I got a chance to shoot the AK-74 earlier than many Americans, excepting some who had been in Afghanistan or in intelligence agencies and special forces units.
I was in Brussels in 1991 to meet with members of the EEC (European Economic Community) protective teams and was asked if I wanted to meet a former member of the KGB Ninth Directorate who was there and had mentioned he’d like to meet me. Since the Ninth Directorate had provided bodyguards for high-ranking Soviet officials, I thought it would be an interesting meeting. At that time, the Soviet Union was a few months from dissolution and relations had thawed substantially.
I met the former KGB officer along with a mutual friend at Rick’s Café Américain—no, I’m not kidding, and “As Time Goes By” was not playing.
Rick’s was one of the few places in Belgium that served Mexican food, which wasn’t bad. I was flattered to learn that some protective teams in his Directorate had arranged to have American tactical magazines shipped back to the USSR in the diplomatic pouch, and he was familiar with some of my articles on close protection.
He asked some questions, I asked some questions, and we became friendly. He was working for a Russian arms dealer who was trying to sell military hardware in Europe and was based in Brussels. He asked me if I had shot the AK-74, and I said I had not. He had samples and lots of ammunition and agreed to meet me the next morning at an indoor range where I could try various weapons that he was selling.
As promised, he showed up with an AK-74, AK-74S, AK-74SU, and a couple cases of 5.45x39mm ammunition. Unfortunately, I could only shoot at 25 meters, but I did get a chance to really get acquainted with the AK-74s.
My favorite was the AK-74SU, but I shot at least 200 rounds each through the AK-74 and AK-74S as well. I was especially impressed with the controllability of full-auto fire with the 5.45x39mm round. The muzzle brake seemed to work well, and recoil was hardly noticeable. (I’ve seen reports that the free recoil energy of the 5.45x39mm round in the AK-74 is about half that delivered by the 7.62x39mm round in the AK-47.)
My wife, who had never fired a rifle, was along and was firing the AK-74 on full-auto and keeping her bursts on target at 10 meters.
I came away relatively impressed with the AK-74 but assumed I would never own one. But that turned out not to be the case, as right after the Clinton Ban sunset I had a semi-auto Bulgarian AK-74S built on a U.S. receiver. I’ve been shooting it ever since.
Unbeknownst to me when I was shooting the AK-74 in Brussels in 1991, an improved version of the AK-74, the AK-74M, was just entering service. When I was in Russia some years later, the unit I was working with carried the AK-74SU, so I didn’t really get a chance to shoot the AK-74M until later. But when I did, I felt it was a definite improvement. By the way, the “M” stands for Modernizirovanniy, which is Russian for modernized.
The best aspect of the AK-74M is the polymer stock. It is shaped like a fixed AK-74 stock but it folds to the side. The great advantage of this system is that it offers the advantage of a folding stock for easy transport but is as comfortable for shooting as a fixed stock. The original AK-74S had a skeleton side-folding stock that was still much better than the AK-47 with top-folding stock, but the AK-74M stock is even better.
Another positive feature of the AK- 74M is that it has a side rail for mounting optics. Some versions, usually those used by Spetsnaz units, have a top rail. Other improvements include a lightened bolt/carrier assembly and improved muzzle device/brake/hider.
The AK-74M has a smooth reinforced dust cover and guide rod retainer spring cover that allow the “GP” series of grenade launchers to be quickly mounted or dismounted.
Development has continued on the AK-74 design with the AK-100 series of rifles and the AK-12 series. But I am only concerned with the AK-74M in this column, as it is the current Russian service rifle.
One aspect of the AK-47 retained by the AK-74 is durability. It’s the same basic long-stroke piston action as the AK-47 that is famed for its ability to keep working despite harsh conditions.
During Russian Spetsnaz selection, candidates have a blank 5.45x39mm round in the magazine of their AK-74M rifles. After going through a rigorous obstacle course including lots of mud, each candidate has to rack the bolt of his rifle and fire the blank into the air to indicate his rifle is still serviceable. Candidates work hard to keep their rifle’s muzzle out of the mud and to keep mud out of the action, for if the blank doesn’t fire, he fails selection.
I once asked a Spetsnaz instructor how often they had a candidate fail, and he said virtually never. He told me that they protect their rifle, but it also takes a lot for it to malfunction.
The iron sights on the AK-74M are the same basic rear tangent and front post as on other AKs—usable but not precise. Optical sights may be mounted via the side rail. The standard sight for the AK-74M is the 2.8X17mm 1P78 Kashtan. To some extent, this optic is a Russian take on the ACOG, as it uses tritium and a chevron aiming point for shots from 0 to 400 meters. Other stacked chevrons are used out to 700 meters.
I originally became interested in the AK-74 because I thought I should be familiar with it in case I encountered it or needed to write about it. For those reasons, I’ve taken every chance I could since first handling and shooting the AK-74 in Brussels well over 20 years ago.
Likewise, I tried to keep up with its development by shooting the AK-74M, which I do think is an improvement on the original rifle. I wouldn’t feel poorly armed if I found myself needing a rifle and had an AK-74M, especially if it had the 1P78 Kashtan optic.
But given the choice, I would still choose an M4 for most purposes. If I found myself where 5.45x39mm ammo was plentiful and 5.56x45mm ammo was not, that would be another story!