Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Comparison of the AK-47 and the M16




Comparison of the AK-47 and M16

Weapon AK-47 M16
Manufacturer IZhMASh Colt Firearms
Design year 1947 1957
Weight 4.3 kg (9.5 lb) 3.6 kg (7.8 lb)
Length 87 cm (2 ft, 10 in) 100 cm (3 ft, 3 in)
Caliber 7.62 x 39 mm 5.56 x 45 mm
Rate of fire 600 round/min 750 to 900 round/min, cyclic
Effective range 300 m (328 yd) 550 m (600 yd)

The two most common assault rifles in the world are the Colt AR-15 (designated the M16 by the United States military) and its variants, and the Avtomat Kalashnikova Model 1947 (AK-47). These two have been compared since the late 1960s as rival models, and so have spawned controversy and comparison.



Influence of World War II

WW2 combat experiences indicated that in the future, the combatant with higher firepower and mobility would be in a better position to successfully attain his goals, which was a shift from the previous doctrine of static wars that favored the defender. Bolt action rifles and revolvers would become obsolete in the face of semiautomatic and fully automatic weapons, and machineguns would become lighter and more mobile. In particular, the German MP40 submachinegun, the Russian SVT-40 self-loading rifle and the German Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle would revolutionize future infantry weapon designs. Both the USA and the USSR realized the need to adapt their current weaponry to the newly adopted doctrines and tactics, and they took different approaches to the same problem, which resulted in the eventual adoption by both sides of the assault rifle concept.


The AK-47 design work was completed shortly after World War II, as can be seen by the origin of its model number (47 representing the year in which its design was adopted and given its current designation) and was in service in the Soviet army from the early 1950s, the beginning of the Cold War period. The design was influenced by contemporary and previous weapons like the FG-42, the MP-44 (later renamed Stgw-44) and early Russian attempts to build a lighter, automatic rifle based around the Japanese 6.5 mm Arisaka round, such as the AVS-36 Simonov and the early 1916 Avtomat by Fedorov. The AK-47 was adopted as the standard issue infantry weapon of the Soviet army due to its firepower, ease of use, low production costs, and reliability, which fit the Soviet doctrine of Operational Art as well as being suited for the new mobile warfare doctrines. The AK-47 was widely supplied or sold to nations allied with the USSR and the blueprints were shared with several friendly nations (the People's Republic of China standing out among these).

After the end of World War II, the United States started looking for a replacement for the M1 Garand, and Thompson submachineguns in the different branches of its armed forces. Early experiments with selective fire versions of both the M1 Carbine and the Garand proved disappointing. The .30-06 round was too uncontrollable in full auto and couldn't be carried in sufficient quantities to support the rate of fire, and fighting in Korea showed that the .30 Carbine was underpowered. American weapons designers reached the same logical conclusion as the Germans and Russians: an intermediate round was necessary. However, American high command insisted that the emphasis be placed on powerful and accurate rounds and thus the .308 Winchester was formally adopted as 7.62x51 NATO. It was around this caliber that the T44E (Derived from the T37, which was in turn a development of the M1 Garand), later adopted as M14 in 1957, was developed. The first confrontation between the AK-47 and the M14 came in the early part of the Vietnam War. Reports from the field that the rifle had too much recoil for automatic fire convinced the Army to adopt a new rifle with lighter, weaker ammunition. This lighter round (5.56 x 45 mm) had equal muzzle energy to that of the AK-47 round (7.62 x 39 mm), and was the product of lethality studies performed on goats in the late 1950s and early 1960s that showed smaller projectiles at higher velocities were more efficient at creating casualties. It should be noted that the designer of the AR-15/M-16, Eugene Stoner, got very little positive feedback from the Army about his design. It was only after the USAF adopted the AR-15 that the Army became interested in the design. This eventually lead to the adoption of the AR-15 as the M16 in 1967.

Conceptual differences


The AK-47 was designed to use the production methods that were state of the art in the Soviet Union in the late '40s. This implied that it more or less used the same methods of construction as used for the PPSh-41 and the PPS-43. A common mistake is the claim that the AK-47 was derived from the German Sturmgewehr-44, which it was actually not (however the Sturmhewehr-44 had some good ideas which contributed somewhat to the design). The design of an automatic rifle was in the works in Russia, before World War II even began. The Avtomat Kalashnikov barrel, bolt and receiver was also milled out of a block of steel (which shortly after was changed to metal stampings), adding to its durability but also the weight of the rifle. In order to be able to use a steel grade that was easy to machine, the barrel and bore were hard chromed. The stock was simply made out of wood, which was a non-strategic material. This perfectly fit into the Soviet manufacturing philosophy, where large plants using much untrained labor could manufacture basic weapons cheaply and in very large quantities.

