Guns The Joint Special Operations Kalashnikov: A Look at the AKs of a New Cold War Tom Marshall August 2, 2010 Join the Conversation In early February of 2018, the headquarters of U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces — and their embedded U.S. advisors — came under heavy attack by a force of the Syrian Regime. U.S. forces successfully repelled the attack using a full suite of air support assets, including Apache helicopters, drones, AC-130 gunships, and F-22 jets. Initial reports after the battle indicated that among the dead were 100 Russians. In the following weeks, a variety of news sources from both the U.S. and Russia would double that number, citing nearly 200 dead Russian fighters — all of whom were believed to be working for a Russian private military company known as PMC Wagner. While Moscow never officially endorsed this version of the narrative, the Wagner brand has been popping up more and more frequently across Africa and Southwest Asia, leading some to believe we’re creeping into a next-generation cold conflict with the Kremlin. Under the hood, the JSOK retains its ruggedly simple AK roots. Due in no small part to the Global War On Terror, the Kalashnikov and its many variants have been thrust back into the forefront of geopolitics. For most U.S. military vets, and fans of contemporary war movies, the image of the AK typically consists of dirty, broke-down rifles cobbled together by shade-tree gunsmiths in the Khyber Pass. Some of these guns are literally held together with duct tape and brass tacks. Other than their value as spectacle, these are unremarkable mutt rifles employed by fighters who believe that pushing the rear sight leaf to max elevation “increases the power” of the rifle. (That last part is something I was told directly by a host-nation soldier I was working alongside as a contractor. No sh*t, there I was …) But those aren’t the guns that inspired this build. The growing presence of Russian shooters on the battlefield in the form of Spetsnaz operators and Wagner mercs has loosed a steady trickle of in-the-wild images highlighting how Eastern Europe’s best-trained soldiers are setting up and employing their AKs. It’s these pictures that birthed the concept of Project JSOK. This rifle isn’t meant to directly clone the rifles currently in use by Russian forces. Instead, it’s an “in-the-spirit-of” build, meant to reflect how one of our longest-running political adversaries has brought the People’s Rifle to a level of advancement that gives entities like Wagner small-arms parity with our own forces. As Russian shadow forces continue to advance Kremlin policy throughout the third world, we expect that U.S. soldiers will find themselves up against JSOK-type AKs more frequently in today’s asymmetric warfare environment. Know Thine Enemy After scouring a variety of news sources from The Daily Beast to Grey Dynamics, the first known deployment of Soviet … err … Russian mercenaries to Syria was 2013, in the form of a company known as Slavonic Corps. Their job was to recapture oil fields on behalf of the Asad regime. Reports indicate it didn’t end well, with Slavonic Corps being quickly routed by rebel forces. When the contractors of Slavonic Corps returned home, they were arrested by FSB (Russia’s internal security service) under a provision that, officially, bans Russian citizens from mercenary service. This photo, which originated from ISIS-affiliated social media, claims to show the rifle taken off a dead “Russian advisor” operating in Syria. Then came Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, wherein the use of freelance fighters was integrated into Putin’s own “hybrid war” strategy. As part of this effort, Lieutenant Colonel Dimitry Utkin formed PMC Wagner. Right up until 2013, Utkin was an officer in the 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade, GRU — Russia’s military intelligence arm charged with intel missions abroad. Several units of Spetsnaz fall directly under GRU’s command to execute a variety of missions from special reconnaissance to training partner-nation commandos to sabotage. Sometime in 2013, Utkin left Spetsnaz (maybe?) to form PMC Wagner — allegedly named for Hitler’s favorite classical composer. We have no idea how true that is, but it’s hilariously ironic in light of World War II history. And it makes Utkin sound even more like a super villain. Since its inception, PMC Wagner has been spotted in the Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, and Ukraine. What remains murky is the relationship between Wagner and the Russian military’s GRU. There are conflicting reports as to how many of Wagner’s shooters are former Spetsnaz now working as contractors versus how many are active-duty operators using Wagner as cover-for-status for deniability purposes. Bodywork We built out the JSOK with some help from the folks at Petronov Armament. We’ve covered them a couple times before, most recently for producing AK receivers based directly off of Russian blueprints. We’ve seen the drawings ourselves, and they are, indeed, printed in Cyrillic. With the focus of this issue being all things SBR, we decided to go with a shorter Krinkov-style rifle based off a stamped Yugo PAP M92-style receiver. While many of the Spetzsaz and Wagner guns out there are chambered in the newer, smaller 5.45x39mm, we thought that a 7.62mm gun would provide a better selection of ammunition both domestically and in a “battlefield pickup” scenario for those guys actually running these guns in places like Syria and Sudan. Also, out of the significantly shorter barrel, the larger bullet turns out better ballistics and superior performance through intermediate barriers like vehicles, mud-hut walls, and jungle underbrush. Most of the open-source photos we’re seeing are of guns covered in Picatinny-style rails. These handguards are coming mostly from Zenitco, a Russian company producing modernized accessories for the AK. Of course, full-length rails were state-of-the-art circa 2008. This isn’t so much the case anymore. While it seems those shooters on the other side of the former Iron Curtain have yet to get their hands on modular handguard systems, we weren’t going to let that stop us. So the folks at Petronov sourced a VISM KeyMod handguard that they custom cut to fit our