooters.

Folding Stocks

AKs offer several buttstock options besides the classic fixed position. You can find an under-folder and right- and left-side folders. Those are now legal in most states since the sunset of the Clinton 1994–2004 Assault Weapons Ban. If you want to leave behind tradition, you also can buy an AK with an AR-15-style collapsible buttstock. The under-folder is perhaps the most recognizable version, but the side-folders have certainly been around for a while. Many side-folders come in a triangular shape, approximating the basic shape of the wooden buttstock. Or you still can find what is called a wire stock, a single rod extending from the rear trunion and ending at the buttplate. That is also called a crutch-folder since it resembles the end of a crutch that goes under the armpit. The beauty of the side-folders is you can retrofit them to a conventional buttstock AK with little work. Because of its unique rear trunion design, the under-folder is an under-folder for life.

Barrel Length

The majority of Kalashnikovs have 16.1-inch barrels. That is true to the original rifle and has held constant since the AK’s introduction. Of course, like many military weapons, shorter- and longer-barreled variants exist. Short-barrel AK rifles fall into the NFA area and are restricted from private ownership without a BATFE tax stamp and federal NFA paperwork. Legal ownership is not insurmountable, but most folks do not want to go through the process. One alternative is a Krinkov (AKSU), which was originally designed with a 10-inch barrel modified by permanently attaching a fake can or suppressor. That way, you can have the best of both worlds—short-barrel rifle and legal. As long as the barrel and attachment combine for an overall length of more than 16 inches, you are good. Keep in mind that you measure barrel length from the bolt face in the ready-to-fire position to the end of the barrel or permanently attached device. Most manufacturers go an extra quarter- to half-an-inch to ensure they are not short by a fraction.

Long-barreled AKs usually fall into the sniper category, such as the Russian SVD Dragunov, Romanian PSL/Romak III or light machine gun, RPK-style guns. The Chinese-made several long-barrel AKs, as did many other Soviet bloc countries. Those are great, but be warned, Soviet and Chinese SVDs are very expensive, usually a minimum of $2,500 up to $4,000, depending on condition and included accessories. Those are more for the serious collector, as opposed to the first-time buyer. The PSL/Romak IIIs are more reasonably priced and often available for less than $1,000, with optics included. Do not assume that the long barrel is a guarantee of tack-driver accuracy. Soviet bloc accuracy is hitting a human in the vital parts at extended range. Anywhere in the chest area or head counts as a good shot. While Americans like to think about a sniper rifle being able to shoot sub-minute of angle (MOA), I would expect the SVD to shoot 1 to 1.5 MOA at best, with carefully hand-loaded match ammunition. The PSL/Romak III is a 2 to 3 MOA rifle, and most standard-barrel Kalashnikovs will shoot 4 MOA. That is a 4-inch group at 100 yards for a good shooter with standard ammo. For purists, the SVD is not technically an AK-47, but it is close enough to include in this discussion.

Muzzle Attachments

Almost all AK barrel muzzles are threaded to accept a muzzle attachment. That thread pattern is 14mm by 1mm, left hand. The most common attachment is the slant brake. The idea behind the slant brake is that the escaping gases will work to push the rifle down and to the left to compensate for the tendency for the recoil to push the rifle up and to the right. Sometimes, a plain muzzle nut is installed to protect the threads. There are many other muzzle attachments for the AK. If you like the AR-15-style flash hider, you can find one threaded to work. The AK-74-style flash hider, or muzzle brake, is also popular for the AK-47. It effectively controls recoil, and its very loud noise and black blast make it effective in preventing others from standing near you as you shoot.

If you like the AR-15 style flash hider, you can find one threaded to work.

If you like the AR-15-style flash hider, you can find one threaded to work.

