Key Point: There are millions of AK-47s around the world--and lots of variations.
The AK is one of the most widely copied weapons in the world. Due to the liberal granting of licenses to manufacture, many countries in the Warsaw Pact and around the world produced their own versions of the AK. While most of these were simple derivations of the original design with few notable features of their own, some stand head and shoulders above the rest. But which foreign AK variants are at the top of the heap?
The East German Wieger Sturmgewehr (StG)
In the late 1980s, the German Democratic Republic was very short on cash. One way in which the East Germans had had some success in the past was in arms sales and licensed production of standard Warsaw Pact designs. But in order to compete in the more diverse global market, they needed to develop weapons in Western calibers. Thus the Wieger StG was born. It was chambered in the standard 5.56×45mm and incorporated many upgrades over the standard AK. A clone of the M16A2 flash hider was at the end of the barrel, there was an integrated front-sight gas block that still retained a relatively mid-length gas system (a system the GDR first fielded in the MPi AKS-74NK 5.45-millimeter carbine), a more lightweight and ergonomic plastic furniture, a clear plastic magazine that allowed for the user to see how many rounds were remaining, and stock spacers to allow lengthening of the stock to satisfy users who might have been less pleased with the standard “Warsaw Pact”–length AK stocks. Two orders were placed from, from India and Peru, but German reunification halted the orders and the production of the rifle. While the Wieger StG suffered a quick death, examples remain in the armory of some Bundeswehr units. They are used for weapons familiarization and OPFOR during exercises, in which they have been favorably reviewed by soldiers, a testament to the German quality of this AK variant.
The Yugoslavian Zastava M70AB2
The SFR Yugoslavia came into the AK game pretty late, perhaps due to the Soviet-Yugoslav split. While development of a domestic AK variant to replace the SKS variants began early in 1959, it was based on the milling technology of the original AK, not the stamped AKM. Yugoslavia finally got around to adopting in the AK in 1970 with the M70 AK, which was then refined into the M70B and M70B2 and M70AB2 rifle. These B and AB2 rifles were produced in the largest numbers and were the greatest success in export.
In this evolved form, they incorporated many improvements over the AKM, and even had better capability in some regards than the AK-74. Unlike the Soviets which only issued out tritium night-sights in specialized “P” variants of the AKM, phosphorous and later tritium night sights were standard on all M70 AKs. On AB2 and B2 rifles, the receiver was made out of thicker 1.5-millimeter steel, and the trunnion where the barrel is inserted in the receiver is bulged and riveted in the RPK pattern, to better sustain the shock from grenade launching. Gas cutoffs and grenade sights were standard on the M70 series, for the general capability of launching rifle grenades. The dust cover was also reinforced and locked down by means of an internal mechanism as well. Finally, issued M70 magazines came with a bolt-hold-open stop, so the bolt would lock to the rear when the rifle ran out of ammunition so the user would know it was dry.
M70s are still a standard rifle of the Serbian military (in the new B3 variant), and have seen great success on the export market. One of the notable customers was Iraq, which has used the M70AB2 and M70B2 (and its own domestic clone) from the Iran-Iraq War to the current day. Iraq even made a “precision” variant of the M70 in the Tabuk sniper rifle, a testament to the accuracy and quality of the M70 AKs.
The Polish Kbk. Wz. 1988 “Tantal” and Kbk. Sz. Wz. 1996 “Beryl”
While the Soviets adopted the 5.45 cartridge in the 1970s, most Warsaw Pact nations only got around to adopting their own versions in the 1980s. While some were rather simple direct clones like the East German MPi AK-74N, other nations like Poland took the chance to incorporate significant innovation into their rifle designs. The Tantal came with a standard-issue side-folding stock, the ability to launch rifle grenades with a multifunctional muzzle device.
Unlike the Yugoslavian M70, the Polish rifle was designed to launch rifle grenades with standard ball ammunition, so a gas cutoff was not needed. In addition to this, provisions were also added to mount the Wz. 74 Pallad underbarrel grenade launcher to the Tantal. Most interestingly, the fire-control group was modified with a selector on the left side of the rifle. Given that the AK traditionally has a selector on the right side, that can be slower to actuate in field conditions, this is a major ergonomic improvement. A three-round-burst function was also incorporated into the fire control group. Like the M70, the Tantal also came standard with luminescent night sights, although the front sight was a clip-on design like the Russian “P” night sight kits, and not integrated like the M70.
After Poland joined NATO, the Tantal evolved into the Beryl rifle. The internals were redesigned for the 5.56-millimeter NATO cartridge, and newer folding stock that gave improved cheekweld was incorporated. The unique left-side selector and provisions to mount the Pallad were retained. In later versions of the Beryl, a robust solution for mounting optics was included. A metal bar with a Picatinny rail is run from the rear sight base to the rear of the receiver, bypassing the dust cover and providing a stable, secure mount for any optics.
The Israeli IMI Galil
After bad experiences with the FN FAL, the Israelis looked at the AK rifle when they were designing their next service rifle, the Galil in 5.56×45 NATO. Given its long-stroke gas-piston operation, two-lug rotating bolt design, overall receiver design and rock-and-lock magazines, it’s safe to call the Galil an AK variant. However, it incorporates a myriad of improvements. Like the Tantal, it has a left-hand selector; however, since it is directly mechanically linked to the traditional AK-type selector/safety on the right, it is a true selector/safety, unlike the Tantal’s, which is just a selector. The gas piston has raised protrusions behind the piston head to reduce slop in the gas tube and increase accuracy. The sighting system is also completely redesigned, with the rear sight being at the rear of a locking dust cover to increase sight radius. Integrated flip-up tritium sights and a straight-side folding stock are also installed. To facilitate reloads with the right hand remaining on the pistol grip, the cocking handle is lengthened and bent upwards so a soldier can pull it by reaching his left hand over the rifle. In order to avoid conscripts using their magazines to open bottles, the retaining arms used to retain the bipod were usable as a bottle opener. The bipod itself could be used to cut barbed wire. Interestingly, magazines for the Galil were also produced in higher capacities than the AK. The standard magazine held thirty-five rounds; extended versions held fifty. While the Galil was replaced in frontline service by the M16 due to weight, folding-stock carbine versions of the Galil served in the IDF’s armored branch until the 2000s, and the design lives on in the Galil ACE series. South Africa also continues to field a modified version of the Galil (primarily a longer stock to accommodate taller African soldiers) in the Vektor R4/R5/R6 series.
The Finnish 7.62 Rynnäkkökivääri 62 (Rk 62)
The Finns have a long history of improving Russian weapons. During the Winter War and the Continuation War, the Finnish Army used improved variants of the Mosin rifle to fight the Russians. While the Russian rifles were not the best in accuracy, the Finnish M39 rifles were considered to be among the best of the era, achieving accuracy of around 1 MOA. The Rk 62 continued this trend into the Cold War era, being a heavily improved version of the AK. The tolerances and metal quality of the rifle are highly improved over a standard AK. The locking dust cover has a rear diopter sight with integrated tritium, and the gas piston has protrusions to reduce slop (the Galil was based on the Rk 62, and thus derives these features from it). The flash hider is unique, designed to cut barbed wire either by twisting it or shooting a round through it.
Like its predecessor, the Finnish Rk 62 was able to achieve 1 MOA accuracy, making it extremely accurate for a general-issue service rifle. It serves in the Finnish military to this day, and is currently being modernized and is expected to serve until 2035.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.