With it being in service with the Russian army now for almost 60 years, one wonders how long the Kalashnikov will remain standard issue. When will the Russian army finally replace the AK74M with a truly modern design?
The answer to that question is actually pretty simple: It already has. Type-classified by the Russians as the Avtomat Nikonova 94 (AN94), it has been in service for some time now. A radical departure from the Great
Patriotic War-vintage Kalashnikov, it is a much more modern and interesting design. Developed by a design team led by Gennadiy Nikonov (1950 — 2003), the rifle named for him is in many ways a revolutionary step forward in Russian small arms.
What makes it unique? Part of it has to due with how it's made and what it's made out of. But mostly it has to due with the design being intended to cancel out felt recoil. The result is an increased hit probability.
So how did it originate? Well, apparently the Soviets were not entirely satisfied with the performance of the 5.45x39mm AK74. Realizing that the AK74M represented the zenith of the Kalashnikov design, the Soviets opened a competition for its replacement. This was code named "Abakan," and it began some time in the late 1970s. The primary requirement of the new rifle was for it to have a hit ratio 1½ to two times greater than the AK74. In addition, it needed to have reduced recoil and increased reliability. Considering that the AK74 is extremely reliable and very controllable with light recoil, it was a tall order. However, that didn't prevent at least eight different design teams, including one led by Mikhail Kalashnikov's son, Victor, from submitting rifles.
After lengthy and exhaustive trials, a rifle designed by Gennadiy Nikonov was selected. It was subsequently adopted as the AN94 and placed into limited production in 1998. However, reportedly due to the poor Russian economy, it has only been built in limited quantities for issue to selected Spetsnaz units.
Regarding its method of operation, the AN94 is indeed unique. Nikonov's system is both recoil- and gas-operated. The Russians refer to it as "Blow Back Shifted Pulse." To increase hit probability, the rifle has three modes: semiautomatic, two-round burst and automatic. When the two-shot burst mode is selected, it fires at a cyclic rate of approximately 1,800 rpm. It is claimed that both shots are fired before the recoil impulse reaches the shooter. When fired on auto, the first two rounds are fired at a cyclic rate of 1,800 rpm, that drops down to 600 rpm. Six-hundred rpm is considered the ideal rate of fire by the Russians for a rifle of this weight chambered for the 5.45x39mm M74 cartridge.
The AN94 operating system is very complex and makes for boring reading for anyone except an engineer or intelligence analyst, so I will only cover the basics: When the first round is fired, the entire barreled receiver assembly begins to recoil rearward. As the bullet passes the barrel's gas port, a small amount of gas is tapped off. This forces the bolt carrier to the rear within the already rearward-moving barreled receiver. The bolt unlocks and the empty is ejected, while simultaneously a round is stripped from the magazine and placed in a feed tray by a cable-and-pulley system. When the bolt reaches the end of its rearward travel, it returns forward, chambers and fires the second round. Meanwhile, the barreled receiver assembly is still moving to the rear.
The Russians claim these two rounds are gone before the recoil impulse ever reaches the shooter. On auto, the mechanism then kicks down to cycle at 600 rpm. Releasing the trigger resets the mechanism to fire the first two rounds at 1,800 rpm.
The mechanism is housed inside an upper and lower receiver assembly. These are produced from a modern fiberglass-reinforced polyamide. A side-folding stock, which folds to the right side of the receiver, is fitted. Overall length is 37.1 inches, and with the stock folded this drops to 28.6 inches. Caliber is the Russian standard 5.45x39mm M74 cartridge. Feed is from standard 30- and 45-round AK74 magazines. However, due to the design of the action, the magazine sits at a slight, but noticeable, angle to the right.
