by Robert F. Kay and RN Price
Russia is best known these days for exporting oil, natural gas and nationalism. It wasn’t always this way. Some of the world’s greatest artists, composers, writers, scientists and engineers came out of this vast land. Everything from the periodic table to the first satellite (Sputnik) was a product of a fertile Russian mind.
One fellow in particular from Siberia, Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, didn’t have much of a formal education but created what was to be Russia’s most iconic export.
As everyone knows, the original Kalashnikovs were produced in 1947 (hence the name AK 47). The original begat dozens variants manufactured in countries ranging from Albania to Yugoslavia. The most popular Russian AK in this country, the Saiga (named after a species of deer), is manufactured by the Izvesk-based IZHMASH facility.
However, there’s another member of the Russian AK family that you may not have heard of called the VEPR (which translates as wild boar). Among AK aficionados it enjoys a reputation equal to, or in the opinion of some, greater than the Saiga or any other animal in the AK kingdom. Manufactured by MOLOT (which translates as “sledgehammer”) the company was conceived in 1940 as the Vjatskie Poljany arsenal. The plant played a key role in manufacturing weapons for the Russian Army during what the Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War (WWII).
In October of 1941 the Vjatskiye Poljany plant started producing PPSh submachine guns for comrades to stave off the German onslaught. Between October 1941 to May 1945, the plant manufactured 2.5 million PPSh submachine guns, 350,000 OPSh and SPSh pistols.
The genesis of the VEPR, as we know it today, was in the late 1950s, when the RPK light machinegun (a more robust version of the Kalashnakov) went into production at the at the Izvesk plant. Already overstretched, mangement decided to move the manufacture of the RPK to the Vjatskiye Poljany facility.
Fast forward to the end of the cold war and in 1992, the Vjatskie Poljany Arsenal and Manufacturing Plant officially became “MOLOT” or more specifically, “MOLOT Joint Stock Company” aka MOLOT JSC. It’s no longer a state owned enterprise but I am told the state still exerts a great deal of influence. (The box that my VEPR came in reads “JSC Vjatskie Poljany Machine Building Plant”).
In 1994, the company started manufacturing a civilian line, the VEPR based on the RPK, as well as products derived from the Simonov Rifles, called the OP-SKS. In 1997, the factory introduced Becas (hunting) shotguns and began production of hunting rifles based on Mosin-Nagant and Mauser.
The VEPR comes in a number of configurations.
In addition to the “classic” 7.62×39, it’s available in .308 WIN., .35 REM., .222 REM, .223 REM, as well as 7.62x54R and 5.45×39, or AK 74 as it’s popularly known. (I am told the AK74 is actually not for sale in Russia except to the military). The company also produces the three variations of the sporting RPK, the Super VEPR , VEPR Hunter and the VEPR Pioneer. (See Molot USA for details on models).
While VEPR rifles are mostly used for hunting in Russia, the VEPR-12 shotgun is used by some law enforcement and Special Forces (in Russia and many other countries). A tactical, military style VEPR is also manufactured in the Ukraine. Evidently the old RPK is still available for military use.
So how does the VEPR differ from the “conventional” AK?
The answer is in the rifle’s RPK DNA. Think submachine gun.
The RPK receiver is thicker (1.5 cm vs. 1.0 mm) than the receiver used on standard AKM rifles. It was made to be stronger than a conventional infantry rifle because it was designed as a light machine gun and had to handle the sustained automatic fire. To help handle the stress, the trunion of the RPK is larger and stronger than that of the AK47 or AKM47. (The trunion is the part to which the barrel is connected and into which the bolt locks).
Additionally the VEPR sports a “bull” barrel, which is heavier and thicker than the AK barrel. To handle continuous fire, without overheating, a machine gun needs this kind of substantial hardware.
With all that reinforcement, the VEPR is a bit heavier than the standard AK. Even with the equivalent AK furniture, a VEPR weighs over a pound more than the Saiga.
The heavier weight was borne by one lucky squad member who carried the light machine around, while everyone else carried a rifle. However, that individual didn’t have to worry about shouldering a conventional rifle. Unlike an AK, which almost always is shoulder fired, the RPK would almost always be fired on the ground from a bi-pod mounted at the end of the barrel.
