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Everything you want to know about the legendary AK-47

The AK-47 is perhaps the most widespread firearm in the world. Carried by American enemies and allies alike since 1947, it is the standard infantry weapon for 106 countries. There are an estimated 100 million AK-47s of a number of variations round the world.

It’s a popular weapon among firearms enthusiasts, professional soldiers and terrorists alike. In the United States, it has a reputation as the “bad guy” weapon, given its history and usage among so many former enemies.

So it’s natural that readers have a lot of questions about it.

1. What is ‘AK-47’ short for?

Its Russian name is Avtomat Kalashnikova — also known simply as the Kalashnikov. It was named for its inventor, Senior Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov. He was supposedly a wounded T-34 tank commander in the Red Army during World War II. According to legend, he admired the weapons made by the Nazis.

After five years of engineering, the former agricultural engineer made his famous weapon. It was based on a number of other designs floating around at the time, mostly Germany’s Sturmgewehr-44. Called StG-44 for short, the Sturmgewehr was the first real mid-range infantry rifle. It didn’t shoot a heavy round but could still lay down heavy fire. The AK-47 was designed to do the same.

But the true brilliance of Kalashnikov’s invention was in its simplicity. It was designed for all-around ease of use: easy to repair, easy to unjam (if it ever does), easy to maintain. If a round is chambered in an AK-47, chances are good that weapon is going to fire.

His creation was so simple and dependable that the Soviet Union began exporting the weapon en masse. The country made so much money from exporting the weapon that Kalashnikov received special treatment in the USSR and later Russia for the rest of his life.

2. Are AK-47 guns illegal?

The legality of the AK-47 depends on what country you’re reading this in. In many countries, it’s not only legal to own an AK model firearm, it’s necessary and/or celebrated.

AK-47 model weapons are also dirt cheap in many places around the world — but the further away you are from the production centers, the more expensive it can be.

According to a study on transnational crime in the developing world, the cost of a black market AK-47 can run as little as $150 in Pakistan to $3,600 on the Dark Web for shipment to the United States.

The price of an AK family firearm in Africa is an exception to that general rule. It’s usually much cheaper in many African countries because the demand is so high that markets are usually flooded.

3. How many bullets can an AK-47 fire in a minute?

The AK-47 can fire 600 rounds per minute in a fully automatic setting.

4. Can I legally buy an AK-47 in the United States?

As for American wannabe AK owners, it also depends on what state you live in. In general, however, a true AK-47 has a fully automatic setting, which is illegal in the United States. Models with semi-automatic settings are available and legal in the US. Manufacturers cannot make or import fully automatic weapons for the civilian market.

But you can still legally buy a fully automatic AK-47. Because this is America.

Any automatic weapon fully registered before May 1986, with the passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act, can be purchased or sold. This means there is a market of an estimated 175,000 legal automatic weapons in the United States. The limited legal supply also means that one of these rifles can be wildly expensive — not to mention the stiff Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives oversight and a $200 excise tax.

But if you can afford $10,000 for a legally automatic AK-47, $200 is likely not going to bother you.

5. How deadly is the AK-47?

The AK-47 is the deadliest weapon ever built, on the whole. Its kill count even tops nuclear weapons in sheer numbers. But the first AK-47s were very heavy and weren’t really built for aiming. Kalashnikov wanted to develop a compact weapon that still delivered firepower within 300 meters that could bring a blaze of bullets (with ammunition light enough that soldiers could carry a lot of it).

A real 1947 Kalashnikov is surprisingly difficult to fire for a standard infantry weapon, but it was still very easily produced and easily used. Today’s AKs are actually AKMs (modernized) and variations on the AKM. Everyone will still refer to it as an AK-47 or simply “AK” — because it sounds cool.

The weapon uses a 7.62 mm, high-velocity round that can “destroy whole areas of a body,” according to New York City trauma surgeons. They shatter bones, tear through organs and liquefy other materials as the round tumbles through the body — often in ways that cannot be repaired.

6. Does the US military use AK-47s?

When the M16 rifle was first introduced in the Vietnam War, it had a number of issues. There were so many problems that American troops were killed in combat simply because they couldn’t shoot back.

Even after the kinks were worked out, a dirty M16 was (and is) much less likely to operate than a dirty AK-47. So US troops were known to pick up AKs from their fallen enemies and keep them handy . just in case.

