The AK-47 was designed for a different time, place and purpose than most of us put it to. Originally, it was meant to be a near-disposable weapon, issued to near-disposable troops, who were going to be trained as much as the short time available permitted and then sent in swarms to overwhelm the fascists then occupying Mother Russia. That it didn’t get fielded until after the fascists had been disposed of was hardly the fault of its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, nor did much of anything change after the war but the descriptor of the enemy.
Basically, the AK-47 is an ergonomic hot mess; full of sharp edges, with a too-short-for-Westerners stock, a handguard that doesn’t protect your hand from heat, sights suitable for CQB (and not much else) and a manual-of-arms that depends on having 17 squad members to back you up.
Reloading a firearm is an action that does not have one variable. You cannot say “speed is all that matters” or always saving magazines, or always…anything. Each situation is different, and so you should have more than one technique in your panoply of skills—especially with the AK-47 and, more importantly, its civilian variants.
Reloading the AK when anyone needs more ammo is one detail the people in charge did not ask the end-users about. The design of the magazine is as sturdy as a bridge (well, a good bridge, anyway) and it practically requires three hands to change one. The front of the magazine has a big lip, one that latches into a notch in the front trunnion of the receiver. The rear of the magazine is another ridge that latches into the spring-loaded magazine catch.
To insert the magazine to lock it in place, you do not simply shove it up into the receiver, as you would on an AR-15. That method gets you no place, fast. No, the process is known as “Hook and rock.” Simply put, you hold the magazine at an angle, baseplate toward the muzzle. You hook the front lip into the trunnion notch. You then pivot the magazine back until the rear ledge passes the spring-loaded latch and it is then locked in place.
But how to do that quickly and efficiently? There are three ways. We’ll call them number one, number two and number three. I know, not very original, but I’m over naming things after myself.
The first way is the range and administrative way (also known as the “magazines are expensive” way). When you go to reload, get your trigger finger out of the trigger guard. Lower the stock from your shoulder, but keep the muzzle horizontal. Tuck the stock between your arm and your body. These are all important. The finger part should be obvious, but it apparently isn’t to some people. You will be doing some major wrestling of components in the reload; you do not want an errant push of the rifle to bring your finger in contact with the trigger. So, get it out of there.
You want the muzzle controlled. Pointed loosely down at the ground, called “dangling” in some circles, it risks being pointed at your legs, someone else’s legs or if you do have an AD/ND, the round or pavement fragments might injure someone. Muzzle up is also bad, because if you have an AD/ND that bullet goes someplace. Horizontal means control. On the range, that means pointed at the backstop. On a “two-way” range environment, you’ve already determined that where you had been pointing it was a tactically safe direction. You want it controlled and firmly secured to your person. Also, pointing the muzzle down moves the loading process further from your line of sight and pulls your vision down away from the world.
Now, with the stock tucked between arm and body, roll the rifle so the magazine rises to your left side, your reloading hand side. The barrel is still horizontal. Grab the magazine with your left hand (southpaws reverse directions, as you’re accustomed to in life) so your thumb compresses the magazine catch. Once you have a firm grip, rock the magazine forward, remove it and place it in your dump pouch or range bag.
Grab your next magazine in much the same manner, but keep your thumb clear of the rear ledge. Hook and rock. If you need to, now roll the rifle the other way, reach over with your left and work the charging handle. You are good to go.
The advantages of method number one are that you retain magazines for future use. You retain firm control over the magazines, the rifle and you have a large-motor-control process to depend on. The disadvantage is speed, or rather, the lack thereof.
Someone will point out that I do not tell you to keep the rifle on your shoulder pointed at the area of hazard. “You have to be ready to shoot, just in case.” The problem with that method is that you can’t see the magazine opening. As a result, your reload will be even slower and it may take several attempts to get it hooked and rocked. You also have very little control of the rifle, which can easily be pushed aside or even taken away. If, in method number one you need that round in the chamber (assuming there is one there) you can aim from the under-arm position and your trigger finger can easily close the gap to the trigger. Need I remind you that you should be reloading behind cover or on the move, but certainly not standing out in the open?
