The prices of AKs aren't as low as they used to be. The fact that entry-level ARs are cheaper than their Combloc cousins is simply something the gun community now has to deal with. While the cost of a basic AK has gone up, there may very well be more Kalashnikov-pattern firearms on the market today than ever before. But which ones are actually worth buying?
I've had the opportunity to own, shoot, or otherwise review all of the firearms listed below (or a representative example from a specific line of guns---I don't own a Vepr in every single caliber they're offered in). I consider each of them to be an excellent pick for anyone seeking a well-made AK. They're presented in an approximately least-to-most expensive order.
N-PAP rifles are made at the Zastava Arms factory in Serbia and imported and modified by Century Arms International. Along with Romanian-made WASRs, they occupy the lowest rung on the AK price-point totem pole. The models with non-folding wooden stocks can be found online for about $600, while the less common N-PAP DF underfolder usually commands at least $700.
The 7.62x39mm N-PAPs are effectively AKM clones with a few Balkan twists. Most notably, they use proprietary furniture and do not feature chrome-lined barrels. The latter shouldn't be a problem as long as you practice good cleaning habits and the aftermarket is overflowing with "Yugo-pattern" accessories to address the former.
I've owned an N-PAP DF for over a year. Though the underfolder stock takes some getting used to, it's one of my most fun range blasters. I've put 2,000 rounds through it without any problems, and it still pops milk jugs at 100 yards today as well as the first day I got it. It doesn't have the most beautiful finish, but it works.
For many years, the Romanian WASR-10 was the go-to "cheap AK." Now that they typically cost $550 to $600, today's shooters tend to weigh their options a bit longer before taking the plunge on the old standby (though that might not be a great idea, considering that due to a military contract, "export" WASRs may not be made for quite some time according to AK Operators Union).
The WASR-10 is another 7.62x39mm AKM clone. Though it lacks the receiver dimples of true AKM clones, it uses "standard" AKM-pattern furniture and accessories. Just like N-PAPs, WASRs are imported and modified by Century Arms. And just like N-PAPs, WASRs don't always have the best fit and finish. In contrast with N-PAPs, they have chrome-lined barrels---which some shooters see as a must-have. Even though they're not as cheap as they used to be, WASRs are still solid picks in today's AK market.
Though most Russian firearms can no longer be imported to the United States as a result of the Obama administration's sanctions, there are still ample numbers of Saiga rifles and conversions available on the market. They can most often be found in one of two configurations: as a "sporter" rifle or in "converted" form.
Sporters look like old-fashioned, semiautomatic hunting rifles with Monte Carlo stocks and long handguards. While guns in this configuration are drying up, they can still be found online for around $650 to $750. If you want a great starting point for your own conversion, sporter Saigas are the way to go. Know that some modification is required to make Saigas compatible with standard-capacity AK magazines and conventional AK furniture.
Converted guns look much more like the AK we've come to know and love. Generally speaking they accept standard-capacity AK mags, conventional furniture, and feature threaded muzzles (the "scary" features that make uninformed people want to ban them). Depending on the quality of the conversion, expect to pay at least $800. Professionally converted Saigas sell for well above $1,000.
Regardless of which caliber Saiga you might purchase (they're available in 5.45x39mm, 5.56x45mm, 7.62x39mm, and .308 Winchester), you'll get a gun that was made on the same machines that have been building them for decades. All Saigas are made at the Izhmash (now Kalashnikov Concern) factory in Izhevsk, Russia, and feature well-made Russian chrome-lined barrels. For many shooters, the appeal of owning a real Russian-made AK is quite strong.
I've owned a 5.45x39mm Saiga that was converted by Arsenal, Inc. in Nevada to resemble an AK-74M for nearly five years. Over the course of those 1,800 or so days and 5,000-plus rounds, I've never had a single malfunction that wasn't ammo-related. Saigas and their derivatives can be expensive these days, but they're worth their price tags.
To use a crappy car analogy, Veprs are like the Cadillacs of the AK world. They're made at the Molot factory in Vyatskie Polyany, Russia on the same tooling that build the heavy-duty light machinegun versions of the AK (the RPK). Veprs feature reinforced receivers and Russian chrome-lined barrels. They're considered more accurate and more reliable than standard AKs---which says a lot.
Veprs are available in a wide variety of calibers, including 5.56x45mm, 5.45x39mm, 7.62x39mm, .308 Winchester, and 7.62x54mmR. Most recently they began being offered in 6.5 Grendel, a very unique and fun cartridge. They are most frequently sold in a sporter configuration similar to Saigas and take a bit more work to convert. Veprs can be found for anywhere from $800 to over $1,000, depending on the specific configuration.
I currently own two Veprs, and they're some of my favorite guns. These premium Russian rifles are becoming more and more popular for customization---I recently had my hands on a 6.5 Grendel rifle that was reworked by Definitive Arms (including an AR-pattern magazine well) and it was incredibly cool.
Arsenal, Inc. is the official US importer and remanufacturer of firearms made at the famous "Circle 10" factory in Bulgaria (known as Arsenal Bulgaria). Arsenal Bulgaria makes some of the finest production AKs in the world, Arsenal, Inc. professionally converts them into American-compliant guns once they make it across the ocean.
Arsenal, Inc.'s SLR line of 5.45x39mm, 5.56x45mm, and 7.62x39mm firearms is extremely popular among US shooters. They're reliable and well-made semiautomatic replicas of their select-fire siblings. SLRs feature stamped receivers and Bulgarian-made chrome-lined barrels and accept almost all standard AKM-pattern furniture and accessories.
I've shot and owned SLR-pattern rifles for several years and they rate highly in my book. They can't be found new for less than $950 these days (and certain variants are well above $1,100), but they are very high-quality arms.
St. Petersburg, Florida-based Definitive Arms is one of the nation's top AK shops. Their custom work is present in several of the guns featured in this article. They also regularly offer production guns, most often through retailers like Atlantic Firearms and Copper Custom.
During a recent trip to their facility, I was able to see firsthand the incredible amount of time and care that goes into building every one of their guns. Each firearm they put out is built, tweaked, and tinkered with until it's practically perfect. Their extensive sight-leveling process is particularly impressive.
Any firearm touched by Definitive Arms is a winner and worth far more than it sells for, but their current line of 7.62x39mm DAKM rifles stands out. They are built using the best Polish AKM parts kits around and combined with new-production American receivers and barrels. The barrels are made from 4150 CMV steel, and should perform as well as chrome-lined barrels.
DAKMs are periodically available through Atlantic Firearms, where they often sell out within hours of being listed. Their roughly $1,000 price tag might seem high, but it's an incredibly fair price for what is effectively a premium, hand-tuned AK.
Definitive Arms brought a select-fire DAKM to Big 3 East earlier this month. Aside from the happy switch, muzzle device, and the distressed finish, the gun was exactly the same as a standard DAKM. Apart from a single ammo-related failure (a Tito-era Yugoslavian round that refused to fire), the gun ran nonstop in full auto for three days, spitting thousands of rounds downrange.
Those are my top picks for AKs on the market today. What do you think? Tell me what I left out in the comments below.