Key point: The world's best militaries often learn the best tricks of the trade from one another.
If one compares the rifle of an average American soldier from the 1990s to one of a soldier today, the biggest outward change is the attachment rails.
Gone are the fixed iron sights of old; nowadays almost every American weapon has the distinctive chunky blocks of an M1913 “Picatinny” rail somewhere on top.
Rails are also often present on the handguards, where they are used to mount a variety of accessories necessary for the modern soldier: infrared lasers for shooting under night vision, foregrips to maintain better control of the weapon, and flashlights for clearing dark buildings.
But while the American M4 and M16 have easily adapted to incorporate rails into their design, how have Russian small arms adapted? Is it easier or harder to attach optics and accessories to the standard Russian weapons?
The answer is, surprisingly, yes and no. Soviet weapons arguably had a head start in attachment technology throughout most of the Cold War, although it largely went unexploited.
The Soviets produced variants of almost every weapon, from the AKM to the SVD to the RPG, with their own dovetail side rail. This rail was originally meant for night sights, though later on a myriad of optics would be produced for the system. The rail also was designed to return-to-zero, allowing optics to be attached and removed without having to be re-zeroed afterwards.
This system was rather versatile. For example, there are some pictures of Soviet soldiers using RPG sights (PGO-7V) on their AK rifles.
The Russian Army initially stuck to this system in the 1990s, incorporating the dovetail side rails on all of their AK-74Ms and producing a variety of general-issue combat sights for it: red dots and low-magnification scopes.
Some examples of these saw use in Crimea, such as the 1P63 Obzor. The current Russian standard-issue red dot, the 1P87, is provided with a dovetail-to-Picatinny mount as issued.
But Dovetails are not perfect. The mounts have the issue of not working well with folding stocks due to being mounted on the left side of the rifle. Mounting a sight on the dovetail mount of a folding stock AK will always block the stock from folding. While this a minor issue— \stocks most of the time are left unfolded—it is not an issue with alternate sight-mounting solutions.
Things started to change around the mid 2000s when Russian forces began to acquire more Western military equipment. Along with an influx of guns, elite Russian forces began using Western sights and accessories.
A mounting solution was needed to attach the Picatinny-mount and Western sights to Russian weapons.
Dovetail-to-Picatinny adapters exist, but they were always considered to be a stopgap solution given the added weight and height-over-bore they create.
The best solution was found in custom dust covers with a Picatinny rail on top that lock into the rear of the receiver and into the AK’s handguard. This provides two stable points of contact, solving the usual problem of shifting zero if the rail is placed directly on a standard dust cover.
The Russian firm ZenitCo made the most popular version with their B-10 handguard and B-33 dust cover, although other firms and even Kalashnikov Concern made their own take on the concept later.
Similar adaptations exist for other weapons, including the PKM and SVD.
These kits are popular among various Spetsnaz units in Russia’s military and security services as they allow the user to accessorize their AK to nearly the same degree as an M4 for a small increase in weight. They haven’t seen wider issue due to cost and a lack of need to further accessorize the AK of a basic soldier.
However, the next generation of Russian military arms (AK-12, AK-15, Kord 5.45 and SVC) incorporates Picatinny rails in the factory configuration, totally ditching the old Soviet dovetail rail. This coincides with the decision of Russian industry to manufacture new sights with a Picatinny, as seen with the 1P87.
At the same time, American and European militaries are moving away from Picatinny rails as a standard mounting interface. The focus now is on hole-based systems such as Keymod, MLOK, and HKey, which reduce weight relative to traditional Picatinny rail systems.
Russia is a little slow to the punch in modernizing how they can accessorize their rifles, but they’re not far behind. Moving from a Picatinny rail handguard to a hole-based system is very straight forward.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.