by Rob Kay
Last year industry pundits predicted that 2014 would be the “Year of the AK”. Unfortunately geopolitics intervene. The Russian invasions of Crimea and the Ukraine let to the ban on imported Russian guns, which in turn roiled the AK market. The prognosticators were a bit premature.
I think this year could be the tipping point. Manufacturers and for that matter, sellers of AKs came to the realization that if you want something done, it’s best to do it yourself. The trends, judging by what was happening at SHOT were telling. There were a plethora of new models in the AK platform, some even built completely from US components. Most of the new rifles were decked out with plastic furniture and other tactical gewgaws because that’s what the market wants. They bear little resemblance to the “classic” AKs.
For those who yearn to own a “traditional” looking AK there don’t seem to be a lot of options. The most numerous seem to be the builds from Century Arms. The good news is that these are inexpensive and from what I hear, the CQ is improving. (Century has had a spotty record in the past).
For AK aficionados that want an old school AK but don’t want something that every pimply 18 year old kid has, have another option. They can have a gunsmith build them one from a kit.
There are a few shops that specialize in this space and Beeville Armory, in Beeville, Texas, is one of them. I was referred to the shop by my colleague Rob Ski, founder of the popular AK Operators Union. Rob had the Beeville folks build him a rifle according to his specs, and he was quite pleased with it.
My interest in this story was to discover what the differences are between a custom built AK, sourced from a kit from a company such as APEX, and a rifle a “mass produced” item which are available from outlets such as Atlantic Arms.
I recently had a chance to talk to the owner of Beeville, Nick Bauer and had the opportunity to test out one of his rifles built from a Polish kit. If you’re serious about buying a high quality AK, I know you’ll appreciate what he has to say.
In a future article we’ll give you our impressions of the Beeville rifle.
Q: What does Beeville Armory specialize in?
A: We specialize in the AK platform, however we provide a variety of other services and manufacture on other platforms as well. We build AK’s, AR’s, FAL’s, HK variants, 1911 pistols, and bolt-action rifles. As an 07/02 wealso do suppressors, short-barreled weapons, and machine guns. We offer custom machining for things such as barrel threading, chambering, barrel profiling, pistol slide modifications, and muzzle brakes. We also offer action tuning for various weapon types, rifle stock enhancements, and surface coatings. Past projects range from M1 Garands to Uzi’s.
Q: How long have you been in the gun business?
A: I cut my teeth years back doing Mauser conversions, revolver actions, and 1911 work. Beeville Armory was formed in 2010 after I moved to Texas. We moved to a larger facility with a retail store in 2013 and we are currently looking to expand again. Our online store will be up and running soon at www.BeevilleArmory.com. inspect the upper handguard for cracks.
Q: If someone is interested in buying a traditional, “Warsaw Pact”-style AK with wooden furniture, what qualities do you suggest they look for?
A: There are a lot of things that can be done incorrectly when building an AK and still provide a “shootable” weapon. Inspect the rivets, look down the rifle and see how straight the receiver and barrel are, see if the barrel components look like they are lined up relatively straight, work the bolt carrier without the spring guide installed and feel for hangups or excessive sloppiness. Test the magazine lockup with various mags. They shouldn’t fit too loose or too tight. If you are looking at a wood-stocked model ensure that the lower handguard fits snugly, inspect the upper handguard for cracks.
A: We buy our foreign parts directly from an importer who has a keen eye for quality. US parts are sourced from manufactures with good track records in this industry and that market has opened up exponentially in the last few years as the AK has seen a resurgence in popularity. Certain countries stick to the original Soviet specs pretty tightly, and certain countries produce well-finished consistent parts.We have found that de-milled rifles from Russia, Poland, and Bulgaria to be of good, consistent quality and we tend to use parts sourced from them more often for our builds.
Q: Typically what are the parts that you replace to make the rifle 922R compliant?
A: 922R states that we can use no more than 10 foreign-made parts when building a firearm. Depending on the customers needs and the parts that we start with on a particular build, we generally use a US made receiver, barrel and fire control group. We can also use US made gas pistons, muzzle devices, and furniture. We try and avoid using the magazine for 922R compliance because we want the customer to be able to use whatever magazine they choose without being out of compliance with federal law.
Q: What parts do you actually modify?