U.S.-Made Parts

If you buy an AK made from an imported parts kit, it must conform to the 922r guidelines (the 1990 Imported Parts Law). The BATFE developed that code to set a standard for manufacturing AK-style rifles (actually any semi-auto rifle on the ban list) from parts kits. The imported parts count cannot exceed 10.  That is not just any 10 parts on the rifle, but 10 parts from a possible list of 20 that must comply; 16 parts on that list apply to the AK. To comply, you must ensure the AK you buy has at least six U.S.-made parts substituted in the build. The most common U.S.-made parts  are the hammer, trigger, disconnector, gas piston, buttstock, pistol grip, upper and lower hand guards (both count as one part), slant brake or plain muzzle nut, magazine follower and magazine floor plate. It only takes six of those, so it is up to the manufacturer how they want to work the build. Also, if using the magazine parts as U.S.-made parts, you must always use the magazines that have those parts when firing the rifle because using an imported steel magazine creates an illegal configuration.

As previously mentioned, there are several U.S.-made magazines to put three U.S.-made parts in the build (the mag body also counts), but most manufacturers do not set up their rifles that way because it precludes the use of the original-issue AK mags, which buyers are likely to use. Reasonably, you can expect an AK from a reputable manufacturer to be in proper 922r compliance. Most U.S.-made AKs also will have a BATFE certificate stating full 922r compliance. That is your best guarantee of being legal. The above discussion is for stamped-receiver AKs; milled-receiver AKs require only five U.S.-made parts since the front and rear trunions are integral to the milled receiver and are not counted as applicable 922r parts.

Finishes

AKs are available with several metal finishes. The most common is parkerized, a durable and traditional finish for a military firearm. All it needs is an occasional oiling. The Egyptian MAADI uses a paint finish that is not as durable as the parkerized job, but that is the way they did it. Some U.S. manufacturers use a combination of parkerizing to prime the bare metal, followed by a high-tech topcoat. Also, there is a traditional blued finish, as used on Chinese, Polish and original Yugoslavian AKs  imported by Mitchell Arms in the late 1980s. Those are perhaps the nicest finished AK-47s available. Of course, finish is something you can change later.

Wood finish on an AK is usually a tung-oil type but can be linseed oil or polyurethane. Original, imported wood furniture often is dipped in a lacquer or shellac that creates a hard, clear coat. Since those were military-issued furniture sets, the rifle’s look was not a consideration, and the thick lacquer will have obvious drips and runs. As a result, many American AK owners refinish the wood furniture.

Polymer furniture needs no additional finish.

1994 to 2004 Ban Models

You may find some remnants from the 1994 to 2004 Clinton Gun Ban for sale. Referred to as post-ban models, those AKs have bayonets with their lugs ground off, muzzle attachments removed or permanently attached to the barrels, are missing the folding stock or have the folding stock welded or fixed in the open position, or possibly have a thumb-hole buttstock. Those can be fine shooters at more reasonable prices since most AK seekers want all the bells and whistles of the pre-ban AK-47s. It is legal to modify those to no-ban configuration, as long as you remember to comply with the 922r regulation.

Most post-ban rifles still at the factory or distributor were sent back through a re-assembly or upgrade process to be brought up to no-ban status effective September 14, 2004. There may be one or two minor features that are not up to date on no-ban rifles, such as leaving the muzzle attachments permanently attached, because it would not be cost-effective to remove them. The same logic applies to bayonet lugs. Those are rather small issues that do not affect the AK’s operation in live fire. They simply fall under the heading of aesthetics but could be a potential way to save a few bucks.

Shooting Your New AK

This is the best part. The only drag in the last couple of years is the higher cost of all ammo. In years past, AK ammo was as low as 9 cents per shot. Oh, for the good old days to return. In any case, ammo is plentiful and still fairly inexpensive due to the sheer bulk available. Steel-cased ammo is perfectly fine in the AK because it was designed for that. Some ranges will not permit any steel-jacketed or bi-metal ammo, such as TulAmmo, so keep that in mind.

Before you leave home, carefully inspect the bore for any grease in the barrel. U.S.-made firearms rarely have it, but it may be there, just the same. Light oil is not usually a problem and will burn out after the first couple rounds. In either case, run some patches down the bore to see what is there. When they come out fairly clean, go to the range.

