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Romanian AK rifles
Probably the most popular AK variants in the US these days are coming from Romania. While there are around a half dozen variants, the most popular models are the SAR 1, SAR 2, SAR 3 and WASR-10. Available calibers are 7.62X39, 5.45X39, and 5.56 NATO. The 7.62X39 models being by far the most popular as compatible ammunition and magazines are plentiful and cheap.
Having traded out a number of my AKs a while back, I decided to restock the ol arsenal with a few cheap Avtomats and see how these models perform. The Romanian guns impressed me by following the old Soviet design much more closely than other variations on the market. Up to the import of the first SAR-1s, the closest to Soviet AKM spec were the Egyptian MAADI AKs which have reached a point where they often trade at a premium price that is disproportionate to the actual intrinsic value (and performance) of the guns. Moreover, it is the SAR-2 which holds most to the controversial AK-74, but more on that later. All of the SAR series rifles will accept the appropriate "preban" high capacity magazines with little or no modification. The WASR-10s are all exported from Romania as "single stack" AKs in 7.62X39 and will not fit the standard high capacity AK magazines. The unique WASR-10 magazines hold either five shots or ten shots depending on the version. There are no known "high capacity" magazines in WASR-10 configuration, but the rifles can be modified to accept standard AK magazines. This is done both by importers and end users and requires the installation of some US parts in order for the guns to be considered 922R compliant when sold. "Virgin" WASR-10 rifles are very cheap and may or may not have the side rail scope mount. In any event, they rarely retail for more than $250 and can often be had for a little under $200. They represent one of the most economical AK rifles on the market and performance is otherwise the same as a SAR-1.
All models of the SAR series come with a factory installed scope base that had originally been developed in conjunction with the Dragunov sniper rifle. This helps to make up for the positively awful iron sights that come with the rifles that are only marginally suitable for shooting at ranges beyond 100 meters. It is a solid and functional system engineered around a universal base that is riveted to the side of all compatible weapons, including some later modified Moisin Nagants and RPGs. My experience has been that such scope rails are difficult to properly install on the rifles and are best left up to the factory during the manufacturing process. A bonus is that the base itself is a re-enforcement of the fairly thin sheet metal that makes up the AKM /SAR recievers. To make some matters worse, it is fairly common for the rails to be installed a little crooked and that can mean the scope is pointed so far up or so far down when mounted on the rifle that you may not have enough adjustment range in the scope to compensate for it. Fortunately, the POSP scopes of old Soviet design usually have enough adjustment range to compensate for a lot of tilt.
From a collector standpoint, the most correct scope for the 7.62 SAR variant would be a POSP 4X24 optic. These are an old Soviet adaptation of the optics that were used on the Dragunov SVD rifles. The reticule arrangement has a rangefinder and multiple inverted V aiming points to represent 100, 200 and 300 meters. Interestingly, the rangefinder does go out to 400 meters. The scope is one reasonably cost effective way to correct the shortcomings of the rifle's iron sights. The POSP scopes do have illuminated reticules that were designed for use with a proprietary 3v lamp and battery, but most sold in the west now have a 1.5v lamp and are set up to take a single AA battery. The scopes generally sell from around $100 to $250 depending on some minor variations, condition, and local markets. The more expensive models will have integrated lasers. Another very good scope that is appropriate for the rifle is the Russian made Kobra sight. It is a red-dot reflex sight similar in design to the C-More and is popular among troops on both sides of the Chechen conflict. All of the Optics made for these rifles in former soviet states are very rugged and have reasonably decent clear glass. The electronics are a bit finicky, and we are fortunate that most sellers of the optics also have spare parts readily available. This means the scope can be almost entirely rebuilt as long as the original lenses are good.
Accuracy on the rifles is very much a mixed bag. Associates and I have found a wide variance in the accuracy performance on the rifles from batch to batch and with different ammo. Expect any of the rifles to shoot within 7 MOA with factory ammo, but you can get lucky and find an ammo and rifle combination that will do 2 MOA. Mounting one of the proprietary Soviet style scopes will help get the most accuracy out of one of these rifles, and about one in ten are capable of being very accurate - as good as 1.5 MOA at 300 yards or less, but the accuracy drops off drastically as range increases beyond that. Personally, I think the iron sights are part of the culprit on the lackluster accuracy reputation of AKs in general and the guns should perform better with just about any sort of optic but I hear a consistent 3 MOA is common if you use one of the Russian scopes with integral mount. Note that the AK-74 types, while only a little bit more mechanically accurate than the standard 7.62X39 types, the 5.45 and 5.56 types are usually functionally more accurate in the hands of more shooters. I have yet to fully test one of the 5.45 AKs with one of the advanced Belarus made 3.5X optics but the concept looks promising. It is entirely likely that a SAR- 2 or SAR-3 equipped with such a scope would be a fairly good and cost effective option for a modern effective fighting rifle, but could fall short of the stopping power necessary for hunting medium game.
