The 5.45×39 Cartridge
Weapons designers have long toyed with the concept of a lightweight high-speed round that would destabilize upon entering soft tissue. Eugene Stoner first developed the 5.56mm round for the US AR-15 (and later M16) rifle in 1957. The Soviets had long known that the 7.62×39 round did not perform optimally at ranges less than 200 meters, and therefore sought to develop a smaller, faster, lighter round that would have better terminal ballistics than the 7.62, but which would still have an effective range of around 500 meters. While all high-speed ammunition tends to yaw when entering soft tissue, the lighter, faster 5.56 NATO round tended to yaw so drastically that it would break up and fragment more causing wounds that are more serious.
The 5.56 NATO round and the Soviet 5.45×39 share much in common, and that’s no surprise. The Soviets took the 5.56 NATO and improved upon it by making it even more inclined to yaw. The construction of the 5.45×39 bullet features a steel core with a copper jacket and lead-plugged tail. The jacket forms an air space above the penetrator at the nose, making the round lighter and faster still. This, combined with the lead plug in the tail, made the round very tail heavy and incredibly unstable in soft tissue. Even upon impact, the air-gap in the nose remains intact, causing the bullet to violently yaw sideways and rapidly break apart as it passes through tissue. The 5.45 also has a very high cross-sectional density giving it an excellent ballistic co-efficient and hence, aerodynamic stability. The increased cross-sectional density also makes the bullet much better at penetrating Kevlar and other body armor than the older 7.62×39 ammunition.
First battle-tested in the Soviet war in Afghanistan—one of the most brutal and bloody wars of our time and certainly one of the most inhospitable of environments to field troops and material—the AK-74 proved it’s merit. Afghans who came up against the AK-74 in the Afghan-Soviet war dubbed the 5.45×39 round the “poison bullet” due to the wound-causing capability of the round. There were rumors that the round might violate the Geneva Convention. However, since the round was not an explosive, poisoned, or a hollow point round, the grievances do not have merit. Similar complaints were made when the 5.56 NATO round was introduced, though neither cartridge was ever found to be in violation of the Geneva Convention.
The AK-74 Rifle
AK-74 is the abbreviated form of Automat Kalashnikova 1974—Automatic Kalashnikov 1974. The AK-74 is still produced at Izhevsk Mechanical Works. Like its great granddaddy, the AK-47, this gun has numerous variants—both domestic (Russian) and foreign.
Compared to earlier versions, the rifle is lighter at 6.5 pounds. With the full stock extended, the AK-74 measures an inch longer than three feet; folded it measures 27 inches. The standard gun has a 16-inch barrel. The AK-74 is capable of cycling upwards of 650 rounds per minute, leaving the flash-suppressed barrel at nearly 3,000 feet per second with a 55-grain bullet. It has an effective range beyond a half mile and uses standard 30-round, 45-round, and RPK-74 detachable box magazines.
The AK-74 shares many similarities with its parent, the AK-47. Not wanting to do away with the incredibly reliable AK platform, the Soviets rechambered the barrel in 5.45, and left the cartridge length the same at 39mm so that the action could stay largely unchanged. Both rifles use the same gas piston system, as well as the same rotating bolt locking mechanism. The bolt system runs on identical rails as the AKM/AK-47, but the bolt itself is slightly smaller to accommodate the smaller cartridge. It is also lighter, making it more efficient and further reducing recoil. The AK-74 also features a larger and stronger extractor than the AKM extractor, which was prone to failure.
The AK-74 was designed with a groove cut into the stock of the weapon so that soldiers could identify the weapon by touch in total darkness. This along with the distinctive muzzle break make the AK-74 easily distinguished from the AKM. The muzzle break actually increases the report of the firearm, but substantially reduces the already low recoil of the rifle. Modern versions of the AK-74 also feature rail systems for mounting weapon accessories.
There are a number of variants of the AK-74. The AK-74M is available with a plum-colored side-folding stock manufactured from 1985 to 1989 or black which was manufactured from 1989 to present. The AK-74M is still the standard-issue rifle for the Russian military. The AKS-74 is the marine and paratrooper version and features a side folding triangular stock. The AKS-74U also sports a triangular folding stock, but also has a very short barrel with a modified muzzle break. This “Krinkov” version is commonly mislabeled as a submachine gun. It utilizes a rifle cartridge instead of pistol ammunition. The “Night” model of the AK-74—designated the AK-74N—has all black polymer furniture and sports a night vision infrared scope mounted on a side rail.
Like the AK-47, there are numerous licensed and unlicensed copies of the rifle. Yugoslavian licensed manufactured M80s are one well-known variant that were used extensively by the nations armed forces in the 1990s, and remains in use today in the many republics of Yugoslavia. Other versions of the AK-74 were manufactured in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany. Many of these versions were later converted to 5.56 NATO. Like the AK-47, there exist innumerable semiauto variants manufactured in and imported into the United States. Here they maintain enormous popularity among civilians. Select-fire versions of the AK-74 are not legal for import into the United States due to the Gun Control Act of 1968 that banned the importation of firearms for anything other than a “sporting purpose.”