There is one other detail that is worthwhile mentioning. One of the VEPR’s idiosyncrasies (maybe an RPK vestige?) is the slant cut on the rear end of the receiver, where the buttstock fits. This is different from the conventional AKs which have a so called “square cut”. The upshot: An AK buttstock will not fit on a VEPR unless a special adapter block is added to the VEPR receiver. (More on that stuff later).
Here’s what else distinguishes the VEPR from other AK style rifles:
- The front RPK style trunnion is machined rather than hot hammer forged. (Machining of course is a much more expensive, time consuming proposition.)
- The heavy barrel (which promotes accuracy) is cold hammer forged and heat treated for eight hours. It’s then annealed and chromed under a vacuum, a process that ensures high quality chrome lining.
- Each barrel is threaded to the Russian standard, 14×1 left hand, then pinned, capped, and spot welded.
- The 1000 meter rear sight with instant windage click adjustment is standard on all VEPR riﬂes.
- The VEPR has a forged steel bolt with a spring loaded ﬁring pin and two locking lugs. The VEPR .308 NATO (.308 Win) and 7.62x54R have three locking lugs for even more strength and accuracy.
- Each VEPR is hand-fitted and factory-tuned.
There is something satisfying, in old fashioned way, about opening up the VEPR cardboard shipping box. The green, black and orange design motif is unpretentious, harking back to a different era, The characters of course are in Cyrillic—which is only natural if you’re buying a Russian product that isn’t being shipped in huge quantities to the United States. The rifle and other accoutrement, ie cleaning kit, etc, are packed in brown oil paper, just like the old Smith and Wesson revolvers from the 50s and 60s.
Upacking the rifle from the box reveals one thing quite clearly. This is a robust little carbine. The barrel’s diameter is noticeably larger than what you’d expect to see on a run of the mill AK. This rifle’s hefty, almost bulbous wooden stock and handguard adds to a “sledgehammer” appearance. You could use the end of the buttstock to pound railroad spikes—if it didn’t have a rubber pad.
Fit and finish were excellent.
There were no rough edges nor scratches on the coal black steel. Everything metal, the receiver, the barrel and even the cleaning rod had a light coating of oil. The furniture was flawless with artful stippling on the handguard and keyhole grip area. It also had a Monte Carlo style comb that slants down toward the front to help align the eye with the sight.
Included with the rifle are two ten round magazines, a cleaning kit, a cleaning rod and a high quality scope mount with serial numbers that match the gun.
The scope mount has a “1913” type rail and comes with a couple of scope rings. The scope mount has a channel running down the middle which allows you to see and use the iron sights–even with scope mount “mounted”. (If there’s an optic on the mount you won’t be able too see the iron sights).
The tolerances between the rail on the left side of the receiver and the mount itself are really tight. This rail will hold zero, no problem. We were curious if it was up to NATO spec so we tried an all-American Trijicon scope with its own built-in mount and it also worked perfectly. Granted you probably would not want to shoot a standard Trijicon with this scope mount because the geometry would not work out too well. (You wouldn’t have much of a cheek weld).
One of the most interesting components of the entire package was the user’s manual. It’s a booklet-cum-document which evidences the pride the manufacturer has in the product. The doc contains not only the obligatory technical data, safety precautions, etc but includes a several forms. This entails a packing list, the (hand written) date it was packed, the initials of the “packer” and a separate “acceptance certificate” signed by the “person in charge of acceptance”, aka the inspector.
Trips to the Range
The first trip to the range was enjoyable but almost anticlimactic. That is, there were no surprises.
We wanted to shoot exclusively just with the iron sights rather than adding optics or a red dot. The owner’s manual mentioned that the rifle is zeroed in at 100 meters so theoretically one shouldn’t have to do much tweaking with the rear sight. The owner’s manual was correct.
We started sighting in at 50 yards, assuming that if it was set properly for 100, it should work fine at 50. It did. It only took me a few rounds to adjust the rear sight, which unlike the typical AK, has both windage and elevation. (A typical AK rear sight will just provide you just with elevation. You need a special tool to adjust for windage for the front sight).
Having he capability to tweak both windage and elevation in one place is extremely handy. In addition, the VEPR sighting system provides for very precise adjustments.
This type of configuration is a throwback to the RPK machine gun. If you’re operating an RPK in the heat of battle, you’re not going to want to play around with a kludgy tool to align the front sight.
