Safety and Training

I Brought an AK-47 to the Carbine Class…

Do you want put your firearm, your equipment, and yourself to the test? Do you want to know what works and what doesn’t work in tough conditions? Are you thinking of getting off the couch and taking a carbine class? I did. I attended the Carbine I class offered by Guardian Angel PMC in Greenville, Texas on Saturday, May 12, 2012. Robert Aiken got the name of his company from the philosophy of his commanding general in Iraq, who insisted that each unit in the field have protection from other units acting as “guardian angels.” The guardian angel units intervened quickly and effectively to save their buddies if anything went wrong. Wounded in Ramadi, Robert had to leave the service, but he banded together with some fellow veterans to keep his skills sharp and teach them to others. I am proud to say that they pushed my weapon, my gear, and me to the limit. If you want to do the same, I have some advice for you.

I’ve taken carbine classes before, usually with AR-15s. I know my AR-15 really well, so I decided this time I would go old school and bring a standard type AKM rifle with iron sights and no modifications. It’s a solid rifle, having proven itself to me through thousands of fired rounds. I built it myself, years ago, from a Romanian parts kit, Nodak Spud receiver, and a mix of quality USA-made parts. It has wood furniture, and a basic SKS sling. I like the SKS sling because its leather attachment points do not scratch the heck out of the gun’s metal and wood. The standard issue AK-47 sling uses metal clips that create big circle-shaped scratches as they swivel around. I used surplus-issue metal magazines painted with day-glow orange at the rear so they would be easier to spot in tall grass or mud, and they couldn’t be confused with mags from other AK shooters. I didn’t need to worry about that! Twelve shooters took the class; I was the only one not carrying an AR-15. Storms rolled through the night before, and as we surveyed the muddy shooting range, someone quipped that I was the smart guy for bringing an un-jammable AK. “Time will tell,” I said. “If your gun has never jammed, you haven’t shot it enough.” I was more right than I realized.

My philosophy when taking a class is, “Train as you would fight.” Since this was a fighting carbine class, I wore the tactical gear that I would wear to fight in a war. I have no delusions about being a warrior—asthma kept me out of the military. I’m 35 years old now, and overweight because I prefer food to exercise. However, I don’t spend what little extra money I have on guns and gear just for laughs. I want to be combat effective and I want to know that my stuff works. Sitting on my butt reading online reviews is not good enough for me. A carbine class is about putting on all of your Tactical Man Stuff at once, rolling around in the mud firing at the targets until something breaks down, then fixing the problem and doing it all over again. I found out almost immediately that I had a major equipment problem. I was wearing a Camelback style water bladder on my back. I have owned it for many years and often use it during a class or shooting competition with no problems. However, this time I was wearing an Eagle chest rig, and underneath that, an Eagle CIRAS plate carrier holding ceramic Level IV stand-alone plates. After doing some calisthenics, stretches, push-ups and sprints to warm up, we settled in to zero our carbines from the prone position. I discovered that I could not lift my head up enough to get a sight picture while prone. The camelback was in my way! The tight straps had positioned it very high on my back, limiting my head’s range of motion. I tried moving it out of the way by simply bashing my head against it, but it wouldn’t budge. Disgusted, I removed it and drank bottled water for the rest of the day. Does this mean camelbacks suck and you shouldn’t buy one? Absolutely not. However, for me, wearing this particular model in conjunction with all my other stuff is a no-go because I can’t shoot while laying on my belly. Lesson learned—a lesson that a hundred YouTube videos wouldn’t have taught me.

We sighted in our rifles by firing three shots, then adjusting our sights, repeating the process until we were on target. These were the first live rounds of the day and I would like to say that there were no issues. The truth is some AR-15s and some shooters began having problems with fewer than 10 rounds fired. Before attending a carbine class, you need to know the fundamentals of marksmanship and basic manual of arms of your rifle. These classes are expensive and there are only so many hours of daylight to work with. It is frustrating for other students to have to wait while the instructors patiently explain where the magazine release, safety, and charging handle are to a complete beginner. Would you spend the money to attend a racing school if you didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift? Well, you shouldn’t. You also wouldn’t bring a car without any oil or gas in it, yet I saw some AR-15s that showed up dirty and under-lubricated. Clearing jams was supposed to be taught later in the day, but some of us learned ahead of schedule. I had another equipment failure when my cheap AK sight adjustment tool broke as I tried to adjust my point of impact. I tossed the tool in the trash.

