This post accompanies the third in a series of collaborative videos produced by ARES Researcher Ian McCollum, who also runs the Forgotten Weapons blog and YouTube channel. Using access to unique collections facilitated by ARES, this series of videos will examine a range of interesting weapons over the coming months. Each video will be accompanied by a blog post, here on The Hoplite, and supported by high quality reference photos. – Ed.
Whilst a capable and reliable service rifle, the AK-74 was only ever intended as a stop-gap for the then-Soviet armed forces when it entered service in 1974. By contrast, the move to the small calibre, high velocity (SCHV) 5.45 x 39 mm cartridge was seen as a permanent one, mirroring the adoption of 5.56 x 45 mm by the United States a decade previously. In embracing this concept, both nations sought enhanced accuracy and a flatter trajectory, as well as the advantages associated with a lighter-weight cartridge. Unlike the US, Russia had already adopted and refined an ‘assault rifle’ in a so-called ‘intermediate’ calibre that more easily lent itself to calibre conversion. Adopting an interim SCHV variant of the AKM would act as a large-scale field test of the new cartridge, using a battle-proven rifle design. The new cartridge, coupled with an added muzzle brake, would enhance accuracy and reduce muzzle climb in rapid and automatic fire, thus increasing hit and kill probability. Importantly, it would also buy sufficient development time to design a scratch-built successor that could incorporate the latest thinking and perhaps provide an edge over NATO in small arms design.
By the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Russian Missile & Artillery Directorate (Glavnoye raketno-artilleriyskoye upravleniye MO RF or ‘GRAU’) and the TSNII TOCHMASH research institute had laid the theoretical groundwork for formal trials. Two promising ideas emerged from their research. The first was a so-called ‘balanced recoil’ system, in which the mass of the bolt carrier and piston were matched with an equivalent counter-mass. This reduced recoil for the firer, at the expense of greater overall weight. The other was what would later be dubbed in the US Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) trials ‘hyper burst’; a means of two or more projectiles within a very short space of time in order to minimise disturbance to the shooter’s hold and sight picture. The Russian design competition to find a new service rifle thus began in 1979, before the ACR trials, and lasted longer, ending in 1992. Contrary to pervasive myth, it was not named Project Abakan after the Siberian city where testing was to be conducted. Max Popenker has pointed out that “ABAKAN” was simply a code name, and in fact trials were conducted at TSNII TOCHMASH in Klimovsk. This became an informal nickname for the winning rifle. Twelve design teams entered, the top two both representing Izhmash products. The more conventional AKB project was led by Victor Kalashnikov (son of the famous Mikhail), but lost out to the ASM series of Dr. Gennadiy Nikonov. Nikonov’s team produced a series of prototypes between 1979 and 1992, all designed around the concepts of a very high rate burst and delayed felt recoil, together dubbed ‘blow-back shifted pulse’ (‘pulse’ here meaning ‘recoil’). The known examples, interestingly beginning with a bullpup design, are detailed and illustrated in this Small Arms Review article by Valery Shilin. Perhaps inevitably, feedback received from troop trials led to the sliding magazine well being fixed in place, necessitating the infamous pulley/follower arrangement but preserving a more conventional ‘manual of arms’ and shooting experience (no doubt also eliminating a potential new failure mode of magazine obstruction!). It was also thought that three shots per burst was excessive, and so this was reduced to two in order to conserve ammunition.
In 1990, the US and German hyper burst candidate, Heckler & Koch’s caseless G11 rifle, was shelved along with all of the other entrants in the ACR trials. Instead, a compromise measure was adopted in the shape of the burst-fire M16A2 (1983) and M4 carbine (1994). As an aside, in recent years the limitations of this compromise measure have been recognised, and the fully automatic function has once again supplanted it in the M4A1. By contrast, the Soviet Union apparently set far more stock by the hyper burst concept. The final Nikonov prototype was the ultimate winner of the Abakan contest, and was assigned the stores number 6P33 by GRAU. In 1994 it received the service designation ‘AN-94’ and was formally adopted with the intention of replacing the several AK variants then in service.
