By Frank Iannamico
Although semiautomatic Kalashnikov rifles are common in the U.S. today, prior to the early 1980s they were not available to collectors in the West. One of the problems of importing AK type rifles into the United States, was virtually all of them were produced in Communist countries, and therefore banned from importation by the U.S. State Department. During this period other semiautomatic-only versions of military small arms were quickly becoming very popular with U.S. collectors.
China, who had gained Most Favored Nation Status with the United States in 1979, began to export semiautomatic AK rifles to the U.S. during 1983. Soon names like Norinco and Poly Tech became familiar terms among enthusiasts. The Chinese AK rifles were inexpensive, retailing under $300 for a full or an underfolding stock model. Accessories were soon added to the import list that included magazines, pouches and 75 and 100-round capacity drum magazines. Among the Chinese offerings was the Model 88 AK rifle, chambered for the 5.45x39mm cartridge, but few were imported before an import ban was enacted.
While the 7.62x39mm AK rifles and accessories began to appear from a number of countries, the same was not true for the 5.45x39mm AK-74; the weapon designed by the Soviets to replace the aging 7.62x39mm AKM. However, after the demise of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, many of its former members began to apply for membership in their old nemesis NATO. During 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were accepted, followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia during 2004 while Albania joined in 2009. Upon being accepted into NATO, member nations were required to adopt NATO standard ammunition. The result was a surplus of 5.45x39mm ammunition and AK-74 part sets, which soon found their way to U.S. shores. More recently, 7.62x39 ammunition has became somewhat expensive and at times difficult to find in quantity, while surplus 5.45x39 ammunition is abundant and dirt-cheap. The desirability for the once elusive AK-74 and the cheap ammunition to feed them has made the AK-74 a very popular option for the AK enthusiast.
The period from the importation of the first AK rifles in 1983, until the 1986 machine gun ban, was less than three years. During this period a relatively small number of semiautomatic AK rifles were converted to select-fire by Class II manufacturers and most of the conversions were performed on Chinese AKs. The limited number of the select fire AK rifles has resulted in an increase in value far in excess of more common semiautomatic conversions, like the AR-15 and Uzi. With the availability of once rare parts kits many owners of the 1980s era conversions have chosen to upgrade their rifles to new configurations, with the 5.45x39mm AK-74 and the AKS-74U "Krinkov" among the most popular.
Today, there are a large variety of semiautomatic AK rifles available for the shooter and collector chambered for the 5.45x39mm ammunition. Also quite common are an array of 5.45x39mm magazines. The magazines once coveted only by serious collectors have become common and available from many different countries. Although the Russians issued composite plastic magazines with their AK-74 rifles, a few countries opted to use pressed steel. Both are available in the standard 30-round configuration and the 45-round RPK version. Unfortunately, there were no production high capacity drum magazines made for the 5.45x39mm RPK-74.
Drum Magazines for the AK Rifle
The Soviets produced a 75-round steel drum magazine, primarily designed for use with the RPK light machine gun, but able to fit and function in a standard AK rifle. These feeding devices were originally manufactured by the Vjatskiye Poljany Arsenal and marked with their star within a shield symbol.
The Soviet design required the cartridges to be loaded one at a time through the drum's feed tower. After each cartridge was placed in the tower, a lever on the front of the drum's body had to be pressed upward in a counterclockwise motion so the next cartridge could be inserted. This process requires considerable effort and is time consuming. Inside of the drum are three plastic "cartridges" linked together to insure that all of the rounds would be pushed up through the tower and fed into the weapon. The various components of the drums were welded together. The Soviet pattern drum was adopted and ultimately manufactured by a number of Warsaw Pact nations. Once a rarely encountered collector's item, the Soviet pattern drums are now common.