At the range, sight in your AK. You will need to buy a sight adjustment tool beforehand because nothing else will work there. Keng’s Firearms Specialties has some Polytech armory-grade models for about $35. That is the one to get; it is built like a tank. Older after-market adjustment tools can break the first time you try to move the front sight for elevation, so be gentle. I will not go into the actual sighting process; just remember that when correcting the windage, move the front sight away from the desired direction or toward the wayward grouping, which is the opposite for the standard Western-style firearm with an adjustable rear sight.

If your group is to the right of the bull’s-eye (or whatever you like to aim at), push the front sight to the right to get on target. The rear tangent sight has a setting called the “battle setting.” At that setting, and after properly sighting in at 100 yards or meters, by aiming at center of body mass, you will hit an enemy between the shoulders and hips at ranges from 0 to 300 yards or meters. Of course, you have the traditional ranges also listed from 100 to 700 or 800 yards or meters. For general use, sight in at 100 yards or meters.

Feeding Problems

The beauty of the AK is that it eats with ease just about any ammo. That is just the way it was designed. Of course, you may encounter problems, as with any firearm. Any new rifle may need a break-in period, so do not be alarmed if you have a few failures feeding or extracting. Be sure it is properly lubed and oiled before you shoot; that may curb any problems before they arise. Some AKs, such as the Yugoslavians, have a three-position gas setting that should be in the middle position. The other two are for very dirty rifles (more gas) and very hot loads (less gas). Be sure to check there if you have short-stroking problems. In rare cases, you may have a bad magazine follower. Bent magazine bodies are more likely, which is easy to spot once you suspect a problem. If the rifle fails to run the bolt carrier to the rear at all, then you have a block in the gas orifice between the bore and gas tube. That may shut down your shooting for the session since it will require getting a probe in there to clean out whatever is blocking the orifice. It is rare, but possible.

Cleaning

Cleaning involves some disassembly. Not a problem. Just pop off the dust cover and proceed to take it down. All AKs come with instructions, and plenty are available online. The best policy for cleaning is to assume that your ammo has corrosive primers, especially if it came from overseas. Note, however, that Wolf and TulAmmo are not corrosive. If you do not clean your rifle after shooting corrosive ammo, the bore as well as the bolt face and breech areas will rust. That is a really ugly mess but will not actually affect your AK’s operation unless it is an extreme case and you let it go without stopping the rust. However, why take a chance on ruining the value of you rifle? Hoppe’s No. 9 cleaner is the best to clean up after corrosive primers. Use it generously, and you will sleep well. Even if the primers are not corrosive, it is still a good policy to properly clean (from the rear of the bore) after a firing session. Lightly oil after cleaning, and reassemble your AK.

Accessories

Not much is needed for the AK-47 except a sling. However, if you want to add a scope, then you ensure the rifle comes with a scope mount. You can add those later, but the problem is finding someone to mount them accurately. It is much easier to get one from the start, which is something to consider, especially if your eyes are starting to lose some sharpness.

A bit of information on the mount: The traditional AK-47 scope mount is on the left side, which is different from most modern rifles. It is a matter of necessity since there is not a solid mounting point for the scope on the top rear. Dust-cover mounts are available but will not hold a steady zero. That method is OK for iron sights, as on the Galil but impractical for a scope. The side-mount provides a nice feature because it is easily removed and replaced without losing zero.

Other scope-mounting options are available now that the accessory market has expanded. Picatinny rail hand guards are available to replace the front hand guards. On the Picatinny rails, you easily can mount an optic. The potential problem is that the heat generated from firing is quickly transferred to the scope. The Picatinny rails usually are aluminum, which can get hot on the hands even without attached scopes. Of course, mounting a scope that far forward usually requires a long eye-relief scout or pistol scope or a zero-magnification, red-dot sight. If that method appeals to you, then you are covered.