The U-shaped notch on the rear sight worked fine, but as someone used to the classic AR type sight, it takes a bit getting used to.
We were able to shoot groups of 1” at 50 yards. After getting the rifle sighted in we picked up the gun and shot offhand at a 12” gong at 100 yards. Sight acquisition was a bit more challenging offhand with the U-shaped notch. For those who prefer them, peep sights are available from Krebs Custom (as part of their rear rail system).
The second time out we started shooting paper at 100 yards. We were rather pleasantly surprised how accurate this gun was. In fact we were blown away. We were consistently getting 1 ½ groups or better at this distance with the iron sights.
The rifle has excellent balance. It was easy to point and the 7.62 x .39 round did not display a great deal of recoil. It was more of push than a pop.
The action is quite smooth and the consensus of our staff was that it was as fluid as any AK rifle. Solid as a rock.
The trigger was better than average for an AK. A good amount of creep and then a predictable break at about 4.5 to 5 lbs. I would think most AK users (who plan a conversion) would be fine with the stock trigger.
If you’re really picky (like us) there are some fine aftermarket triggers on the market from Tapco or Red Star Arms. In fact, we installed both of them in the rifle just to see how they might improve performance.
However, we encountered a problem when trying to reassemble the fire control group.
The shape of the disconnector on the stock VEPR is different from that supplied with the Red Star Arms and Tapco G2 trigger assemblies. What this means is that if you swap out these two triggers, it’s impossible to re-install the VEPR safety selector without removing about a 1/4″ or so of metal from a section of the safety to make it clear the new disconnector during installation. Since the gun was on loan to us from Molot, we weren’t about to do that. So, we re-installed the stock trigger. (We will review the Red Star and Tapco triggers in a future column. Stay tuned).
So back to range.
One can’t help but note, as the hours go by, the weight of the gun. At 4.3 kg (nearly 10 lbs) unloaded it’s not light but still within a pound or so of a .308 Remington. This is fine for hunting but not if you’re shooting for hours on end at the range.
For those who plan on a conversion, you’ll shave off plenty of weight by replacing the furniture but it will still be a pound or so heavier than an equivalent Saiga.
The rifle functioned flawlessly. No mis-feeds or malfunctions. On one occasion when I manually extracted a live round at the behest of the range buzzer, the bullet was dislodged from its case. Never had that happen before but I think that had more to do with QC at Tula Ammo than the gun.
In conclusion, we couldn’t be happier with the VEPR. This is a wonderful rifle that could serve as an effective pig liquidator or, as the platform for an AK conversion. Yes, it’s heavy with walnut furniture, but the heft is more than compensated in the accuracy and durability department.
Our only suggestion to the folks at MOLOT is to get a native English speaker to rewrite the owner’s manual. The text looks to be translated via a Google application. The prose is amusing at times and fortunately, comprehensible.
Price (including scope mount, two mags, tool kit and cleaning rod is $959 or $799 for just the rifle). Dmitry Krasilnikov, the American representative from MOLOT USA told me that tariffs for VEPR rifles are going up just due to increased custom duty and hikes in factory prices.
It’s certainly not inexpensive but in many people’s opinion you’re getting the creme de la creme. My suggestion to the manufacturer is to come up with a second option for the sporterized rifle that has less expensive furniture. That would make it more affordable for folks who simply want to convert the gun. It seems a shame to spend all that money on beautiful French or Turkish walnut that you’re simply going to remove.
If you are seeking to convert the rifle, the good news is that (unlike a Saiga) you don’t need a gunsmith to do a conversion into a standard looking AK.
“With a ‘Sporterized’ Saiga Rifle you’ll need to move the trigger group,” says Brian Takaba, who runs X-Ring Security in Waipahu. Brian is a gunsmith quite familiar with the Saiga and does conversions all the time. “With the VEPR,” he says, “all you need to do is remove the buttstock, add a pistol grip, and change out the furniture. Of course,” he adds, “you’ll need the right hardware, such as a buttstock adapter, to install the furniture.”
That, our readers, will be the subject of our next series of stories. We’ll look at options in the way of furniture, triggers and optic mounts to create a DIY VEPR conversion that will bring joy to your heart.
For an “Executive Summary” of this review see our video:
Photos courtesy of On Target staff and archives.
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