A: Jim Fuller said it best when he likened AK building to blacksmithing. Every single rifle is its own animal. Some may need custom journals cut on the barrel to accommodate components that are either under- or over-sized, some need modifications to the bolt rails or magazine lock. Most need some work done to the fire control group for reliable function, sometimes we have to modify gas tubes or dust covers. These things don’t lend well to a production line system which is why you see such a large fluctuation in the quality of mass-produced AK’s as compared to custom builders. I can tell you that it was a huge switch for us when we went from making hand-fit 1911’s and precision bolt-action rifles to the varying tolerances of the AK. There is no bound book of rules with these rifles, you have to be flexible and have a good understanding of how the system actually works so that you can deal with the issues as they come up. With all the variants of the platform out there that have been produced by the various countries it is unlikely that you would ever encounter all of them.
Q: How close are your builds to the original AK specs? Is that what you’re aiming for?
A: Mil-Spec is the official term of this century. I have several prints from a few different arsenals in a few different countries (or former countries) and each is a little different. The tolerances on most of the spec sheets would make a tool maker in this country have a stroke, but that’s the beauty of the AK–it was designed to be mass produced in less than modern factories by less than skilled workers and still out-perform every light rifle on the battlefield. We aim to make a rifle that flat out works. We want utter reliability, serviceability and accuracy. The AK needs to be tight in some places and loose in others.
Q: I see wide disparity of price between manufacturers. Why such great differences?
A: The reward and burden of being a custom builder is determining your worth. Some people in this industry have literally put their heart and soul into the products that they produce and their asking price is a reflection of their value. Some builders are in it for the quick buck and their asking price is a reflection of the market. Its really up to the consumer to decide which route best serves their needs.
Q: How do you distinguish your builds from other less expensive rifles available?
A: We don’t cut corners. Our name is etched into every rifle that we build because we have utter confidence that the rifle will exceed the customers expectations. I made a statement years back that we refer to in every firearm that we build: “Never sacrifice our quality to meet their budget”. I fully understand if a customer can’t justify the price difference between my gun and another inferior product, my goal is to educate the customer on the difference and let them make an informed decision. We build every firearm as if it were to be a wedding gift to our spouse and we back them up with a lifetime guarantee.
Q: What type of trigger do you use?
A: We have used every trigger currently available and have come back to the Tapco G2. Like everything else on an AK they generally require some fitting or modification to achieve the desired function and feel, but we have found them to be very serviceable. We have been working on a trigger in-house that is very impressive but we are not looking to mass-produce it at this time. I have been noticing that some prominent trigger gurus are giving the AK a good look and look forward to seeing what comes to the market in the future.
Q: What kind of accuracy and dependability can you expect from one of your builds?
A: One stereotype that has been hard to shake is that the AK is inherently inaccurate. I hear that on a weekly basis but it just doesn’t hold water. Like any other firearm, accuracy can vary depending on the quality of the components used and how they were put together as well as the quality of ammunition fired. We have addressed the quality of parts and manufacture and there is good ammunition readily available for the calibers in use. The biggest shortcoming of the AK in terms of accuracy is the short sight radius. We can modify the sighting system to compensate for that and we can also mount most optics to the AK. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, but I can still shoot 2″MOA groups at 100 yards consistently from our rifles with the standard iron sights and cheap ammo. For a battle rifle that’s pretty darn good! Many of our rifles have literally been through hell and back and kept on running. We have a shop rifle that had fired a little over 10k rounds over the course of 3 years without cleaning or lubrication. When the surplus barrel was finally shot out we disassembled it and found half of a fired case mashed up inside the receiver but the rifle never ceased function. While I feel that you should be a little nicer to your rifle than I am, I am confident that it will perform every time you need it to. Each of our rifles has a bible verse engraved inconspicuously, Psalm 86:7 “In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee: for thou wilt answer me.”
Q: Are there any notable differences between the Polish, Bulgarian or other kits that you build?
A: To the untrained eye most AK components look the same. As a builder we look for consistency and manufacturing quality.
Q: Do you expect there will be a time when there’s a quality all-USA AK manufactured?
A: I think that eventually that will be the case. It has been attempted by a few with varying success. Right now the market just won’t support it. So long as we can obtain quality foreign parts imported at reasonable prices I just don’t see how we can justify manufacturing these parts. Now if the surplus market were to dry up or the political climate changed unfavorably then there might be a greater need for all US-made parts. Until that time I just don’t see it working out, however I commend those who are working on such endeavors.