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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.

PSA AK 103 Shooting
PSA AK-103 Shooting

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.

Table of Contents

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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.

Mikhail Kalashnikov
Respect to the man who invented the AK, Mikhail Kalashnikov

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.

Vietnam-era m16
Riflemen in Vietnam engaging the enemy with an M16, the military version of the AR-15.

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

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).

Popular Rifle Calibers, Part II
Popular Rifle Calibers

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 of 5.56 NATO cause the bullet to yaw (or tumble) when it hits flesh. 

This creates wounds disproportional to the size of the bullet. This also aids in much lower penetration through barriers than you might expect, making it a far better choice for home defense.

hd overpen testing 5.56 rifle
Home Defense Overpenetration Testing

On the other hand, if penetration of barriers such as car doors or dry wall is something you want — 7.62x39mm has much mass to get the job done.

Bullet Weight

Common weights for 5.56 NATO is 55gr, 69gr, and 77gr. 7.62x39mm are much heavier at 122-124gr and 154gr.

Lightweight 5.56 means higher speeds and easier long range shots. Heavy 7.62×39 equals easier to suppress, more penetration, and higher recoil.

Recoil

Recoil energy is noticeably more with the AK (~30-40%) but not uncomfortable to shoot.

SureFire Warden Shooting

Ergonomics

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

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

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.

While the AK can be made to be almost as fast with good training, it does require a learning curve. Bonus though, you can do this with an AK:

AK Reload Gif
Very cool

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.

CA HD AR SI HEX Safety
Strike Industries Hex Safety for the AR-15

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

Located 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. Annoying to say the least.

PSA AK74 Manipulating
PSA AK74 Manipulating

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.

Offset Sights MBUS
Offset Sights MBUS

Already made up your mind? Check out our Guide to Buying Your First AR-15 and also Best AK-47.

Reliability & Maintenance

While this is hotly debated, it shouldn’t be. The AR-15 is the better system, kind of.

Where the AK shines is with zero maintenance, and we really mean zero. No lube, no cleaning, no training, no replacement parts. Under those unlikely and grossly neglectful conditions, the AK will probably outlast an AR.

Look at the AKs still in service around the world and you can quickly see examples of these.

Rusty AK-47
We don’t know what happened to it, but this rifle has seen some stuff.

That said, those rifles are inaccurate, jam, and are in no way on par with a properly maintained rifle.

The AR-15 requires at least a little maintenance in its life. A touch of lube, a cleaning once every several thousand rounds, and it will keep on trucking like you wouldn’t believe.

It is also a much more sealed up design allowing for it to be dropped in the mud, dragged through sand, and blasted with dust better than an AK.

Do even the barest minimum of TLC for an AR and it will out last and out perform an AK.

Cost

Right now, prices are crazy. As of March 2021, you’ll find AR-15s for about $700+ and AKs for $900+. It’s a weird and wild world right now and prices are changing all the time.

Ammo is also a huge question, normally on average 7.62×39 will be cheaper than 5.56 NATO — but that is normally because you almost always buy 7.62×39 steel cased and 5.56 brass cased ammo.

Steel for steel and brass of brass, the prices are much more even.

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.

Upgraded AR-15s
Upgraded AR-15s

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.

A Couple AR-15 Optics
A Couple AR-15 Optics

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.

3 Upgraded AK-47s
3 Upgraded AK-47s

Models

Check out our guide How to Choose Your First AR-15. If you want the short answer though, here are a couple that we love.

Simple, easy to use, and a great price — PSA makes the best “everyman” AR-15 on the market right now.

Best Complete AR-15 on a Budget
499
at PSA

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

If you want one of the best names in the industry, Daniel Defense is a great option. You’ll pay for it, but these are rifles backed up with an outstanding reputation.

Aimpoint Comp M5 on Daniel Defense DDM4 V7
Aimpoint Comp M5 on Daniel Defense DDM4 V7
1729
at Daniel Defense

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

We love AKs, these are a few of the best:

Again, PSA! They’ve come a long way since they started making AKs and the Gen 3+ are just awesome. You can get them with CHF barrels, chrome lined, and built like tanks.

Best Bang-for-Buck AK
559
at Palmetto State Armory

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Parts kits built over seas and imported into the USA for assembly, the WASR-10 is a classic that will never die. And they are ultra reliable.

Best Starter AK
778
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

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!

