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.
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 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.
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