With AR-15s sighted in and a certain AK hitting just a few inches low, we began working on individual rifle skills. We shot from standing, kneeling, and prone. We shot while advancing; we shot while retreating. We shot controlled pairs and hammer pairs. Emergency reloads meant magazines dropped in the thick Texas mud. The mud stuck to everything like glue, weighing down our boots and smearing red dot optics. I soon removed my expensive Icom F4 radio from its pouch and set it aside in a concession to my wallet size—I don’t really want to find out how mud-proof it is. The instructors had to stop the class a few times between dry-fire and live-fire drills so shooters with mud in their muzzles could clean out their barrels. Fortunately, nobody fired a live round with an obstructed bore. Always be aware of your muzzle when going prone or kneeling! My SKS sling proved too short to use as a tactical-style two-point sling, so I had to use it conventionally. As the day wore on, I was grateful for my old gloves with the fingers cut off. The AK’s safety is a big steel lever that you have to swat from “off” to “on” using either your trigger finger or thumb. Manipulate that safety enough times and it will scrape skin off. The safety scratched my fingers a bit, but never drew blood. Others weren’t as lucky. Sharp plastic corners and picatinny rails left some shooters applying bandages to trigger fingers and knuckles.

Through all of it, we had a great time. The other shooters came from far and wide. Four of them were police officers from Columbus, Ohio who are patrol rifle instructors for their department. Their attitude served as an example of how to behave in a carbine class. Although each had years of training and experience, they were simply there to learn and have a good time. They followed instructions, were safe at all times, and encouraged the other shooters. They gave their best during the drills, pushing themselves and their rifles hard. They could flat out shoot, too. They managed to walk the thin line of being professional while still being just another one of the guys at the class. You don’t want to be the loudmouth who misses the target. Take a hint from the Columbus cops—listen to the instructors, chuckle with your fellow shooters, then let your shooting do all the bragging.

My best efforts with the AK were rewarded by good combat accuracy and speed. However, there is no doubt that the AR-15 is a faster, more controllable rifle than the AK-47. The AK’s sight picture was state of the art in the 19th century, but was obsolete by the time Mikhail Kalashnikov began work on the AK. Peep sights are far superior, but the Russians have yet to adopt them. Adding a red dot to the AR broadens the speed gap even further. The AK’s safety is also slower to manipulate than the AR safety. I was one of the slower shooters in the group, and I can honestly say I would have been faster shooting my AR-15. The AK’s rock-in magazine design is clunky for fast reloading. I did pretty well, only fumbling a few times. If I kept the spare magazines in my chest rig oriented the same way as I do AR-15 magazines, they were very difficult to remove from their pouches. Inside the pouches, the metal tabs on the magazines kept catching. If I had two mags stacked in one pouch, I would often pull out both at the same time while only grasping one magazine. The other would flop out into the mud. These are the things you learn at a carbine class—I switched my magazine orientation so that the rounds were facing upwards, placing the metal tabs outside of the pouches.

The AR-15s began to experience worse malfunctions. With bolts sticking just out of battery, shooters had to choose between mashing the forward assist and doing a tap-rack-bang drill to get their guns back in action. Opening stuck actions sometimes required mortaring the rifle, whacking the stock on the ground while pulling the charging handle as hard as possible. A buttstock castle nut came loose, and that AR nearly lost a spring and detent as a result. I was growing concerned about my AK’s ability to handle the abuse too. My mags and ammunition were filthy with mud. Then, the thing I feared finally happened. The AK didn’t fire but I knew the magazine shouldn’t be empty. I tried to remove the magazine but it was stuck tight! With the gun still to my shoulder and pointed downrange, I rotated the gun to look down into the receiver. A live round of ammunition, halfway out of the magazine, was pinned underneath a casing stuck in the chamber. With my left hand, I wrenched away the magazine and the half-fed live round fell with it. I rotated the gun to the right to let gravity help me eject the round, and reaching underneath, I yanked the AK’s charging handle three times. I felt it catch just a little bit each time, and I knew it was game over. The extractor had simply ripped off the section of rim it should pull on to extract the round. I yelled an F word that was not “fudge,” put the rifle on safe, and pulled myself off the firing line.