Mated to the receiver is a 15.9-inch-long cold hammer-forged barrel that's chrome-lined for durability. Fitted to this is an easily detached muzzle device. An asymmetrical design, it features two chambers with a
port on opposite sides at the muzzle. In addition, there is one strategically placed vent hole on the upper right of the first chamber. Allegedly, this acts as a sonic whistle to alter a portion of the rifle's report into an ultra-sonic pitch the human ear cannot detect. The unit removes easily by simply depressing a lever and turning it 90 degrees.
The protected rear sight is a simple but effective asterisk-shaped diopter. It has a 200-meter battle sight and settings from 400 to 700 meters in 100-meter increments. To aid engaging targets in low-light situations, the 200-meter sight has two holes to accept a tritium insert. The front sight is a protected post, adjustable for windage and elevation. This is also designed to accept a tritium insert.
To facilitate mounting day/night optics, the rifle is fitted with a scope rail on the left side of the receiver. As the stock folds to the right side of the receiver, it doesn't interfere with a mounted optic, unlike an AK74M. A sectioned cleaning rod is stored in the stock to facilitate routine maintenance. Sling swivels are located on the left side of the rifle, with two at the rear.
Unloaded weight is 8.8 pounds, while adding a loaded 30-round magazine increases it to almost 9½ pounds. In comparison, a loaded AK74M weighs 7.9 pounds.
The Nikonov's controls are a bit different than the Kalashnikov it was intended to replace. The reciprocating bolt handle is located in the same manner, on the right side of the receiver. The Nikonov uses a similar magazine release as well. The safety and selector lever, on the other hand, are separate and different. A crossbolt safety is located above the magazine release. Well placed, it can be easily manipulated by the trigger finger. A separate lever, located at the left rear of the receiver, acts as a selector. Forward is semiautomatic, the middle position is two-round burst, and to the rear is for automatic fire.
It sounds like an interesting design, but how does it actually perform? Very little is really known about this seldom-seen design from an American shooter's perspective. To find out more, I traveled to the birthplace of the AK. Izhmash OJSC is the Russian manufacturer of Kalashnikov rifles as well as the new AN94. Alexander G. Likhachev, the general director of Izhmash, was kind enough to give me permission to test-fire and photograph an example on the company's 100-meter test range. A short time later I met with a member of the Nikonov design team, who brought with him a 2000-dated AN94 serial-numbered 1990893. Handed a supply of loaded 30-round magazines, I proceeded to fire the Nikonov on semi, burst and auto from a variety of positions. While I was not allowed to test it extensively, I did have a chance to get a good feel for it. The following are my thoughts in comparison with the standard AK74M it was developed to replace:
Size and Handling
The AN94 Nikonov is larger and heavier than the AK74M. Due to its weight and balance, the AN94 feels somewhat sluggish. Balance-wise, it's light in the buttstock with its weight forward. With a loaded 30-round magazine locked into place, it feels more akin to a battle rifle than a modern assault rifle. Length of pull is on the short side — not a bad thing. As the AN94's stock folds to the right, it can be folded with an optic mounted, unlike an AK74M. Folding to the right also makes the rifle more comfortable to carry slung across your back. The stock folds and unfolds easily with the push of a button and locks securely into place. The pistol grip is straight out of the AK74M parts bin, so no change here. The fore-end of the AN94 is larger and more comfortable than the AK74M's. One odd point is that the AN94's magazine protrudes at an odd angle. While this didn't seem to noticeably affect the rifle's handling in an adverse way, it didn't help it either.
The AN94's diopter rear sight is simple, robust and provides a clean sight picture. Range adjustments are easily made by simply rotating the rear sight. Each leaf is prominently marked for quick verification under stress. When zeroing the rifle, all adjustments are made at the front sight, like an AK74M. In use, these sights provide a superior sight picture, especially in low light, compared with an AK74M for precision fire at distance.
The ability to mount optics is extremely important on a modern combat rifle. Like the AK74M, the AN94 features a universal side rail to facilitate the mounting of day/night optics. This allows a scope, red dot sight or night vision device to be easily installed or removed by simply sliding it onto the rail and locking it into place via a throw lever. In this regard, it is equal to the AK74M.