When the AK-47 was first introduced, it was such a great weapon that the Red Army actually hid it from the world. The US didn’t really know about its existence until the mid-1950s. Not that the American military would buy its standard-issue rifle from its main geopolitical foe and potential World War III adversary anyway.

These days, the US does not field AK-47s, but some members of its military are trained to use them. Special operations forces from all branches might have to pick up an enemy AK-47 at some point because of the nature of their work — sometimes help isn’t coming.

7. Why do terrorists use AK-47s?

The rifle was designed to be carried, maintained and fired by anyone in the area who happened to need its services. And if you need a weapon like the AK-47, you need to be able to use it fast, whether you’re a professional soldier or a poorly trained conscript.

The worldwide availability and durability of the AK-47 also makes it an attractive weapon for terrorists, militias and other illegal paramilitary organizations. Whether they’re trying to take over a military base in frozen tundra or overthrowing a government in Sub-Saharan Africa, the AK-47 works really well in every environment, is always available (usually at a steep discount) and will still work even if it falls into water, mud, sand or some other muck.

The average lifespan of a terrorist in a gunfight isn’t very long, so that rifle is likely going to hit the ground, and someone is going to need it to work when they pick it up. The terrorist group is definitely going to need a cheap replacement.

There are an estimated 100 million AK-47s of many variations in use around the world by gun enthusiasts, professional soldiers, and terrorists alike.

I Built This AK-47. It’s Legal and Totally Untraceable.

Forget 3-D-printed guns. At a “build party,” anyone can make a rifle no cop will ever know about.

Bryan Schatz

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The wooden and steel parts I need to build my untraceable AK-47 fit within a slender, 15-by-12-inch cardboard box. I first lay eyes on them one Saturday morning in the garage of an eggshell-white industrial complex near Los Angeles. Foldout tables ring the edges of the room, surrounding two orange shop presses. The walls, dusty and stained, are lined with shelves of tools. I’m with a dozen other guys, some sipping coffee, others making introductions over the buzz of an air compressor. Most of us are strangers, but we share a common bond: We are just eight hours away from having our very own AK-47—one the government will never know about.

The AK-47, perhaps the world’s best-known gun, is so easy to make and so hard to break that the Soviet-designed original has spawned countless variants, updated and modified versions churned out by factories all over the globe. Although US customs laws ban importing the weapons, parts kits—which include most original components of a Kalashnikov variant—are legal. So is reassembling them, as long as no more than 10 foreign-made components are used and they are mounted on a new receiver, the box-shaped central frame that holds the gun’s key mechanics. There are no fussy irritations like, say, passing a background check to buy a kit. And because we’re assembling the guns for our own “personal use,” whatever that may entail, we’re not required to stamp in serial numbers. These rifles are totally untraceable, and even under California’s stringent assault weapons ban, that’s perfectly within the law.

Among those ready to get going at this “build party” (none of whom wanted their names used) are a father-son duo getting in some bonding time and a well-bellied sixtysomething with a white Fu Manchu who “loves” the click-ack! sound of a round being chambered. Assembling a Romanian variant is a builder wearing a camo jacket and a hat embroidered with an AR-15 rifle above the legend “Come and take it.” His knuckle tattoos read “PRAY HARD.”

We crowd in as our three hosts, all expert gun assemblers, hand out waivers with a list of questions: Are you a convicted felon? Ever been dishonorably discharged from the military? Addicted to drugs? Mentally unstable? The guy in camo looks up and, to much laughter, says, “So it’s all ‘No,’ right?”

The hosts collect our paperwork without checking IDs. We don eye protection and gloves, and soon the garage is abuzz with the whir of grinders, cutters, and drills. Sales of receivers—which house the mechanical parts, making a gun a gun—are tightly regulated, so my kit comes with a pre-drilled flat steel platform. Legally, it’s just an American-made hunk of metal, but one bend in a vise later and, voilà, it’s a receiver, ready for trigger guards to be riveted on. Sparks fly as receiver rails to guide the bolt mechanism are cut, welded into place, and heat-treated. The front and rear trunnions, which will hold the barrel and stock, are attached to the receivers.

Now I need a hand. A stout guy with caramel skin, tired eyes, jet-black hair, and a penchant for peppering his sentences with F-bombs assists me. He starts hammering the barrel into the front trunnion. “If this were an [AR-15] and we did this, we’d be crying doing so much damage,” he says. “But an AK, you can drop this thing in shit, drag it through the mud, smash it against the ground, pick it up, pull the charging handle, and keep shooting. That’s why they’re so popular.”

