Originally posted March 30, 2017
Let's get this out of the way right up front: this is not an AK-47.
I know it looks like one, but it isn't. (For that matter, most of the ones you've ever seen, on TV or in movies or wherever, haven't been either, but we'll get into that in a minute.) What we have here is... complicated, but officially what this is, is a Century Arms International (not "International Arms" this week) N-PAP M70 rifle.
I say "officially" because, owing to the weird way in which importation of certain semi-automatic rifles into the US is regulated, they can't sell it under the brand name of its actual manufacturer, which is Zastava of Serbia, with CAI as the importer of record, which would be the usual way of doing this sort of thing. Military-style rifles like the AK family are deemed "not being particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes" and are thus not allowed to be imported. For a number of years, they were banned altogether in the US, and my understanding is that the description from the now-elapsed ban is still used to define what can and can't be imported.
However, parts can still be imported. Entire rifles, in fact, although to be importable, they have to be taken apart first, and the part that is legally a firearm (i.e., the receiver) must be disabled, usually by being cut into pieces with an oxyacetylene torch. Buying parts kits of this kind and reassembling them onto a new US-made receiver is a popular activity in some circles. The trick is that to remain compliant with federal law, specifically paragraph (r) of Section 922 of Title 18 of the United States Code (or 18 USC 922(r) to legal folk), when rebuilding a parts kit of a rifle that was on the (now-defunct) "assault weapons" ban, one can use no more than 10 imported parts (as established by a list in the legislation). The rest have to be of domestic manufacture. So you'll get home rebuilders playing a kind of parts bingo to make sure they're using at least the minimum number of US-made parts (it varies by type; I believe the magic number for the AK platform is six) to be compliant.
The operation CAI is running with their Serbian (and also Hungarian) AK-alikes is slightly more sophisticated than that, because they're buying newly produced rifle parts in dedicated sets rather than bags full of greasy old junk haphazardly sorted by some underpaid ex-Communist military armorer who may or may not have been told what the point of the job even was, but in essence, from what I gather, it's basically the same thing: CAI buys rifles from Zastava, immediately dismantles them, brings over the bits that aren't the receivers, replaces at least so many of the original Serbian parts (including the receivers) with equivalent parts made in the US, and sells them under its own name.
Hence, the markings on this new-production rifle do acknowledge that it was made in Serbia, but that is a little odd, since if my understanding of the law is correct, the receiver—that is, the part that physically says MADE IN SERBIA on it—cannot be one of the parts that were made in Serbia. Also, the rifle only says the name of its actual (majority) manufacturer on the other side (and if you didn't know Zastava was the factory, you might assume it was the name of the town).
The strangeness of US import laws aside, if you read the SKS GotW, you'll remember Zastava's name: it was one of the principal arsenals of Yugoslavia, and does other heavy manufacturing as well (they make cars under that name, for instance, though I think that's technically a different company nowadays). The Zastava arsenal made my SKS, which technically is not an SKS at all but its Yugoslavian fraternal socialist comrade the PAP M59/66A1. This rifle we have here is a similar sort of thing—the M70 was Yugoslavia's AK-alike—only filtered through two more layers of abstraction, since it was (unlike my milsurp SKS) produced for the civilian export market and then passed through the aforementioned import process by Century.
So, in the tradition of such other Eastern Bloc firearms as my SKS that is not an SKS, my Tokarev that is not a Tokarev, and my Walther PP that may sort of by some standards be a Walther PP, let's start our look at this rifle by considering the rifle that it is not.
The AK-47 has a very convoluted history that I'm not going to get deeply into here; if you want an exhaustive historical (largely non-technical) look at its antecedents, development, and proliferation, go read C.J. Chivers's 2010 book The Gun and then come back. Here is the very short version:
The Soviet service rifle that was officially adopted in 1948 as the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947?, AK-47 for short, was developed starting just after World War II at the Izhevsk arsenal, ostensibly by Sgt. Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, a former tank commander. Kalashnikov's involvement in the rifle's design was so heavily mythologized during his lifetime that it is pretty much impossible to know now exactly how much of it was really his work. The official version was that he designed it all himself, Lone Genius-style, which is almost certainly not true. The most generous interpretation of what little evidence is available today suggests that he was what, in the modern tech industry, we might call the "team lead". (The least generous interpretation is that he had very little to do with it at all, but rather was a manufactured proletarian hero in the grand Soviet tradition.)
