The new Russian standard assault rifle, the AK-12, received its first large-scale combat use once the invasion of Ukraine began over a year ago. The manufacturer didn’t receive many complaints from troops in Ukraine, other than there were not enough AK-12s for all the newly mobilized troops. There was one minor complaint about the two-round burst capability. It wasn’t used except by accident when the user erroneously selected burst fire when they were seeking to select one of the other two options (single-shot or full-automatic). All new or repaired AK-12s will have the burst option removed. Western assault rifle manufacturers came to the same conclusion about burst fire and eliminated this option.
Ukrainian troops are also satisfied users of their many captured AK-12s, as it is a major improvement on the older AK rifles Ukrainian forces use. Ukraine had to quickly arm several hundred thousand new troops in early 2022 after the Russians invaded. Most of those new and territorial (local defense) troops received one of several AK tyke rifles. This included the original AK-47 and AKM models using the original 7.62mm round. More recent AK rifles use the 5.45mm round, which is similar to the 5.56mm round the Americans have been using since the 1960s. the United States and other NATO nations have, in the last year, provided Ukraine with thousands of assault rifles that use the 5.56mm round.
There are a growing number of non-Russian users of the AK-12, most of them export customers. Ukraine is the only foreign user that captures them from Russian troops. The first paying export customer was the Persian Gulf Arab nation Qatar and Qatari troops received the AK-12 in 2018, before most Russian soldiers got them. Qatar never officially announced that it was buying the AK-12 rifles. Previously Qatar, whose army has 42,000 active-duty troops, were already using some older AK-47s but had replaced most of those with the M-16 and similar models from various European suppliers. All these M-16 type weapons use the same ammo, while the AK-47 and AK-12 don’t.
It was not until mid-2017 that Russia selected the new AK-12 assault rifles as its new standard infantry rifle and part of its new “future soldier” (Ratnik) set of gear for its infantry. The government initially had trouble finding the money to buy the 70,000 or more Ratnik systems the army wanted. It wasn’t until 2021 that about half the Ratnik systems were delivered. Priority was given to special operations troops, airborne, airmobile and marine units.
The basic AK-12 fires the same 5.45/39 round as the AK-74 it replaced and costs 25 percent more. The AK-12 outperformed the AK-74 in extensive field tests and the troops preferred the new rifle. In 2014 one major change was made to the original (2011) AK-12 design that lowered manufacturing costs and fixed some problems found in field testing. The new version (codenamed AK-400) won the competition with rival rifle designs in 2017. The AK-12 can also be provided in a version that fires the old AK-47 7.62x39mm round that was introduced in 1944 and is still popular in many countries. The AK-12 also keeps the basic design principles of the AK-47 alive into the 21st century.
How the AK-12 came to be was quite an epic undertaking. The Russians had made several attempts to develop and introduce a replacement for the AK-74. Some new designs even made it into combat. For example, some special operations units got the new AN-94 in the 1990s while most troops continued to use the elderly (in design and manufacture) AK-74s. The troops wanted something that could match the improvements in Western assault rifles. The firm that designed most Russian assault rifles since the 1940s designed a new assault rifle (AK-12) in response to that but the Russian Defense Ministry stalled efforts to even test it. That resistance was finally overcome and the AK-12 eventually passed the tests and outperformed competing designs.
This all began in 2012 when the two-century old Russian firm (Izhmash, later changed to Kalashnikov) that has produced assault rifles since World War II announced the arrival of their AK-12 fifth-generation assault rifle. Like earlier AKs the AK-12 used a lot of the basic AK-47 design principles but added many new features popular in Western assault rifles. The AK-12 is but the latest in a long line of innovative Russian infantry weapons that began showing up towards the end of World War II. Assault rifles have since become the standard infantry weapon, almost entirely replacing bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles. The first-generation AK was the AK-47 followed by the AKM in the 1960s, then the AK-74, which was very similar to the U.S. M-16, in the 1970s, and limited numbers of the AN-94, a much-improved AK-74, in the 1990s. Over fifty million AK-47s and AKMs were made, most of them outside Russia. Production, on a small scale, continues. It is still the most numerous assault rifle in use.
The original AK-12 (code named AK-200) was a 3.3 kg (7.3 pound) weapon that was 943mm (37.1 inches) long with a 415mm (16.3 inch) barrel. It can be fitted to fire one of four calibers: the original 7.62x39 of the AK-47/AKM, the 5.56x45 of the M-16, the 5.45x39 of the AK-74, or the 7.62x51 NATO rifle/machine-gun round. The AK-12 can use all AK-47/AKM magazines when firing 7.62x39 ammo.
There are a lot of small but important changes in the AK-12. The stock is adjustable. The charging handle is easily used whether you are left or right-handed. There is an improved safety switch, pistol grip, hinged top cover, muzzle break, iron sight, and (smaller) ejection port. The AK-12 has Picatinny rails (the U.S. developed standard for attaching all sorts of accessories). The fire control switch now allows for single shot and full- automatic. The AK-12 is inherently more accurate because of improved barrel rifling. The AK-12 handles more easily, has longer effective range (up to 600 meters), and apparently has the same ruggedness of the original AK-47. That last item was put to the test, as the Russian military has had a growing number of AK-12s into the field since 2015, where their performance under combat conditions could be monitored.
