By Elwood Shelton, Gun Digest
Nobody knows the AK like Marco Vorobiev. The former Soviet solider has spent nearly his entire life behind the sights of the Kalashnikov and literally knows the rifle from the inside out. Gun Digest was lucky enough to draw upon Vorobiev’s wealth of first-hand experience with the iconic rifle for our most recent book — Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to AKs. And we were equally as fortunate to recently chat with Vorobiev a bit about his intriguing background and his truly unique interaction with the historic rifle.
Gun Digest: Let’s start off with a bit of your background. You were a member of a Soviet Army Spetsnaz unit; some of our readers might not be familiar with the Spetsnaz, would you explain a bit about it and your role as a member?
Marco Vorobiev: What it is now is not what it was when I was a part of it. When I was part of the Spetsnaz it was a separate branch of the military, basically what would be called Special Forces. We conducted raids, sabotage and gathered intelligence, among other things. A role of a unit is different depending on its theater and its operational focus. For instance, in Syria now, there are units guiding airstrikes.
I served with the Soviet Spetsnaz in Afghanistan in the (19)80s. Our role was counteracting the insurgency. This mainly entailed disruptive activities against the insurgency by annihilating them or disrupting their supplies. We would interdict against convoes, hit Mujahedeen units on the march, assault strongholds and destroy weapons caches.
Originally, I served as a sniper for the first six months I was there. I was fire support, so I supported our main assaults, eliminated any kind of reinforcements and pockets of resistance. Some areas of an assault would have more manpower against them; I would outflank and pin them down until they could be annihilated. Once I was older, and my friends were up front with assault groups, I asked to be transferred to an assault group. The request was granted and the rest of the time I was in Afghanistan, 10 months, I was an assaulter.
Gun Digest: You were awarded the Order of the Red Star while serving in Afghanistan, would you care to share how you earned the honor?
Marco Vorobiev: I was doing the job. You definitely don’t go into combat thinking about winning medals. And I want to point out, I was not the only one who got awarded (in the battle). We were involved in heavy combat, pinned down and grossly outnumbered. We had to tie up the enemy until air support could annihilate them. I was injured in the fight and eventually had to be medevac’d out. My action got my award. I’m proud of the medal, but there were others who deserved the award.
Gun Digest: Turning to the topic of your latest book, the AK, when did you first encounter the rifle and what variant was it?
Marco Vorobiev: When (the Soviet military) drafts you, they want you to be ready and know what you’re going to fight with. So my first encounter with the AK was around age 12. In school, we did military and patriotic games — running, swimming, fire fighting, climbing walls. It was like a relay. One of the stations was assembling and disassembling the AK-47. That’s where they pulled my card. You have to remember, every school had an armory in the Soviet Union. It had examples of weapons that students would one day use. They were non-functional examples. But we also had .22 rifles to shoot for competition and physical education. And most schools, like mine, had a shooting range in the basement.
By age 14, I was familiar with the operation of the AK and its components. By high school, you begin preparatory military courses, to prepare you for your military service. For part of this, we took a field trip to the local military base, where we shot the AK. You were first given three rounds for single shots, then six for bursts. To get an A you had to let off three-round bursts. By the time you left school, you were a trained marksman.
Marco Vorobiev: By the time of my military service, normalcy. I knew half the world was armed with it, that it was good in war and reliable. You take it as a given. It’s sort of like, you go to the kitchen in the morning and have a bagel for breakfast — it’s just normal. And I couldn’t compare it to anything else, so it never occurred to me that there was another gun that could do this or that. Once I fired it and knew how to hit the targets, it was a normal state of being.
I did have a little gaff. When I was drafted I was given an AK-74, not an AKM (which I used in school). I saw the muzzle break on the (AK-74) and wondered, “Is that a silencer?” Once I fired it I couldn’t believe there was no recoil and it handled really well. I knew that was the gun for me.
The first or second time shooting it, I scored 27 out of 30 on the single shot section and also knocked down my targets at 200, 250 and 300 meters firing bursts. I didn’t know it, but the sergeant was behind me and saw my shooting. He ordered the warrant officer to get a SVD. He had me fire it — I can’t remember the distance — and I knocked down the targets he called out. I thought it was easy; with the scope, I thought I could spit and knock down the target. From there I went into sniper training; the SVD was my first issue rifle.
Gun Digest: Looking back at your early days behind the rifle, were there any particular aspects of the AK that were difficult to master?
Marco Vorobiev: When I first held the gun at age 12, and had my hands on the hunk of metal, I thought, “It’s heavy! How does someone run with this?” The marksman stuff, by the time I was in the military, I was already trained. You don’t have to be an engineer or a mechanic to understand the AK. It is a very simple weapon, very easy to understand. Here is the gas piston, here is the bolt carrier, the firing pin ignites the primer. The rifle was so simply presented to you growing up that a 12-year-old could understand it. Everything about the AK is second nature to me now.
Gun Digest: Having the intimate relationship with the Kalashnikov, what do you believe is its greatest advantage over other tactical rifles?
Marco Vorobiev: It’s a simple question, but there are many facets to the answer.
The greatest advantage, to me — and anyone can argue with me about it — is the layout of the AK’s components that there are only six possible malfunctions and one way to clear the rifle in all cases. It doesn’t matter the malfunction, you just disconnect the magazine, pull the charging handle a few times, put the magazine back in, chamber a round and it’s ready to operate.