Whatever Kalashnikov's level of involvement, it is suggestive that there was another, much better-known firearms designer working at Izehvsk at precisely the time that the rifle to be known as the AK-47 was being developed by Kalashnikov's team. His name was Hugo Schmeisser. If that sounds like an odd name for a Soviet arms designer, that's because he was a German, and he, uh, wasn't working at Izhevsk because he liked the 401K.
Why is Schmeisser's presence at Izhevsk in 1946-48 suggestive? Well, because a couple of years before that, he had designed a little something for his previous employers called the StG-44.
Beyond their uncannily similar looks, the two rifles serve the same basic function, which was quite a new function at that time: they are assault rifles, select-fire short rifles bridging that power and range gap between pistol-caliber submachine guns and full-power battle rifles. The StG-44 was in the shortened (Kurz) version of the 7.92mm Mauser cartridge that the Germans developed as one of the first intermediate rifle cartridges, whereas the AK uses the 7.62×39mm intermediate, developed from their full-power 7.62×54mmR, and first employed in the RPD light machine gun and the SKS. This was a firearms concept that had pretty much originated with the StG-44 and was not yet the In Thing anywhere else in the military firearms world.
Mind you, I'm not for a moment suggesting the AK-47 is a straight-up copy of the StG-44. They have some fairly significant mechanical differences between them: for instance, the StG-44 uses a tilting bolt locking action, whereas the AK uses a rotating bolt. That in itself is no better evidence that Schmeisser wasn't involved with its design, though, than its startling resemblance to the AK is evidence that he was. After all, John Browning designed the Remington Model 8 and the M1911, and they don't have a lot in common mechanically either.
All I'm saying is, it is extremely interesting to me that a man renowned for pioneering the concept of a stamped-receiver, gas-operated, gas-tube-above-barrel, select-fire, intermediate-cartridge-firing rifle happened to be a slave laborer at an arms plant where the Soviet military-industrial complex came up with a stamped-receiver, gas-operated, gas-tube-above-barrel, select-fire, intermediate-cartridge-firing rifle two years later.
However, we don't know. Schmeisser was repatriated to his hometown of Suhl in 1952, but since Suhl was in East Germany, he wasn't exactly giving interviews to Time magazine about his experiences in the USSR, and he died the following year. Kalashnikov lived until 2013, but at no time did he not have a vested interest in perpetuating the Soviet-built myth of his Lone Inventive Genius-ness. Under the Soviet system, playing along kept him in favor; under post-Soviet pseudo-capitalism it made him money.
(Kalashnikov was a shadowy figure in other ways, too. For instance, according to the official AK lore, he came up with the idea while recuperating from wounds suffered on the Eastern Front, which to the Soviets was of course the Western Front, but, like Dr. Watson, even his own accounts could never keep straight what sort of wound he had suffered or where it was. I've been under the impression that tankers didn't commonly get wounded in World War II, because given the conditions under which they worked, they usually either made it through unscathed or got blown the hell to smithereens.)
Mind you, I'm not going to the extreme of believing he had nothing to do with the rifle's design, or even (as I have occasionally seen asserted by the really hardcore kind of revisionist) that he didn't really exist, as if he were the Betty Crocker of rifle designers. As usual, I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle—that he was an Idea Man and a manager-type, but—particularly in the design of the AK-47, which was adopted when he was all of 28—other people probably did a lot of the heavy lifting engineering-wise. He did go on to have a full career in the business of arms design, and one imagines that if he had been a complete PR straw man he would have been discarded by the system during the Khrushchev era, when most of Stalin's favorites were shown the door.