I had not brought a long cleaning rod with me. After all, AK-47s never jam, right? The standard cleaning rod stowed under the barrel is not long enough to tap out a stuck casing. I asked around, and one of the instructors produced a three-piece cleaning rod. I didn’t know if the stuck case was still a live round or not, despite a firing pin indentation in its primer. I put the cleaning rod down the barrel and proceeded to poke a tree with it as if it were a bayonet. This way I wasn’t touching the cleaning rod at all. If a round discharged, the bullet and cleaning rod would impact the tree, as opposed to blowing my hand off. I am ashamed to say I didn’t think of this technique myself, but at least I was humble enough to accept another shooter’s suggestion to do this. The casing was empty and soon came out, along with big flakes of mud. Unfortunately, the very next round fired stuck in exactly the same way. Two rounds, two stuck casings. Until I could properly clean my chamber, this AK was done.

I had to finish the class using my second AK. It is an underfolder I built on a Polish kit using an Armory USA receiver. Like my fixed-stock rifle, it has fired thousands of rounds with excellent reliability under normal conditions. However, we weren’t shooting in normal conditions, and I’m sorry to report that my underfolder also experienced stuck casings. In all, I had four jams, two with each rifle. Before the final qualification course, I cleaned the chamber of the underfolder and oiled the interior rails, resulting in flawless reliability as I qualified. I am aware of two types of AR-15s that went the entire day with no issues. One shooter brought a pair of LWRC piston-driven carbines, each costing twice as much as many quality direct-impingement AR-15s. The other flawless gun was an M16A1 shot by one of the Columbus, Ohio officers. Shawn “sh*t hot from 17 feet” Lingofelter had a knack for keeping his old war horse out of the muck, and it rewarded him for his efforts.

Guardian Angel designed the final qualification course to test all the different skills we had practiced during the day. Condensed into one course of fire, this 20-round drill proves that you don’t need to use up a lot of ammo to demonstrate a wide variety of skills. The students qualified in two waves. We started the qualification course on patrol 130 yards from our targets. An instructor yelled “Contact right!” and we responded by sprinting 30 yards to the 100-yard line, where we fired four rounds from the prone position. Next, we advanced forward at a run and fired four more shots from 75 yards distance while kneeling. Sprinting to the 50-yard line, we fired four more shots from behind blue plastic barrels, and then advanced to the 25-yard line, where we fired three rounds into the heads of our paper terrorist targets. Finally, we had only a few seconds remaining to advance the remaining distance to the targets, expending our remaining five rounds of ammo while rapid firing on the move. Jerking the trigger pulled two out of three headshots to the left of my terrorist, but otherwise I did well.

Get off your butt and take a class with good solid instructors like those at Guardian Angel. Know your weapon and gear and make sure they are ready to go before you show up. Make sure you can take care of yourself with more than enough water, and basic medical supplies to clean up small boo-boos. If you have a medical condition like my asthma, take your medicine in the morning and bring more with you. Leave your know-it-all attitude at home and bring a healthy dose of never quit to the firing line. Bring quality tools and a spare rifle if you are fortunate enough to have one.

Bring a cleaning rod too, because even AKs can jam.

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 (17)

  1. Great article and thanks for sharing. I, too, am a big fan of AK/SKS rifles and have taken my AK to two tactical shooting classes. They’re not jam-proof, but they tend to hold up better than the AR’s that others brought when it gets muddy and nasty out there. I’ve done away with lacquer-coated rounds, though, since the varnish tends to gum up the action when shot repeatedly. I also carry a small bottle of CLP with me and throw in there in between shoots when the action is cool enough.

    Keep the articles coming…really enjoyed reading this one. Cheers…Jeff

  2. Roger, #16: Is the front sight tower bent, or just the sight post? Sight post threads in. Sight tower adjustment requires punching out the pins, rotating it into position and redrilling for slightly larger pins. OR, remove, weld up pin notches, carefully turn smooth, reset sight tower and drill for new pins. OR, replace the same way.

  3. I have a “stock” Romanian AK that I would like to replace the front sight on. The one on the gun is somewhat bent and although it is shooting aacurately I’d like to replace it. Does anyone have any suggestions? Actually how about the best way to put a small scope on it? Suggestions? I like to shoot and I have several different weapons but I was never in the military so I am unfamiliar with much of the terminology. I’m just a patriot so I appreciate any help.

  4. One more note, in many cases parts have been re packaged by places who at one time seperated parts and sold as parts kits (but the #’s dont match)
    not all parts kits have matching #’s (just somthing to watch for)

    ..Parts kits Packaged in plastic and are packed heavely in cosmoline are a good sign it has not been re packaged but just check the #’s!

