Best Semi-Automatic Rifle for Beginners: AR-15 vs AK-47

One of the endless debates in the gun world…AR-15 vs AK-47.

AR vs AK
AR vs AK

You can’t go wrong with either for your first centerfire gun.

The easiest way out is to just buy both!

But there might be one that is more suited for your needs…find out as we cover the history, calibers, ergonomics, reliability, cost, and accessories for both.

History

The Russian AK-47 was invented by Mikhail Kalashnikov and aligned with design doctrines of being easy to mass produce, easy to maintain, and easy to operate.

AK-47
AK-47

WWII taught the Russians that most fighting in the future would likely take place in shorter distances and so they chose the shorter 7.62x39mm round instead of previous 7.62x54mm rounds.

This allowed for good penetration, less recoil, and less raw materials needed.

However, the American ideology continued to favor longer distance fighting.

The M16 was created by Eugene Stoner and Armalite to be light, accurate, and effective up to 500+ yards.

They went with the 5.56x45mm round which had very light recoil and materials needed while having a high velocity which aided in its penetration.

M16, Britannica
M16, Britannica

The AR-15 is just the civilian semi-automatic firing model where the AR stands for “Armalite,” not “Assault Rifle.”  While the M4 is the shorter automatic version.

Caliber

Common Bullet Calibers
Common Bullet Calibers

You can see above that the 7.62x39mm AK round is roughly the same length as the AR 5.56x45mm but it has a much larger bullet (roughly 3x heavier).

So which is better?  Answer is that it all depends:

  • Velocity: AR round is faster velocity and more accurate when shot through the AR platform.  With a good rifle/skill you can expect to group your shots within 1 inch at 100 yards.  Normal shooters/rifles would be happy with 2-3 inches.
  • Deadliness: The faster velocities and design cause the bullet to yaw (or tumble) when it hits flesh.  This creates wounds disproportional to the bullets size.  However, there’s always reports of soldiers saying the round still lacks lethality.
  • Bullet Weight: AK round has more knockdown power due to the heavier bullet but in the platform it is not as inherently accurate.  You can expect 3-5 inch groups at 100 yards with a slightly less effective range.
  • Recoil: Recoil energy is noticeably more with the AK (~30-40%) but not uncomfortable to shoot.

Ergonomics

AR15 Parts Diagram
AR15 Parts Diagram
WASR-10 Parts Diagram
WASR-10 Parts Diagram

This one is hands down AR-15 due to a variety of aspects.

  • Faster magazine changes: The AR has a magazine release button that is accessed with the shooting hand while the AK has a lever that is pressed with the non-shooting hand.  Magazines also easily go into the magazine well while the AK magazine has to be rocked into place.
  • Safety: The safety lever is also easily accessed by the shooting hand’s thumb (if right handed) while the AK has a bulky lever on the right side.  This lever requires the hand to move off the grip, is slow to use, and has a loud click when used.
  • Bolt Release: The AR also has an easily accessed bolt release on the left side which can be manipulated by the non-shooting hand after a new magazine has been inserted.
  • Charging Handle: CLocated at the rear for the AR and on the right side for the AK.  For right-handed people, you usually have to use your left hand underneath the gun to rack it.
  • Bolt Hold Open: The AK also does not lock open after the last shot is fired.  You have to insert a new magazine and rack the charging handle.
  • Sights: Standard AR peep sights are also much easier to use than the AK’s sights.

Already made up your mind?  Check out our Guide to Buying Your First AR-15.

Reliability & Maintenance

Here, the AK is the clear winner.

AR-15’s have a reputation of being a little finicky in harsh environments, or if not properly cleaned, oiled, and maintained.

The AK will always go bang when needed.

However, when you do take care of your AR-15, I have found them to work flawlessly.

There’s tons of AK torture tests on YouTube, but this one takes the cake.  Here is an AK buried in the ground for 18 years being revived with a can of motor oil.

Cost

AK’s can be found for around $500 and up while AR’s start around $800 and up.  Of course, the manufacture’s quality can vary for both.

Cost of ammunition is also a big factor with the AK winning with the availability of military surplus ammunition which rings in at about 20 cents a round.

AR cartridges are around 30-40 cents a round.

For comparisons and recommendations, check out our Best Places to Buy Ammo Online.

Accessories

A lot of AR-15’s come with rails that let you have an endless possibility of accessories such as bipods, lights, and optics.

Almost everything you see can be customized such as the pistol grips and buttstocks.

Just be sure not to go overboard…You’ll see this referred to with either mild disgust or pride as being “tacticool.”

Ready to upgrade?  Check out our Ultimate Guide to Upgrading the AR-15.

Super Tacticool AR-15
Super Tacticool AR-15

AK’s have a harder time with accessories but there are mounts that allow optics to be placed above the dustcover, as well as gas tube replacements that allow rails up front.

Models

Our recommendations of AR-15 models will be coming up soon, but here are some various manufacturers with different price points.  For some in-depth help, check out our guide How to Choose Your First AR-15.

Colt 6920, ~$1000
Colt 6920, ~$1000
Daniel Defense AR-15, $1500
Daniel Defense AR-15, $1500
LWRC M6A2, ~$2000
LWRC M6A2, ~$2000

AK in-depth recommendations are coming, but here are a couple popular AK variants with different price points.

WASR-10, ~$500
WASR-10, ~$500
SLR-107, ~$1000
SLR-107, ~$1000

Conclusion

I have a couple AR-15’s and AK-47’s and my conclusion for a first gun depends on your end use.

If you’re looking for a soft recoiling accurate gun that you can spend time thinking how to upgrade and even use for competition, get the AR-15.

If you just want to have one gun that will always keep running, get the AK-47.

Or just get both!

Additional Resources

Here you’ll see a lot of the manipulations and gripes that I have above.

What did you end up choosing?

8 Comments

  1. This series of tutorials is a real service to allow a person new to handguns and/or home defense needs to get up to speed. I’m sure I’ll get some additional training for my needs, but I’ll begin it with a basic understanding of some important concepts.

  2. A Tavor X95, actually. Practicality dictated that as I have a paralyzed hand and needed the weight balance from the Bullpup for a shot-while-standing situation. I also chose it because it can take a bit more punishment, with less maintenance, than the AR.

    But, I am making my wife build an AR soon. Though, she is in Love with the X95. Damned good shot, too!

  3. It’s quite unfair comparing AR 15 where up-to-date weapon with AK 47 which been replaced by Russian military with newer version, AK 74, however still lot of them on the market today. It’s really good article actually, keep the good work.

  4. I am a relative novice and I have both an AK and an AR. In the last year the prices of entry level AR’s have dropped to between $400 and $500 due to overproduction in anticipation of a run on guns if Clinton had won the election. So there are insane buys on AR’s. Having said that, as a novice with limited time to practice, I think that the AK is the better novice gun. Other articles have noted that the AK was designed not only to be reliable, but to be used by illiterate peasants with minimal training. Recoil is marginally more than AR but for all intents and purposes neither has recoil worth talking about. For home defense, leave loaded mag in rifle with safety on (no kids in home!) and do not charge it. If needed, slam safety down and slap charging handle back to charge and cock the rifle. It took looking at a YouTube video to understand the AK sight picture, but once understood, it’s easy and I have no trouble with the pistol-like sights It’s easier to maintain, as well. And looks plain mean.

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