Kalashnikov. It’s not just a name, nor just a rifle. Rather, it has come to symbolize monotonous reliability no matter the conditions or abuse. Since its introduction almost six decades ago, Mikhail’s Avtomat has been continually refined and improved. While the rifle has changed dramatically from the original 7.62x39mm M43 milled-receiver AK-47 to the current 5.45x39mm AK-74M, one facet of its character has always remained unchanged–its simplistic reliability.
Anyone who has followed my writing for any length of time knows I like Kalashnikovs. I respect the way they always work, no matter what. I admire their simplicity and user-friendliness. I like how they carry, how easy they are to operate in extreme-cold conditions and their short-range effectiveness. It’s truly one of the great designs to emerge from the ashes of the Second World War.
That said, this is the 21st century, and an AKM looks awfully outdated today. The main drawbacks to the design are the difficulty in mounting optics, the poor placement of the selector lever, the sights, difficulty in mounting modern accessories developed since the rifle was designed and mediocre accuracy. While I like the strong points of the Kalashnikov, Stoner’s AR seems like a much more user-friendly design.
Or is that simply because an American designer has yet to sit down and tinker with the Kalashnikov design? Actually, with the Kalash’s growing popularity here in the United States there are numerous ‘smiths building these rifles. For the past few months, I’ve been testing, hammering and generally abusing the product of one such individual, Marc Krebs of Krebs Custom Inc.
Designated the KTR-03S (Krebs Tactical Rifle-2003 Saiga), it’s the result of years of work and refinement. Designed to build on the inherent strengths of the basic Kalashnikov design, it refines it by enhancing its user-friendliness. The foundation of the rifle is a current-production 7.62x39mm Saiga built in Izhevsk, Russia, by IZHMASH. This is stripped and rebuilt into the configuration you see here.
To enhance accuracy, the barrel is semi-freefloated. While an AKM/AK-74M has a front-sight assembly, gas block, handguard and cleaning rod hanging off the barrel, disturbing the harmonics, all of this is gone. In its place is a front-sight/gas-block assembly machined from prehardened 4130 steel. Attached to this is a MIL STD 1913 rail system made to government specifications from 7075 aluminum and then hardcoat anodized. This facilitates the mounting of accessories to suit an individual’s specific needs. The muzzle sports a proprietary muzzlebrake, which increases controllability without the AK-74 muzzlebrake’s “flamethrower” effect.
The traditional rear-sight block is also gone. The gas tube is now some 9.25 inches long and permanently fixed in place. Taking the place of the traditional U-notch tangent rear sight is a dual-position aperture at the rear of the topcover. The flip sight itself is from an AR-15 and adjustable for windage. Protected by rugged ears, its base includes a MIL STD 1913 rail for mounting optics. To ensure the rear sight returns to zero after the topcover is removed, the front of the rail sandwiches the gas tube. In addition, a wedge system in the recoil-spring guide pulls the topcover down tight. The front sight is a standard AR post adjustable for elevation and mounted on the gas block.
One of the main complaints against the basic Kalashnikov design is the selector lever. Krebs added a Galil-style thumb safety to the left side of the receiver. In addition, the hammer, sear and disconnector are polished for an improved trigger pull. Plus, there are a number of other things not readily noticeable (gas-tube design, gas-piston fit, etc.) designed to enhance accuracy.
To put it to the test, I gathered up some accessories and ammunition and have been flogging the KTR-03S for a couple of months now. For KTR-specific accessories, Krebs sent a sling-attachment point, which locks onto a MIL STD 1913 rail. I also received an innovative vertical grip. The problem with running a traditional vertical grip on an AK is, unless you mount it way forward, the magazine is liable to hit it during a reload. Krebs got around this problem simply by attaching the vertical grip to the 9 o’clock (rather than 6 o’clock) rail and putting it at a slight angle. This allows a magazine to easily clear it, even during speed reloads.
The vertical grip is also designed to allow access to a SureFire combat light. I mounted an M3 Millennium in a one-inch LaRue QD ring in front of the grip. This allowed me to readily activate the light with my thumb. At the same time, a quick throw of the lever allowed the light to be removed for handheld use. Next I mounted an inexpensive laser from Centerfire Systems to the rail and ran the pressure switch back to the vertical grip. Plus I mounted a Best Made Designs AK tactical sling.
As the front sight is a standard AR unit, I swapped in a tritium sight from Meprolite. For optics, I used an Aimpoint Comp ML, EOTech HWS and a Trijicon ACOG during testing. The Aimpoint and ACOG were mounted in LaRue QD mounts so they could be quickly and easily swapped back and forth. For ammunition I used inexpensive Wolf Performance Ammunition’s 122-grain FMJs and 154-grain SPs, and 220-grain Engels Ballistic Research subsonics.
The results? What an animal! With 1,000 rounds through the gun in conditions of minus 20 degrees F, I’ve had zero problems and am very impressed. An overall length of only 34.25 inches makes it short, quick-handling and easy to maneuver. With a weight of just over seven pounds, it’s light and handy, even with accessories mounted. Controllability is excellent, and the vertical grip is a long-ball home run. The sight picture is a vast imp
rovement, and it is nice to finally be able to mount modern optics on a Kalashnikov.
Performance-wise, the 7.62x39mm cartridge has a lot going for it. A true intermediate assault-rifle cartridge, it relies on .310-diameter bullets rather than velocity to get the job done. While designed for 123-grain projectiles, it readily accepts bullets up to 155 grains. When loaded with modern expanding bullets (such as from Lapua, Hornady or Winchester), its terminal performance is greatly enhanced. When used in conjunction with subsonic ammunition, the 7.62x39mm is easily suppressed. Yet it still remains surprisingly effective by throwing 220-grain slugs. Cost-wise, 1,000 rounds of 7.62x39mm are less expensive than 100 rounds of Remington 6.8×43.
Accuracy of the KTR-03S? A best of 1.5 inches and an average of 2.2 inches with the inexpensive 122-grain Wolf load. Velocity averaged 2,296 fps at an ambient temperature of minus 3 degrees. I shot it out to 330 yards, and it easily nailed LaRue reduced-size silhouettes at this distance.
Final thoughts? This isn’t for the Kalashnikov collector who wants the correct vodka smell on the rivets of his perfect AKM clone. Rather, the KTR-03S is designed to be used and used hard. Soon it will be available with a Vltor stock and FN SAW pistolgrip as options. Base price is $999. If you’ve always admired the reliability of the Kalashnikov and the user-friendliness of the AR, now is the time to indulge.