AK-12. From defeat to victory
Authors - Maxim Popenker, Dmitriy Dolganov
The beginning of 2018 was marked by an important and certainly a joyful event for everyone connected to the Kalashnikov Concern. In late January, the Russian Ministry of Defense officially recommended the newest Izhevsk AK-12 and AK-15 assault rifles for the Russian Army. This decision marked a turning point in the Concern’s recent history. Herein lies the Concern’s long, difficult path to this accomplishment.
In 2012, as part of a large-scale developmental work codenamed ‘Ratnik’ and conducted by order of the Ministry of Defense of Russia, a tender was announced for the creation of a new assault rifle for the armed forces. Going into that tender, the Concern knew that the Russian army had made very limited purchases of new assault rifles since the 1990s, primarily relying on a huge reserve of weapons left over from Soviet times. However, no matter the size of the reserves, more than a quarter century of army operations, two wars in Chechnya, a military operation in North Ossetia and other events significantly depleted the reserves. In addition, the experience from those operations showed that Russian soldiers’ weapons and equipment should be improved. In particular, it was necessary to create and implement modern sighting systems for small arms, and to improve ergonomics. These demands led to a request for proposal (RFP) for an advanced assault rifle for the Russian Armed Forces, developed so that the new weapons are compatible with all other equipment and outfits developed within the framework of the Ratnik project.
Many specialists have long known that these RFPs were written with the AEK-971 family of assault rifles in mind. These were developed in Kovrov in the 1970s and 1980s and lost the Abakan contest to the AN-94 assault rifle. Nevertheless, the AEK-971 slowly evolved at the Kovrov Mechanical Plant and, from 2006 on, at the Degtyarev Plant.
The IZHMASH Concern could not stay away from the contest. It concerned one of the Concern’s main areas of activity, especially since IZHMASH had its own similar development: a family of assault rifles with balanced automatics, including the 5.45 mm caliber AK107, the 5.56 mm caliber AK108, and the 7.62х39 mm caliber AK109, developed on the basis of the earlier AL-6 and AL-7 assault rifles.
Aleksandrov assault rifle AL-7 with balanced automatics, 1974. Receiver cover and handguard are removed.
The Concern intended to submit the AK107 and AK109 assault rifles for the preliminary tests of the Ratnik contest, but after testing the rifles at the factory tests, the decision was made to abandon the AK109 assault rifle when no improvements in the fire dispersion were found in 7.62 mm caliber. It’s worth noting that the improvement in fire dispersion of the assault rifles with balanced automatics is noted in comparison with the products of the classical configuration only when firing at a high rate, short bursts (up to three shots) from unstable positions (standing with hands and lying with hands). When firing from all other positions and with other firing modes (including continuous burst), balanced assault rifles are not better, and often worse than classic assault rifles. This ephemeral advantage leads to a more complicated design (and, accordingly, higher price), more complicated maintenance, heavier weight and more effort needed to reload, greater sensitivity of the weapon to contamination, and an inability to create a shorter version of the assault rifle. These nuances, as well as the low efficiency of balanced automatics in the 7.62 mm caliber, were understood after the Abakan contest. Accordingly, IZHMASH designers came to the conclusion that further development of balanced automatics makes sense only in sports weapons for practical shooting with much less stringent requirements for operating conditions compared to combat models allowed this project’s possibilities to be expanded.
AK-107 assault rifle prepared for preliminary tests for Ratnik developmental work
Thus, having confirmed the copy-book maxims with factory tests, IZHMASH designers prepared for two different articles - AK107 in 5.45 caliber and AK103-3 in the 7.62 mm caliber - for preliminary testing. They competed with the products of the Degtyarev Plant (A-545 and A-762 assault rifles based on the AEK-971) and the original assault rifles 5.45A-91 and 7.62A-91 in the "bullpup" configuration developed by the TsKIB SOO branch from Tula. The preliminary tests revealed no obvious advantage systems in any caliber, therefore the second stage of tests was planned, at which only two companies were presented: the Degtyarev Plant and IZHMASH.
