It is an argument that has been around for decades. Which is the better rifle platform, Eugene Stoner’s AR-15/M16 or Mikhail Kalishnikov’s AK-47? Police and military forces around the world use both extensively, and the two platforms have been head-to-head against each other in various military conflicts for nearly 50 years. Still, each seems to shine in its own particular way.
Caliber aside, probably the biggest difference between the two rifles is the built-in tolerances. Manufacturers built the AK-47 to function flawlessly in any condition. And makers built the AR-15 to be incredibly accurate as well as reliable, but the finer tolerances increase the chance for failure. It is also extremely lightweight, with most parts made from high-strength aluminum with a few critical steel components. On the other hand, the AK-47 is almost all steel, making it that much more durable but also significantly heavier.
Iron sights on the AR platform are much better than the AK, with a rear aperture sight and front blade. The AK, by comparison, has only a rudimentary Partridge sight system. Scopes are more difficult to mount on the AK, requiring a forward scout-style mount, a difficult-to-stabilize receiver cover or side-rail mount. AR rifles, by comparison, were designed to have optics securely mounted on the integrated carry handle or attached to the Picatinny rail on later flat-top models.
Each rifle has certain performance requirements. The U.S. military wanted a precision rifle that was lightweight, very accurate and could fire a high-pressure, lightweight projectile. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, wanted a tough and nearly indestructible rifle that performs well under the harshest conditions. Both got what they wanted.
Below, we evaluate the two on a number of parameters, evaluating weight, ballistic performance, ergonomics, and price.
|Maximum Effective Range||400 yards||600 yards||AR-15/M16|
|Weight (empty)||9.5 pounds||7.8 pounds||AR-15/M16|
|Weight (loaded, 30 round magazine)||10.9 pounds||8.8 pounds||AR-15/M16|
|Muzzle Energy||1,500 foot-pounds||1,300 foot-pounds||AK-47|
|Energy at 400 yards||462 foot-pounds||536 foot-pounds||AR-15/M16|
|Accuracy (16″ barrel)||8-12 MOA||6-8 MOA||AR-15/M16|
|Reliability||Functions under nearly any condition||Prone to failure when exposed to dirt, dust, and mud||AK-47|
|Ergonomics||Safety/selector switch is a bit awkward requiring the user to break grip on the rifle; cheek weld is virtually non-existent||Excellent cheek weld; safety/selector switch is manipulated easily without losing sight picture||AR-15/M16|
|Recoil||Noticeable but easily managed in semi-automatic||Easily controllable, even under rapid fire||AR-15/M16|
Just looking at the side-by-side comparison, one has to give the nod to the AR-15/M16. It is more accurate and offers superior ballistics at long range. The AK-47 is clearly superior for reliability and short-range ballistics, making it an obvious choice for anyone who needs a short-range tactical rifle. Its traits clearly make it the better choice for close-quarters urban or jungle fighting in which engagements will usually be fewer than 100 yards.
Those ballistic differences disappear when you compare the AK-74, instead of the AK-47, to the AR-15. The AK-74 fires a 5.45x39mm cartridge with similar performance to the NATO 5.56mm standard round. The AR still wins on accuracy, but the ballistics are the same out to 600 yards. What does that mean? Although the effects of a hit on a target at long range are about the same, with the AR-15 you are more likely to actually hit your target at 600 yards than with the AK-74. That primarily is due to differences in bolt design and barrel attachment.
Still, at the end of the day, the customer staring at both rifles has to make a decision. Do you go with fool-proof reliability at a lower cost and choose the AK, or drop the extra cash on the AR-15 (what many call “the Lego System of weapons”) and have an accurate, modular system you can adapt to multiple roles and calibers? If you are like me, you will spend even more and get one of each. Which one you choose ultimately will depend on the role you want it to play. Need the ultimate in reliability and close-range support? Get the AK. More interested in an easily modified modular system that boasts excellent long-range accuracy and ballistics? Get the AR.