The great majority (if not all) Romanian AKs available these days in the US have been imported by Century Arms, but they also have a number of components made in the US. Interestingly, I am told that these "US Made" components are made on original equipment and assembled by migrant workers from Eastern Europe. That being the case, New York companies often find it as easy to find workers from the old Soviet Bloc as it is for Texan and California companies to hire help from Mexico.
The SAR-1,2, and 3 models are virtually indistinguishable from each other in most aspects other than the chambering. All models will come with wood forearms and butt stocks and synthetic grips. Many, if not most of the parts not specific to the caliber are interchangeable. You can easily distinguish the 5.45 models from the 7.62 by the shape and color of the AK-74 magazines used in the 5.45 caliber models. AK-74 magazines will work in most SAR-3 (5.56) rifles with minor modification, but SAR-3 mags will not reliably work in SAR-2 rifles.
The stocks are of the typically short original AKM size. This irritates many American shooters who prefer longer stocks, but I find it to be just fine for close quarters fast shooting with a more tactical rifle hold. Note how the stock is placed high in the pocket of the shoulder. This might play hell on the collarbone if you are shooting a .308 but is not a problem with the mild recoil of the SAR-2 shown here. The short stock is also the best way to go if you anticipate wearing heavy clothing and / or body armor. Smaller people will enjoy the "just right" size of these AKs.
Interestingly, the safety/selector arrangement more closely follows the old Kalashnikov design than semi-auto only rifles previously brought in from other countries. A traditional select fire AKM has a three position selector. The uppermost position on all models is the safe position. It blocks the trigger and limits the travel of the bolt carrier group. The next position down is for full auto fire - the preferred mode of fire for infantry fighting under old Soviet doctrine. With some effort, the selector can then be pushed down another notch for semi-automatic fire. This, under old Soviet Doctrine, was for ammo conservation and some enhancement in accuracy when necessary. Although originally designed for full auto fire, the AKM has always had the problem of overheating in temperate and hot environments. The SAR-1 is no different, but I noticed that the SAR-2 and SAR-3 do not overheat as quickly under rapid fire. In either event, firing the rifle rapid fire in semi-auto is no guarantee against bore erosion or other damage from overheating.
On the earlier semi-auto only rifles, the trigger groups were simplified and redesigned so that what had been the "auto" position on the selector then becomes the "fire" position on a semi-auto only rifle and what had been the old "semi" position is blocked off by a tang affixed to the trigger guard. On the semi-auto rifles, the full auto notch on the selector is eliminated and the semi-auto position is as "original" to the design. Internal parts, however, have been simplified and modified so that a full auto conversion cannot be readily accomplished by simply switching parts.
Shooting the SARs is much like shooting any other AKs although there are some considerations. The SARs are on the light side of the AK spectrum, therefore you get a little more recoil out of the 7.62 model. The 5.45 and 5.56 models both have very little recoil. In fact, the SAR-2 with optional AK-74 muzzle brake actually pulls a bit on the recoil impulse. Thus, the recoil impulse has several elements working against each other to fight muzzle climb, but the firing and recoil sequence has distinct pull/push stages to it. The experience of shooting one of the "downsized caliber" AKs is not unlike that of a low recoil AR. The net recoil then feels more like a forceful jiggle than a push or kick. The 7.62 recoil has the typical moderate kick of an AK and the sharpness of it can be reduced with the use of a simple polyurethane buffer like that made by Buffer-tech.
The rifles are not without some quirks. The popular SAR-1 has a slightly narrower magazine well than Egyptian and Chinese AKs. It fits the Euro pattern high capacity magazines just fine, but I find that Chinese mags usually require fitting in order to fit in the magwell without a lot of effort. Once these mags have been modified, they will usually work in both rifles. Given that all SAR rifles will come with at least one high capacity magazine, it is assumed that you can use other high capacity magazines in the rifle also (US federal law).
