AKs you could buy between circa 1970 and 1983: Valmet M62S, Steyr/Maadi ARM, Clayco AKS. All stock except the Clayco has had a Chinese AK-47 grip added. Click to embiggen.
There was a time when you could not go down to your local gun store and buy an AK. In the USA, laws constricting the availability of foreign weapons and automatic weapons were on the rise during the period when AKs transitioned from weapons in first line use in major armies to weapons widely available on the world market.
And the market for military-styled modern weapons was unproven. In the early 1970s, you could buy exactly one civilian equivalent of a current service weapon in the USA: the Colt AR-15 Sporter aka SP1. It sold, but slowly. Many gun shops had no idea who’d want one, except maybe a Vietnam vet who’d liked his M16A1. The phenomenon was familiar from WWII guys who wanted an M1 rifle or M1 carbine. But most gun shops were focused on selling guns to hunters and target shooters, and revolvers, mostly, for self-defense.
An earlier (1963) attempt to sell FALs in the US had flickered out, leaving NOS guns on the shelf for years and triggering a messy set of ATF rulings.
Other service rifles came and went in semiauto mode. The CETME. The HK41 was likewise a market disaster — there’s no way the German company recovered the cost of the semi-auto engineering of their G3 rifle, which had to be redesigned several times as the ATF Firearms Technology Branch did what it did — depending on your point of view, either “defended the United States from an onslaught of foreign machine guns,” or “messed with a bunch of German engineers’ heads for no good reason”. (To that we’ll say, anyone worried about the plague of G3s in criminal hands has never fired a G3A3 on full auto. It probably needs a wholesaler’s FFL because the thing is a distributor of bullets of regional scope). The Germans persisted at that time, and in the mid 1970s, the latest edition of the HK41 was renamed HK91; total HK41 production was very low (hundreds for the US, probably). But even the HK91 sold only to a small subset of the shooters and collectors who want them now. One reason that they are so expensive is that total HK91 imports preban were probably under 50,000 rifles.
By the early 1980s, the demand curve for what we now call Modern Sporting Rifles (and we certainly didn’t, then) was starting to rise, and one thing people wanted was, as Clint Eastwood’s character Gunny Highway so eloquently put it, “the AK-47, the preferred weapon of our enemy.” After all, “It makes a distinct sound when fired at you.” And by the time that movie was made, a trickle of AKs were coming into the country.
There were a handful only of transferable AKs in the country, many if not most of them 1968 amnesty registrations. A semi AK seemed like a good idea, although many of the entrepreneurs that brought in those proto-MSRs lost their shirts at the time. It must be small comfort to them that those guns are now hotly-pursued collector rarities!
The first AK in the US was the Valmet M62S, followed by the same company’s M76S and -FS and M78. These were followed by the Egyptian Maadi imported by Steyr as the Steyr ARM, and several early Chinese imports. Further importation of these weapons was banned by an executive order by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and the ban was extended to US manufacture in 1994 (for ten years; the law sunset in 2004, but local versions are still on the books in several anti-gun states).
Bayonets L-R: Valmet (Fiskars); Maadi (very crude), Clayco, PLO-marked Tula AKM recovered in Lebanon, 1982.
The Valmet was the Finnish AK, and is radically different from any other AK — anyone who has shot it will be tempted to say, superior to any other AK. The M62S was a semi version of the Finnish Army’s rifle, and it has a number of adaptations that make it superior for cold-weather use, and superior in general. It is a tighter gun in its critical mating parts although clearances remained loose in parts that do not affect accuracy. The sights include a tritium night sight and are differently arranged than on the AK, providing a somewhat longer sighting radius. The foresight is on the gas block, not on the barrel; and the rear sight is on the receiver cover. (Yes, having the rear sight on a removable part is not optimum; the cover is reinforced to make that rear sight stable). But the rear sight is (when not in low-light mode) a small peep sight, which brings an ability to aim in accordance with the superior construction of the Valmet AK. Anyone who has owned a variety of AKs finds the accuracy of a Valmet, with decent ammunition, startling. The furniture is unique, plastic to prevent freezing fuzed to sheet-metal structure. The Valmet bayonet shows its descent from a Finnish filleting knife, and attaches to a wicked-looking and effective flash hider. The flash hider has a groove in it which lets you put a rubber band or a piece of 550 cord at the muzzle to prevent foliage from snagging the flash hider prongs.
The earliest M62S guns had a machined-steel receiver, lightened in the nose by having a lot of non-useful steel cut off. A stamped receiver was phased in over the M71 and M76 guns, both of which were available in 7.62 x 39 and 5.56 in several trim versions, including fixed and folding stocks. The M78 was an RPK variant, available also in 7.62 NATO.
Valmet’s AK played a major role on the world stage circa 1970-71, when Israel received technical data from Valmet Oy, and later, gun parts including receivers-in-the-white, which allowed the production of the Valmet-based 5.56mm Galil ARM assault rifle to begin. Later, Israel in turn would assist South Africa with the Galil-based R4.
Steyr took a chance on the AK in 1981 or 1982. It was advertised heavily in gun magazines and in then-popular adventure magazines like Soldier of Fortune and the now-defunct Eagle and Gung-Ho. Despite that, its sales were disastrous and it took Steyr years to sell off its inventory of Maadi ARMs, even though only 2,500 were reportedly imported. A number of them were converted pre-86 for movie use, and a number have been converted post-86 as “dealer samples” with the same intent; we believe Eastwood’s “preferred weapon of your enemy” to be a Maadi conversion.
