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AKM Build Project: From Poland With Love

How to Build a Custom AKM From a Polish Parts Kit

AKs are magical beasts. They come from foreign lands and are shrouded in mystery brought on by import laws and urban lore. One thing that might be unclear to the casual observer of the AK market, U.S. citizens can’t buy an authentic communist AKM made in authentic communist factories.

It’s easy enough to buy an AK off the shelf. Problem is, it’s likely a mash-up of imported components that were assembled stateside with some domestically manufactured parts to make it legal. More on those laws later. Some companies are building guns with all U.S.-made parts, too. Good guns, but no commie soul.

We wanted the best-performing AK intertwining our American heart with a COMBLOC soul. So we decided to cut out the middleman and build our own AKM from an imported parts kit.

Best AKM Parts Kit

Mike Pappas figured out a method to confirm and reset the headspace using a set of feeler gauges. Once headspace is set, gauge the distance between the front trunnion and the sight block. When reinstalling the barrel in the trunnion later in the build process, insert the gauges, and they’ll act as a stop when the barrel reaches the previously recorded depth.

Mike Pappas figured out a method to confirm and reset the headspace using a set of feeler gauges. Once headspace is set, gauge the distance between the front trunnion and the sight block. When reinstalling the barrel in the trunnion later in the build process, insert the gauges, and they’ll act as a stop when the barrel reaches the previously recorded depth.

We linked up with Gary Hughes and Mike Pappas from Dead Air Armament. The two are partners in a side project called MOD Outfitters, an outlet for their huge fascination with imported guns. And we mean huge. Pappas has his own BMP. Hughes just likes the AK platform for its elegance.

“The thing I like about AKs is that they are brutally simple,” says Hughes. “It’s the assault rifle concept boiled down to its essential ingredients.”

If the AR-15 is a Lego set for grownups, we guess that makes the AKM something like an Erector set. Where an AR clicks, bolts, and pins together, building a reliable and accurate AK is more involved.

Here’s what we started with: a Polish AKM parts kit, a Childers Guns receiver, ALG Defense AKT trigger, and a Tapco muzzle device. The kit came with some auto parts that we tossed.

Here’s what we started with: a Polish AKM parts kit, a Childers Guns receiver, ALG Defense AKT trigger, and a Tapco muzzle device. The kit came with some auto parts that we tossed.

An AK Is Not Just An AK

In fact, the Soviets learned this lesson the hard way. At the time that Mikhail Kalashnikov was dreaming up the AK-47, he was likely looking at the German sheetmetal masterpieces: the MP40 submachine gun, the MG42, and the StG 44. The stamped-metal construction of these firearms was a departure from the milled manufacturing methods of the day.

In those stamped guns, the Soviets saw a way to equip their enormous army with easily manufactured, inexpensive, accurate and reliable assault rifles. Turns out the original AK-47 met only two of those four criteria and had issues with durability and accuracy.

According to Frank Iannamico in AK-47: The Grim Reaper, the Commies gave up on the newfangled stamped metal Type 1 AK receiver. They replaced it with the more reliable and accurate milled-steel Type 2 and later, the Type 3 milled-steel receivers.

Advent of the AKM

Tools of the trade. Clockwise from top left: AK Builder Riveting Jig and 7.62x39mm Headspace GO/NO GO Gauges (center), Robert Forbus Barrel Pin Tool, AK Builder AK Trunnion Rivet Hole Drilling Fixture, AK Builder Barrel Press Kit, Toth Tool and Engineering Rivet Jaws on Harbor Freight 24-inch Bolt Cutters, AK Builder AK47 Trigger Guard Rivet Jig.

Tools of the trade. Clockwise from top left: AK Builder Riveting Jig and 7.62x39mm Headspace GO/NO GO Gauges (center), Robert Forbus Barrel Pin Tool, AK Builder AK Trunnion Rivet Hole Drilling Fixture, AK Builder Barrel Press Kit, Toth Tool and Engineering Rivet Jaws on Harbor Freight 24-inch Bolt Cutters, AK Builder AK47 Trigger Guard Rivet Jig.