This requires a small historical remark. The Izhmash Concern, the largest developer and manufacturer of assault rifles and other small arms in Soviet times, experienced very difficult times at the beginning of the 2010s. After Izhmash CEO Grodetsky was removed from his post in 2011, the entire management of the enterprise changed. The former leading designer of the Tula TsKIB SOO, Vladimir Zlobin, became the new chief designer. Instead of using the experience accumulated in the IZHMASH design team, he decided to create a new “assault rifle of the 21st century" practically from scratch, nevertheless using circuit designs of the Kalashnikov assault rifle. The development, initiated in 2011, received the designation AK-12. Initially, the Concern did not plan to show it at the Ratnik contest, but in 2013 a new 5.45 mm assault rifle was handed over to the military for testing during the second stage of preliminary tests of the already mentioned Ratnik instead of AK107.
The chief designer did not have enough resources for the development of the new assault rifle at once in two calibers, so IZHMASH presented a 7.62 mm caliber AK103-3 assault rifle developed by a group of Izhevsk designers (the lead designer of the project – Dmitry Dolganov). The design of AK-12 assault rifle slightly changed from stage to stage. This specifically affected the butt, sighting devices, receiver cover fastening, and muzzle brake design. As a result of preliminary tests, the military gave preference to the Kovrov assault rifles, recommending the developmental work head to negotiate a contract with the Degtyarev Plant. Under these conditions, IZHMASH could further participate in development only in the form of an initiative.
2014 model AK-12 assault rifle
AK-103-3 assault rifle
In 2014, the assault rifles passed state tests, and in January 2015 an official conclusion was issued based on the results. For IZHMASH, it sounded catastrophic: “Recommend A-545 and A-762 assault rifles for serial production and military tests after rework. AK-12 and AK103-3 assault rifles do not meet the requirements of the RFP and have not passed the state tests. Further rework is recommended at the designer’s expense." What happened with the assault rifles during preliminary tests had repeated itself. To a large extent, the result of this developmental work phase for the concern was the result of an unjustified retreat from the technical solutions proven by more than half a century of combat operation, ensuring the impeccable reliability of the classic AK, while in terms of the level of technologies used, the AK-12 was not a significant step forward. As for the AK103-3, it fell victim to unification - the customers did not want to have two completely different assault rifles in two calibers.
A very dramatic moment came. Recognizing the defeat meant the loss of not only reputation, but also of a huge sales market for IZHMASH, recently transformed into the Kalashnikov Concern, and an attempt to further develop the existing AK-12 did not guarantee success. After all, not only did the new assault rifle have a lot of serious shortcomings revealed during the tests, including low reliability and strength of individual assemblies, it was not even adapted to the existing technological processes at the plant (unification with predecessors was no more than 10%). And this meant that, even if all the problems were eliminated, serial production of the AK-12 would require a very significant investment of forces, assets and time, and the final price of such an assault rifle would exceed the cost of the AK-74M by five to six times. Furthermore, the conditional novelty of the design did not give advantages for integrated combat effectiveness indicators in comparison with the adopted AK-74M, and in the case of serial production, it practically guaranteed the emergence of a wide variety of early defects.
The situation at the beginning of 2015 for Izhevsk designers was almost hopeless, and here we come to the classic plot of "the role of the individual in history." In February 2014, many new appointments to the post of general director of the recently created Kalashnikov Concern ended with the arrival of Aleksey Yurievich Krivoruchko. Just a year after taking office, he already understand that changes in the Concern design team were the only chance to further participate in the competition. As early as the summer of 2014, Sergey Urzhumtsev, who had worked for a long time as the chief designer at the Vyatskie Polyany Machine-Building Plant MOLOT, and later as the General Director of Molot-Oruzhie, was invited to Izhevsk. He went through "armory" education in the Izhevsk State Technical University and had a hands-on opportunity to familiarize himself with all the features of the Kalashnikov-built systems. As a side note, for many years VPO Molot produced light machine guns RPK and civilian weapons based on them. The new chief designer had to decide on further destiny of the project. And this decision was the abandonment of the failed AK-12 and the development of an assault rifle based on the already existing solutions and development of the Concern, based on its own Izhevsk school of weapons construction. It was an absolute risk, but it still gave more chances of success than attempting to "pull" the 2014 model AK-12, and this step was fully supported by the Concern CEO. Thus, in March 2015, the project, originally called the AK-400, began.