The SAR-3 (.223/5.56 version) takes a unique magazine that is not readily compatible with other .223 AK type rifles (Galil, Valmet, or Chinese). Fortunately, cheap AK74 mags can be readily adapted to work in the SAR-3 but they will not be as reliable as true .223/5.56 magazines My personal recommendation if you want a "mouse caliber" AK is to get the 5.45 version and scrounge a good supply of the ammo rather than deal with the hassle of finding compatible magazines. Others disagree and find that the easy availability of the .223 ammo is more important and that a supply of compatible magazines can usually be obtained with the gun albeit at usually higher cost than normal AK mags. Given that .223/5.56mm AKs were not prevalent during th Cold War, a true collector of Soviet era weapons is not going to have much interest in keeping one of these rifles original, so it is common and acceptable to "update" the .223 AKs with parts and accessories that will enhance performance and appearance of these weapons. These upgrades can make the rifle comparable in overall cost and performance to the AR type rifles, but with a much more unique appearance. Note this rifle is set up with all US made furniture, a modified bolt handle, and the highly ergonomic Tapco pistol grip. The grip alone vastly improves the handling characteristics of the rifle over one that has the original skinny grip. The Tapco grip makes it fairly easy for a person to securely hold the rifle with one hand.
All of the rifles come with the standard AK cleaning kit with the cleaning rod riding a pocket under the barrel. The design involves the end of the rod being held in place by a detent on the front sight housing. That is where a slight problem is on the SAR-2 and SAR-3. These guns come to the US with a sight block that lacks the bayonet lug and threads for mounting the muzzlebrake. Thus, the cleaning rod will invariably work its way forward during recoil. This problem can be solved by installing a correct front sight tower or putting a dab of weld on the existing sight tower and trimming it with a Dremel so it will act as an effective detent. Installation of the Romanian pattern AK-74 front sight tower is a gray area on the 1994 Assault weapon law. The bayonet lug is there, but will not match any readily available bayonets. Grinding it down eliminates that problem. The threaded collar is another issue and gets you into splitting hairs on the law. Technically, it is a threaded collar cast in as part of the front sight post, but a hostile observer might interpret that as a threaded barrel. The cast-in threads on the the collar lack the precision necessary for proper and safe mounting of an effective silencer and there is no known flash hider made to match the unique thread pattern. The AK-74 muzzlebrake is in itself a legit item provided the gun still meets 922R standards. For a survivor, the $70 to $90 spent on this ad-on is probably a waste of money since it ads weight, gives little reduction in recoil and negligible reduction in flash. Collectors wanting more "correct" AK-74 looks and performance will want it anyway. (Legal reference on the Romanian AK-74 muzzle brake and front sight post with threaded collar)
In conclusion, the Romanian AKs are probably the best running choices for the collector looking for the most "correct" AKM and AK-74 type rifles currently on the US market for very reasonable prices. They are not, however, the cheapest or best performing option. The guns straddle the bridge between practical and collectible but represent examples of what is probably the most common survival rifle on the planet. In this sense, the Romanian AKs can serve the survivor quite well as collector pieces that can be called upon to fill the niche of survival rifle. Ammunition is cheap for the SAR-1 when bought in volume and it is entirely reasonable for the survivor to expect to set a rifle up with a half dozen mags and 1,000 rounds of ammo for under $500. I recommend the SAR-1 as the first choice in the product line for the survivor, with the SAR-2 being the favorite of collectors. The SAR-3 is a halfway decent choice for those looking into a low cost .223 semi-auto rifle.
Sportsman's Guide - Very competitive pricing on 7.62X39 ammo when you figure in discounts and time payment plans available to GO club members. Probably the single most popular source for 7.62X39 ammo in the US.
K-Var Importers and retailers of unique European AK parts and accessories. Probably the most extensive inventory of Soviet pattern and post cold war European AK pattern parts and accessories. Probably the best source in the US for AK-74 parts and accessories, including parts for the AK-74SU Krinkov.
Century Arms - The highest volume US importer of the Romanian AK rifles. You can often find lower prices from their distributors, but Century Arms prices include shipping.
Wholesale Guns and Ammo -Competitive pricing on the Romanian AKs
Tapco - Very competitive prices on magazines and accessories for AKs
SOG (Southern Ohio Gun Distributors) a distributor for Century arms and other manufacturers and importers. SOG frequently has the best prices on the more popular Century Arms imports.
Gulf Coast Ammunition - Competitive pricing on AK ammo of all types, including the uncommon 5.45X39 caliber.
AK-47 Net Forums - Very informative discussion groups about everything that is AK.