In 2018 Russia introduced an AK-12 variant, the AK-308, which fires the standard NATO 7.62x51 rifle ammo. Known to civilians as the Winchester 308 round, the 7.62x51 has been a NATO standard since the 1950s. While largely replaced by the 5.56/45 round in the 1960s and 70s, the 7.62mm is still widely used for sniper rifles and vehicle mounted machine-guns. The Russian company that manufactures the AK line of weapons has, since the 1990s, come up with a lot of new designs, mainly for the export market and these new weapons were often chambered for the Western 7.62mm and 5.56mm or whatever a large purchaser wanted. The AK-308 prototype evolved into the new Russian military rifle (AK-12/15) chambered for the 7.62x51 rather than the 5.45x39 (AK-12) or 7.62x39 (AK-15 and AK-47).
The AK-308 is 885mm (35 inches) long with a 415mm (16.3 inch) barrel and a folding stock. Empty weight is 4.1 kg (nine pounds) and it uses a 20 or 30 round magazine. Rate of fire on full-automatic is 700 rounds a minute and max effective range is 800 meters. AK-308 has a Picatinny rail and attachments for grenade launcher, suppressor and bayonet. In short it is a 7.62mm rifle any Western soldier would immediately be able to handle even though it is obviously based on the original AK-47 design. The AK-308 is actually based on the AK-103 which was itself a version of the 1970s AK-74. The latest Russian assault rifle, the AK-12 also can be adapted to fire the NATO 7.62x51 but the AK-308 design is competitive with the AK-12/15 weapons which are the latest generation of Russian military rifles.
All these AK rifles began with a Russian World War II veteran, Mikhail Kalashnikov, who came up with a brilliant rifle design which so impressed his bosses that they named it after him. AK means Avtomat Kalashnikova which literally translates as “Kalashnikov Automatic”. This was no fluke. Kalashnikov had always been into mechanical things and grew up in Siberia where rural folk could own a rifle for hunting. As a result of that he was familiar with how rifles operated in addition to being a mechanical genius. Kalashnikov was conscripted in 1938 and because of his small size was assigned to a tank unit. There his ingenuity and mechanical skills came to the notice of his superiors, who praised and encouraged him. He was badly wounded in combat in 1941 and while he spent six months recuperating, came up with some innovative ideas for a new rifle design, instigated by complaints he heard from wounded infantry soldiers. He wrote to the senior officers who had praised his skills before the war and was transferred to a weapons development organization. Among his many innovations and designs over the next five years was the AK-47, which began replacing all older infantry rifles in 1949. Kalashnikov died in 2013 but until the end he hunted and innovated, backing things like the Ratnik concept.
The Ratnik system is the Russian version of an American concept pioneered in the 1980s ("Land Warrior") and resulted in the introduction of new body armor, personal communications, wearable computers, night vision devices, and personal medical equipment. Several European countries have followed, especially the German Infanterist der Zukunft (“Infantryman Of The Future”), and Russia did the same but was delayed by cash shortages and debates over whether a new infantry rifle was needed. Unlike the United States, Russia included a new rifle design (AK-12) as part of its Ratnik gear. There was a lot of opposition to the AK-12 within the Russian high command, but at the troop level there was an even more vigorous and louder call for something to replace the Cold War era AK-74.
The AK-12 was not the best (from a technical point of view) candidate for Ratnik. The A545 was a more modern and efficient design, but the AK-12 proved more rugged and Russian troops are not big fans of radical change when it comes to basic items like rifles. The AK-12 is the second attempt since the end of the Cold War (in 1991) to develop a worthy successor to the AK-47. Earlier efforts had not been entirely successful. Part of the problem was that there was not a pressing need for a new AK in Russia. For example, in 2011, Russia stopped buying new AK-74 rifles. Since they already have ten million AK assault rifles, most of them older AK-47 and AKM models in stock and less than a million troops on active duty, plus about as many in the reserves. Buying more assault rifles was deemed wasteful. This did not stop the purchase of special small arms for commandos and other specialist combat units.
The new policy did not stop work on the new AK-12. This weapon was originally based on the 5.45mm AK-74, which replaced the 7.62mm AK-47/AKM series as the standard infantry weapon towards the end of the Cold War. The AK-74 entered service in the 1970s and twenty years later a replacement was developed, the AN-94. This rifle used the 5.45mm round first seen in the AK-74 but was able to use larger (45-round and 60-round) magazines. The AN-94 also had burst fire (of two rounds, while Western rifles tend to use three rounds).
The AN-94 was supposed to replace all AK-74s in Russian service but due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and sharp cuts in the defense budget, this did not happen. There were also concerns about the mechanical complexity and reliability of the AN-94. That's apparently why the AK-12 was not based on the AN-94. One AN-94 feature that was adopted for the AK-12 was the option to use a 60-round magazine.
Meanwhile, an improved AK-74M was introduced in 1991, and is still in service. This is a 3.4 kg (7.5 pound), 94.3 cm (37.1 inch) weapon with a 41.5 cm (16.3 inch) barrel. It has rails for sights and such and can use a 30 or 45 round magazine. Rate of fire is 650 RPM on full auto, and max effective range was 600 meters. The AK-74 looked like an AK-47 and used the same technology.
Some five million AK-74s were built, most before the Cold War ended in 1991. North Korea manufactures a copy of the AK-74 called the Type 98. The AK-74M was the basis for the AK-12, and the two weapons are very similar, with the new rifle having more flexibility and capacity for accessories.