The AKS-74U, by all means, is a legendary weapon. And not just within the gun appreciation communities! Military personnel and warlords, who managed to access it, would never miss an opportunity to show off.
Conveniently for us, the AKS-74U first appeared during the Soviet-Afghan War, which perfectly fits the main theme of our blog. We continue the list of all the firearms used by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. Please note that the AKS-74U is a weapon with quite a history. And the number of myths around it is just as huge. Hence, this article is very likely to be updated as we move on, as well as there will be more articles on this unique firearm.
The development of the AKS-74U
The desire to have a short, portable weapon was present in the Soviet Army ever since the adoption of the SKS-AK-RPD family of guns. This was because they quickly shifted away all the battle-proven WW2 submachine guns, namely PPSh-41 and PPS-43. Along with the submachine guns, the 7.62x25mm ammunition was also swapped for 9x18mm, which was used by PM and APS.
Back in the 50s it was believed that the APS could be such a weapon - it was light, small, and could deliver quite some firepower, good enough for self-defense at short ranges. However, the practice of using this pistol in the forces during the Atomic Age was not satisfactory. Due to a general dislike of pistols, as well as the huge production of the AKM and AKMS assault rifles, the APS became very rare in the forces by the end of the 1960s. However, the desire for a short automatic weapon did not disappear - it was the time for a new approach.
Work on a compact assault rifle chambered for the new 5.6mm cartridge has commenced even before the adoption of the new family of 5.45mm weapons. In 1971, at the request of the military, a research topic was opened under the name "Light 5.6mm submachine gun." Within the framework of this topic, it was required to create a weapon for arming the crews of armored vehicles and combat crews with a mass of 1.6 - 1.8 kg and a length with a folded butt no more than 460 mm, with a magazine for 20-25 rounds.
Work on the topic was started in 1972 at all major enterprises - developers of small arms in the USSR. Do not get confused with the caliber of 5.6mm - this was a different cartridge that existed before 5.45mm. But this is a story for another article. The final version of the requirements for a compact assault rifle chambered for a 5.45mm cartridge was put forward by the military at the end of 1973 as part of the Modern theme. The gunsmiths of Izhevsk, Tula, and Kovrov joined the work on the project.
The future AKS-74U had to compete with quite interesting firearms - Stechkin's TKB-0116 and AEK-958, as well as some other obscure models. Unfortunately, there is little to no information on these firearms in the English segment of the web. Our team will think about making articles on those if these are interesting topics for the community.
Anyhow, due to the procedure, the AKS-74U was not adapted alongside AK-74 and RPK-74. Neither it was adapted in 1974, despite the name. The carbine was adapted on the 10th of August, 1978. It was produced in Izhevsk until 1981 when the whole production line was moved to Tula.
The use of AKS-74U in the forces
When it comes to the Soviet-Afghan War and to the Soviet Armed Forces in general, many people believe, that AKS-74U was used solely by the crews of the vehicles. While this statement is not completely false, it is still more of a myth than reality.
As you have dedicated in the previous paragraph, the AKS-74U turned out slightly different than initially requested. The AKS-74U was 25% longer and almost twice heavier than how the Army wanted it to be. Because of this, the 1980s was the time of the experiments - the Armed Forces, as well as the Police and other services, tried a lot of different setups to find a good place for the AKS-74U.
For example, there is a common myth, that the Airborne were to be rearmed solely with AKS-74U. While this sounds ridiculous, there is some evidence that battle order setups like these were actually tested. There is photographic evidence of Airborne battalions using AKS-74U en-masse during training exercises.
However, as it was soon worked out, AKS-74U was not a great infantry weapon. While the short barrel made it really compact and quite light, it did come at a cost. The continuous fire was now almost impossible - the barrel was overheating after just 60-80 rounds, leading to a further reduction of accuracy, which was not great to begin with. Again, the barrel length only allowed the AKS-74U to be precise at a rather short range. Scoring targets, which were further away than 100 meters - was possible, but only at a shooting range. In the heat of an actual firefight, the practical distance for AKS-74U would drop to 50-100m. This, in theory, would make it a really good close-quarter battle weapon, if not the overheating problem - you do need to maintain fire superiority as you close up with the enemy.
The use of AKS-74U in Afghanistan
The topic of AKS-74U in the local conflicts and even in Afghanistan in particular deserves an article of its own, if not a whole research paper or even a book. While we are planning to publish a book "Soviet Infantry Weapons in the Soviet-Afghan War", we are still willing to touch on the topic briefly in this article.
So, it is safe to assume, that there were little to no AKS-74U during the invasion. So far we have not found any evidence about that. Most memoirs, which mention the AKS-74U are actually dating its first appearance in Afghanistan in the summer of 1981. What is interesting, is that they claim that, at the time, the weapon was very secret and their appearance was hidden from the general public. While it is unclear why such a carbine had to be a secret, it strongly resembles the story about the early years of SVD in service - it was also covered in mystery.
Looking at the photos of veterans, it becomes clear that by the end of 1981, AKS-74U became quite a common weapon across the 40th Army. It was issued to all branches of service - from the Airforce to regular motor rifle infantry and Airborne battalions.
The overall practical results and review varied. Basically, those who did not have to use the carbine for real on a day-to-day basis had a positive view of it. After all, it was light and compact. When your main job is to operate a vehicle or build constructions - why not just hold to a smaller self-defense weapon? As a matter of fact, some of the Soviet soldiers and officers, who operated in generally safe areas were so lazy that they would go "outside the wire" with just a couple of grenades. This, of course, did not end well every time.
On the other hand, those who used the carbine in actual combat were very dissatisfied with it. Apart from the problems with practical range and overheating, it was impossible to attach the GP-25 under-barrel grenade launcher to it. Given how useful these were and how popular they became in the second part of the war - this was a serious drawback.
This article has already turned out much bigger than it was initially planned. Hence, there will be some more articles covering the use of AKS-74U by helicopter pilots as well as on Mujahadeans who used captured carbines.