Parting Shots

We have collected ALL our articles on the AR-15 here…the Definitive AR-15 Guide.

What did you end up choosing? Let us know in the comments!

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31 Leave a Reply

  • Steve

    I got an ak first, mainly for penetration in a worst case scenario and then bought the parts for my ar and put it together myself, learning about it as much. I don’t agree completely about the inaccuracy of the ak or about just running an ak without cleaning. Keeping my firearms clean, oiled and ready to go is also a safety factor.

    May 9, 2021 3:55 pm
  • lturn9

    Great comparison of AK and AR. I have one of each as suggested. I also have an SKS which I highly recommend. While related to the the AK, it has many similarities and the only negative I have found is the 10 round mag is built into the receiver. Adding a 30 rd (or other) mag requires disassembly. But as far as shooting, I find the SKS is a much more accurate rifle compared to the AK, is just as reliable and easy to maintain. Making a choice between the SKS/AK and AR is tough but if I could only own 1, I'd probably go for the AR mostly because I like shooting the .223/5.56 round and the quality of the AR.

    April 9, 2021 9:52 am
  • Jean Hoover

    First weapon I EVER fired was an AK47 (a gift from a Russian friend, no less) I was 19, living alone and weighed 105 lbs soaking wet. Had a baby in diapers.. I never thought I would ever need or use any gun for any reason, but it was a gift. A burglar trying to break in and I both learned a lot about that gun at midnight. Looking back it's funny now. Then, not so much. I killed a pine tree, woke the neighbors and he probably made a new career choice. Also learned the movies lied. One does NOT prop gun on hip and pull trigger.

    March 16, 2021 5:54 am
  • Diana Feinstein

    3-5inch groups? Pfft. Propaganda. My cheap wasr 10 is a 2.25MOA rifle

    September 10, 2019 3:07 am
  • Jerremia

    what would be best for left handed shooters?

    April 8, 2019 3:43 am
  • ΠΕΡΙΚΛΗΣ

    for you dear friend . I like your pages too & i spend a lot-of hours watching them, learning too much . I am a Greek 68 year-old . i am a hunder . I live in Thessaloniki . But in GREECE the Firearms are strictly forbbidden . So ιτ is my pleasure to see you only . Hello.

    November 28, 2018 4:29 pm
    • John

      Thanks so much! We're very glad you enjoy our articles!

      November 28, 2018 4:53 pm
  • Kevin

    His comparative info on bullet weight is way off! Common 5.56 NATO loads are 55 and 62 grain bullets. 7.62 x 39 for the AK is around 123-124 grain bullets

    July 14, 2018 10:22 am
  • Cactus Cleve

    AKs are more idiot proof.

    June 22, 2018 11:19 am
  • D DuPuis

    You make a fair comparison of the two rifles however you failed in one area. That would be the time, energy,knowledge and frequency of cleaning both the ar and ak. These factors are very important and should be considered before a choice of rifle is made. It could make the difference between life or death.

    June 22, 2018 7:57 am
  • Terry

    AK's are like the Glock of the rifle world. They always fire but, in my opinion, AR's are way more fun. Not knocking reliability on the AR, Ive never had a malfunction... ever, but I've heard and seen ARs misfire, I've never seen or heard of that in an AK. Both are awesome, it's whatever your personal preference is when it comes to these 2. ARs have way more versatility and options. Shoot both, pick one or both, if you can afford it.

    June 21, 2018 11:55 pm
  • John Schneider

    The AK is stamped sheet metal and who know what steel is in the barrel. I prefer the AR any day over the AK but prefer the AR 10 over the AR 15. If I had to choose an AR 15 platform I would choose something I would choose something in 6 mm caliber or 6.5 (6mm/.223 or 6mm/.223 improved) and a little larger case capacity. I love the AR platform in 6.5 Creedmoor and .243 Winchester as well as 7.62 or .308.

    June 21, 2018 7:48 pm
  • Mike

    I own both... My Ak is set up just as good as my AR... if the SHTF I would definitely choose my AK any day... The info in this article is incorrect... my AK is capable of much tighter groups than stated. It’s had thousands of rounds through it and Never fails to fire...if I was able I would post a picture of it... looks nothing like the low budget gun in this article....

    June 21, 2018 7:40 pm
  • Dan

    C'mon. Ford or Chevy question....