By the mid ’50s, the Soviets finally figured out the sheetmetal thing. Perhaps enlightenment came with help of the captured German weapon designer Hugo Schmeisser, the Kalashnikov of the StG 44. The original AK went the way of the Apple Newton and was replaced by the iAK, otherwise known as the AKM (AK Modernized).

The AKM was everything the AK-47 should have been. It incorporated the accumulated features of the AK-47 platform with lighter and less expensive riveted sheetmetal construction.

Deburring the rivet holes ensures the rivets seat properly for the strongest connection while also looking good.

Deburring the rivet holes ensures the rivets seat properly for the strongest connection while also looking good.

The AKM assumed the AK mantle and never looked back. Soviet allies who adopted the AK retrofitted their operations and began pumping out AKMs by the hundreds-of-thousands through the ’60s and ’70s.

And that’s the abbreviated story of how Kalashnikov’s AK-47 resulted in the standard Polish AKM parts kit we have before us for our building pleasure.

What’s in the Box?

Our AKM parts kit came with a cracked rear trunnion (aka buttstock tang), right. Because it’s not uncommon, we had a spare on hand and carried on without a hitch.

Our AKM parts kit came with a cracked rear trunnion (aka buttstock tang), right. Because it’s not uncommon, we had a spare on hand and carried on without a hitch.

We bought a Polish AKM parts kit from Arms of America. The kits include all the parts of a surplus Polish military AKM, minus the receiver, which is crushed or torch cut during the demilling process, and barrel. In place of the original barrel, AoA provides an American-made, button-rifled barrel they’ve populated with parts from the original kit. This saves us a huge amount of time and hassle.

We picked up an AKM receiver from Childers Guns. Childers developed a following (and a wait list) by providing excellent quality receivers that mate up with Polish parts as if it were the original murdered receiver’s unbloodied identical twin found in a Polish orphanage and delivered to our doorstep. With only a couple of U.S.-made parts in the mix.

The RECOIL Custom AKM ditches the original Polish AKM furniture and replaces it with modern parts from Magpul and Troy.

The RECOIL Custom AKM ditches the original Polish AKM furniture and replaces it with modern parts from Magpul and Troy.

Sidenote on Screws vs. Rivets

Screws suck. AKs can be built with screws in place of rivets, but a properly installed rivet is much stronger. Screws are faster and require fewer tools, but your rifle will look weird, Kalashinkov’s ghost will weep, and your rifle will fall apart one day just like the Soviet Union. And, no amount of Loctite could’ve kept the USSR from falling apart.

WTF Is a Trunnion?

For all you AR guys who are too ashamed to ask, a trunnion is a hefty union that supports the barrel (front trunnion) or the stock (rear trunnion) in the receiver. Rivets are used to connect the trunnion and receiver. The trunion also imparts structure and rigidity to the stamped steel receiver. The best trunnions are forged from steel; cast trunnions are best used in prop guns and as paperweights.

The AK Builder Riveting Jig properly supports and forms rivets for the front and rear trunnion and can dimple the AKM’s lower front trunnion holes painlessly.

The AK Builder Riveting Jig properly supports and forms rivets for the front and rear trunnion and can dimple the AKM’s lower front trunnion holes painlessly.

Our AKM kit came with forged trunnions, as do nearly all military surplus parts kits. The demilling process is a bit like a slaughterhouse for guns, though. Popping thousands of rivets a day can get messy, and it’s not uncommon for a kit to arrive with a cracked trunnion. Ours did, and we were glad to have a spare on hand to swap in.

Tool Time

The rivets in the recessed area of the AKM’s front trunnion are best reached with the Toth Tool and Engineering Rivet Jaws.

The rivets in the recessed area of the AKM’s front trunnion are best reached with the Toth Tool and Engineering Rivet Jaws.

Rivets are no joke. They’re a commitment. You get a single shot at installing one, and the tools to work with them aren’t common, either. Unless you’re as lucky as we are, you’re not going to be able to pillage your buddy’s shop for riveting tools and alignment fixtures.