The Nikonov rifle features a variable rate of fire, with a two-round burst mode operating at 1800 rpm, and a conventional automatic mode at 600 rpm. To achieve this, a combined gas and recoil-operated system was coupled with a unique feed system. Simply put, two cycles of the gas system are completed for every one of the recoil system. Thus two rounds are fired before the recoiling firing unit strikes the rear buffer, although only a few millimetres before, as the high speed footage reveals. Only when both shots have been fired is the full momentum of both mechanisms imparted to the firer, causing the muzzle to rise. The long, rearward-inclined travel of the recoiling barrel and firing mechanism (described together as the ‘firing unit’) substantially reduces felt recoil and muzzle rise even in this mode of fire. With the weapon’s fire selector set to ‘AB’, or automatic, the first two shots are fired at the high rate, after which normal cyclic fire takes place at the circa 600 rpm rate. Whereas in normal automatic fire, the bolt travels with the firing unit on its full travel, slowing the rate drastically.
Technically speaking, the system is primarily gas operated, but this mechanism sits within a recoil operated firing unit. Feed arrangements are unique. Although supplied by a standard AK-74 magazine, the weapon actually feeds from a unique intermediate position, which is served by the distinctive pulley wheel and cable. Contrary to popular belief, this is not part of a balanced recoil system. Indeed, the AN-94 is not a balanced recoil weapon, and the reduced recoil that it offers is achieved entirely by the firing unit as detailed below. The pulley simply positions cartridges in this intermediate position for feeding. ‘Balanced recoil’ describes a system using counter-mass to reduce felt recoil and therefore increase hit probability. This was an entirely separate concept also trialled as part of ‘Abakan’. None of these designs was successful in the trials, but the Koksharov AEK-971 has since been further developed and re-evaluated for military service. In any case, located between the magazine and the chamber is a separate follower under spring tension. This is necessary, as Maxim Popenker puts it, to ‘…transfer the rounds from stationary magazine and into the recoiling receiver’. As soon as the firing unit begins to recoil, there is no longer sufficient room for the second cartridge for a burst to be chambered. This is why early prototypes featured a moving magazine: to preserve spacing and alignment for feeding purposes. This secondary follower is superficially reminiscent of the elevator in a lever-action rifle, but the Nikonov rifle goes further, using it in conjunction with the recoiling firing unit to very rapidly feed, chamber and fire two rounds in one combined cycle. Also unlike a Winchester elevator or a Maxim breech face, there is no stacking or ‘queuing up’ of cartridges. There is only ever one cartridge either on the follower or in the chamber.
Feeding from the magazine to the secondary follower happens during the operating cycle, whilst the empty case is being extracted and ejected. The trigger mechanism is also unique to this type, lacking the conventional disconnector and pair of sears. Instead, a large flat trigger plate (‘tripper’ in the patent) connects the trigger to the only sear. The former tilts when the trigger is pulled, in order to pull down on the sear and release the hammer for a shot. To change firing modes, the selector switch is depressed and slid forward or backward. Because a projecting plunger on the bottom of the sear (‘pawl’ in the patent and ‘pin’ in the parts catalogue) rides under a shelf in the trigger plate, this alters how and when the trigger is disconnected from the sear, and therefore whether or not the hammer is captured or allowed to travel forward with the bolt carrier (stay tuned for a follow-up post detailing the weapon’s operation in the three different firing modes – Ed.). A simple cross-bolt safety (when pressed to the operator’s right) prevents this plate from being depressed and therefore a shot from being fired. It is disengaged by the index finger of the firing hand, as per other trigger guard safeties (e.g. as on the M1 ‘Garand’).
