The 5.45x39mm flanked by the 5.56 NATO (left) and 7.62x39 mm (right). In its original loading, the 5.45x39 mm used a 52.9-grain bullet that achieved 2,900 fps at the muzzle. Heavier bullets up to 64 grains are currently used.
Irony is a curious thing. Just as shooters and writers in the U.S. were espousing the superiority of the 7.62x39 mm cartridge over the 5.56 NATO based on each cartridge's alleged performance in Vietnam, the Soviet Union was working to develop a cartridge of its own that would mimic the carrying capacity and ballistic properties of the 5.56 NATO. The result of this smallbore arms race was the development of the 5.45x39 mm cartridge and its host weapon, the AK-74. The 5.45x39 mm uses a 52.9-grain bullet launched at a muzzle velocity of around 2,900 fps, and it proved to be an effective cartridge in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The current popularity of AK-74 type rifles in the U.S. market was driven by political and market forces. Ten years ago, no one wanted a 5.45x39 mm. The ammunition and component shortages that followed the 2008 election made 5.56 NATO and 7.62x39 mm ammo scarce and expensive, while 5.45x39 mm remained largely available and relatively cheap. Many shooters purchased rifles in 5.45x39 mm, not because they were attracted to the ballistic capabilities of the round, but because they could get ammo without selling any organs. Many training schools saw a rise in students showing up to classes with 5.45x39 mm AKs—they left their "go-to" guns at home with their coveted ammo stashes. The result was shooters, by accident or necessity, suddenly realized these were great rifles and the 5.45x39 mm is a great cartridge.
Arsenal Inc.'s SGL-31 rifle is about as close as an American civilian can come to owning a true AK-74. These rifles are made in Russia in the Izhmash factory as "sporters," and are then imported by Arsenal in Las Vegas. Once they get to Vegas, the rifles are outfitted with several U.S. made parts, not only to keep them compliant with federal law, but also to mimic the outward appearance of the Russian military arm. The rifles feature a stamped Russian receiver, Russian chrome-lined barrels and a U.S.-made anti-slap trigger. In my experience, Arsenal AK's are far superior to bargain variants on the market that have often been hastily cobbled together from surplus parts kits.
These AKs are viable and effective rifles right out of the box, but there are a few modifications that can drastically increase the capability of an AK without trying to turn it into an AR. From a practical accuracy standpoint, the most glaring shortcoming of the AK-series rifle is its short sight radius, compounded by the use of open sights (an aperture sight can't be properly employed due to the rear sight position). With today's lightweight, high-quality optics, the most effective way to address the sight issue is the addition of a long-eye-relief optic that can be mounted forward of the receiver—out of the way of hands manipulating the working parts. The Ultimak Scout Mount is a great way to mount an optic down low, so the shooter can maintain a good cheek weld. It replaces the factory gas tube with one equipped with a Picatinny rail.
The Colorado Shooting Sports Lightning Lever allows the shooter to manipulate the safety lever of any AK without breaking contact with the firing grip.
In an effort to keep this rifle light and slick, I chose the Aimpoint Micro T-1 with a 2-MOA dot as my optic. This setup is lightning-fast and allows for easy hits on man-size steel targets out past 300 yards. The heat transferred through the Ultimak mount can be too much for many optics, but the little Aimpoint has never quit on me.
AKs get a lot of complaints about their ergonomics, and they certainly require a different manual of arms than many Western shooters are used to. My biggest issue with the AK platform is, to manipulate the charging handle or the safety/selector lever, the shooter has to either remove his hand from the firing grip or reach over or under the receiver with the non-firing hand. The AK Lighting Lever from Colorado Shooting Sports solves this problem using a small horizontal tab on the safety lever that allows the shooter to engage and disengage the safety using just the trigger finger—the shooter's position on the grip is therefore maintained. Other additions included a U.S. Palm AK Battle Grip that is larger and more comfortable than the factory grip and an excellent two-point bungee sling from Original Special Operations Equipment.
With the improved ergonomics, all the SGL-31 lacked was a weaponlight. I used a Vltor Scout Mount to secure a SureFire G2X tactical light to the rail. This light's tail cap on/off switch can be operated using the thumb of the weak hand, yet otherwise stays out of the way. With a proper sling, a well-mounted optic, a comfortable grip, a white light and an enhanced safety, this rifle loses nothing to more advanced designs while maintaining the legendary AK reliability. I have used this setup over the course of several months both on the practice range and in classes, and it has been 100 percent reliable. I have never felt handicapped, despite the fact that I'm an AR guy at heart.
The best part about this rifle is that it chews through cheap and dirty surplus ammo I wouldn't dare shoot in my ARs. Hornady also loads 5.45x39 mm ammo, and it is excellent alternative to the Eastern European sources.
The Arsenal SGL-31 uses an AK-74 type muzzle break, which is very effective when combined with the high-velocity 5.45x39 mm round.
This SGL-31 is plenty accurate for its purpose, consistently placing rounds in the credit card-sized "A" box of a standard USPSA target at 100 yards. The combination of the efficient AK-74 muzzle brake and the small-caliber round make for a very fast combination, producing very little recoil or muzzle rise.
The AR versus AK and 7.62x39 mm versus 5.56 NATO/5.45x39 mm debates will rage on among posers for decades to come, but the reality is all of the above have proven themselves as viable fighting rifles and cartridges around the globe. The SGL-31 provides shooters with a high-quality firearm in an alternative cartridge that became quite appealing when the price of 5.56 NATO doubled and tripled. With a few accessories, the performance capability of these AK-74-style rifles can be taken to a whole new level.
Specifications Manufacturer:Arsenal, Inc. Action Type: Gas-piston-operated, semi-automatic Caliber: 5.45x39 mm Capacity: 30 rounds Receiver: 1 mm stamped steel Barrel: 16.3 inches; hammer-forged, chrome-lined Rifling: 4 grooves; 1:7.68-inch RH twist Stock: Fixed synthetic (Black, OD, Tan, Plum available) Sights: Post front, 1,000 meter rear; receiver side mount for optics Trigger Pull Weight: 7.5 pounds Length: 36.5 inches Weight: 7.3 pounds Accessories: One 10-round magazine, cleaning rod MSRP: $889