September 23, 2010
The author's old Arsenal SLR-95 (top) is a fine gun, but the company's newer guns, such as the 7.62 Saiga (bottom), have improved a great deal over the last decade.
I first noticed Arsenal's AK-47s in the pages of Shotgun News in the mid-1990s. They looked great, but they cost a bit more than competing AKs. I almost didn't buy one because of the price until I happened across a table full of AKs at a local gun show. In person, the difference in quality between the milled-receiver Arsenal SLR-95 and its competitors was very obvious. I sprung for an SLR-95 that day, and I've never regretted it.
A few months ago, I stumbled across Arsenal's website. I was considering adding another AK to my collection, and the company offered several milled- and stamped-receiver guns in 5.45x39, 5.56, and 7.62x39 that looked pretty good. Once again, the Arsenal offerings were a bit more expensive than some of its competitors. To find out why, I called the company and got in touch with sales director Walker English. We had some great conversations about the AK-47 market, some of which were interesting enough that I felt compelled to fly to Las Vegas to visit Arsenal's U.S. factory.
According to English, Arsenal's guns start out as complete, brand-new sporting rifles that are then remanufactured into mil-spec rifles in Arsenal's state-of-the-art Las Vegas facility. Unlike some of its competitors' offerings, Arsenal's AKs are not built from shot-out surplus parts kits with a few cheap U.S. parts thrown in for good measure and marked as "New" and "Made in the USA."
Every Arsenal offering is actually a brand-new gun with enough USA parts to make them legal. But in Arsenal's case, the U.S.-made parts are even better than the originals.
Just to give you an idea of the difference in quality, I examined a brand-new gun from a popular importer/manufacturer who claims its AKs are new and made with U.S.-made barrels and parts. The first thing I noticed was that the inside of the receiver was filthy, and it exhibited an alarming amount of corrosion, despite the fact that I had just removed the "new" gun from its original, dated shipping carton.
Arsenal's stamped and milled receivers are new. None exhibits any signs of corrosion or wear, and all are built according to the original blueprints to the tightest possible tolerances rather than reverse-engineered, as many AK companies do. The difference in quality is immediately apparent.
As bad as it was, the difference in the receivers was not near as drastic as the disparity in barrel quality. First, the competitor's barrel was not new, as it was advertised to be. Removing the flash hider revealed corrosion and fouling at the end of the barrel and inside the flash hider that was indicative of a very high round count. Worn rifling further belied the rifle's "new"status. Even more alarming was the barrel fit. AK barrels are pressed into place with a hydraulic press. Once they are removed, the barrels should never be re-installed. But this one clearly was, as evidenced by knurling around the chamber area. Knurling raises the metal surface enough for the "manufacturer" to refit used surplus barrels.
Arsenal's barrels, on the other hand, are brand new. The tubes are chrome-lined and hammer-forged. (Bulgarian barrels are made with the same process Steyr uses.) They fit right and do not suffer the same headspacing, reliability, and safety woes as their competitors. Flash hiders are solid, milled parts and are devoid of corrosion and fouling. The crowns are also clean and sharp.
The inside of the Arsenal AK (left) is clean and of obvious superior quality compared to the inside of a competitor's AK (right). The rivet at the bottom of the Arsenal's frame prevents the trigger slap that is common with other AKs.
The Arsenal's bore (left) is smooth and clean, denoting its new condition, whereas the competitor's "new" barrel (right) is corroded and fouled. "New" must mean different things to different people.
The triggers are another area in which Arsenal excels. Arsenal uses forged, machined fire control parts built in the U.S. on advanced CNC machines to very tight tolerances for its milled guns. The stamped guns have a nice, two-stage trigger that usually breaks around 8 pounds. The milled guns have an improved single-stage pull that breaks in the 4- to 5-pound range. All have a rivet in the bottom of the receiver that absorbs the impulse of the hammer, thereby eliminating the trigger slap that is common with most AKs.
Arsenal's polymer parts are also a cut above. The magazines are steel reinforced in all the right places and easily pass all mil-spec magazine tests. The buttstocks are better fitted and more solidly constructed, and each stock has a trapdoor designed for the standard AK cleaning kit.
Arsenal's handguards are rugged and attractive, and a stainless-steel heat shield is fitted into every one. Over the years, several competitors who tried to buy handguards from Arsenal for their own guns asked if they could order them without this essential, inexpensive addition to cut costs. When Arsenal refused, those competitors decided to buy their parts elsewhere. The desire to cut corners and save nickels and dimes at every turn rather than produce a quality rifle seems to be the modus operandi of many AK companies.
Despite rumors to the contrary, AK-47s can be accurate. Thanks to the great triggers, tight tolerances, excellent barrels, and laser-calibrated iron sights, Arsenal's AK-47s will shoot with the best of them. According to English, Arsenal gets iron sight accuracy that averages 2 to 3 inches for stamped receiver guns and 1.5 to 2 inches with milled guns.
I have fired thousands of rounds through my milled-receiver SLR-95 over the last 15 or so years. Reliability has been as flawless as one would expect from an AK, and the accuracy has been every bit as good as Arsenal claims. Though I've yet to put a scope on it, I can routinely shoot 2- to 3-inch groups with my ghost-ring-sighted AK. As good as my AK is, English claimed that Arsenal's new guns are superior to my old-school SLR-95, so we headed out to the desert near Arsenal's Las Vegas facility with a few of the newest offerings to see if the new guns were as good as he said.
I tested the milled-receiver SA M-7R and stamped guns in 7.62, 5.56, and 5.45. I also got to spend some time with the milled, full-auto RPK. All proved very reliable and as well made as every other Arsenal AK I've fired. The full-auto RPK was especially fun, though I had to lean into it and keep my bursts short to ensure solid hits.
I didn't get a chance to do any real accuracy testing, as our improvised desert range had no target backers. Instead, we blasted rocks and other targets of opportunity. As has always been my experience with AKs, each came right up on target and hit where I pointed it.
Five hundred yards up a rocky bluff, a large boulder caught my eye. I adjusted the AK's sights accordingly and began firing slowly off the hood of the truck at the 3-foot rock. My first two shots were close, and a little fine-tuning of my hold put my third right on the money. From then on, I chipped away at the boulder with every one of the test guns. In every case, I was right on target with the second or third round, and once I found my range, I hit the rock with boring regularity. It wasn't exactly the most scientific accuracy test, but considering the crude AK sights, it was pretty impressive performance.
AK buyers have a staggering array of choices. Obviously, Arsenal's AK-47s aren't the only ones on the market, nor are they the only good ones. However, there are a lot more bad AKs than good on the market. Whether you go with Arsenal or one of its competitors, you owe it to yourself to take a close look inside before you buy.