The production weapon differs from the final prototype only in detail, other than its club-shaped butt-stock, replaced with a derivative of that found on the AK-100 series. In fact, all of the furniture and the main receiver (‘housing’ in the parts catalogue) is made from the same black polymer as the AK-100 series, but none of the furniture is interchangeable. Indeed, the only components (i.e. not accessories) on the entire weapon that are interchangeable with the AK family of rifles are the front sight post and sling swivel. Even the pistol grip is a different moulding and the magazine catch a different steel pressing. The gas system, bolt and provision for ejection are heavily inspired by the AK, however. According to Jane’s, metal components such as the firing unit are produced from aluminium alloy investment castings, and are laser welded. The barrel features 4 RH rifling with one turn in 195 mm. Barrel and chamber are chrome-lined, giving a minimum service life of 10,000 rounds. The two-chambered muzzle device is actually a combined brake, flash and sound suppressor, designed to swirl and control expansion of the propellant gases to disrupt, cool, and reduce pressure differential. Typical muzzle brakes produce a lot of sound and flash in their effort to reduce and/or redirect recoil energy. Importantly, the muzzle brake also provides the necessary precise timing for the two round burst feature to work.
Also unique is the rotary rear diopter sight, which incorporates five non-adjustable apertures. A battle sight is marked for 200 metres and incorporates two cavities for Tritium inserts. The remaining four apertures cater for 400-700 metres. The unusual shape of the front sight protector with its flat top and wide notch is designed to accommodate the front optional Tritium element, and also allows for quick alignment for reaction shooting at close range. However, in practice, the presence of two front sighting points may prove confusing. On the AN-94N variant (which appears to be the production standard), the standard Soviet/Russian mounting bracket is provided on the left side of the receiver, envisaged for use with either a 1L29 ×4 optical sight or an NSPU-3 night sight can be fitted.standard mounting bracket is provided on the left side of the receiver, envisaged for use with either a 1L29 4x optical sight or an NSPU-3 night sight. The standard issue bayonet is of the 6×5 second AK-74 pattern (first issued c. 1988), although unlike that weapon, the AN-94 will not accept AKM pattern bayonets. Unusually, on the AN-94 this attaches to a lug on the right side of the barrel (with a traditional ring over the muzzle), and sits at an horizontal angle in order not to interfere with the moving barrel/firing unit or the fitment of an under-barrel grenade launcher.
The horizontally-affixed AN-94 bayonet (credit: Mihail Gruzdev).
A GP-25 or GP-30 30mm underbarrel grenade launcher can be fitted, mounting to the buffer housing under the barrel, with a rear mounting point on the handguard. A rubber butt pad is provided for fitting to the rifle’s stock when a grenade launcher is installed. A standard AK cleaning kit is supplied in a butt-trap, but due to the lack of space for a cleaning rod up front, a two-piece rod is housed in the front of the butt-stock.
Observers have claimed a two fold increase in effectiveness over the AK-74, although this appears to be based on the success of the burst mechanism in placing two shots on a man-sized target at typical battlefield engagement ranges. In other words, two hits for the price of one. Small Arms Review reports Dr. David Bolotin’s opinion that the AN-94 is also ‘1.5 times more effective than the American M16A2’, presumably on the basis that the M16A2’s three-round burst feature increases hit probability slightly over the AK-74. Popenker claims a single hole may be made at 100 m given a sufficiently trained operator. Larry Vickers was only able to achieve dispersion of two inches at 20m, but this was without prior training and from the off-hand position. However, even with more practice firearms writer David Lake was only able to improve this to 2 inch groups at 50m. Whatever the specifics of capability, the Abakan programme unquestionably achieved its goal of increased hit probability and lethality, at least under certain conditions. However, the price of this increased effectiveness is high, due to the complexity and associated costs of materials, manufacturing, maintenance, and training. Introduction of the type also coincided with a post-Cold War period of reduced military funding, something that had entirely killed German adoption of the H&K G11 rifle around this time. Another cost following from mechanical complexity is in ergonomics for the user, which have been criticised, and were found by ARES staff to be somewhat difficult. The weapon is also relatively heavy and ill-balanced, and when loaded and fitted with an optical sight, weighs as much as a DMR of larger calibre. Of course, the intent here was to increase the effectiveness of the average infantry soldier rather than to train every man as a designated marksman. Optical sights were also uncommon when the rifle entered service.