Anyway. Be that as it may, the original AK-47 was in reality a fairly short-lived product. The original design called for its receiver, the central structural part (and the part that is actually considered the "firearm" under US law, as it happens), to be made from cheap and quick-to-produce stamped steel, like the StG-44's. For some reason—and accounts, as ever, differ as to what that reason was—Izhevsk could't really get that together when production began, so the AK-47 entered service with a receiver that was conventionally, and expensively, and time-consumingly, milled from a solid piece of steel by machine tools. The production slowdown meant that they couldn't be widely distributed until nearly 10 years later, which is why the SKS stayed in production (in the USSR) until 1956 despite having been "replaced" in 1948.
By the time the stamped receiver problem was finally sorted, a number of changes to the design prompted by reports from the field had also come along, and so the stamped-receiver rifle that at last went into truly mass production in 1959 was not the AK-47; it was instead designated AKM (Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy, literally "AK modernized", and no, I don't know why it isn't the AKM-59). It's the AKM and its various elsewhere-in-the-Communist-bloc copies that came to be so ubiquitous around the world. The actual AK-47 is a pretty rare specimen these days; they were only made for a few years and in much smaller numbers than the designers intended or hoped for. It was AKMs that were (literally) stamped out by the millions and handed out to socialist comrades and would-be anti-Western revolutionaries all over the world.
(There is also the AKM's replacement, the AK-74, which was introduced in the '70s; it looks very, very similar and is based on the same system, but uses a 5.45mm cartridge comparable to the Western 5.56mm NATO instead of 7.62×39. Those don't seem to have left the reservation nearly as much as the AKM, though, and it's 7.62×39 that is the free hydrogen of the Third World's ammunition bazaars, not 5.45.)
Yes, believe it or not, that was the very short version.
In the grand Soviet arms tradition, the AKM was exported both as itself, and as technical assistance to allied nations, and so has been manufactured by all the usual suspects under the usual variety of different names. The Chinese call theirs the Type 56; the East Germans had the MPi-KM; Romania's was the PM mod. 63 (not to be confused with the Hungarian AK-63, or the completely unrelated Polish PM63 SMG); and on and on. There are even copies of copies, as with the Iraqi Tabuk, which is a knockoff of the Yugoslavian M70. The Finns copied it as the Valmet Rk 62/M76 (the Sako-made Rk 95 update of which shows up as one of the batshit insane antiheroes in Upotte!!), which generally played the AK-47 in American movies made back when prop guys couldn't get the real thing. Even the Israelis knocked off the design as the Galil, after studying captured examples of Egypt's version, the Maadi.
Which brings us back around again to what we have here, which is a new-production semi-automatic civilian version of the old Yugoslav AKM clone, the M70. ("PAP", the same designation that the Yugoslavian version of the SKS had, stands for polu-automatska puška, "semi-automatic rifle".) I can find no definitive statement as to what the "N" stands for; I suspect "new", as it is the second generation of the "PAP" version of the M70. Let's take a closer look, starting with the distinctive AK safety.
As mentioned in the Remington Model 8 entry, this is sometimes called a straight ripoff of the Model 8's safety, and it is indeed very similar.
One change to the design which is unique to the N-PAP variant is that notch in the safety lever, which Zastava added to serve as a bolt holdopen. A bit strangely to modern eyes, the AKM design doesn't have a bolt stop; in its native configuration it can't be locked open, on an empty magazine or otherwise. Since this would disqualify it from some shooting ranges in the civilian world (where the rules state the shooter must be able to lock the action open so it's obvious that it's clear), someone thought of notching the safety lever so that it could be hooked on the operating handle to hold the bolt open.
It... doesn't really work very well. It has only a fairly tenuous hold, and is very easy to bump free so that the bolt slams shut. I'd rate it as about as secure as when you don't quite open your M1 Garand's bolt far enough to lock it properly and it hangs up on the magazine follower (one of the leading causes of M1 Thumb). I jarred it loose and slammed it three times just trying to set the rifle down so I could photograph it. Clearly an afterthought.
