How to Choose (and Use) AK Rifle Loads

Hornady SST loads expansion

Choosing the proper ammunition for each application demands some study, and for many of us, that may be intimidating. This is especially true when it comes to the 7.62x39mm cartridge. After all, most of us are interested students at best, not experts.

We cannot let price be the only guide, but then again, we don’t always have to pay for the highest quality. Let’s look at matching the application to the loading. I think the majority of our ammunition will be fired at paper.

Even the most enthusiastic hunter takes but a few field shots every year. Few of us are called upon to defend our lives but if we are we want the best ammunition. It is all in the application.

Let’s determine just that for AK rifle loads in a variety of different applications.

AK rifle loads in action
Whatever load you choose, practice hard and confirm feed reliability.

Practice/Range Work/Plinking

General practice and range work are undertaken with readily available and inexpensive ammunition. The ammunition should be reliable, although an occasional hang-up isn’t as serious as a problem with self-defense ammunition.

The ammunition should be accurate enough for meaningful practice. Just the same, if we are practicing firing at targets at known and unknown ranges (and firing off-hand), then the difference between burner loads and the most accurate ammunition is slight.

Tula, Red Army, Wolf and other steel-cased loads are useful for this application. Some comment that these loads are dirty. Foreign powder technology isn’t what it is in the U.S., but there are other considerations.

Steel cases allow a bit more blowback, as they do not readily expand in the chamber as a brass-cased cartridge will. Also, I think sometimes that the loads are criticized as dirty after a shooter looks at his rifle when he has just fired 300-400 rounds in a single weekend.

I use these loads a great deal. They have never fouled the rifle to the point cleaning was a bad chore or function was a problem. Steel-cased burner loads are just fine for what I do most with an AK-type rifle, and that is simply to fire them for fun.

I fire at long range, at multiple targets and at small targets. Steel-cased loads are good enough. If you change up brands from PPU to Tula and back, there is little (if any) difference between the point of aim and point of impact for each loading.

Velocity and bullet weight are similar. These are the loads you will fire for 90 percent of your needs.

ak ammo ppu
PPU loads generally are reliable and offer good value.

Accuracy Work

This is the least area of concern with an AK rifle. Very few shooters engage in any form of competition with an AK-type rifle. But there are many of us that like to test the absolute accuracy of a rifle.

This means using a solid bench rest, the right firing position and carefully pressing the trigger for a group at 100 yards or more. While AK rifles differ—from the cheapest guns to the Arsenal—the general run of ammunition is good for a four-inch group at 100 yards in most rifles.

Some are much worse, some are a bit better. The hunting and personal defense loads are much more accurate. In the affordable-but-very-accurate class is the Fiocchi 124-grain FMJ loading.

Put up in a brass case, this load is often the single most accurate loading in a number of rifles I have tested. Then there is the Seller and Beloit, also a brass-cased loading.

I know enough about rifles to realize the Seller and Beloit may be the most accurate in some rifles. Fiocchi has simply shaded it when it comes to accuracy… in my rifles, at least.

fiocchi ak load 7.62x39mm
Fiocchi’s 7.62x39mm load is regarded as among the most accurate choices.


Hunting with an AK rifle can be rewarding. The rifle is accurate enough for hunting deer-sized game and boar to 100 yards, and also for keeping coyote and feral dogs dusted off of the property. Hunting is a demanding application.

The loading must be above-average accurate and also incorporate a quality expanding bullet. The bullet must have a balance between expansion and penetration that favors penetration.

Just because a cheap loading has exposed lead on the nose doesn’t mean it is a useful expanding bullet load. I used the Hornady SST in the original steel-case version for some time. Today, Hornady offers Hornady Black with a 123-grain SST bullet at 2300 to 2350 fps.

This would be the ideal hunting load for AK rifles. Accuracy and reliability are good. The Hornady Black features a brass case for superior reliability and a lean powder burn.

Hornady SST ak rifle load
Hornady Black is an excellent AK load choice for hunting.

Personal Defense

Many of us keep an AK rifle for area defense on a property, and for home defense. While a pump-action shotgun is a good option and some make do with manually operated lever-action rifles, there is no firearm that gives you an edge against a gang like the AK rifle does.

Winchester PDX defender
Winchester’s PDX defender is a purpose-designed defense load.

The AK has been criticized on wound ballistics. Some military ammo breaks at the cannelure on hitting a target, increasing the wound potential. But most are simply an FMJ bullet manufactured as cheaply as possible.

