Buying an AK is a confusing process for a newbie. There’s an incredible amount to learn. What’s more, finding really objective information on the differences between the manufacturers and variants is not easy.
There’s also a ton of choices with a commensurate spectrum of prices. Are you better off buying from a shop or online? What about a used gun or simply having a gunsmith put a rifle together for you from a kit purchased from a parts company such as APEX?
Our interview with Mike Owen, founder of Meridian Ordnance LLC in Mount Sterling, Kentucky will go a long way to help first time buyers sort out these questions. There’s so much out there, you could literally write a book on it.
We’ve asked Mike to provide us with the most frequently asked questions and turned his answers into a two-part series.
We thank him for his assistance.
Q: Tell us a bit about Meridian Ordnance LLC. How long has your shop been around and what kinds of work do you specialize in?
A: Meridian Ordnance LLC officially opened in 2011 although in all honesty, it’s more of a decade-long culmination of my personal experiences in defense contracting, the firearms industry, and the military which led me to finally open shop. Over those years, I acquired training, experience and equipment that eventually motivated me to tackle the FFL process and pursue gunsmithing as a full time business rather than a costly, but very enjoyable hobby.
I primarily deal with all things Kalashnikov and AR, as well as numerous refinishing methods for all firearms and many traditional gunsmithing services. I always preferred the idea of an old-world ‘smith’, where you can speak directly with the persons who will be carrying out the work, whatever that may be. So I set up the business with that degree of service and attention to detail in mind.
Q: With the Russian products now banned from import, what brands of mass produced rifles do you recommend?
A: There are many variables here with the biggest ones being the buyer’s budget and intended use. Given the current situation if I had to choose an out of box AK I would suggest a Bulgarian Arsenal Inc. SLR107 (stamped) or SAM7 (milled) series. The only caveat is that for their price range I’ve always thought Arsenal Inc. should feature a superior finish than what they do. That said, having an AK refinished in a more durable option like Moly Resin or Cerakote is an easy fix, and I do many in just such a fashion for their owners.
Q: Are there any appreciable differences in quality between some of the more popular, mass produced rifles such as WASRs, Century Arms products, Arsenals, etc?
A: Absolutely, yes. I could preach for days about some of the known issues with lower-end commercial AK offerings out there. Most people who do any research before they buy will hear about the reputation of certain makes/models such as the Century Arms Int’l Romanian WASR you mentioned. Canted sight blocks, magazine wobble, poor fit/finish, improper heat treating, and even headspace issues have all been documented. I’ll hit on this: For many of these budget buyers, having a “correct” or high-end AK isn’t the point, but the majority of the noted problems are performance or safety issues — not personal preference issues.
When it comes to neutered parts, commercial features and overall quality to price ratio, that is a budgetary matter. While there are many decent commercially made budget AK-based firearms like the WASR out there running today, and I recognize a place for them on the market, it is important for the first time buyer to remember that you get what you pay for. I often have customers bring in problematic rifles, where the cost of the corrections or repairs plus what they gave for the firearm would put them within the price range of a military pedigree or overall higher quality AK.
Q: It seems like you can get a good deal from some of the larger stores that sell online. What are the pros and cons of buying a new rifle online?
A: The biggest pro to buying online is just as you noted: The good deals. Large retailers who market online have the buying power to get more product from the manufacturer or distributor at a lower cost and pass some of those savings on to the consumer.
The firearms industry simply does not consistently have the big margins and high mark-ups people often associate with it. In some cases, my dealer’s cost on a quantity of just one particular item can be higher than what large online retailers offer the same item for on sale. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take advantage of some of these great deals and buy online rather than ordering it myself, even as a dealer. I think most gun owners would agree the biggest disadvantage to online shopping is that you cannot physically inspect, handle, examine or pine over the exact item you want to buy. With something as unique and often as personal as a firearm, many people are perfectly content to pay a few dollars more to see it in hand, or in our case have it built to order just for them.