We used specialized AK gunsmithing tools from AK Builder, Toth Tools, and Robert Forbus Engineering Works in addition to a standing hydraulic press as well as some common tools, such as a drill press, rubber mallet, Dremel, and files.

Build

Our kit came with a populated barrel. We didn’t have to worry about fitting the gas block and sight block, or drilling/reaming the barrel pinhole. Even so, if there’s one thing, just one thing, that you take away from this article, it’s the importance of checking the headspace.

There aren’t many showstoppers on the AKM, but plus or minus a couple thousandths of headspace can result a rifle which fires out of battery or separates the heads from cases.

We checked our AK-Builder built barrel and used a set of automotive feeler gauges to record the gap between the front trunnion and the rear sight base. With the feeler gauges stacked in the gap during reassembly, they act as a stop, ensuring the barrel is seated at the same depth it was headspaced at.

The Work Begins

Filing the ejector in the Childress AKM receiver. It’s part of the welded-in guide rail, and it’s usually left long and needs to be filed down to allow the bolt to pass over it.

Filing the ejector in the Childress AKM receiver. It’s part of the welded-in guide rail, and it’s usually left long and needs to be filed down to allow the bolt to pass over it.

The work begins with removing the partially installed barrel pin using the Forbus barrel pin tool guiding the hydraulic press’ ram. With the pin out, the barrel is pushed out using the hydraulic ram with the trunnion supported by the AK Builder Barrel Press fixture.


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Now that the trunnion is free of the barrel, it’s fixed in the AK Builder drilling fixture. We line up the rivet hole in the trunnion with the bit and clamp the fixture in place, then we slide the receiver into the trunnion. The hole is drilled and so long as nothing moves, the rivet hole in the receiver and the trunnion are lined up for success. We repeated the same process for the remaining five front rivet holes.

We deburr and chase all the holes with a drill and a Dremel, and dimple the two bottom holes into a matching recess in the trunnion using the press and the riveting jig. This is an important step that locks the receiver and trunnion together when a swell-neck rivet is installed. Some builders mistakenly relieve material from the receiver here to get the swell-neck rivet to sit flush. Doing so leaves only the rivet core to hold the parts in shear, and the rivet will eventually snap.

Rivetting and Stuff

We mount the front trunnion in this AK Builder AK Trunnion Rivet Hole Drilling Fixture.

We mount the front trunnion in this AK Builder AK Trunnion Rivet Hole Drilling Fixture.

 

Then slide it around a drill press table to line up the holes with the drill bit, lock it down, then slide the receiver on to drill a rivet hole. Reposition the fixture for each rivet hole.

Then slide it around a drill press table to line up the holes with the drill bit, lock it down, then slide the receiver on to drill a rivet hole. Reposition the fixture for each rivet hole.

The six short front rivets are crushed into place using the Toth Tool rivet jaws mounted on a 24-inch bolt cutter.

We move on to the trigger guard and spacer. The four front and one rear trigger guard rivets get the business. The fit of the trigger guard can affect the magazine release, so carefully test the parts with many different types of magazines. Some filing of the mag well is normal, but ours needed no attention.

The rear trunnion is treated similarly as the front trunnion, except we have two long rivets instead of shorties. Pappas suggests rounding over the end of the long rivets so they come out of mashing process with an aesthetically pleasing mushroom shape.

Drop the bolt in, and check the ejector clearance. On an AKM, the ejector is just a protruding tang on the left bolt guide rail. The bolt has a slot that runs its length for the rail/ejector. As the bolt retracts, the brass hits the tang and gets chucked. Childers leaves the rail tang long so it can be filed for a precise fit to the bolt. We were careful to take material off from back to front since we want as much ejector contact at the business end as we can get.

Barrel Install

Rodney Backus, with the Park City Gun Club, Cerakotes the barrel of our AKM. PCG’s fledgling Cerakote operation might be low volume, but it’s high quality.

Rodney Backus, with the Park City Gun Club, Cerakotes the barrel of our AKM. PCG’s fledgling Cerakote operation might be low volume, but it’s high quality.

