The AK-74 is a weapon that defines both the War in Afghanistan and the late years of the Soviet empire as a whole. It is as symbolic and iconic as it gets. Forged in Tula and Izhmash factories it was battle-tested in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, it has proved to be one of the main modern assault rifles that define today's global geopolitics. Yet, in this article, we will only focus on the history of its development and its practical usage in the Soviet-Afghan War. Want to know more on the topic? Click here to check Soviet Infantry Weapons of the Afghan War book.
Brief history of AK-74
There is a common misconception about how the Soviets started developing a new, lower caliber AK after the US Army adopted M-16 and some were captured in Vietnam. The truth is - the development of a new rifle started around the same time as M-16 was adopted and went into mass production, 1964-1965. So, while it is likely that the rearmament to M-16-type of rifles sped up the processes inside the Soviet small arms development, the overall idea of lowering the caliber was in the air in the early 60s around the globe.
The development of the new rifle started with installing a 5.6mm barrel on the existing AKM by the M.T. Kalashnikov team. This cartridge was developed exclusively for the civilian market - for hunting and sports. But the idea was just what the military manufacturers were looking for - a projectile from necked down 7.62x39mm brass.
The idea of decreasing the caliber of the gun was generally liked by the Ministry of Defence. This brought all sorts of advantages - better ballistics, lower weight, better controllability, etc. However, the Defence officials were worried about the cartridge itself. As was mentioned before, this was a civilian cartridge. (Un)naturally, the officials were worried, that if a rifle was gone missing, the person who stole it from the forces could just buy the ammo from the hunting shop and go on his way terrorizing people of the Soviet Union.
While this plan has a good load of flaws in it, one should be mentioned in particular - Soviet shops never had anything for sale. It would take people time and effort to find the goods they were looking for. One couldn't just wander to a hunting store and buy 500 rounds of ammunition - there simply would not be as many available. So, it would be more practical for a potential home terrorist to steal an AK with the spam can of ammunition stored next to it. By the way, there is a historical rumor, that the adoption of PM instead of the TT was done for a similar reason - avoiding civilians stealing pistols and using ammunition collected from the battlefields of the Second World War.
Back to the development process, there were six teams running for the new rifle to be adopted. As per usual, Kalashnikov's team has won. By the late 1960s, the A3 rifle did look almost like a modern-day AK-74. After some tests and trials, it was recommended for adoption in late 1972, although some improvements were to be done later on. The folding stock AKS-74 rifle was also requested by the Ministry of Defence in 1973 and developed in consecutive years. Overall, the following items were adopted in 1974 as the result of the trials:
5.45mm AK74 Kalashnikov assault rifle
5.45 mm AK74N Kalashnikov assault rifle with NSPU night vision scope
5.45 mm Kalashnikov assault rifle with AKS74 folding stock
5.45mm AKS74N Kalashnikov assault rifle with folding stock and NSPU night vision scope
On top of that, new accessories, such as 4-cell magazine pouches, blank firing adaptor, and cleaning kit were designed and adopted for the new rifle. The new rifle went into production first thing the next morning. It did not go smoothly from day one, but this would be a story for another article or even book!
Practical use of AK-74 in Afghanistan
Just half of a decade after the rifle went into production, it was called up for real service. The Soviet army has invaded Afghanistan. By that time, late 1979, quite a lot of army regiments were already armed with a 5.45 family of weapons - AK-74 and RPK-74. That was not surprising, as the Soviet/Russian industry was never before (or after) as strong as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, the units which were invading the country were located mainly in Turkmenistan, meaning they were armed and equipped with the older stuff. Most of the soldiers who were participating in the first wave of invading forces were armed with 7.62 AKM rifles and RPK machine guns. The noticeable exception was the paratroopers - even the 56th DShB was already armed with AKS-74 rifles. But we will have a separate article on that marvel of Soviet small arms design.
The AK-74 starts to appear in photos in the summer of 1980. As was said before - the Soviet military industry was at its' peak at the time. So by the late 1980s, the absolute majority of the Afghan contingent was rearmed with new 5,45mm rifles and light machine guns. After that, only very rear echelon units still had AKM rifles in use.
The rifle was used at the most possible scale, so it is hard to choose and say anything specific in this article. This has to be done in a separate book which we are now working on, which will cover all Soviet small arms of the Afghan War. Overall it has proven to be a good enough rifle for such conditions. It was much easier to shoot with it when compared to AKM, but it did have the same reliability. The test of dry and sandy conditions was passed by AK-74 with distinction. We do have to note, that at almost any day of the war, Soviet soldiers had conditions and resources and time to properly clean their weapons.
Using AK-74 for reenactment
So, you have now read our guide and want to join the ranks of Soviet reenactors. The full-stock, wooden furniture AK-74 is definitely a wise choice. It was used by almost all units, including paratroopers (but excluding special forces), and was used almost throughout the whole war. So, in theory, you could use it for almost any impression!
In practice, you will have to be a bit more precise, of course. While Ak-74 was universally used in almost every ground troops unit, so was the folding AKS-74. It won't take you a long time to find photos of AKS-74 being used in infantry battalions, as well as in engineer units and even in pipelining troops!
The trick is to do period-specific unit-specific reenactment. Sometimes you will have to go as deep as an exact month and exact company. Sounds hard, but it is the opposite. Making an all-round all periods fulfilling impression will take way more knowledge, analytical, and sewing skills, than just stealing a dress from a man in the photo. And the latter will be the more correct impression.
There are some rules to using AK-74 and here is the list:
Using AK-74 for the initial month of invasion is most likely to be incorrect
Using all plastic AK-74 for any period is incorrect (until proven otherwise)
Using a mix of folding stock and fixed stock within a unit of company size or smaller is incorrect. But there are exceptions and it has to be tolerated for reenactment's sake
Using fixed stock AK-74 for paratrooper reenactment is technically correct, but there is so little evidence to it that it should be avoided for any non-ironic impressions
But overall, the main rule for any reenactment is the same one as for gun safety - remember to have fun!