There are many AK scopes to from which to choose. Since the traditional scope mount is on the left, you should get a scope with integral mount, such as a Russian PSO-1 or similar, or buy a left-side mount and add a scope. The PSO-1-style scopes are good and made to the military spec and configuration of the original Soviet model. In fact, you still can get one made in the Belarus military factory. Keep in mind, as with the accuracy of the AK, Russian scopes are not quite as good as we are used to here in the West. However, they get the job done. Sighting in a Russian scope is different in that the windage and elevation knobs operate differently for the sighting-in process. Also, the reticle does not stay centered as on a Western scope. There are instructions online (AK-47.net) for sighting a Russian-style scope. If you go with the side scope mount alone, you can add just about any scope you like, including one you may have sitting around unused. To AK purists, mounting anything other than an AK-style scope on an AK-47 is not kosher; it just does not look quite right. But, each to his own.

The accessory market for AKs continues to expand rapidly. Remember that the more equipment you apply, the less handy and rugged your AK may become. It was designed as a rough and tough, reliable, basic weapon, and many believe it should be kept that way—the simpler the better.

If you are looking for more advice about purchasing your first AK, feel free to call our tech support folks at 800-421-8047.

Do you have an AK or favor onevariant over another? Share your recommendations with us in the comment section.

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The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (109)

  • Roger

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    AK’s are nothing short of inaccurate rattle traps. They might look neat, have tons of available add on’s but as the saying goes- You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig

    Reply

  • Jonathan

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    So I’m still unclear on wich one to buy. I enjoyed the blog & appreciate the good info. But still stuck at square one. I’m a first time buyer, and only fired .22’s with my old man when I was young & of course .12 gauge shottys, but the ak is an entirely new world to me. I don’t mind price, as I’d like to get something nice, however don’t wanna break the bank. I figured my range is 500-750 for my first ak. I’d like a milled but if stamped falls in that category so be it. I’ve searched hours online & read blog after blog & so many reviews I can’t tell who’s in it for the promotion & who’s bias with a opinion. And pulling teeth is easier than finding a straight answer or top 3 type list of AK’s to buy. Please help someone. I’m just worried my first real purchase of a real deal firearm would turn out to be a purchase I regret & end my enthusiast days before they got a chance to get going. I do live in Vegas btw, would a stop at that shop that makes receivers be a good option/decision? The gun shop by my house can’t seem to keep them on the shelf when they do rarely get them in so I’ve tried that resource. Anything I’m missing here? A point in the right direction be grateful, but a straight outright “go get this ____” be even better. Thanks. Can’t wait to finally be united with my first AK & have my cherry popped. If that day ever comes.

    Reply

  • rb

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    So, where does the Sig 55X series fit in?

    Reply

  • Donzo

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    I have a Saiga Leigon AK I bought 3 years ago from a company out of Colorado. I added a few goodies to it,but the base price for it was a measly $320.00!!! I am so happy with my gun….It shoots great only had 1 jam and I dig how well it shoots!!!! AR’s are fine,but I’ll take an AK any day………………… MOLON LABE !!

    Reply

  • Rodney Harp

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    I have a Romanian WASR 10 with a dust cover mounted scope that I zeroed at 200 yards. That zero has held through 5 trips to the range, and cleaning. It will never be a sniper gun, but I’m getting 3 inch shot groups at 200 yards…good enough to make the chipmunks ssurrender.

    Reply

  • Fred

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    DAN, I agree.

    My previous and lengthy multiple posts explain it in moredetail but you summarized it correctly.

    Cheers,

    Fred

    Reply

  • DAN

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    Im curious as to why everyone still calls them AK47’s, when from every documentation states that the AK47 has not been made in decades. The stamped receiver and other modifications made for mass production that we see in the rifles sold today, were all part of a rifle designated the AKM. The AK47 was officially dropped decades ago, but I guess do to marketing and media hype, the name continues on, wrongfully used from what I understand.

    Reply

    • Carlie

      |

      due*

      Reply

    • Collin

      |

      LOL

      Reply

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