Another feature that is typical of Soviet designed assault rifles is the capability of the AK-47 to keep working no matter how dirty it gets. This can be attributed to the bad experience the Soviet Union had during the early stages of WW2, where it lacked proper ammunition production facilities. Thus, until 1943, the Soviet Union was reduced to using some very poor powders in its ammunition that left much residue in the guns using it. The Soviets also had learned early on that during a major conflict there is little time to train soldiers to keep their weapons clean.

Vietnam war veteran David H. Hackworth recalled: "One of the bulldozers uncovered the decomposing body of an enemy soldier, complete with AK47. I happened to be standing right there, looking down into the hole and pulled the AK out of the bog. "Watch this, guys," I said, "and I'll show you how a real infantry weapon works." I pulled the bolt back and fired 30 rounds - the AK could have been cleaned that day rather than buried in glug for a year or so. That was the kind of weapon our soldiers needed, not the confidence-sapping M-16."

Over time, the AK-47 descendants have been simplified through the use of spot welding and by further reducing the number of machined parts. The Izhevsk factory that manufactures the AK-47 descendants like the AK-101 can manufacture around 8,000 units per night shift. (Or around 24,000 units per day.) Because of its design it is not possible to manufacture the AK-47 series efficiently in small micro plants, due to large amount of metal stamping equipment needed for mass production. However, the AK-47 has been copied and manufactured in small shops all around the world, at the expense of many more man hours per unit.


An early M16 rifle: note "duckbill" flash hider, triangular handguard, and the lack of forward assist, as well as the older-style rear sight assembly
An early M16 rifle: note "duckbill" flash hider, triangular handguard, and the lack of forward assist, as well as the older-style rear sight assembly
A Marine with an M16A4 (equipped with ITL MARS reflex sight and KAC RAS foregrip) in Fallujah, Iraq, December 2004
A Marine with an M16A4 (equipped with ITL MARS reflex sight and KAC RAS foregrip) in Fallujah, Iraq, December 2004

During the later '50s, when ArmaLite bought the blueprints of the M16, there had been many improvements in the field of machining equipment; the biggest being the introduction of numerical control machines. While aluminum is not as strong as steel, it is lighter and easier to machine.

The objective was to design a new assault rifle that was easy to carry and manufacture in early automated plants using numerical control machining. It was to use a smaller caliber bullet to allow the soldier to carry more ammunition, which increased his firepower while also enabling him to obtain a higher hit probability. The M-16 would achieve all these objectives by using all the latest technologies of its day.

Like the AK-47, the M16 concentrated on full automatic firepower rather than on semi-automatic accuracy. But unlike the AK-47, the M16's 5.56 mm M193 bullet was likely to fragment on impact, such as a hollow point round does, and thus create wounds that were out of proportion for its caliber (the AK round usually only fragments after hitting bone).

Unlike all the other gas operated modern assault rifles, the M16 does not have a separate piston. Rather, it deflects the gases into a small chamber inside the bolt assembly where the rotating bolt acts similar to a piston. This system works well provided that modern clean burning powders are being used in the ammunition. The primary advantage of this system is that it enhances the accuracy of the rifle when fired in full automatic mode. It also reduces the recoil to a very low level. The main disadvantage is that this system will allow carbon to accumulate inside the receiver, which mandates cleaning after each use. One early major improvement was to also hard chrome the barrel and chamber, which reduced spent case ejection problems that were plaguing the very first M16s. Over time, however, many small changes have improved the reliability of the M16. The reliability issues with the M16E1 were worked out later in the Vietnam conflict by re-introducing stick powder into the ammunition, as opposed to ball powder which would swell the cartridge casing and cause jamming. The forward-assist was also added to the M16, in the situation where the bullet gets stuck between the magazine and the barrel in a diagonal position, known as "FTF," or "Failure to feed.". Post-Vietnam the military began tweaking the rifle to perform at its peak without putting in danger the lives of the soldier. The M16A2 now carried a heavier steel milled barrel and a tighter rifle twist (1:7) to allow the use of a heavier projectile, as the new ammunition would now include the modern SS109 62 grain projectile from Belgium. Full-Automatic fire was also taken out of the weapon and 3-round burst was implemented into the weapons system instead. Modern day variants of the M16 are the M16A3 and M16A4 rifles, which now are built with MIL-STD-1913 rails which allow soldiers to easily attach scopes, red dots, and carrying handles. They also accompany a rail system as the fore-grip which is produced by Knights Armament Company. The weapons are now capable of being customized to each soldiers preference, making it a Modular Weapons System.