I wonder at the logic when the FMJ load is criticized. We would not carry 9mm FMJ in the pistol, would we? Use FMJ loads for practice and tactical movement training and quality personal defense loads for critical use.

Winchester offers the PDX Defender, a modern dual-core design that has proven to expand as designed in ballistic testing. This is my first choice for defensive use in the AK. This is a superior technology.

AK ammo
Reliability and cartridge integrity are important. The Winchester PDX has that.

I don’t think a magazine of PDX will break the budget and the return is a load with good wound ballistics and one which limits penetration. My arsenal rifle is primarily a defensive rifle, and this includes both two- and four-legged threats.

I like the under-folder design a great deal—more so than an AK pistol for traveling. The rifle has been fitted with a TRUGLO night insert front sight.

TRUGLO sight at night
The TRUGLO sight provided excellent results in all conditions.

AK Rifle Loads: Conclusion

In the end, the AK is a great all-around defensive rifle. With the proper ammunition selection, it’s a formidable rifle as well. Choose your loads wisely.

Do you own an AK? What’s your go-to load choice? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author:

Wilburn Roberts

When Wilburn Roberts was a young peace officer, he adopted his present pen name at the suggestion of his chief, as some of the brass was leery of what he might write. This was also adopted out of respect for families of both victims and criminals. The pen name is the same and the man remains an outspoken proponent of using enough gun for the job.

He has been on the hit list of a well-known hate group, traveled in a dozen countries and written on many subjects, including investigating hate crimes and adopting the patrol carbine. He graduated second in his class with a degree in Police Science. It took him 20 years to work himself from Lieutenant to Sergeant and he calls it as he sees it.
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 (5)

  1. Another accurate, but inexpensive load for both hunting and self defense is the 8M3 load. Back in 2016, SG Ammo had a contract with TulAmmo to produce the 8M3 cartridge. This was the first time in 11 yrs that the 8M3 rd was made available. It is one of the very few Russian made 7.62×39 hollow points that actually performs like a hollow point is supposed to perform, by violently expanding. Most Russian HP rds function just like FMJ rds in that they rarely expand at all, if any. According to the info I’ve read on the 8M3, it reliably and violently expands in Deer, Hogs and Humans, and typically leaves them DRT in their tracks. I’m not sure if they still make it, or if the contract was expanded beyond one year. It performs closely to the Hornady SST, but a whole lot cheaper

  2. I have an AK two AR uppers and a Howa bolt action in 7.62×39 and have tried 6 different brands of ammo and reloads and I cant get a decent group from any of them

  3. Funny, no mention of the 154 grain 7.62x39mm ammunition. Although the ballistics at long range change slightly (maybe even better) for hunters because the bullet is 25% heavier. the stopping power and even penetration of the ammunition for personal defense and hunting is much better than 123-124 grain.

  4. I have used my 7.62×39 ar pistol for deer hunting the last 2 years. I have been very happy with the wound cavity the Hornady black has produced. This gun has worked very well in the wooded areas where I hunt. Would definitely recommend the combination.

  5. I owned an SKS back when you could pick one up, buy some surplus ammo, and still get a few dollars change from your $100 (those days are long gone). I shot it a few times and being tall and long of limb, soon was looking for an after market stock. It wasn’t a real accurate gun, but it was a fun gun too shoot, and it seldom misfed or failed to cycle. Back then there wasn’t a wide selection of ammo available, unless you wanted to buy American Manufactured cartridges, there wasn’t a big choice of bullet type, style or grain. This, I believe was at the root of the accuracy variance I’d see. You’d buy a few boxes from the same Lot one time ans have 4″ – 5″ groups at a hundred yards. The next batch was a different Lot, and all of a sudden the group size doubled. I ended up selling the gun right after the Brady Ban (actually sold it for just a little more than what I paid for the gun and the after market stock). Now when I see one, I kick myself for not buying 10 or 20, hanging on to them, and selling them now. All of a sudden, an $80 surplus rifle’s going for for $300-$400. Now there’s a lot larger cartridge selection to, than there was 35 -40 years ago.
    I’ve been looking at the current import AK’s, but I’ve also been considering just buying an upper to use on one of my AR lowers as a plinker. That way if I’m happy wjth it, doing another loeer build wouldn’t be an issue.
    Decisions, decisions
    Great Article!

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