As an aside, you can really tell in these pictures that this is a version of the rifle made for the American civilian market. Not only does it have only a two-position selector (the military ones obviously have two fire positions, one for semi-auto and one for full auto), all the markings are in English. Besides which, you can bet that proper Soviet AKMs don't say "Read Owners [sic] Manual Before Use" anywhere on them, even in Russian. :)
Meanwhile, over on the left-hand side, they added a rail for mounting optics.
On the original PAP M70 civvie model, this was attached to the top cover, which didn't work very well; on the N-PAP they've moved it to the side of the receiver, which is a bit more stable. Having the optics offset to one side like that isn't a huge problem, it's a fairly common thing (particularly on autoloaders, which usually don't lend themselves to having the things attached directly to the top because of the way the operating mechanisms work).
Note also the hard plastic pistol grip you get as standard on one of these. It's not the worst AK pistol grip I've ever seen—this one does at least nod toward ergonomics, with basic finger grooves and such—but it could still stand some improvement. In what I suspect will be the only bit of aftermarket Ricing Up this rifle gets (unless I buy a fancier muzzle brake for it at some point), I took that off and replaced it with a nice rubberized one (made by Hogue, providers of nice rubberized grips for firearms since whenever they started making them).
No problems with inadvertent 922(r) non-compliance here, as the Hogue grip was also made in the US. In fact, depending on where the original comes from (it isn't marked), it might've just made it more compliant.
Speaking of accessories, in a couple of the photos above, you can also see the modern commercial plastic magazine. Zastava doesn't make those, they're made by a third party and added to the package by Century. Mine came with two; I think it was really only supposed to have one, but I bought the last one of that particular sub-model they had at that shop, and when the man went out back to round up the box for it he discovered that it contained three. We knew that couldn't be right, so he split the difference and I ended up with two.
Later, I went online and tracked down an old metal one, just to have one with the right "look":
The plastic ones worked fine for me, though. (Admittedly, I didn't load them with the full 30 rounds, because the supply of ammunition I had wasn't a multiple of 30. What? Shut up. Everybody does that, surely.) In fact, they fit a bit better than the metal one, which is Polish military surplus and a good illustration of why interchangeable parts aren't always. I bought two from the same lot; one was a bit tight and the other wouldn't go into the magazine well at all, and had to be returned.
While we're on the subject of magazines, one feature of the AK family's that catches people out sometimes is that they don't go straight in, like the majority of detachable box magazines a casual shooter might be used to. The catch is at the back, but there's also a little bit of a hook at the front, so in practice you have to kind of "hang" the front of the magazine on the hook and then rock it up and back to its fully seated position. Taking it out involves working the latch release and then swinging it forward and down a little to disengage the hook. It's a bit weird, but with a little practice it works fine.
Moving to the back, another odd feature that the designers at Zastava added was an extra step to the AKM's incredibly simple field strip procedure. On AK-family rifles, the first step to dismantling the action is to remove the top cover. To do this, you press in on this button at the back, which is actually the end of the recoil spring's guide.
For reasons I'm not entirely clear on, Zastava added a button on the side that you have to press before you can press the button you press to take the top cover off.
I dunno why, I just work here. Anyway, once that's pressed, you can thumb the spring button into the opening it's protruding out of, after which the cover lifts right off to reveal the working bits underneath.
It's interesting to note that the top cover is exactly that, just a cover. It has no structural or mechanical role at all. It's literally just there to keep crap from getting into the mechanism. In a clean, controlled environment, the rifle works perfectly fine without it.
Once it's gone, it's a simple matter to unmoor the recoil spring from its guide's slot at the back of the receiver.
(Note that a lot of the internal parts are electropencil numbered. Not sure what that number indicates, as it isn't part of the rifle's serial number. Although now that I think about it, it's probable that Century didn't bother matching the new receivers to the Serbian ones the rifles were made on, so that's probably the last four digits of the original Zastava serial number.)
With the spring removed, the bolt carrier/gas piston and bolt assembly pulls right out.