The ARM is extremely close to an AKM of similar vintage, having been made on Russian tooling, on a line set up by experts from Izmash. That most ARMs work at all is proof positive of the design strength of the AK that allows it to be assembled by cretins, as fit and finish is beastly, even by AK standards. The accessories like the sling and bayonet were even more crudely made than the guns, and are seldom found with the guns today (instead superior Russian or East Bloc ones are usually substituted). The sling is a peculiar bright green color.
Here are the AKs with bayonets fixed. The Clayco has an unusual parkerized bolt and carrier (most Chinese AKs of this period had chromed bolt carriers. Each gun has a distinctive magazine, as well: the Valmet has a lanyard ring, and Chinese and European AKs have different rib configurations.
The early years of Chinese AK importation are a bit confusing, but importers include Clayco Sports of Clay Center, Kansas, and Keng’s Firearm Specialties, including others. All the guns appear to have been made at the same plant in China. They were well made and well finished; while the Maadi ARMs had crude plastic and a runny paint finish, the plastic pieces of early Chinese AKs were beautifully molded, if undersized for Americans; and the finish was a deep, rich blue that would not be out of place on a fine shotgun.
The initial guns had plastic parts of a bakelite type urea plastic. Later, wooden guns were imported and even a milled-receiver model non-M AK-47 style gun, the Norinco Legend, but all the early guns were on AKM style receivers. Common variations are wood-stocked, plastic-stocked (usually black or deep red plastic), underfolder and sidefolder guns. Rare variations include folding spike bayonet AKs and the milled receiver models. Most if not all Chinese AKs imported pre-1989 included a bayonet; uniquely among AKM bayonets, the Chinese models are not wirecutters.
A collector could have his hands full trying to collect all versions of the Chinese AK, but it’s not a task for a novice. Because all Chinese AKs predate the 1994 AWB and the state bans, these guns are “preban” treasures in certain states. (Some states forbid “importation” of pre-94 “assault weapons” from other states, some states do not).
Uh, What’s the EF for, Doc?
After the 1989 “no sporting guns” order of George E.F. Bush, the Chinese redesigned their AK to be more compliant with the “sporting” test, which Senator Thomas Dodd, in one of his last acts before being censured for bribe taking, copied from Nazi gun control law, and Bush applied to imported rifles by Executive Order.
The bowdlerized guns, called MAK-90s, had homely laminated thumbhole stocks and were shorn of such non-sporting features as flash hiders and bayonet lugs. But they were only imported for a short time before politics raised its ugly head — this time, though, it was Chinese politics. Democracy demonstrations in Tienanmen Square were put down brutally; in response, the US applied a number of sanctions to China, including banning importation of Chinese guns. That ban is still in effect today.
Right now, the MAK-90 is the least valuable Chinese AK and we suspect some are being converted to resemble earlier, more desirable (to collectors), and yet more common versions. It will be interesting to see if a collector’s market for 1989-2004 ban-era guns ever forms. If so, some of the frankenstein adaptations of those years may be worth more than new AKs someday.
The prices of Maadis and Norinco (etc.) guns have been kept depressed by the influx of AKs, and of AK parts, and now, the production of American parts to replace parts banned from importation by the ATF under
the National-Socialist Gun Law of 1938. Thomas Dodd’s revision of a foreign law (guess which one) into the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Changing the Maadi AK to Russian bayonet and mag changes its character. The “movie stars” also had correct Russian slings, not this bright green Egyptian one.
These early imports are interesting, because of their historic significance and fidelity to the Russian AK model (Maadi ARM), their radical departures and superior quality (Valmet), or because politics has rendered them unobtainium (Chinese). Except for the Valmet, they’re not necessarily better than the generic AK you can get today; the Maadi, the worst of the early lot, is better than Century’s WASR, the worst of the recent lot, but not overwhelmingly so. (It is free of the Century bugbear, the canted front sight post; the Egyptians, after all, had jigs and fixtures).
We’ve owned, shot, and beaten on all the guns we describe here over the years, and still have representative samples. If you’d like a more technical look at these, maybe including some range time, sing out in the comments.
Here’s a thread with a guy showing off his recently bought M62S. Be careful about forum threads, though. There’s one on M4carbine.net that insists that Galil magazines are hazardous in Valmets. Galil 35 and 50 rounders fit and function fine; the top end appears dimensionally identical, and RSA R4 mags are identical but for markings to Galil mags. The rare Galil STANAG mag block needs a bit of filing to fit a Valmet M76, but we did it and it worked with GI 20 and 30-round mags. (That may have been a lapse into Bubbahood, given the rarity of that adapter).
There’s a lot of inaccuracy in this 2013 Guns and Ammo article on the Chinese AKs, but it’s a starting point.
And here’s an article on a Maadi that was used in the making of the 80s cult classic film Red Dawn. The prop guns were owned by Stembridge, whose inventory was bought circa 1998 by Long Mountain Outfitters, which provides a serial number list of Red Dawn guns. Dan Shea warns that a “Red Dawn” or Stembridge AK that is not on that list is likely a forgery!