Q: Can you recommend a specific model in the $600 price range for a first time buyer who wants a brand new rifle?
A: If the buyer is not looking for a more “correct” rendition of an AK variant, at under $600 I’d suggest the Zastava produced O-PAP M70 rifle. Now, the receiver, reinforced trunion, furniture, rivet pattern, gas block and a handful of other details are not identical to its military cousin the Yugoslavian M70B1, but for a commercial AK they hold up well to the typical usage which most shooters will put them through. If the Palmetto State Armory AKM comes to market this year in this price range, I would give it a tentative look as well.
Q: With the Russian rifles no longer imported, do any dealers you know sell other sporterized rifles that can be converted?
A: As of this moment, a few distributors actually still have 5.56mm NATO IZ114 and 5.45x39mm IZ240 Saiga rifles in stock which are great candidates for conversions of course. We have a few in 5.45mm left ourselves. Granted, they are on closeout due to the EO and will not be restocked anytime soon. That being said, any AK that is lacking in some respect can be a good candidate for a conversion depending on your goals. It could be something as minor as needing a gas block with a bayonet lug to having the barrel threaded or as major as an out of the box Saiga needing a full conversion.
I always offer a lot of guidance to customers seeking to improve an AK in these respects. Funny thing, but the model that comes to my mind in regards to converting a truly sporterized rifle like the Saiga series into something more practical is the old Norinco Hunter. Big transformations possible there.
Q: What about in the $700-1000 range?
A: In this price range, there’s the Arsenal SLR107-21 and -31 right at the top end cost wise. I wish the Russian SGL series were still an option here… But the SLR series are solid rifles with the right feature set and very few shortcomings, that being the poor finish as noted earlier. What many people are surprised to learn is that even with the BATFE barrel ban, you can still often get a matching numbers military parts kit built on a fully heat treated receiver in this price range. The Russian Saiga IZ132 rifle conversions can also be done professionally for under $1000 by some builders such as ourselves, but we can all thank (the President’s) EO 13662 for effectively cutting off that option. U.S. made variants will quickly fill the gap in 2015 so it seems.
Q: If you can’t afford a $1000+ Arsenal are you better off buying a good quality used rifle?
A: Get the best you can afford for your purpose, be it new or used. If your budget is $500-600 and your purpose is plinking at the local range check out that Zastava N-PAP or a Romanian WASR provided you can look it over for those problem indicators first before buying which is the big boon of buying in person vs. online. If your budget is $900+ consider an Arsenal Inc. model, Russian VEPR or custom kit build from a reputable AK builder.
If you take your time and hound the gun boards, auction sites and listing services there are still some deals to be had. Just be careful that you know what to look for and do your homework first BEFORE buying. If you find yourself looking at a kit build, especially of unknown provenance; correctly check the headspacing before buying and certainly before shooting. A $70 set of headspace gauges beats a $700 emergency room visit, or worse.
Q: Some manufacturers, such as Century, are advertising AKs that are made exclusively of all USA-made parts. Are these rifles of good quality?
A: The US-made AK is slowly coming to fruition and there are a number of companies pushing these models to market. Some say Century is slowly improving their QC reputation and their C39v2 rifle is making some gains. Other options look promising to various degrees, but I’d specifically suggest tracking how the Palmetto State Armory AKM stacks up this year. But, with this U.S. diversity and it being a relatively fresh development, I cannot speak definitively on any one U.S. made offering being better than all the others right now.
I will say this: There will always be a market for quality made, custom AK rifles and collectible AK variants in the U.S. and there is a difference between these and the budget options which many people recognize. That is who we primarily cater to when it comes to our work, as such I welcome the fully U.S. made AK to the market.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview series with Mike Owen. More good data for the AK buyer will be served up soon.
Photos courtesy of Meridian Ordnance and On Target Staff.
Questions? Comments? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rob Kay writes about firearms for Hawaii Reporter and is the author of How to Buy an AK-47.
Read more of Rob’s articles on OnTargetHawaii.com