  5. Interesting Posts, I worked at Vector Arms for years an thru the “golden age” of our AK’s I grew more an more impressed at there reliability.
    However, We also learned quickly what was causing cirtain issues with AK’s built in the USA (using Real AK parts from parts kits an re assembling them in new receiver.
    Many Ak makers did what even Vector did vary early in the learning process of building AK’s. They took there 1000’s of parts kits an seperated the bolts w/bolts barrels w/barrels trunions w/trunions exc..
    The problem is that the head spacing was honed in perfectly using these exact parts (then heat treated). The parts need to stay together (#’s matching)
    this caused 2 huge problems! without bolt, barrel and trunion matching..grinding the bolt is required to head space. This #1 removes surface heat treating!! #2 It is VARY dificult to grind the bolt at the exact angle required. athese probs cause excessive ware an headspace drifts out of spec..:(
    This problem your having was a vary common result of AK’s built this way. an many AK Builders did an still do it this way.
    Obviously we caught on quick an kept parts together an they are VARY reliable!! I have shot tons of different AR’s and AKs (I like them both) but a correctly built AK is hands down more reliable. (from my experience)

  6. Hi Mike, Very nice shooting with you. Though things were tough conditions to work with, I think we all learned things about our equipment. Very good report on the class, instructors, and the training.

  7. Brad, I didn’t shoot any brass cased ammo. I had failures with both the laquer-coated green stuff and the polymer-coated grey stuff, but all of it was Russian made steel cased ammo. It wouldn’t have mattered in my humble opinion. The lesson learned here is to keep mud out of your chamber, even when shooting an AK.

    EDIT: the photo at the bottom is one of the green, laquer-coated rounds. It was the second round to stick in the fixed-stock AKM. I just left it in there and switched to the underfolder. Later on I took the photo and pulled the casing out. I have one of the grey, polymer coated casings on my desk at CTD as a decoration. The rim is ripped off and there is still dried mud all around it. 🙂

  8. Mike,

    I used to be a mag slapper but then watching Travis Haley’s Adaptive Kalash I’ve started to just flag my thumb with a loaded mag for the bump. He made it look really smooth.


    It could be brass, but I want to say it is lacquered steel.

  9. Hmm… would steel cased ammo have been less likely to suffer rim failure? (from the image of the stoppage the case looks like brass)

  10. AK Matt: I’m a mag slapper, especially since I was using cheap steel surplus mags. I don’t know if I would trust plastic mags over time using that method, but the steel ones hold up just fine to the abuse. Maybe I should worry less about the condition of my mags and more about the condition of the mag release paddle… hmm… oh well, its an AK, it probably doesn’t care.

  11. Thanks for more info, Mike! Downloading mags to practice reloading is normally a good thing in my book too as long as you get to function check the mat 30 every once in while. Just curious, did you use the thumb bump or mag slap methods to get the mags out faster on the emergency reloads?

    Sounds like you had fun getting dirty and maybe even the cleaning up was too since it was so epic!

  12. Will: I have a bad habit of using knives as prybars and breaking the tips off of them, decided not to try that this time.

    AK Matt: No cleaning kit in the buttstock, just a bunch of mud that got in there. Switching the mag orientation didn’t matter, what mattered was using the same 6 mags over and over again after they had been stepped on while lying in that mud. We weren’t reloading with retention and we weren’t starting with pre-loaded mags. We would start with empty mags and load each in turn with 3, 3, 4, 3, or something like that before doing each drill. The low magazine capacity was intended for us to get maximum practice at reloading at the worst possible times, but it also meant the mags were getting dropped in the mud every 3 or 4 rounds fired through them. Plus my hands were filthy so as soon as I grabbed fresh rounds they were already muddy just from my hands touching them. In “real life” (whatever that is) you would use mags full of 30 rounds and if you had to emergency reload you would leave them in the field. You wouldn’t pick up the same mag out of the mud over and over and only load 3 rounds into it.

    Cleaning the guns was epic. I had to pull the fire control groups out, there was even grass in my underfolder’s receiver! The fixed stock AKM wouldn’t even hand cycle until I cleaned the chamber by putting a .45acp brush on the end of a cordless drill running it up and down the chamber. That finally did it!

  13. Great post, linked it at my place too:

    Did you not have the buttstock cleaning kit in the fixed stock? Stuck cartridges are normally removed with the brush or jag which will then give the rod enough length. I also have added a broken case remover in mine as well.

    Do you think that switching the mags to rounds up exposed them to mud and dirtied the chamber to help cause the stuck cases?

  14. Great article. You never really know what your firearm is capable of until you throw everything at it.

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