The controls on the AN94 are an improvement over the AK74M, but they still leave a lot to be desired. The reciprocating bolt handle is conventionally placed on the right side. The safety is a simple crossbolt at the front of the triggerguard and is easily manipulated from a firing grip with gloves. Simply push it to the left to make the rifle ready to fire. This is a vast improvement over the AK74M. The AN94's selector is a
separate lever on the left rear of the receiver. While this can be manipulated with the rifleman's right thumb from a firing grip, it's awkward. If the selector switch is in the rearward position (automatic fire), it's a simple matter to push it forward. However, if it is in the forward (semiauto) or the middle position (two-round burst), it's very awkward to thumb it to a rear position. The paddle-type magazine release is the same as that mounted on the AK74M. Magazines must be rocked in while angled to the right, and there is no bolt hold-open.
Basic cleaning gear is carried on the rifle. A two-piece cleaning rod is carried in a cutout in the bottom of the buttstock, and a cleaning kit resides in a trap in the butt. This is similar to the configuration on an AK74M.
As one would expect, a nine-pound 5.45x39mm is very easy to control on semiauto. Shot-to-shot recovery is very quick. The trigger on the test rifle was service grade, but perhaps not as good as a rack-grade AK74M. Ejection is vigorous, with the empties tossed in a high arc to 2 o'clock. Practical accuracy was good.
Thumb back the selector one notch to the two-shot burst mode, and things get interesting. At 1,800 rpm the report sounds like one shot, but two empties arc through the air. There is zero muzzle rise and no perceptible rearward push while firing. I did notice that the muzzle settled slightly to the left of my aiming point after firing. It did this consistently for me, and possibly it's related to my stance. In this mode the rifle feels like it's on semiauto, except it's putting two 52-grain FMJ-BTs on target instead of one. Some experts conjecture that this high rate of fire combined with a low dispersion may increase its likelihood of penetrating a body-armor hardplate.
Squeezing the trigger on auto sends the first two rounds downrange at 1,800 rpm. Then the gun continues to fire, but at only 600 rpm, until the trigger is released. Firing even 30-round bursts, the rifle remains very stable as empty cases tumble out of the ejection port. Controllability is excellent.
After firing 200 rounds through the AN94 Nikonov in all three modes, the handguard was only slightly warm to the touch.
There were no problems of any sort encountered during our very limited testing. The Russians claim the mean number of rounds between failures is 40,000, whereas the AK74M's is 30,000. There are those in the West who wonder about the durability of the metal cable and flywheel, the primary reservation being that the ingress of dirt will abrade individual strands. Over time, firing at 1,800 rpm will grind away the load-bearing material, leading to failure. However, this is conjecture on the part of Western engineers.
I was not allowed to see the rifle completely disassembled. I did see it field stripped into its major components. This is easily accomplished, and the rifle appears to be easy to maintain.
As much of the rifle exposed to the elements is polymer, finish wear and corrosion should be less of an issue than with an AK74M. Finish on the metal surfaces appears to be identical to that of the AK74M. Under hard use this enamel finish protects against corrosion, but only until it wears off.
The Russians list the effective range of the 7.62x39mm AKM at 400 meters and the 5.45x39mm AK74M at 500 meters. The AN94 increases this to 600 meters. This shows a claimed increase of effective range of 100 meters over that of the AK-74M.
In conclusion, the AN94 Nikonov is an innovative combat rifle. Mechanically, it's very interesting, though complex. As to human engineering, it is very much a 1980s Russian design. In this regard it is a generation behind FN SCAR or Bushmaster ACR. It is known to have seen combat with Russian Spetsnaz units in Chechnya, but how popular it is with the troops remains unknown. What the future holds for the AN94 Nikonov remains to be seen. Russian troops undoubtedly will continue to carry their AK74Ms well into the future.