Durability and simplicity are why AKs have become the most widely distributed guns on the planet since their 1947 debut. They began proliferating in the late ’50s, when the Soviets permitted “fraternal countries” to manufacture Kalashnikovs at will. Soon they spread from one hot spot to another, their reputation for ruggedness and reliability growing along the way. Now there are as many as 70 million in circulation. Colombian drug lord Pedro Guerrero and Saddam Hussein’s son Uday had them plated in gold. Both Hezbollah and Mozambique display them on their flags.

Many kits come from stockpiles in former war zones. “I can guarantee you this one has bodies on it,” says one of the hosts as I peer down the barrel of a Yugo RPK. It’s lined with grit and soot. My host says the AK I’m building is an Egyptian “Maadi” that came to the United States via Croatia, likely having been shipped there during the Yugoslav wars. He tells me some wooden stocks come with tally marks notched in them.

We prep the metal components in a sandblaster and submerge them in a phosphoric acid solution to protect the steel from corrosion. Finally, we grease and assemble them, semi-automatic firing controls included. Owning a gun that can shoot full auto, like these did in a past life, is effectively illegal under federal law. But you can buy a souped-up stock that will harness each shot’s recoil to help trigger the next, a bit of clever engineering that mimics automatic fire—and stays on the right side of the law. Adding one would be a simple future modification.

The first guy to finish is all smiles, but he has a question: “Say some Johnny Law comes up who don’t know shit about this law, and I’ve got an AK without a serial number—then what?”

“There’s a series of laws that make this legal,” says one of the hosts. “Just print those up and have them with you in case Johnny Law does come by.”

The next morning I do exactly that before tossing my AK in the trunk and heading to a gun store so busy I have to take a number. I pick up a barrel cleaner, a 10-round magazine, and 40 bullets before driving out to Jawbone Canyon, federal land northeast of Los Angeles. I park on a bluff, walk to a spot where I can aim at a mountain of scrub brush and sand, and load five rounds. I empty the magazine in seconds. Their reputation has been rightly earned: AKs are popular because they work—every time.

I’m left wondering: Seeing how easy this is, are build parties monitored? Do hand-built weapons ever surface in crimes? Are the cops worried? When I call local law enforcement representatives from Los Angeles, Orange County, Santa Ana, and Garden Grove, they say they’ve never heard of such a thing. “That doesn’t happen here,” says Bruce Borihanh, an LAPD spokesman. But a cursory browse of online gun forums is enough to show that, well, clearly it does. There seems to be one about every month. Plus, I just attended one less than an hour’s drive from his office.

I’m reminded of what one of the build party hosts said before I left: “Remember that thing I told you about why people do this: These builds can happen only because they aren’t blown out to the public and law enforcement.”

People are selling AKs like mine on Armslist.com—the eBay of firearms—for as much as $1,600. In most states, there are no records tracking such private sales. California residents have to go through a certified dealer to sell them legally. But since this AK is untraceable to begin with, who’s to know how I choose to unload it?

Between you, me, and Johnny Law, here’s what happened to my homemade AK. Back in my garage I use a grinding wheel to cut the receiver in half and the other components into pieces. I put the scraps back in the cardboard box the kit came in and leave it for the garbage truck.

Target Demographics

Don’t call it an assault weapon! “Modern sporting rifle” is the term of art preferred by the National Shooting Sports Foundation to describe civilian versions of military rifles such as the AK-47 and M16. So who owns them?

• Around 3% of Americans have a modern semi-automatic rifle such as an AR-15 (the consumer version of the M16).
2% of semi-automatic rifle owners have 7.62 x 39 mm rifles, the most common caliber for AK-47s. 76% have .223 rifles, the most common caliber for AR-15s.
84% of owners are men. 86% are white. 60% have two or more semi-automatic rifles.
• Top reasons for owning a modern semi-automatic rifle:

Collecting: 28%
Avoiding future weapons bans: 27%
Target shooting: 18%
Protection: 17%
Hunting: 6%

25% made their most recent semi-automatic rifle purchase online, 10% at gun shows.
59% have a 20-plus-round magazine in their most recently purchased semi-automatic rifle.
28% say they’ve spent more than $600 on accessories and customization.

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Forget 3-D-printed guns. At a “build party,” anyone can make a rifle no cop will ever know about.