    June 21, 2018 6:27 pm
    • Fredrick Rehders

      Not really, Dan. In a SHTF situation, it will be up close and very personal. I chose the most dependable 50 - 100 yard weapon, with the most knockdown, that I could afford. That was the AK. Inside of 50 yards it is the 12 gauge and inside of 10 yards it's my Glock, After those expenses comes ammo in depth, for just three sizes. I certainly appreciate those well made 1,000 yard rifles and Belgium made Browning shot guns, but shtf time ain't a Symphony, it's Rock & Roll, leave your Stradivarius in the closet.

      June 22, 2018 11:05 am
  • Larry OBrien

    Interesting side by side. I'd go with the majority who point out the VAST difference in price -- the AR is the definite winner. Since I "assume" the earnest gun owner will have a clean, lightly oiled weapon, the admitted "dirty" performance advantage of the AK is largely over ridden. The ONE BIG advantage (in my opinion) of the "standard" AK is trigger performance (pull and smoothness); the 'military' trigger on the AR is really "Not Too Dandy". Admittedly, there are 'drop in' replacements BUT they cost about half what the weapon itself puts you back. If it's only one -- I'd go with the AR.

    June 21, 2018 5:50 pm
  • Richard

    Very good article. I would like to add a few things.

    One thing I would like to add is that accuracy of both platforms are affected by the quality (and the dimensions) of the ammo. AK steel cased ammo is notoriously cheap but also gives mixed results with accuracy. With quality ammo and the correct bullet diameter ( .310-.311 is correct for the AK 47 yet many American manufacturers make ammo that is .308 for the AK) accuracy is greatly improved in the AK 47.

    Second is optics. AK47/AKM variants have terrible sights. They prevent a good sight picture and can negatively impact accuracy. This can be improved by adding peep sights.Also the rear sight is relatively close to the forward sight which allows for greater variation from where you are aiming to where the bullet actually leaves the bullet (I forget what it's called). This can be improved by removing the rear sight and adding a peep sight to the rear of the dust cover (via a rail or welding). Both can be improved by using red dots or better yet, a scope.

    Finally modern day AKs (like the AK 100 series) have less weight on the barrel itself which affect harmonics. Free float barrels have proven their accuracy vs non free float, and AKs have come along ways from the 50s.

    June 21, 2018 5:21 pm
  • Jim

    Attending gum shows for the last 2 years in nor th carolina, I would say your prices are reversed. I have not seen a decent ak47 under $600 with most $650 or over. Several brands of ar15 have been offered at $500. In both cases these are base models but far from junk.

    March 21, 2018 12:17 pm
    • David

      Prices have shifted around a lot in the past two years, I've seen build kits for AR-15s in the $300-350 range! Might be time to update this article with some new numbers.

      March 21, 2018 12:58 pm
  • Kyle

    Hey great read man i ended up choosing the ar15 mainly due to price 400 but i have to build it but it should give me a better understanding of the rifle itself i also checked out your guide on building the lower so thanks for all the info

    September 30, 2017 9:25 am
    • Eric Hung

      You're so welcome, Kyle!

      October 2, 2017 1:57 pm
  • Paul

    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.

    February 14, 2017 5:25 pm
    • Eric Hung

      So easy child (soldiers) can use it!

      February 15, 2017 4:35 pm
  • Henry James

    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.

    November 25, 2016 3:10 pm
    • ehung

      Hi Henry, great point...will be a good update/new article idea for the future!

      November 25, 2016 6:10 pm
  • Jesse Canfield

    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!

    November 23, 2016 10:27 am
    • ehung

      Hi Jesse, that's a great insight on a special situation, thank you for sharing. Let us know how your wife's build comes along!

      November 24, 2016 10:31 am
  • John

    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.

    August 1, 2016 8:35 pm
    • ehung

      Hi John, thanks so much for the kind words and I'm glad my articles are helping you out.

      August 2, 2016 1:57 pm
      • Bob M

        You have missed the 600 lb gorilla in the living room with this discussion! Join the discussion... I looked at both and made another choice -- the Ruger Mini 30! It shoots the 7.62x39 cartridge, and the latest improved bersions are cheaper and just as reliable as the AK ! And fewer moving parts!

        June 22, 2018 6:23 am
        • Mark Y

          I'd take an SKS over a mini 30, and neither are even close to as good as an AK. Most mini 30's aren't even reliable with steel cased ammo. The only legitimate reason to own any sort of mini is if you're nostalgic for the ban years.

          December 13, 2019 12:46 am