Key point: Russia has high standards for its weapons but they can't expect every weapon to be just like the legendary AK-47.
In early 2018, the AK-12 made by Kalashnikov Concern was officially recommended by the Russian Ministry of Defense for adoption by the Russian Army. This marked the probable end of a long search for the next rifle for the Russian military. But the adopted rifle was completely different than the original AK-12 showcased back in 2013, sharing likely less than 10% of parts, if any at all.
But the long search may have created a lot of questions for outside observers. Why did two different rifles share the same name? Why was the AK-12 developed instead of the earlier AK-107? What happened to the A545 and A762 that the AK-12 competed alongside? What are the AK-400 and AK-200 rifles and how are they related to the AK-12 program?
The story of the AK-12 begins with the last of Izhmash/Kalashnikov Concern’s AK-100 series of rifles: the AK-107 and AK-109. These rifles were designed with the “balanced automatic” recoil system that was in development since the 1970s and used a moving counterweight to reduce the recoil impulse of the rifle.
During factory tests, the AK-107 was found to simply be not good enough. Its balanced automatic action was only of limited use: it only provided benefits in certain shooting positions and made the rifles significantly more complicated: adding weight and difficulty to reloading.
These same issues were found in the first balanced automatics: the Konstantinova Koksharova SA-006 also was found to be harder to charge than the A-3 (the prototype of the AK-74) it competed against. The balanced automatic system also made creating carbine versions of the rifle significantly more difficult, if not impossible, due to the need to fit the balanced recoil mechanism over the barrel.
Because of these drawbacks, the AK-107 was considered to be a “dead-end” for military development, unlikely to be accepted into service. Its 7.62x39mm chambered cousin, the AK-109, was considered to be similarly obsolete as the balanced automatic action was even less efficient at reducing recoil in the larger caliber. The AK-108 in 5.56x45mm had similarly little interest.
As a result, Izhmash didn’t have a rifle it deemed worthy of submitting to the upcoming “Ratnik” trials. This changed after a leadership transition occurred in 2011: Vladimir Zlobin, the former chief designer at the competing Tula plant (TsKIB SOO) became the chief designer at Izhmash.
Zlobin began the development of a practically clean slate design, that only retained the general long-stroke gas operation principle from earlier Kalashnikovs. This effort resulted in the first AK-12, which was commonly seen in media.
It featured the triangular thumb safety/selector with three-round burst (at an increased rate of fire), a full length picatinny rail along the top of the receiver and gas tube and a new stock design. The bolt carrier was redesigned to allow for the charging handle to switch sides and the rifle was designed to lock open on the last round fired, similar to the American M16/M4. The rifle was chambered in 5.45x39mm and fed from standard AK-74 magazines.
As the Ratnik trials required weapons in both 5.45x39mm and 7.62x39mm to be submitted, a slightly modified version of the AK-103, the AK-103-3 was submitted alongside the AK-12 in 2014. The AK-103-3 featured a new rigidly fixed dust cover, railed handguard, and stock. The basic AK-103 is simply a AK-74M chambered in 7.62x39 so the AK-103-3 was practically a cosmetic modification of a traditional Kalashnikov.
The results of these trials were disastrous for Izhmash. The competing balanced automatic ZiD A545 and A762 were recommended for mass production, and the AK-12 and AK-103-3 were found not to meet state requirements. The fresh design of the AK-12 was found to have significant reliability and durability issues, and cost almost 5-6 times as much as an AK-74M. Developing the rifle to a point where it could be accepted into service would take significant time and investment that Izhmash was not willing to make.
Another leadership shakeup occurred in 2014 while the trials were occurring. At this time Izhmash was rolled into the new Kalashnikov Concern and the leader of the design team changed again: this time to Sergey Urzhumtse, who formerly worked for the Molot weapon plant. Under this new leadership, development was halted of the clean slate AK-12 and development began of a more traditional modernization of the AK rifles, under the name AK-400.
The AK-400 drew from experience creating the AK-103-3 and took many features from it including the fixed picatinny rail dust cover and the folding and collapsing stock. The biggest change made in the AK-400 series versus legacy AKs is the free floating of the barrel from the handguards for increased accuracy.
Traditionally, AK handguards are secured to the rifle at two points, one at the front of the receiver and the other at a handguard retainer piece attached to the barrel. In the AK-400, the handguard is attached to the receiver and to the gas tube, allowing the barrel to flex and vibrate unrestricted. The gas tube is revised to be more rigid and non-removable. This allows it to support the handguard and may simplify maintenance.
Other minor changes include a two-round burst position on the selector (as per the request of the Russian MoD), the addition of a “finger pedal” to the selector for easier actuation (a feature first popularized, by the American “Krebs Custom” company) and a revised ergonomic grip.
The new AK-400 modernization has 54% parts commonality with the AK-74M, compared to less than 10% for the clean slate AK-12.
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Design of the AK-400 modernization was completed in 2015 and the rifle was quickly re-entered into state trials. The 5.45 version took over the AK-12 designation, while the 7.62 version was designated AK-15.
Results of the trials for the new AK-12 were more positive. In early 2016 the AK-12 and AK-15 were found to have met the technical requirements for state trials and received GRAU indices: 6P70 and 6P71 respectively. Compared to the AK-74M, the new AK-12 is 0.5 kg lighter, more accurate, and supports modern sights and accessories.
At this point, the stage was set for further operational trials in 2017 between the new AK-12 and AK-15 versus the A545 and A762 from ZiD. These trials occurred with four branches of the Russian military: regular ground troops, airborne troops (VDV), marines and special forces.
The AK-12 definitively won these trials: it was recommended for general adoption. The A545 and A762 being recommended only for adoption by special troops who could take advantage of the balanced recoil benefits. Even then, the VDV and marines preferred the AK-12 in trials as the ZiD rifles were found to expel too much gas during firing, disrupting the shooter’s vision. The ZiD rifles also are estimated to cost around 10x the price of an AK-74M, with the AK-12 costing significantly less.
The AK-12 and AK-15 are slated to begin large-scale production in 2019. They also have spawned the AK-200 series for export, which incorporates many ergonomic features and the fixed picatinny dust cover from the AK-400 modernization but retains the gas system and barrel setup of the AK-100 rifles.
If anything, the entire AK-12 saga is a sign of how the Russian military’s arms procurement is highly resistant to change. The heart of the new AK-12 is practically unchanged from the first AKs that rolled off the production line in the 1940s: it features largely the same fire control group, long-stroke gas operation and rotating two-lugged bolt.
The AK-107, A545 and Zlobin’s AK-12 attempted to deviate from this formula with balanced automatic actions and integration of western ergonomic concepts such as ambidextrous charging handles and thumb safety/selectors, but in the end, were considered to be worse than the traditional design by the Russian military.
Perhaps in the eyes of the Russian military, the traditional Kalashnikov is truly the apex of small arms design and the trials will be biased against any attempt to replace it. But even among other militaries that are modernizing the Kalashnikov design, the influence of Western small arms ergonomics is obvious. Serbia’s next AK-style rifle, the M17, features an AR-15 style charging handle and thumb safety/selector.
Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues. (This first appeared in November 2018.)