THE FACTS: Among combat rifles, two weapons stand out: the M16 with its modern variant, the M4 carbine; and the AK-47. The M16 and M4 model of rifles are the standard-issue combat weapons in the American military. This generation of rifle has seen action from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq and the valleys of Afghanistan. It's known for being deadly accurate, though perhaps prone to jamming. On the other end lies the AK-47, a rifle of Russian design that has changed little over the better part of a century, and has spread to every corner of the world. It is known for remarkable durability and ease of use. But what makes the better battle rifle, the M16 or the AK-47?
Billy BirdzellHost, Remington Country TVU.S. Marine Corps, 2001–2008
A rifle is useless if it does not enable the operator to hit his target. The AK-47, with standard 123 grain ammunition, only holds a 5.9-inch group at 100 yards. The M4 on the other hand, the modern carbine variant of the M16, with currently issued ammunition, is capable of making head shots at ranges in which the AK-47 can barely keep 10 rounds on a E-Silhouette. Go U.S.A.
Lethality is the second most important point of comparison between rifles, and for all that is written about 7.62 x 39mm ammunition, the Russians replaced it in 1974 because diameter cannot compensate for shot placement and small, high-velocity projectiles enable higher volumes of fire with more favorable ballistics. Advantage, U.S.A.
AK-47 advocates usually place reliability above all else and most people concur that Kalashnikov designed a beast. However, is the spread enough to favor the AK-47? The 2006 U.S. Small Arms Study concluded that 89% of American soldiers are satisfied with reliability of the M4 and only 3% of soldiers reported a stoppage that took them out of a fight. Given that only 66% of surveyed personnel were issued cleaning kits and clearing stoppages quickly is a function of training, M4 reliability for trained personnel is incredibly high.
Ergonomics and modularity are the final point of comparison because in close quarters and on a modern battlefield, shooting quickly, reloading rapidly, and being able to use optics and lasers creates advantages. The M4 is hands down the most ergonomically sound battle rifle ever made and its superiority with respect to accessory attachment and manipulations is so much better than an AK-47 as to be beyond further discussion.
The M4A1 the most accurate and reliable modern rifle ever fielded to the military; it is a performance tool for professionals.
The AK-47 is the most iconic infantry fighting rifle ever produced. Millions have been produced, and AK-series weapons have been present in conflicts on every continent since the rifle was introduced in 1947. The AK-47 has a legendary reputation for reliability and durability due to several factors. First, the AK uses a gas piston system as its operating mechanism, which eliminates leftover gases from entering the chamber. On most AR-style rifles, such the M16 and M4, a direct gas system cycles the bolt carrier group. Excess gases can build up over time, fouling the chamber and inducing malfunctions.
The AK-47's bolt has plenty of mass, with more than enough energy to push through any debris or dirt inside the gun without jamming. The loose tolerances of all the AK-47''s moving parts allow space for sand, ice, mud, and other junk to settle without freezing the operating mechanism of the firearm. The design ensures that the AK-47 needs less preventive maintenance than an M16 or M4.
Not that maintaining the AK is really that difficult. Pop off the receiver cover, pull out the six basic components of the operating system, and the AK-47 is field stripped.
Variants of the AK-47 differ in construction and configuration, but most stick to the design of the most common version, the AKM. The stamped steel receiver is durable, as are the standard sheet-metal magazines. The standard general-issue magazine for the M16 is generally regarded as a disposable item, and its feed lips can bend easily if dropped.
The ubiquity of the AK platform worldwide means than ammunition and spare parts will never be hard to come by. If it really can't be fixed, well there's a hundred million replacements available. The AK's elegant simplicity demonstrates why it has endured for over a half century.