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AK-12: Or as Close as We Can Get to the Real Thing… [REVIEW]

Photos by Kenda Lenseigne

The AK-47 is inarguably Mikhail Kalashnikov’s magnum opus, but it’s not the 1940s anymore, and despite countless memes, rifle is not fine. Don’t get me wrong, I love every iteration of the AK and own the majority of them. But I’m not so enamored with the avtomat that I can’t see its flaws.

Indeed, when I first got into firearms back around 2000, I was obsessed with the AKM — it was the go-to rifle of the so-called bad guys. From those evil Soviets I saw on the news as a kid, to Vietcong fighters in Southeast Asia, to various terror groups waving beat-to-hell guns above their heads defiantly, the AK was the forbidden gun.

I remember reading in countless magazines how the gun was unstoppable, reliable, and rugged but terribly inaccurate. But when I got my first AK back in 2003, I discovered that so-called experts on the gun were often anything but. The gun isn’t flawlessly reliable (though it is pretty damn good), and despite being labeled as inaccurate, it was easily capable of hitting man-sized targets out to 300 yards. 

Or at least, mine would have been if the sights on it weren’t so canted. 

It wasn’t until I got my first real job out of college that I bought an AK that lived up to the hype — an Arsenal SGL-21, aka a factory-converted Russian Saiga carbine in 7.62×39.

That gun reignited a passion for the Kalashnikov that I thought was long dead. And it really opened my eyes to the potential of the platform. But whenever I returned to my more ergonomic NATO guns like my SIG 556 or BCM M16A4 clone, I began to wish my AK had all these creature comforts.

Evidently, I wasn’t alone, as even the Russians felt the same way. This is part of what spurred them to develop the gun that would eventually become the AK-12. But it’s more complicated than that, so buckle up. Let’s take a dive into the history of the development of the latest Kalash.

IZHMASH AK-12 ORIGIN

The Russian Federation began toying with the idea of an improved AKM at the end of the 1960s, using lessons learned from America’s M16 and its use of a high-velocity, small-caliber round. The result was the AK-74 — an AKM rechambered in 5.45x39mm. The only real differences between that and the standard AKM are the inclusion of an aggressive two-port muzzle brake, a 90-degree gas block, and the use of new magazines.

The AK-12 gas block departs from typical AK design with its removable gas plug. The muzzle brake features wire cutter grooves.

Later, the Russians added a folding stock and polymer furniture to the design under the moniker AK-74M. The gun was an immediate success — so much so that Russia incorporated these design features into all of their Kalashnikov rifles. The end result was the 100-series of AK rifles and carbines. Although aesthetically different, these guns were mechanically the same as the original AK-47.

Which is to say, exceptionally reliable, extremely rugged, and accurate enough for combat use. But contrary to the unofficial motto of the Soviet Union (and one that allegedly hung on the wall of Admiral Gorshkov’s office), “Perfect is the enemy of good.” The Russians weren’t satisfied yet. 

Enter the Ratnik program.

RATNIK PROGRAM

The Ratnik, or Russian for “Warrior” Program, is a next-generation infantry program designed to modernize the loadout and equipment of Russian Federation soldiers for the 21st century. 

The program draws several parallels with the U.S. Army’s failed Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW) and Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) programs, though is far broader in scope.

Aspects of the program can be traced back to the final years of the Soviet Union when Russia attempted to develop and field the space-age AN-94 assault rifle. 

This gun used a totally different method of operation to facilitate a special two-round “hyper burst” mode that fired the first two shots so quickly that, conceptually, the rifle couldn’t recoil off target before the second round left the barrel. 

The concept worked for the most part, but the combination of high cost and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that very few of these were ever built, and even fewer fielded.

However, the benefits of a more modernized combat rifle became more apparent as the U.S. rolled out optics for its infantry forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. So Russia again set out to modernize the AK. Still, this time, they weren’t going for a radical departure, but incremental gains to make the gun lighter, more ergonomic, and optics-friendly.

The rearsight is moved to the topcover for longer sight radius and is adjustable to 800m.

Part of the Ratnik program was doing just that. Several entries were submitted from various Russian arms makers to either bring the AK-74 on par or surpass the American M4 carbine — not just in terms of modularity and ergonomics but also accuracy. 

THE AK-107

The Kalashnikov Concern submission to the program was the AK-107 carbine. While ostensibly it looks like a standard 100-series AK with an extended gas tube, it’s actually a very different beast. It utilizes a counter-balance system that shifts a large mass forward toward the muzzle to counter-balance the rearward recoil impulse. 

The result is a 5.45mm AK with virtually zero muzzle rise. 

The problems with adopting this gun were similar to that of the AN-94 — cost and complexity. But it had a more massive issue that totally stopped the gun from being adopted: GP25 compatibility. The GP25 is the military designation for the muzzle-loaded, under-barrel 40mm grenade launcher used by Russian forces.

Apparently, the stout recoil impulse of the launcher caused the AK-107’s complex counterbalance recoil system to grind to a halt. Allegedly, a single round was enough to render the entire system useless.

This left the designers with very little time to come up with a new design from scratch to meet the Ratnik Program’s requirements. So, the engineers at Kalashnikov Concern decided to build a new design from scratch that took the best aspects of the original AK and totally redesigned the lackluster ones. After only a few months of development, the engineers delivered the first prototype of the AK-12.

The handguard has a 12 o’clock Pic rail in the same plane as the topcover in order to mount clip-on night vision or thermal devices.