The second method is the speed reload. Here, you go right for the next magazine immediately. You use the front edge, the inside curve, of the fresh magazine to push the magazine latch, unlocking the old magazine. You keep pushing forward and your push both unlatches and pivots the old magazine out of the receiver. You then hook and rock the new magazine in place, and if you need to, work the charging handle.
Yes, you will look like the very image of a Spestnaz operator, the embodiment of tacti-cool. Your old magazine will also be several yards downrange, embarrassing if the firing line won’t let you go forward for the next 20 minutes to retrieve it.
You can, if you wish, do this while the rifle is still up and on your shoulder, but this is not smart. You are pushing the rifle away from you with the new magazine. Unless you clutch the rifle tightly to your shoulder, it will come off of your shoulder and then slip back when you stop pressing with the new magazine. This is not good. Your muzzle will be waving all over the place. Some ranges might view this as grounds to revoke your current range time. Also, as with number one, when the rifle is on your shoulder you cannot see the magazine opening, and this makes it difficult to hook and rock. Better to do it as part of method number one, where you have lowered the rifle and clamped it between arm and body.
The advantage here is speed. You will be a lot faster to the shot after reload than with method number one. However, the disadvantage is that your magazine is now out in the dirt someplace, in front of you. Or, if you reloaded behind cover, you slammed it into the wall or skidded it under a vehicle. While it is pretty difficult to damage an AK magazine, it is easy to lose it and not have it for future use. In a military context this can matter. A unit that loses a magazine or two per man per firefight is going to find the supply types quite grumpy with them. If you need to reload in a defensive situation, keeping the empty magazine will be the least of your worries. Speed reload then if you have to and the heck with the magazine.
Method three changes everything. Here, as soon as you need to reload, you roll the rifle “outboard.” That is, for right-handed shooters, the magazine goes to the right. At the same time, you lower the muzzle. I know I said in method number one that pointed down can be bad. But here, you are not going to be pointing it loosely. As you roll and point the muzzle down, slide your left hand back to the magazine. Don’t slide it all the way back to the magazine, because, remember, the magazine will have to rock forward to be removed. Slide the stock up past your shoulder and clamp the rifle to your body with your left hand just above belt level. Take your right hand off of the pistol grip. The stock will be at or above your shoulder, with the muzzle pointed directly down in front of you. I know, heresy, right? I’ve just told you to do everything wrong, according to various internet “experts” and “operators.”
Remove the old magazine, per method number one, using your right hand. Grab your replacement magazine, insert, hook and rock. If need be, run the charging handle with your right hand, then grab the pistol grip, roll the rifle up and get back to the problem at hand.
OK, why do all this, and what advantages does method number three confer? The first thing it does is allow you to reload by feel. The usual process of hooking the front ledge on the magazine into the receiver, many inches from your other hand, is a process you have to watch. In number three you can simply bring your right hand to your left hand, at the center of your body, and hooking the front ledge is now easier. You can do it while staying heads-up, watching what needs to be watched. The second thing is, it gets the muzzle down, tightly under control and not pointed shakily out in space or wandering toward the teammate next to you. Third, it gets your hand completely off of the pistol grip and away from the trigger.
As a bonus, you can either do a speed reload or save the old magazine and stash it. If you need to use low cover, put your right knee down and your left leg now acts to further stabilize your rifle, keeping it under control and anchored.
As I mentioned, the AK-47 is not ergonomic. It was designed to be inexpensive to manufacture (the Soviets had lots of steel, but if they could have made the AK-47 out of cement, they probably would have) and simple to use. A quote attributed to Stalin has it as “Quantity has a quality of its own.”
Now, to be fair, I have to point out that the AK is not unique in the hook-and-rock method of reloading a magazine. The classic full-caliber rifles, the FAL and the M14/M1A, both use the same method. They, however, are not currently the most-seen rifles on the range they used to be. In fact, if you show up at your gun club with one of them, you are likely to be a subject of curiosity.
If you are going to get a fresh supply of ammunition back into your Kalashnikov-style rifle, you have to work with it, accept it for what it is and not grumble about how it isn’t like something else. None of the three methods is perfect, neither is any one of them the best method for all occasions. Yet, all are methods you would be wise to learn, and wiser still to practice. While you might not ever need to reload your rifle in a hurry, you’re probably going to reload it on the range, so why not practice all three?