So why did an AK-47 finally make it to Gun of the Week status over at Blue Book Publications after all these years? There are a few reasons. The first is because the AK-47 and variations have affected our post-WWII civilization more than any other single artifact.
The second reason is its internationally recognized iconic profile with high-cap curved magazine and gas tube over the barrel makes it the most recognizable and loved/hated gun in the world. It's like a weapon of mass destruction, only in slow motion, and that's why it has justifiably picked up such nicknames as "the Grim Reaper" and "the Serial Killer."
The third reason is because next to AR-15s, AK-47s remain one of the hottest selling imported semi-auto carbine/rifles since Obama was elected (and re-elected).
If John M. Browning was alive today and could only spend a couple of minutes inspecting an AK-47 compared to its American counterpart, the AR-15, there is no doubt in this writer's mind that he would choose the AK-47. With Mikhail Kalashnikov's rifle design, it emulates the simplicity and reliability of Browning's M1911 semi-auto pistol design.
This configuration's popularity, made famous in Eastern Europe after WWII, was followed in Asia as the Cold War warmed up, and it remains the weapon of choice in many countries today for both military/LE forces, as well as insurgents and rebels. Ever seen a Middle East terrorist holding up an AR-15 in defiance? So how can the AK-47 — short for Automatic Kalashnikov carbine/rifle introduced in 1947 — that has been mass-produced by the millions in over 20 countries by multitude of military arsenals become collectible in America?
While imported in very limited quantities before 1965, most U.S. military collectors were not that enamored with the clumsy looking AK-47 with mediocre build quality and an noisy outside control lever for safe, semi-auto — similar to a Remington Model 8 — and full-auto modes on select fire models. That all changed with America's involvement in the Vietnam War circa 1962-1975. The U.S. Army, supplied with the new Colt M16s — select fire, gas operated in 5.56 NATO — were experiencing quite a few problems from the fouling that resulted from the non-chrome lined barrels and the dirty burning powder of the ordnance-supplied 5.56 NATO ammunition.
It didn't take long to figure out that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, armed with select fire AK-47s, had a better infantry weapon because of how it performed in a wide variety of combat conditions compared to the problematic M16s. With a simple but robust design, reliable and effective firepower, as well as ease of maintenance in the field, the AK-47 proved to be a fierce adversary during the thousands of firefights in Vietnam. Even though use of enemy weapons was strictly prohibited by the Army, some U.S. special services forces were authorized to use enemy equipment, including AK-47s, in the field. The problem was the telltale sound of the AK-47s 600-round cyclic rate would usually draw fire from U.S. troops in the area, regardless if an American was firing it.
While it might have lacked the power and accuracy of the M16, it more than made up for these shortcomings in its ease of use, cost, reliability and readily available parts. After the Vietnam War ended, most Americans knew what an AK-47 was, and a small but emerging AK-47 marketplace predicated on inexpensive pricing ($200-$250) began flourishing. Most of the new demand was for its reliable shooting value, as almost nobody was using this "assault rifles" as a sporting weapon, let alone taking one out into the north woods in an attempt to gun down Bambi.
The updated AKM, released in 1959, featured a stamped receiver and slanted muzzle brake. It was also approximately 33-percent lighter than the older AK-47. Today, there are far more model AKMs in America than the older semi-auto AK-47s.
Today's AK-47 marketplace is a lot more complicated when considering how many military arsenals manufactured them, including Russia, China, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and even Egypt. In addition to these original carbines, there are also arsenal reworks, non-original parts guns assembled from a variety of arsenals, upgrades, and a variety of alterations. Almost anything is possible when looking at an AK style carbine/rifle these days — caveat emptor!
I've always said that gun collecting became more difficult after Eli Whitney developed interchangeable parts for firearms manufacturing, and no gun configuration proves this opinion better than the AK-47. One thing is for sure: Early Russian-made semi-auto AK-47s with milled receivers in over 98-percent original condition are getting harder to find every year. This area of gun collecting requires a lot more knowledge and education than it used to. Up until circa 1989, nobody altered or tried to put together a parts AK-47, since at the time, the asking price was so low it didn't make any difference where it was made or what configuration it was.
During 1988-1989, Poly Technologies from China made the Rolls Royce of AK-47s, the AKS-762. These carbines were hand-crafted to Chinese military specifications and easily had the best quality of any AK-47 made before or since. Receivers were milled out of blocks of high ordnance steel using modern CNC machinery which guaranteed ultra-precise tolerances on all the components. All parts were then carefully polished before the high luster bluing was applied. The wooden furniture was nicely finished blonde hard wood, and metal side-folding and under-folding stocks were also available. These Poly Tech AK-47s were expensive at the time — $550 MSR compared to the typical $275-$295 for a good used one manufactured in Eastern Europe.
Even so, sales were encouraging until they were banned in 1989 by the Bush ban following the mass murder in Stockton, Calif., where the gunman used an AK-47 to kill all six of his victims, in addition to injuring 29. As a result, Poly Tech AK-47s and variations were only imported for two years, and these models in mint original condition are getting harder to find and more expensive every year.
Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to shoot both the semi-auto and full-auto versions of the AK-47. Compared to the other machine guns brought to the range that day, the AK-47 chugged away methodically with its distinctive cadence due to the relatively low cyclic rate (approx. 600 rounds per minute). Compared to the much faster cycling rate of the M16 (up to 900 rounds/minute) and ultra-fast rapid fire of a MAC-10 or MP5, it was a pleasant surprise not having a 30-shot mag. go empty within a second or two. Five or six individual bursts were actually possible, and firing it was very controllable. The AK-47's slower but effective rate of fire actually translates into fewer rounds of ammunition that need to be carried by the experienced user (good or bad) since it isn't an ammo hog in full-auto mode. It also never jammed or had a malfunction of any type, which is more than could be said for most of the other full-auto ordnance, after it was "warmed up."
So what's this Chinese Poly Tech AKS-762 worth in today's marketplace? More than you think, especially after the recent Newtown tragedy, which has been responsible for spiking the values of both AR-15s and AK-47s. This particular carbine is in As New condition, and still has the original box with serial number on the outside that matches the gun. Chances are you could have bought a gun like this in the late 1980s for around $500. Now it's going to cost you approximately $1,650, and if it has the very desirable side-folding or under-folding stock, add about another $200!
During the same time period, a new Colt AR-15 (R6550) had an MSR of $860, but was actually selling for around $1,000 due to the Bush Bill that had recently passed. Now the Colt Model R6550 is selling for approximately $2,600. While the Colt AR-15 has gone up 160 percent, this Poly Tech AKS-762 has gone up 230 percent. The Poly Tech AK-47 Legend has performed even better — with a $500 100-percent price in 1989, it's now worth $2,300, an increase of 360 percent, and with a folding stock, this variation has gone up a whopping 560 percent!
As a comparison, the average price of an ounce of gold in 1989 was $381 — now it's currently at approximately $1,650, an increase of over 325 percent. Moral to this story? Simple — some Poly Tech AK-47 variations have turned out to be better investments than almost any other firearm, and they have even out performed gold during this time period!
One thing is for sure: If anybody would have told me back then that I'd be writing about the old world quality of Chinese-made AK-47s and how well they've performed as investments 25 years later, I would have bet a lot of my Brownings and Winchesters against it!
Images and some information courtesy of Rock Island Auctions, Automat Kalishnikova by the Kalashnikov Foundation, and AK-47: The Grim Reaper by Frank Iannamico. For more from S.P. Fjestad, check out his blog at BlueBookOfGunValues.com.