Of course, the AK-400 was not created from scratch. The main objective of the project was to create a prototype of the AK74 by means of deep modernization, preserving the achieved reliability parameters and meeting the new requirements of the RFP, while maximally using the already existing rich legacy of the Kalashnikov system, both from the point of view of the weapon design and in terms of production technologies existing at the plant.
The task was extremely difficult, all the more so, in parallel with the AK-400 development, the same team conducted developmental works on Obves (modernization kit for the previously manufactured assault rifles), while also refining the factory version of the 200 series of assault rifles, with elements of the Obves installed in factory conditions. The task was as follows: during the time when the competitors from Kovrov were quietly making a batch of assault rifles for the experimental-military operation, designers from Izhevsk were to develop samples (in 5.45 mm and 7.62 mm calibers), protect the design during factory and state tests and also make batch of assault rifles.
After analyzing the situation, the new chief designer transferred the team to the "brainstorming" mode, taking the overall management of the projects. Development of design documentation for the "400" was conducted by the team of designers of the bureau of combat automatic weapons of the design and technology center. The basis of the project was the work on AK103-3 from the first stage of Ratnik. The development team included designers from the design and technology center: Alexey Sayfutdinov (bureau head), Dmitry Dolganov (lead designer of the project), Alexander Rekukhin, Kirill Sibiryakov, Olga Shumanina and Anna Syursina.
One of the first samples of the 7.62x39 caliber AK-400 assault rifle
As a result of hard work, an assault rifle was developed whose design ensured the installation of all the required modern sighting systems on a unified base of Picatinny rail type. The gas outlet, gas tube, receiver and barrel with barrel armature, as well as receiver cover were substantially redesigned to increase the stability of accuracy and fire dispersion (including with optical instruments) for various methods of holding the assault rifle. According to the RFP requirements, the firing mechanism was able to conduct firing in fixed bursts of 2 rounds. Switching firing modes became easier. The folding butt, unified with the butt and developed during Ratnik developmental work, is equipped with a length adjustment device. Additional removable muzzle devices were developed. The level of unification of the new AK-12 with the basic model AK-74M was about 54%. At the same time, the main structural elements ensuring the highest level of reliability and trouble-free operation of the system, namely the mobile system and locking unit, remained unchanged, traditional for the AK scheme.
As a result of hard work in the second half of 2015, the new AK-12 assault rifles, and unified 5.45 and 7.62 mm caliber AK-15s respectively, were delivered to the second round of state tests. At the same time, the Concern continued to show the old AK-12 at various exhibitions, including at the Army-2015 forum, because the fate of the new AK-12 was yet decided. In early 2016, an interdepartmental commission appointed by the Ministry of Defense considered the results of state trials. According to their decision, the new assault rifles were found to be in compliance with the RFP requirements, and the design documentation was assigned the O1 serial production letter. The assault rifles received new indices of GRAU 6P70 (5.45 mm caliber AK-12) and 6P71 (7.62 mm caliber AK-15). As soon as June 2016, the batches of the AK-12 and AK-15 assault rifles, along with rifles from Kovrov, were delivered to the army for comparative tests.
The purpose of the comparative tests was to determine the effectiveness of firing from the developed samples of assault rifles of each caliber in comparison with standard samples and among themselves to develop recommendations passing the assault rifles into service of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. During the military tests, the weapon’s operation was tested in different climatic conditions and tactical situations, with all systems and target complexes created within the framework of Ratnik. Experimental operation was conducted in by ground forces, paratroopers, marines and special forces of the Russian Defense Ministry in four stages. At the end of each stage of the comparative tests, the servicemen who took part in the experimental military operation were questioned about the combat and operational characteristics of the developed assault rifles. The results of military operation were first officially announced in May 2017 at the Military Scientific Commission of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.