With the evolution of modern CNC machinery, the M16 can now be manufactured in micro plants. In the US, a number of manufacturers make modern M16 variants and many are indeed micro plant manufacturers. This is possible because of the high degree of automation that can be applied to the machining of the M16 receiver and upper, which are made out of aluminum.

The M16 appeared much later than the AK-47 and thus provided a platform that offered much more development potential than the AK series. Unlike the AK-47, the M16 continues to benefit from every advance in the CNC field, which allows more and more small manufacturers to make M16s and AR-15 rifles. While the M16 is made using aluminum and plastics, it can also be made entirely out of machined steel and wood, at the expense of adding some weight. Where the AK-47 relies on huge Soviet-style, state-run factories, the M16 is ideal for free economy production, spread among many manufacturers around the country, which ensures that it would be very hard for anyone to disrupt US M16 production in the case of a major conflict.

Comparison of characteristics

Weight and size

 M16A1 (top) and AKMS (bottom)
M16A1 (top) and AKMS (bottom)

The weight of the AK-47 is 4.3 kg (9.5 lb) without the magazine and is 87 cm (2'10") in length, although the general shape of the rifle and size of the magazine make it uncomfortable to fire in the prone position. The M16A1 model of the Vietnam era weighs 3.6 kg (7.8 lb aprox) with the 30 round magazine and has a length of 100 cm (3'3"). The M16's lighter weight made it easier to carry and to aim quickly (being easier to swing). The later models of the M16 weighed more than the original with the addition of heavier (and more accurate) barrels and more rugged components. The M16A2, for example, weighs 3.99 kg (8.79 lb) loaded. The M16's ergonomics were often considered less comfortable than the AK-47's. However, the AK-47's shorter length may have aided in close quarters combat. In addition, the design of the M16's magazine allows for less comfortable and stable firing from the prone position.


The AK-47 was designed to use the 7.62x39 mm Russian cartridge, whereas the M16 was designed for the 5.56x45 mm NATO. This smaller, faster, NATO cartridge should not be confused with the full power 7.62x51 mm NATO round, which was used in other battle rifles of the 1960s and 1970s, and is still used in medium machine guns. In metric caliber designations, these numerals refer to cartridge dimensions. The initial set of numbers refer to the diameter of the actual projectile in millimeters, while the subsequent set of numbers refer to the cartridge case's length.

A quick comparison between cartridges reveals that the faster American cartridge has a significant edge in long range performance and the Russian cartridge with a heavier projectile having better terminal performance due to its larger calibre.

The original ammunition for the M16 was M193 ball, a 55 grain (3.6 g) projectile that exited the muzzle at 3,250 ft/s. It is often stated that this round "would tumble" upon striking a target. At ranges of up to 75 meters the lead cored round is traveling fast enough that the force of striking a body will cause the round to fragment along the cannelure (crimp where the bullet is clamped to the casing) into at least three pieces (front, back, and jacket).

During the 1970s and 1980s the quest for greater accuracy from light machine guns led to the adoption of a heavier, slower, hardened steel cored round, the M855. The heavier 62 grain (4.0 g) SS109 projectile used in the later generation of 5.56x45 cartridges (M855) sacrificed some initial speed (muzzle velocity) but increased the ability of the projectile to penetrate solid targets. However, as a result, a major grievance of American troops in Somalia in 1993 was that the M855 round would drill cleanly through a target without fragmenting.

The 7.62 x 39 mm round weighs in at 122 grains (7.9 g) and on full auto unleashes an enormous amount of fire on opposing combatants. Its drawback is that with the relatively heavy projectile but only an intermediate case length and a consequent smaller relative capacity for the powder charge. Consequently, the ability to hit a target suffers considerably beyond 500 yards because the slower moving bullet flies on a wide looping trajectory.

Firing mode

The AK-47 and M16A1 both have a switch allowing the operator to select semi-automatic or fully automatic mode. The M16A1's selector is a small switch located on the left side of the lower receiver, within reach of the thumb of a right-handed user. The first position is safe, followed by semi-auto, and full-auto. The AK-47's is located on the right side, a large lever pushed up or down. The top-most position was safe, the middle was full-auto, and the bottom semi-auto. The M16's selector can be manipulated with the thumb while firmly holding the pistol grip and forearm. Beginning with the M16A2 model, the ability to select fully automatic fire was replaced by a three-round burst mode to aid in efficiency and accuracy. Some of the later derivatives of M16, such as the M16A3 and the M4A1 have the fully automatic firing mode.


The AK-47 has always enjoyed a reputation of reliability. It is gas operated, using the gas from the barrel to push a piston attached to the the bolt carrier, operating the action. The gas tube is fairly large and is visible above the barrel. The AK-47 is often built with generous tolerances, allowing it to function easily in a dirty environment.