For a full disassembly for cleaning, I'd flip the lever on the side of the rear sight block up and then pull the upper hand guard and gas tube off to clean out the tube, but for our purposes today I'm going to leave it alone.
Once the bolt is removed, you can look right down into the receiver and see all the bits of the trigger and hammer mechanism, which is fairly conventional.
One of the many, many gotchas involved in trying to build an AK-family rifle from parts is that they only look alike; the small bits inside are often very different, so that, for instance, a Polish or Chinese trigger group won't fit properly into a receiver made on the Zastava pattern. In this case, I think the trigger package is one of the bits Century replaced with American parts for import compliance, so they would've been made specifically to work with these new receivers anyway.
We can see here, and you can see through the slot where the operating handle runs when the rifle is together, that it has a conventional hammer-fired ignition system.
Like most AKM-alikes, the M70 also comes with a rudimentary muzzle brake.
That slanted cut is meant to direct some of the exhaust gas upward, countering the muzzle's tendency to climb. It also purportedly cuts down on the cloud of dust the rifle throws up if fired close to the ground (i.e., when the shooter is prone), but since I don't tend to shoot mine while crawling around outdoors, I can't speak to that.
(This shot also gives a good view of the quite tall front sight, which is necessitated because you have to be able to see it over the gas tube.)
The muzzle brake is fairly easily replaced, since it's just screwed onto the threaded muzzle. There is any number of manufacturers that will gladly sell you more elaborate ones than this (it's a popular choice as one of the 922(r) compliance parts, because it's so easy to replace).
The pin on the sight post is spring-loaded and serves simply to locate the brake so that it's turned the right way. Interestingly, mine is several degrees off-center, so that the brake is canted to the right. I'm not sure if that's an error, or on purpose. The latter is conceivable, as automatic weapons do tend to pull toward the shooter's strong side as well as up, if my experience with the MP5 is anything to go by. Of course, this M70 isn't fully automatic, so it doesn't really make a ton of difference.
The AK system's rotating bolt has an angled lug that runs in the usual sort of cam groove on the bolt carrier, which forces it to rotate as it runs back and forth. This should look pretty familiar by this point (compare, for instance, the barrel rotation system in the Steyr-Hahn).
Out at the front of the bolt carrier is the gas piston, which is pushed back by the gas pressure rushing into the tube during that brief period between the bullet passing the gas port and when it leaves the muzzle.
This gives a good impression of what these things are up against, being directly exposed to the combustion gases. This is the state of it after a single box of cheap commercial ammunition. It's nowhere near having any kind of problem—the AK family isn't legendary for its ability to work dirty for nothing—but still, that's as grubby as it got after firing just 40 rounds.
New-production AK-alikes aren't as hilariously cheap in this country as they were a handful of years ago, but they're still pretty reasonably priced for the amount of rifle you're getting. And they're not completely impractical indulgences; 7.62×39mm is ballistically comparable to .30-30 Winchester, which has been a popular medium game cartridge for a long time. I'm sure there are people in these parts who use their AKs to hunt deer, though given that they are not renowned for their accuracy, I'd guess that must be a bit of an adventure.
As for me, I bought one because they're interesting, they're historically and technologically significant, and they're probably going to get taken off the market again one of these days.
Which reminds me: While you can go and buy a brand new (slightly massaged for import purposes) Serbian M70 or Romanian WASR from Century, or a Ukrainian Vepr from I forget who's importing those, one new-production AK you can't get in the US right now (even in the odd 922(r)-compliant frankengun form) is an actual Kalashnikov. They're still making them; the Izhevsk arsenal privatized a few years ago (as much as these things ever are actually privatized in modern Russia) and now calls itself the Kalashnikov Concern, and they're just as interested in making stuff for the civilian market as they are in military contracts. However—and I don't wish to get political here, but it is the fact of the matter—at the moment the Russian arms industry is not allowed to do business in the United States (except for that one outfit that moved to Italy or something, I'm fuzzy on how that works, which I suspect was kind of the idea).