Some say, “Yeah, but it’s not accurate.” I say, BS. The gun is not inaccurate, that comes down to the shooter. A M4, when you’re talking about 16-inch barrels — a carbine — an AK outshoots it. The gun is designed to strike at 0-1,300 meters a human-sized target. A M4, is out of range at 660 meters. If someone says it’s not accurate, I say, “No — you’re not accurate.”
In a trip to Russia a while back, we met a quick reaction team that just the previous day had been in Chechnya. One of the guys said, that while in Chechnya he’d entertain himself shooting wires off telephone polls. A rifle that can shoot wires is not inaccurate. The other thing is, both the M4 and AK were designed as fully automatic weapons, and that’s how they should be evaluated. When all things are equal, the AK, even in the accuracy department, holds its own.
The next facet to your questions, some say the AK is not modular enough, but a modular variation of any gun didn’t really come into play until 10-15 years ago. That’s when people started to put trinkets on their guns — scope, flashlight (what infantryman needs a flashlight on their gun?), IR designators. Guess what, the AK was modular before the M16 came around. In the ’50s, the USSR issued rails for the rifle to mount night optics.
Marco Vorobiev: Russia, of course, because any modern improvements have come from there since the Warsaw Pact dissolved. The countries that use to produce them now have to design to NATO specs.
The countries that used to produce them — Poland, Romania, East Germany — were under license from the USSR to produce them, on Soviet equipment and under Soviet supervision. Yugoslavia and China, by the time the AKM came around, had a rocky relationship with the USSR and had to do improvements on their own without guidance. Now they have a fruit salad. There’s a lot of variation in furniture, metallurgy and specifications from those nations.
After Russian made, I would say East German AKs. They had high quality manufacturing and were overseen by the USSR. Next, the Polish PMKM and the early Egyptian variations, because they were done on Soviet machinery and supervision. The Chinese AK — AK-47 or type 56 or Type 56S, because they used thicker material on the stamped receiver.
The Yugoslavians milled their receivers, I’m not a fan — they weigh too much. Romanian, their recent production rifles have questionable quality control. And of course, Bulgarian rifles, also built on Russian equipment and are super.
I wouldn’t pay $2000 for an AK. But any of them, if they sell for $200, I say it’s the greatest gun in the world for that price.
Gun Digest: Do you find that there is any performance difference between AKs with milled receivers compared to those with stamped?
Marco Vorobiev: I’ll take a stamped receiver everyday and twice on the weekend, purely on weight considerations. The performance between the two are the same. If the USSR would have had the stamping technology when they first produced the AK, they would have done it in a heartbeat. Anybody who says different is not a military man. A kilo of weight, when you’re going up hills or over rough terrain matters. You can carry more ammo with a lighter rifle and not be tired or weighted down. There’s no dead weight with a stamped receiver. An interesting note, in 1959 the Soviets upgraded the rifle and went to stamped receivers and also a new rear sight, which went from 800 meters on the old, up to 1000 meters on the new.
Gun Digest: For those in the market for an AK, what do they need to look for when evaluating the rifle?
Marco Vorobiev: If new, who is manufacturing, US or is it imported? Take Romanian and Serbian variations (for imports). Quality-wise, take the Serbian; more original, the Romanian. Price comparison then? If you’re looking to take a step up, then definitely get a Bulgarian.
If you’re going to buy US, there are two manufacturers — Century and IO Inc. If you’re looking for good quality and good value, IO — also, more original. There are many things to consider. If you take US manufactured, their trunnions are casting, the military variations are forgings. To ordinary guys, this is not a big difference — the guy who only shoots 200 round, no big deal. If you shoot full auto, 600 round or more, than there is going to be a big difference.
The new AKs have barrel lives of 15,000 rounds. The old rifles were 40,000. But at about 10,000 to 12,000 rounds the hardened chrome bore lining starts to crack. Look in the bore and see if it’s worn out. Look to see if the action is smooth and there are no hang ups. Many will hang; US-made rifles can have this problem.
Origin, overall condition, barrel type, these are factors you want to evaluate. And, more money, more quality — like all things in life.
Marco Vorobiev: There are accessories that are universal for every gun and special operation guys. Then there are mission specific accessories.
Mission specific, you should be a like a woman in the closet when she is going out on a date or with her friends. She’s not going to wear a pants suit to a party in New Orleans. It should be the same with the AK. If you are going to engage from 0 to 200 meters, why do you need a full-powered scope or magnifier? If you are manning a checkpoint or assault, why would you need a designator?
There are some universal accessories that are worthwhile. I use to be disgusted with a front pistol grip, now I love it. But you have to have mechanical thinking with something such as that. A rocker mag could be a problem. I don’t have a problem with the length of pull, but some like to upgrade the stock. They complain the rifle is too stubby. I say put on your armor and a winter jacket and tell me how stubby it is. The other thing to have, accessories that would allow the addition of accessories, such as a rail.
Gun Digest: Finally, as a man who has handled his fair share of AKs, do you have a particular variant that you prefer?
Marco Vorobiev: It has to be the original, if I could only get my hands on an original AK-74 M. The recently released AK-12, which is not mass-produced, is as close to the perfect AK that anyone could want.
Gun Digest: Thank you for your time.
Marco Vorobiev: Thank you.
Thanks to Gun Digest for this interview. Click here to go to GunDigest.com.