shorty. We affixed short Picatinny rails to mount some of our accessories, which still utilize rail clamp mounts. Bolting on both a white light and IR laser gives the JSOK anywhere-anytime ability to put rounds on target. Speaking of said accessories, we mounted both a white light and IR designator. The light you see here is a Streamlight ProTac 1 with its factory rail clamp. While the single-cell body doesn’t necessarily provide all the lumens, its compact footprint is ideal for more compact rifles and provides plenty of light for CQB use. The laser is a PEQ-15 we got by way of TNVC night vision. Its configuration makes it ideal for 12 o’clock mounting on the JSOK’s top handguard. Moving further back on the gun, we went with a Texas Weapons System railed top cover, which they call their Dog Leg Rail. There’s photo evidence to show these specific rails have made their way east and are currently in use on actual Russian-issued guns. The cover has a unique locking system that helps maintain zero and, in this case, a reinforced hinge mechanism superior to the standard Krink top cover. There’s no welded-on rear sight like with the OEM part, but TWS sells peep-style rear sights for those who want them. We chose to forego the option and topped the rail with an EOTech XPS. Despite the complaints of some end users regarding thermal drift, holographic sights are some of the most common when looking at captured images from around the interwebz. Atop the Dog Leg rail, we attached an EOTech XPS-2. Some of the first photos we saw of modernized AKs included Russian-made optics like those from Kobra or Kalinka. They were made to mount on the side rail of AK receivers. But with the proliferation of rails into the gear lockers of red military and paramilitary forces, a wider variety of dots and glass is now being seen. Our research hasn’t turned up many examples of low-powered variables atop AKs. But they definitely stepped up their red-dot/holographic sight game. EOTechs and Aimpoints, or high-fidelity clones, are common. Night vision scopes also show up more than a couple times but, by far, shorty EOTechs — whether XPS or N-battery models — seem to appear the most. Since we had one on hand, it was an easy choice. The back end of this build was capped with a VLTOR AR buffer tube, folding mechanism, and Magpul CTR stock. The AR-style back end is clearly the configuration of choice on Spetsnaz Alfa and FSB guns. For good reason. There’s a lot to be said for a stock that’s adjustable for fit, or to compensate for body armor and kit, that’s also infinitely more comfortable than a wooden stock with a metal buttplate. There are a fair number of these guns with triangle side folders or the steampunk-looking stocks from Zenitco. With the latter being heavy, expensive, and difficult to source, we chose the buffer tube option. Most of the tube-equipped Russian guns are running stocks from TDI, Fab Defense, or Magpul. Personal preference won the day here, leading us to Magpul. Switches and Buttons We enhanced the controls with new grips fore and aft, a Geissele AKT trigger and a safety lever from AK Master Mount. The pistol grip comes from TangoDown while the forward vertical grip is made by Cain Arms. These grips are 3D printed and feature a unique “Key-Lok” attachment system that’ll direct-mount to both M-LOK and KeyMod handguards without so much as changing screws. The AK Master Mount safety lever is similar to those photographed in the wild, which often include welded tabs for trigger-finger actuation and/or cutouts for bolt-hold-open. Our other significant piece of ’Merica on this gun comes from Iron Claw Tactical. They create a pretty unique AK product that we couldn’t resist incorporating into this build. Their magazine release lever features a large paddle protruding downward, but also has a contoured extension that hugs the bottom of the trigger guard. This feature allows you to hit the mag release with the middle finger of your firing hand. But perhaps the most interesting feature of this product isn’t the mag release, but the magazine well it’s attached to. The ICT mag well allows direct insertion of AK mags. No front-to-back, rock-and-lock or whatever you want to call it. Just plug the mag straight upward into the receiver, as you would with an AR. Not only does this make reloads faster, but on shorter AKs with the curved 7.62x39mm magazines, it allows use of a forward vertical grip without inhibiting said reloads. After we dropped in our Geissele recoil spring, the folks at Petronov decided that Nyet!, rifle was still not fine. So they hand-jammed a custom KG GunKote camo job. The pattern you see here isn’t really much of a pattern at all. Just like their U.S. SOF counterparts, it appears that Russian operators have taken to painting their weapons to match their current environment. Loose Rounds We fed the JSOK from XTech Tactical Mag47s. The bodies of these magazines are polymer, but both the feed lips and locking lugs are steel reinforced and feature stainless steel springs as well. They’re a touch bulky and overbuilt compared to some other commercial AK mags on the market, but that’s the point. In order to fit into our Iron Claw Tactical magwell, the top few rows of waffle pattern had to be sanded smooth. But with that complete, we didn’t experience any feeding or binding issues. They have, at time of writing, handily accepted all field testing we’ve put them through. For those who are interested, there are variations of the Mag47 that are ban-state compliant, as well as those that feature a bolt-hold-open feature. The 7.62x39mm round out of this pint-sized lead projector isn’t the quietest or softest shooting thing we’ve ever shouldered, particularly with the four-piece muzzle device. But that pig-nose on the front does keep most of the blast directed away from the shooter and their range mates. Petronov Armament did an excellent job helping us recreate the look and feel of the postmodern AK increasingly encountered by NATO forces on the guerrilla battlefields of Africa and Southwest Asia. Geopolitics aside, these types of builds are ensuring that Russia’s most notorious export will continue to be a part of global foreign policy well into the 21st century. Photos by LRH Photography. 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