The Blog

The Way of the Gun

As terrorists and U.S. troops clash, find out which weapon is better--the M-16 or the AK-47.

11:01 PM, Nov 29, 2001 • By BO CRADER
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SHROUDED IN MYSTIQUE, the AK-47 has played a central role in every insurgency and revolution of the past 40 years. It was the weapon of choice for Viet Cong and Somali warlords. During the Cold War it was a symbol of the Red Menace even as the Afghan mujahedeen used it to drive the Soviets out of the country.

The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter wrote a sort of love letter to the rifle earlier this week, describing the AK-47 as "a tough masterpiece . . . a tommy gun designed by Mr. Moto, after reading Dostoyevsky and a favorable history of Peter the Great." Its curved magazine, he writes, gives the rifle "an Orientalized sensibility," and the wooden stock alludes to the weapon's proletarian roots. Osama bin Laden, Hunter proposes, wields a version of weapon as a signifier of both revolution and nobility, a status symbol in the world of terrorism and political violence.

But what about its counterpart, the M-16 service rifle, the all-American Commie-slayer? Colt, the M-16's manufacturer, claims the M-16 "represents the world standard by which all other weapons of this class are judged." Yet, during Vietnam, American troops reportedly abandoned their M-16s in favor of pilfered enemy AK-47s. And, with nearly 50 million AK-47s currently in use, the AK-47 has an installed base, as it were, ten times larger than the M-16. Why, then, isn't the Marine Corps charging Kandahar with it?

A comparison of the weapons shows a number of similarities. Both weapons have a selector switch just above the trigger that allows a shooter to choose his rate of fire. M-16 users can fire a single shot (semi-automatic) or a three-round burst. The AK-47 offers semi- and full- automatic. The weapons deliver fire at similar rates, about 800 rounds per minute on automatic and 12-15 rounds per minute in sustained fire. Each handles 30-round magazines and can be fitted with a variety of scopes, night-vision devices, and grenade launchers.

The key difference lies in the size of the rounds and the relative muzzle velocities. The M-16 uses 5.56 mm rounds--which have become the standard for NATO forces--and has a muzzle velocity of 853 meters-per-second. The AK-47 uses larger 7.62 mm rounds and has a muzzle velocity of 710 meters-per-second.

What does this mean? A properly trained marksman can effectively engage an area target--a vehicle, for instance--with an M-16 at up to 800 meters. On a point target--say, someone's head--the weapon is accurate up to 550 meters. The AK-47's lower muzzle velocity and heavier ammunition limits its accurate range to about 300 meters.

The M-16 weighs under 8 pounds, about two pounds less than the AK-47 when fully loaded. The weapon's "lower weight and smaller round size allow troops to carry more ammunition," says Clayton, an 8-year Army veteran who now retails weapons at the Potomac Arms Corporation in Alexandria, Virginia (he asked that his last name not be used). "With ammo, body armor, and gear, the smaller rounds are much more workable and reduce overall workload."

Surprisingly, the small, high-velocity rounds of the M-16 pack a bigger punch than those of the AK-47. "The high velocity of the tiny M-16 round increases its force relative to slower, larger caliber bullets," retired Air Force Major Charles F. Hawkins wrote in a 1993 letter to the Washington Post. "More important, high velocity produces hydrostatic shock as an M-16 round enters a body, and is profoundly more damaging than, say, the much slower AK-47 bullet." To put it bluntly, the speeding 5.56 millimeter round rips apart organs and tissue as it pierces and exits the body almost simultaneously, causing mass trauma and internal bleeding while inducing shock.

"The M-16 does things the AK-47 can only dream about," adds Clayton. "It has better workmanship, better ergonomics, better sights, and less recoil."

If the M-16 is so great, why are AK-47s so popular? Major Hawkins suggests four reasons: "(1) its availability, (2) relatively low cost, (3) simplicity of maintenance and operation, (4) overall reliability under extremes of weather and terrain, and not its inherent ability to kill."

Considering this, the AK-47 will always have a mass market. "The AK-47 can withstand dirt better," Clayton explains. "It's designed to be drug through the mud and still function. It's designed for poorly-educated, poorly-disciplined troops. It's idiot-proof."

No wonder it was so popular with the Soviets.

Bo Crader is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.