Time for the barrel. We grease up the barrel, put it in the AK Builder barrel press and line things up. A penny protects the crown from the ram as thousands of pounds of pressure force the barrel into the trunnion. As it gets close, we insert the feeler gauges we talked about earlier, taking the guesswork out of finding the stopping point. We pull the assembly, check the headspace, and drive the barrel pin in and, yep, check headspace again. All good. Phew.

The handguard and gas tube are installed and we head for the fire controls. We rough fit the ALG Defense AKT trigger kit then load it into the receiver. Check the feel and, whoa, that ALG trigger is sweet. A lot lighter than we expected.

We install the piston, bolt, and guide spring, snap on the cover, and run the bolt carrier, feeling for binding. There’s a little hitch as the bolt slides from the guide rails to the front trunnion. We chase it with a Dremel and files down until the bolt travels smoothly … or as smoothly as we think it should. It’s an AK, after all.

Range Test

After six hours in the shop, we take the AKM to the range and run a few boxes of steel cased, 7.62x39mm, 122-grain Tulammo through it. Boom. First five rounds and we’re dancing inches from steel more than 200 meters out without ever touching the sights. Not bad. But, not done, either.

As mean and hungry as the gun looks in the raw, it deserves a finish. We head over to meet Rodney Backus at the Park City Gun Club. Backus Cerakotes gun parts in the back of the upscale, indoor range.

Bakus let us try our hand with Cerakote. Under his guidance we sandblast enough of the gun to realize it’s worth paying someone else to do it. At press time, we’ve still got some of that abrasive medium stuck in our sinuses…

We head out for lunch as Backus stays to load the coated parts into his oven; but not before covering up all our sins with his far more skilled hands, we surmise. When we see the AK next, he’s reassembled it for us, and it’s glorious.

Adjust

The AKM was mint. Spitting aces and looking sharp in its wood-toned commie uniform. Just the way Hughes likes it. We know he’s a bit of a purist because he looked at us a little funny when we talked about swapping the wood for some Magpul furniture and adding a railed gas tube.

His look communicated a clear message, “Don’t put that shit on that gun here; I want to know that it was beautiful when it left.”

We get it. Once we get the bone-stock Polish AKM home, our AR roots won’t let us leave it be. Within days, it’s wearing Magpul furniture and a Troy Industries front end. Serendipity struck when it came to the sling; Blue Force Gear had just made a run of its limited-edition AK slings in wolf gray that matches the gray Cerakote.

Shoot

Gary Hughes helps out by test firing the newly built RECOIL Custom AKM.

Gary Hughes helps out by test firing the newly built RECOIL Custom AKM.

The only gripe we have with the whole build is with the Troy lower rail — installation was mildly challenging, and we found it loosened a bit even after applying blue Loctite to the jam bolts. Tightening those bolts through the M-Lok slots is a PIA, but once we retightened it and applied a more serious level of Loctite, we found it a solid and comfortable handguard.

With the new furniture in place, we took the gun out to see how it would shoot. We posted respectable 1.75-inch groups at 75 yards with the 122-grain Tulammo and an Aimpoint Micro T-1. We attribute the surprising (to us) accuracy to a combination of the button rifled barrel and a lot of care and attention during the build process.

Our AKM, finished in Sniper Grey Cerakote and wearing its original Polish furniture.

Our AKM, finished in Sniper Grey Cerakote and wearing its original Polish furniture.

On balance, our AKM shoots well, functions reliably, and feels great. Replacing the stock buttstock with the MOE AK improved the shoulder pocket fit without affecting the length of pull. The MOE+ grip fills the hand far better than a skinny stock AK grip, and the Troy railed gas tube seems to be holding our low-mounted T-1 steadily in a lower fourth cowitness.

We’re only 800-plus rounds into our relationship with this little Polish looker, but so far it’s a love affair that’s left our ARs wondering where we’ve been.

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 26

Recommended reading: AK-47: Survival and Evolution of the World’s Most Prolific Gun 

Corey Graff contributed to this article.


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