Back in the late 1980s, an AK47 coming into the United States had been produced in the People's Republic of China. At that time, China had not achieved the prominence it has today as one of the world's major economic and manufacturing forces.
Among its more popular exports were semiauto versions of the AK47. They were inexpensive, worked well and were sold by the thousands. One of the makers was Poly Technologies, with an importer headquartered in the state of Georgia.
Because of the widespread acceptance of the company's products, the people at Poly Technologies felt it would be appropriate for a journalist to visit one of the company's factories and see just how the guns were turned out. As it so happened, I was chosen by the company's representatives because of my writings on various types of military firearms. Needless to say, the invitation was graciously accepted.
In 1987, Beijing looked nothing like it does today. In fact, automobiles were scarce and neon signs — or any kind of advertising, for that matter — nonexistent, and it was virtually impossible for a foreigner to travel without some sort of escort.
There was no air pollution, bicycles commanded the byways, and the city looked much as it did before World War II. It was a real step back in time. Mao's influence was still very much felt, and in many places I visited, I was something of a curiosity — the locals never having seen an "ocean man" before.
Let's step back to 1987 and see just how the early export AK47 was made.
At the time, China was beginning its somewhat guarded capitalistic efforts, and firearms played a large part in this endeavor. I dare say, if you'd told a GI in Vietnam in 1969 that, some 20 years later, one of the most popular firearms in the United States would be a semiauto version of the AK47 assault rifle, he would have been incredulous, to say the least.
At the time, the AK47 was not the only firearms coming into the United States. There was a dizzying variety of surplus arms, such as Mauser rifles, Mauser Broomhandle auto pistols — both German originals and Chinese-made copies — and various kinds of Browning and Colt copies. Early on, some American entrepreneurs managed to get hold of some very rare variants, but that didn't last for long, as the Chinese were quick learners.
The main purpose of my trip was to get a look at two of Poly Tech's latest products: a semiauto version of the U.S. M14 rifle and the milled-receiver version of the AK47, which it called the AK47/S.
Up until that time, Chinese commercial production had strictly been a stamped version of the AK47. The new Poly Technologies rifle was extremely close to the milled issue Type 56. It had a receiver made from a single ingot of ordnance steel — an operation that took 105 separate steps.
I was invited to tour Factory No. 386 in Long Yan, Fu Jian Province. Located in the mountains of south China, some five hours' drive (by some very tortuous roads, I might add) out of the city of Xiamen. This factory was the one chosen to make the AK47/S. I was able to view the entire production process and accorded complete freedom in the factory. Interestingly enough, like many other firearms factories (BSA and Iver-Johnson being two examples that immediately come to mind), Factory No. 386 also made bicycles. The brand name, as I recollect, was Fairy.
As you might imagine, automation was a bit on the short side, and the machinery looked as if it dated from between the World Wars — which it probably did. Each part was virtually made by hand and was individually checked before assembly, not only at the inspection stations, but also at the operator level.
Right at the outset of the tour, we happened upon large stacks of receiver ingots awaiting their turn in the factory. Later, we were able to see every part being made, from the receiver through the bayonets to the stocks. The amount of skilled labor involved was impressive, as was the end product.
I remember one fellow straightening the barrels by eyeballing bores and then sticking the barrel in a clamp and tweaking it manually by turning a big wheel in whatever direction was needed to ensure a true product.
As might be expected, there was no lack of a labor force, and the plant itself, while spacious and liberally decorated with Communist patriotic slogans and get-out-the-work admonitions, would have given an OSHA inspector apoplexy. Personal safety equipment, such as goggles, gloves or masks, was nonexistent, as were guards on most of the machinery.
The workers were housed in quarters on the plant site and spent the better part of their existence at the plant. There were schools, dining areas and recreational facilities. It was expected that the children would grow up and be trained to work at Factory No. 386.
After receiving a complete — and I mean complete — run-through of all the manufacturing processes, I was given a finished AK47/S, randomly pulled off the line, to evaluate.
It featured a Soviet-style knife bayonet, checkered grip, spring-loaded firing pin and double-reinforced buttstock tang. The low-combed butt, forend and handguard were finished in a semi-gloss mahogany-stained chiu wood, much like the production Type 56s. Even the magazines were of a premium grade. Accessories included a brace of 30-round mags, cleaning kit, web sling, bayonet and an oil bottle.
Like the standard AK47, the rear sight was graduated to 800 meters, and the front sight was an adjustable post-style, protected by a pair of lugs. The action was smooth, and the gun had a trigger pull of 4½ pounds.
I was able to take the rifle to the plant's indoor range and run a few rounds through it with a variety of ammo, including corrosive Chinese steel-cased stuff (like other AK47s, the AK47/S had a chrome-lined chamber and bore to help guard against the erosive effects of the primers), PMC ball and Hansen Yugoslavian ammo. AK47s are not noted for pinpoint accuracy, and the best I could do with my test gun was rested 3 3/4- to 4 1/4-inch 100-yard groups, with the Chinese cartridges by Rodriguez performing the best.
The gun handled all of the ammo with aplomb. There were no hang-ups, even with rapid-fire groups. All in all, I was quite impressed with the product — so impressed that, when I got back to the U.S., I bought one myself and retain it to this very day. It has since had untold quantities of ammo run through it, and it is still working just fine.
I was also shown prototypes of Poly Tech's M14 copy, and while it looked good and fired well under controlled circumstances, the finished export rifle ultimately proved to be somewhat lacking in quality, as buyers found that heat-treating in the receivers was somewhat indifferent. The M14 clone never had the popularity or acceptance of the AK47 and was sold in much more limited quantities before production finally ceased.
I have not returned to China since that trip, and everyone who comes back tells me I would not recognize Beijing. For instance, I remember having complete access to the Forbidden City when I was there, as it had only recently been opened to tourists. But I understand that access to much of it now is severely limited. Being something of a throwback myself, I'm glad I saw China as it was before the country became more modernized. Factory No. 386 was also a real treat and gave one a glimpse into the arms-making styles of earlier days.
I have to admit, my hosts couldn't have been more cooperative and pleasant, and I still have many fond memories of the excursion, but the best one still resides in my gun locker.