The Chinese manufactured two different commercial drum magazines: one with a 75-round capacity the other with a 100-round capacity. Both of the drums are the same basic design, the one-hundred round drum is simply larger in diameter. The design of the Chinese drums is completely different from the Soviet pattern. The bodies of Chinese pattern drums have straight sides, while the Russian pattern drums are tapered. The feed tower on Chinese drums is riveted onto the body at a 90-degree angle to the body so that when the drum is inserted into a rifle the drum hangs straight down. With the Soviet pattern drum the feed tower is attached to the main body at an angle; when inserted into a rifle the drum body is angled forward. The Chinese used rivets to assemble their drums while the Soviets used spot welds. Some of the Chinese drums have a wire loop carrying handle attached. The drums have a hinged rear cover secured by two spring steel clips. However, the primary advantage of the Chinese drum design over the Soviet pattern is that they are much easier to load.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton announced that he would renew China's Most Favored Nation trade status, despite their human rights violations. However, Clinton did impose one sanction, a ban on the importation of firearms and ammunition. This act effectively ended the supply of the Chinese AK rifles and drum magazines. More recently the 75-round Chinese-pattern drums have become available once again, imported from Korea, Romania and Bulgaria.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
After many select-fire AK owners decided to convert their rifles to 5.45x39mm, they soon began to take pleasure in the many attributes of such a conversion; cheap ammunition and magazines, reduced recoil and controllable full-automatic fire. However, many missed having the option of the large capacity drums they once enjoyed. Few things could match the thrill of dumping 75 or 100 rounds of 7.62x39 ammo with one pull of the trigger. Well fret no more, the thrill is back. There is now an AK-74 drum available with a 76-round capacity.
The AK-74 Drum Magazine
There are a lot of talented individuals in the business today who see a need for a product and set out to fulfill that need; a 5.45x39 drum magazine is just such a product. Troy Edhlund of the BarrelXchange has a history of designing and producing exclusive products for the firearm enthusiast. Some of his previous accomplishments include: products and unique caliber conversions for the Uzi, MAC 10 and the Browning 1919A4. Also available from the BarrelXchange are high capacity drum magazines for a number of popular firearms. Recently Troy took up the considerable challenge of converting a 7.62x39mm drum into one that would fit and reliably feed 5.45x39mm ammunition into an AK-74 rifle. As a starting point for his project Troy choose the Romanian made 75-round drum. The drums are the easy-loading Chinese-pattern with the hinged back cover. Many obstacles were encountered during the conversion to the 5.45mm round, having a considerably smaller diameter than the 7.62 cartridge. The drum's feed tower had to be split apart, narrowed and welded back together. The spaces between the rotors designed to accommodate the 7.62 rounds were far too large for the 5.45 rounds but this problem was solved by carefully fitting spacers in the slots of the rotor. Another problem was encountered when it was discovered that some surplus 5.45 ammunition had a slightly longer overall length than others, which required several additional changes to the drum's basic dimensions. The area around the drum's latch surfaces also required welding and machining to fit the AK-74's magazine catch. Although some AK rifles may require some minor fitting to allow the drum to lock-up, this can be easily accomplished with a Dremel tool or file. The manufacturer notes that their AK-74 drums will fit into receivers made by Nodak Spud without any modifications to the magazine well area. The drums can also be adapted to fit and function in the MGI AR-15 lowers.
Loading and Testing
The first step is to load the drum, easily accomplished by simply unlatching the rear cover, and lifting it open. Release any existing spring tension by depressing the button at the center of the rotor. Use caution to prevent injury - keep your fingers away from the rotor when releasing its spring tension! After spring tension is released, rotate the rotor clockwise until the cartridge follower is at the end of its track. Insert five rounds, while holding the spindle with your hand, wind the small spring tensioning key (located under the spring release button) clockwise three clicks. Release the spring tension by pushing the button, the five rounds will be pushed into the spring tower and the last round will hold the rotor in place.
The individual cartridges are then placed into the openings of the rotor, bullet end first. After the drum is loaded the cover is closed and latched. When the drum is ready to be used, a key is provided to apply spring tension to the drum rotor. Four complete 360-degree turns (16-clicks) of the key are all that is required. Additional turns are not necessary and will only damage the spring and internal parts of the drum. For long-term storage purposes, the winding of the drum can be delayed allowing the drum to be stored without any spring pressure on the cartridges inside. Complete loading instructions are shipped with each drum.
Several different full-automatic AK-74 rifles were used to test the drums. To evaluate their reliability a variety of methods were implemented that included slow and fast semiautomatic fire, along with partial and full 76-round mag dumps.
For AK-74 owners who like high-capacity magazines, and the associated long mag dumps, and the current price of surplus 5.45 ammunition, BarrelXchange's 5.45 drum may be just the ticket.
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