Meet The AK-74 Rifle: More Than An Improved AK-47

More than 75 years since it was first developed, the AK-47 has remained one of the most iconic modern firearms. It has appeared in countless films, been the subject of dozens of hip-hop songs, and since 1983 has been featured on the flag of Mozambique. Interestingly, until the 1990s, the Soviet-designed firearm wasn’t all that well known – mainly because it was almost impossible to see a real one.

It should be noted that not a single AK-47 appears in the 1968 Vietnam War film The Green Berets, and the firearm was never even mentioned. In the wave of Vietnam films that followed, Chinese Norinco Type 56 copies often stood in for the AK-47. The firearm didn’t take the world of pop culture by storm until the early 1980s, yet, by the time the world had heard of the AK-47, the Soviet Army had adopted the AK-74.

AK-74: More Than an AK Upgrade

Though the select-fire AK-47 was introduced to Soviet units in the late 1940s, it took until the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 when Western military analysts had been able to take note of what had only been a rumored Soviet automatic weapon. U.S. soldiers and Marines, of course, would get a first-hand perspective of the weapon a decade later in the jungles of Vietnam.

Then in 1974, a new rifle appeared in the hands of Soviet soldiers. It was certainly recognizable as an “AK” platform – and it had the general configuration of the AK-47. Firearms experts quickly noted, however, its eye-catching muzzle-brake fitting, but also the new magazines that made the firearm distinct from the AK-47.

While the AK-47 had been upgraded and improved as the AKM (“Avtomát Kalášnikova modernizírovannyj” translated as “Kalashnikov’s Automatic Rifle Modernized”) in 1959 – and which featured simpler individual parts that were favorable for mass production – the AK-74 was essentially a new design that built on the proven platform.

Whereas the original AK-47 was chambered for the now venerable 7.62x39mm cartridge, the AK-74 was developed to fire the smaller 5.45x39mm cartridge, which offered significantly higher velocity. Soviet military analysts had seen the advantages of the small-caliber round after the United States military had shifted from the 7.62mm used in the M14 battle rifle to the lighter 5.56mm M16A1 in Vietnam.


AK-47. Image Credit: Creative Commons.


AK-47. Image Credit: Creative Commons.


Iraqi airmen fire AK-47s during firing drills March 29, 2011. Members of the 447th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron trained Iraqi security forces airmen ensuring weapons qualification and teaching defensive tactics, vehicle searches and other force protection measures. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

The Soviet engineers, who were able to obtain both American-made weapons from the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), were quickly impressed by the reduced recoil of the M16A1. That correlated with a potential reduction in training times for soldiers on the range, while it provided an increased accuracy – which was seen to equate with greater first-hit probability. Then there was the fact that soldiers could carry almost twice the amount of ammunition for the same weight as the previous cartridge.

Whereas the AK-47 was selected as the competition winner for the M43 round, development of the AK-74 actually coincided with the M74 round. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the lead designer of the AK-47 (at least according to the “official story”), oversaw the development of the AK-74. Much like the original design, the new assault rifle was gas-operated with a rotating bolt.

The AK-74 had a slightly higher rate of fire, of around 650 rounds/min – which was later improved to 735 rounds/min with the AKS-74U variant. More importantly for the soldiers who carried the weapon, the AK-74 could be use with a 45-round RPK-74 detachable box magazine. An additional improvement was the range. Whereas the AK-47 had an effective of 300 meters (330 yards) on full automatic, and 400 meters (440 yards) on semi-automatic; the AK-74 was effective to 600 meters (660 yards) and 1,000 meters (1,100 yards) respectively.

The AKM had been fitted with a compensator, which was cut at an angle to deflect some of the gas blast upwards to counteract muzzle climb, but it didn’t actually reduce the recoil. Here was where the aforementioned muzzle brake came into play. It took a more sophisticated approach to control the gas flow, directing jets in various directions to stop muzzle climb, but also reduced the recoil while alleviating some of the sideways blast that many muzzle brakes produce.


The first batch of AK-74s featured the same wood-laminated plastic as the AKM, or resin-impregnated wood fiber – but it was soon changed to all-polymer furniture, which proved to be lighter and even more durable than the wood components. In many ways, however, the AK-74 was still an evolutionary step forward from the AKM – as 53 percent of the parts were interchangeable. Such compatibility was meant to reduce production costs, simplify logistics, and training.


AK-74. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Yet, it didn’t actually result in a firearm that was all that improved.

The AK-74 was unable to match the accuracy of the original M16 and was even less accurate than a U.S. M16A2, which was adopted in 1982. In the end, it could be argued the weapon failed in its goal.

It was an improvement, but arguably was not one of Kalashnikov’s finest designs.


The AK-74 first saw service with the Soviet military in Afghanistan, and there remains a rumor that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had paid $5,000 for the first rifle captured by the Afghan mujahedeen for evaluation purposes. Whether true or not, it would be far harder for anyone not working in the intelligence community to actually obtain one – at least a military-used version.

Though civilian-friendly semi-automatic AK-74s are available – much like the AK-47 – there are reportedly no transferable select-fire/fully-automatic examples due to the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986, which banned the production or import of new automatic weapons after May 19, 1986.


AK-74. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Despite the fact that most Americans can’t own a select-fire AK-74, the weapon continues to be employed by militaries and insurgents around the world.

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