The M16, though, had reliability issues in its initial deployment. The direct impingement gas system used by the M16 is similar to normal gas operation but with a few differences. Gas from the barrel is used to cycle the action but lacks the piston, so the gas alone impinges upon the bolt carrier. But the design allows residue to be blown into the receiver as well as quickly accumulating carbon buildup within the gas port channel, comparatively, direct impingement systems will require more frequent cleaning than gas piston systems. The original M16 of the Vietnam era fared poorly in the humid, dirty environment of the Vietnamese jungle. The problems became the target of a Congressional investigation. The results of the investigation found that:

  1. The M16 was billed as self cleaning when it was in fact not.
  2. The lack of a chrome liner for the barrel and chamber created a corrosion problem and contributed to brass case swelling and extraction problems.
  3. The rifle was issued to troops without cleaning kits or instruction on how to clean the rifle.
  4. The rifle was tested and approved with the use of a Dupont IMR powder that was switched to a ball powder that increased both wear and fouling.
  5. Lack of a forward assist rendered the rifle inoperable in combat when it jammed.

When these issues were addressed the reliability issues ceased with the M16 in Vietnam service. Now a custom made Ar-15(almost the same gun, if not actually worse, than the m16) can handle 1100 rounds of straight fire jamming only once or twice. The M16 is an extremly reliable rifle if cleaned and lubricated often, and many of the jamming problems have been solved thanks to the correct distribution of cleaning kits in the armed forces.


The AK47 is generally considered a less accurate rifle, as the loose clearances that increase reliability and decrease manufacturing costs have an impact on accuracy. The relatively heavier recoil of the 7.62x39 cartridge can also be detrimental, not least because operator discomfort with the perceived recoil can require more skill and training to shoot accurately. Even with the lighter recoil and higher velocity of the .223 Remington round, the original M16 and M16A1 did not offer the accuracy that has been achieved with the later M16A2 using the SS109 bullet in semi-automatic mode. The M16 came from the factory shooting with an MOA of 3-4 MOA and under which allowed it to reliably hit targets up to 500 yards.

The "ghost ring" or aperture sights of the later M16A2 are superior to those used on most earlier assault rifles. Using an aperture rear sight, a small hole to center the front blade in, the human eye automatically centers the front sight post, making aiming faster and more consistent. The M16A2's rear sight features two aperture settings. The larger aperture enables faster sighting in poor lighting conditions. The smaller aperture permits more precise aiming for long-distance targets. The AK-47's sights are of a more traditional "open" style. The rear sight is a simple U- or V-shaped notch in which the front post is to be centered. This requires more concentration to use, as both the front and rear sight must be kept in alignment, and must be placed further away from the eye, or the same 'blurring effect' of the aperture sights will hinder performance.

Different Philosophies

The M16 and the AK-47 are designed with different beliefs in mind. Their design, capabilities, and role on the battlefield were reflections of the different experience and doctrine of the United States and the Soviet Union.

The AK-47 was the result of Soviet combat experience during World War II. Studies of battlefield reports showed that most combat occurred within 300 meters, and the winner was usually the side with the most firepower. The bolt-action weapons used on the eastern front were not designed for this kind of combat. The AK-47 was the answer to these reports. It would give the average soldier a high rate of fire, increasing a squad’s firepower tremendously. The AK-47 was never meant to be an accurate rifle beyond 600 meters since in mobile warfare, distances were covered rather quickly. It also had the advantage of not needing particularly experienced soldiers to be effective - the gun required very little maintenance, and accuracy wasn’t very important which was ideal for the large conscript-based Soviet army. Weight wasn't important either because Soviet doctrine placed an emphasis on the use of armored spearheads in an attack, followed closely by troop transports like the BTR-70 (which later culminated in the IFV concept, see M2 Bradley, BMP-2).

The M16, on the other hand, was influenced by the U.S. Army's preference for an accurate semi-automatic weapon. Although the U.S. Army’s studies into World War Two combat accounts came up with very similar results to that of the Soviets', the Army maintained its traditional views and preferred highly accurate weapons. This culminated in the M14. Combat experience in Vietnam showed that this traditional philosophy was anachronistic. A replacement was needed, in the middle between the traditional philosophy of highly accurate semi-automatic rifles, and that of the automatic AK-47. Lighter weight, accuracy and ergonomics were the priority for the American armed forces, and aviation materials were used in its construction, which resulted in higher costs per unit and an overall lower reliability when compared to the simple steel construction of the AK-47. Because American patrols in the thick Vietnamese jungle during the Vietnam War were restricted to foot and later on, helicopter movement, weight was a very important consideration.



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