In December 2017, the board of the Ministry of Defense considered the results of comparative tests conducted during the experimental-military operation. Taking into account the recommendations received during the tests and features of the construction arrangements of the assault rifles, the board recommended the adoption of both competing systems. At the same time, it was recommended that the Kovrov machines be accepted only for armament of special-purpose units and units, and the AK-12 and AK-15 for arming all the main combat arms of military personnel of general formations of the ground forces, paratrooper forces and Navy marines. It should be noted that the real differences in combat effectiveness, determined by the probability and frequency of hitting when firing from the assault rifles, between the two competing systems were extremely insignificant. A small advantage of assault rifles with balanced automatics was determined only in the 5.45 caliber when firing at ranges up to 200 meters from unstable positions, firing with cutoff of 2 rounds. At the same time, when shooting with bursts of 3-5 shots, no superiority was detected. However, despite the fact that the 5.45 mm AК-12 assault rifle was slightly inferior than the 5.45 mm 6P67 assault rifle, the servicemen of the ground forces, paratrooper forces and Navy marines preferred the technical solutions implemented in the AK-12. In particular, the servicemen noted a strong ejection of gases in the eyes of a shooter from the 5.45 mm 6P67 assault rifle and the 7.62 mm 6P68 assault rifle with a balanced automatic scheme. These emissions caused irritation to the eyes and respiratory organs, making it difficult to observe the battlefield and further conduct fire. They also noted the sensitivity of the "balanced" automatic to contamination, complexity of the assault rifle design during maintenance and operation, and inconvenience for hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting.
Photos of assault rifles, which passed comparative tests during experimental military operation in 2016-2017.
5.45 mm A-545 (6P67) assault rifle with a silencer
5.45 mm AK-12 (6P70) assault rifle
7.62 mm А-762 (6P68) assault rifle
7.62 mm AK-15 (6P71) assault rifle
The cost of weapons is an important issue for the armed forces. According to preliminary estimates, the A-545 assault rifles will cost the Russian budget about 10 times more than the current AK74M. The cost of the AK-12 will also be slightly higher than that of AK74M, but the differences will be much less significant.
This success of the Izhevsk designers and masters was consolidated by official orders from the Ministry of Defense of Russia and foreign customers for the first industrial batches of AK-12 and AK-15 assault rifles that the Concern committed to deliver by the end of 2018. Large-scale production is planned to start in 2019.
The work on the AK103-3 assault rifle from the second and subsequent stages of tests during Ratnik developmental work was also not in vain - they formed the basis for the developed "commercial" (that is, oriented primarily for export) Kalashnikov rifles of the 200 series.
5.45 mm AK-205 assault rifle of “two-hundredth" series
Not only Assault Rifles
As early as in 2016, based on the decisions of the AK-400, it was decided to develop the light machine gun of 5.45 mm caliber with it maximum unification with the AK-400 - weapons for support at the squad level. In the summer of 2017, the Ministry of Defense of Russia confirmed interest in such a model. After the RFP approval for developmental work and completion of the preliminary tests, in the first quarter of 2018 the Ministry of Defense received a batch of new 5.45 mm RPK-16 light machine guns for experimental-military operation. A considerable interest in the exhibition Army-2017 to this machine gun was shown by other law enforcement agencies of Russia, as well as potential foreign customers. An important feature of the new machine gun design in comparison with its predecessors is the possibility of replacing the barrel. It is also equipped with removable bipods, a large magazine (95 rounds), a quick-detachable silencer and a carrying case. When equipped with a short barrel, the new light machine gun does not differ in size from the conventional assault rifle, but its more massive construction and heavy barrel allow to provide a high density of automatic fire at short ranges, the long barrel provides increased accuracy and fire dispersion at medium and large (according to assault rifle standards) distances. It is assumed that the RPK-16 will go into serial production in parallel with the AK-12 and AK-15 or immediately after them.
RPK-16 (codename "Kipchak")
Adoption of the AK-12 and AK-15 does not mean that their reworking is completed. Within the framework of the internal project "AK-EVO", the design center of the Concern is further improving the basic platform of the Kalashnikov assault rifle. One of the important directions is the further improvement of ergonomics, for example, the development of more convenient "two-sided" safety locks-selector switches, new sighting devices, fore and butt of a new design, increasing the modularity of the structure. A significant part of these improvements can eventually be used on the serial AK-12 and AK-15. In parallel, work on a new promising assault rifle platform, started with the development of compact samples of the AM-17 and AMB-17, is underway. At the heart of their layout decisions are the ideas of another classic of the Izhevsk weapons school - E. F. Dragunov, multiplied by modern materials (primarily polymeric ones), modern production technologies and requirements to ergonomics and performance put forward by its current users.