THE KALASHNIKOV CONCERN AK-12 

Under the hood, the AK-12 was all AKM. It still utilized the same long-stroke piston-driven gas system that made the guns so famously reliable. However, despite being a heavily modified AK-74M, the initial AK-12 prototypes had issues.

During the Ratnik testing phase, the first guns failed drop tests in two different ways. One gun had its charging handle snap off, while another actually bent its receiver. But given the short amount of development time, this wasn’t surprising. So, a year later, after incorporating the recommended changes from the first round of testing, Kalashnikov Concern delivered a second prototype, and a third later. 

And it’s that third and final prototype that we’re checking out today. 

Full disclosure: there are currently no civilian-legal, factory-built AK-12 carbines or rifles on the market today. A good friend of mine bought an AK-12 parts kit — minus all the components that run afoul of the National Firearms Act — and then paid entirely too much money to have a custom receiver, barrel, and fire control unit fabricated and the entire thing assembled by a very talented gunsmith. He also chose the gray Cerakote finish on the gun to set it apart from the all-black standard versions. With that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the gun’s features.

AK-12 (AK-400) FINAL VERSION

Starting at the muzzle, we see the first big departure from standard AKMs: the muzzle device. The AK-12 features a unique quick-detach, two-port muzzle brake atop its 16.3-inch barrel. The muzzle itself isn’t actually threaded but instead features a simple cam lock with a modified AK-100 series anti-rotation pin. To remove the brake, a shooter depresses the pin and rotates the brake 180 degrees before pulling it forward and free of the barrel.

Just below this is a combination bayonet lug/cleaning rod retainer that’s designed to use 100-series bayonets. 

Further back, the AK-12 features a 90-degree gas block with the front sight assembly built into it — much like the mid-length AK-100 series guns like the AK-104.

Further back, the AK-12 uses a new proprietary rigid polymer handguard with built-in Picatinny rails at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions for mounting accessories. The handguard also incorporates four different QD sling mounting points, and most impressive of all, it actually free-floats the barrel.

Behind this, the modernized Kalashnikov uses a mostly standard AK-100 series receiver, but the dust cover is hinged to the barrel trunion and features a monolithic rail.

AK-12 TRIGGER TIME

All this is good and fine, but how did the test gun actually perform?

Exactly like you’d expect: like an AK-74M race gun. Between the easy-to-use controls, hyper-effective muzzle brake, and already mild-recoil round, the AK-12 shoots flatter than Milla Jovovich.

Hammered pairs were an absolute joke. Even when using a magnified optic like the Trijicon ACOG LED I mounted, your sight picture barely moves between shots. Optics ain’t your thing? The aperture iron sights made hitting man-sized targets at 400 yards a point-and-click affair. Which, truth be told, surprised the hell out of me since most dust covers can’t hold zero worth a damn. Not even the vaunted Valmet-AK-hybrid Galil ARM can do this.

In more objective terms, when the AK-12 was mounted on a Lyman Bag Jack rest atop an old picnic table, the gun produced 1.5 to 1.7 MOA groups with military surplus 7N6 ammo. When I loaded up a magazine with some Hornady SST rounds, this group shrank to nearly one MOA.

In terms of reliability, the AK-12 build ran fantastically. 

I fired 500 rounds (RIP my bank account) of 7N6 FMJ and 100 rounds of Hornady SST rounds through it and never encountered a single malfunction. This was done with a combination of surplus Soviet magazines including modern 100-series mags (even an RPK-74M mag), old polymer mags, and even older Bakelite 30-rounders. I also tested new production magazines from Palmetto State Armory, AK-12 lookalike mags from AC Unity, and Magpul AK PMAGs.

Speaking of which, none of the military surplus magazines had any issue locking into the magazine well, but the AC Unity mags were a little bit tight. You could shave a small amount of the rear locking tab to fix this, but I found a cheaper solution, which was to insert, remove, and reinsert the mags a few dozen times. This didn’t totally alleviate the problem but substantially reduced it.

As far as ergonomics go, the AK-12 didn’t disappoint. The center of balance on the gun is just barely behind the magazine well, making the gun fast-pointing and not exhausting to shoulder for long durations. In my opinion, the collapsible stock really helped with this. I’m a towering 5 feet 9 inches, and an A2 stock is too long for me to shoot comfortably.

The AK-12’s stock allowed me to adjust the length of pull from shorter than standard Warsaw Pact length AK stock to even longer than an M16A2’s fixed stock. So whether you’re Peter Dinklage or Dolph Lundgren, the AK-12 can be adjusted to fit you.

Another thing that really surprised me about the AK was how well the handguard stayed cool. Even after I mag-dumped 90 rounds at steel targets, the handguard never got uncomfortable to hold. That said, just behind the handguard, the area under the barrel trunnion was hot as hell, but this is true of all Kalashnikov rifles.

AK-12 VERDICT

If you’re an AK fanatic or collector, an AK-12 build can easily be the gem of your collection. What’s better is that the gun is 100-percent functional too. As someone who could never leave his toys in the box as a kid, I appreciate that it’s not just a wall hanger. 

This is a military rifle made for the harsh conditions that Russian soldiers face in the field. If you can swing the astronomic prices these guns currently command (around $6,000), you should definitely take a serious look at an AK-12 build. 

If you’re just an avid shooter or lover of AKs, you would be better served with a military rifle like a Polish 5.45 AKM or if you have the money, an Arsenal-converted Saiga. 

Make no mistake, an AK-12 is not a gun for shooters on a budget. Between the high initial cost and the crazy prices on 5.45mm ammo right now, this gun isn’t a great financial decision. But as someone who owns an SVD, I can appreciate that some things are just awesome to own even if they don’t make financial sense. 

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