Russian paratroopers with AN-94 rifles at the 2015 Victory Day Parade in Moscow (photo credit: Russia Defence Forum).
While the AN-94 was officially adopted, it has not seen extensive issue and therefore only limited service. Published sources, including Jane’s Infantry Weapons and The World’s Assault Rifles by Nelson & Johnston, report usage in First Chechen War of 1994-1996, and one example was in evidence in a YouTube video filmed in Crimea in 2014 (since deleted, but verified by ARES staff). The primary and likely only state military users are Russian Special Operations Forces, specifically paratroopers. Another image circulated online shows a naval infantryman with the weapon. Other sightings of the type are at gun shows, parades, and on military exercises. Many of the examples with visible receiver markings are revealed to be MMG factory-made inert guns like the one featured in our video. The AN-94 appeared in promotional literature as late as February 2015 (see this press release), but by the time the new www.kalashnikov.com website had been launched in Summer 2016, the weapon no longer featured as a product. Large scale manufacture seems to have begun around 2002; although the relevant patent was applied for in 1998, the official parts catalogue was not published until January 2003. It is not known when this production run ceased, nor how many examples were completed. However, limited sales may have occurred. In 2002 a US government report claimed that 20 examples had been sold to the Provisional IRA. Beyond the initial production models (AN-94 and AN-94N with sight rail), there are no confirmed variants or improved models. A 7.62 x 39 mm variant was reported as early as 1998, and two photographs have since emerged that do appear to show examples in this chambering. As an attempt to court the user’s ongoing preference for the bigger 7.62 mm bullet, this is plausible. Confusingly however, in 2015 Kalashnikov Concern’s Head of Media denied that such a variant had been produced. If the photos are genuine, this variant must be extremely rare, perhaps produced for limited troop trials only.
Today the type remains in limited service, as trials continue to replace the AK family of weapons. However, with attention once again on balanced recoil systems for any ‘high tech’ replacement, and considerable effort being put into further product-improved Kalashnikov variants (including the AK-12 with its conventional three-round burst), it seems that the AN-94’s days are numbered. International patents on the design even began to lapse in 2010 “because of non-payment of due fees”. Nonetheless, the weapon represents a tremendous engineering answer to a long-standing question in small arms design. It may have failed as a service rifle, but Nikonov’s design is nothing short of brilliant.
Calibre: 5.45 x 39 mm
Overall length (stock extended): 946 mm
Overall length (stock collapsed): 731 mm
Barrel length: 405 mm (16”)
Weight (unloaded): 3.80 kg (MMG weighs 3.85 kg)
Feed device: 30, 45 or 60-round detachable box magazine
Note: whilst the AN-94 in the Royal Armouries’ collection is a factory-made inert (MMG) example, as shown in the video and images here, ARES staff had access to a ‘live’ example from another confidential collection. This example could not be photographed for security reasons.
Special thanks to the National Firearms Centre at the Royal Armouries, who graciously allowed us access to their world-class collection for this and other videos and photos. Thanks to D.E. Watters for a tip regarding the 7.62 x 39 AN-94.
Stay tuned for a second instalment examining the AN-94 on The Hoplite, which will examine the technical operating characteristics of the weapon in greater detail, and include more images.
Remember, all arms and munitions are dangerous. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded, and all munitions as if they are live, until you have personally confirmed otherwise. If you do not have specialist knowledge, never assume that arms or munitions are safe to handle until they have been inspected by a subject matter specialist. You should not approach, handle, move, operate, or modify arms and munitions unless explicitly trained to do so. If you encounter any unexploded ordnance (UXO) or explosive remnants of war (ERW), always remember the ‘ARMS’ acronym:
AVOID the area
RECORD all relevant information
MARK the area to warn others
SEEK assistance from the relevant authorities