If someone asked you to name the deadliest weapon of the 20th century, you, like many others, would…
In terms of shear mass, in straight numbers, the 7.62x39mm is far and away the preeminent battle rifle caliber in the world. With over 100 million AK-47 and its clones having been produced it’s not hard to see why. That’s not a misprint, and it does not include the VZ-58, SKS, or the slew of Eastern European and North American rifles, and the light machine gun RPK which uses the caliber. There is nothing more common than AK-47 ammo. And why shouldn’t it be? Compact, hard-hitting at typical combat ranges, and all of the weapons which use it have proven to be supremely durable and reliable.
7.62×39 Ammo Quick Answer Box:
• Does an AK-47 and AK-74 rifle shoot the same ammo? No, the standard round for the AK-47 rifle is 7.62×39, the standard round for the AK-74 rifle is 5.45×39. You cannot fire 7.62×39 ammo in an AK-74 rifle. The magazine size differences for the two different caliber rifles make them incompatible for operation.
• Is the 7.62×39 good for hunting? Yes, the Soviet 7.62×39 bullet is an effective hunting round for small to medium sized game. It has a similar ballistic profile to the more powerful .30-30 cartridge and is capable of taking down game up to the size of the common white-tail deer.
• Which guns shoot the 7.62×39 cartridge? The Soviet-designed AK-47 rifle is the most commonly used platform for shooting the 7.62×39 bullet. Also popular, chambered in the 7.62×39 caliber, is the semi-auto SKS carbine rifle. More recently, manufacturers have been creating uppers chambered in 7.62×39 for AR-15 platform rifles. Fans of the Soviet cartridge also enjoy shooting the 7.62×39 round in the Ruger mini-30 carbine rifle.
The Soviet M43 Cartridge
The interesting things about the 7.62x39mm is that the cartridge was designed with the specific intent of being used in an entire line of infantry weapons. They included a semi-automatic rifle (SKS), a select-fire rifle (AK-47), and a light machine gun (RPD/RPK). The cartridge was designed in about 1943, at the height of the Russian theatre of WWII.
Since its inception, it has seen extensive service in every global conflict and war, often on both sides of the conflict. Starting a coup? Round up some radicals and arm them with readily available AKs. The AK-47 is presently the standard issue service rifle for over 100 nations, and is the most common weapon found by separatist groups, rebels, resistance movements, and peasants. Time and time again, these popular rifles are seen in news reports and historical photos from around the world.
AK-47 Ammo Types: Steel vs. Brass Cases
Steel V.S. Brass
Part of the appeal, or perhaps the entire appeal of the 7.62x39mm is the cost of ownership and use. Steel cased ammunition is readily available in spam cans just about everywhere, even big box stores and hovers around $0.20 per round making it extremely affordable. That being said, steel cased ammunition is a one-and-done item; you cannot reload steel cases so what you get is what you shoot. Of course, the Kalashnikov and SKS are not exactly the sort of rifles which are stereotypical for re-loaders seeking the competitive edge in competition shoots. The lion’s share of 7.62x39mm chambered rifle are built to digest any ammunition regardless of how low quality it may be and keep on trucking.
Brass cased ammunition generally feeds better than steel cased ammo, which is important for some of the more finicky firearms. Also, in rare cases, some manufacturers stipulate that a firearm must use brass cased ammo and that steel cased ammo will void the warranty. So be sure to read your manual and abide by this in case you need to apply the warranty for any reason.
Full Metal Jacket
One thing which keeps 7.62x39mm ammo so affordable is the small number of choices in bullet types. Sure, there are a few outliers, but for the most part you get three real, viable choices: 123/124gr. FMJ, 123/124gr. HP, 123/124gr. SP.
The FMJ is readily available in 1,000 round cases, most commonly by Tulammo and Wolf ammo. This is your basic, no-frills stuff just like handed out to countless soldiers on thousands of forgotten battlefields over the decades. 123gr FMJ, sometimes a boat-tail FMJ, driving along around 2,360fps at the muzzle, so fairly slower than the screaming little .223 Remington which drives a 55gr projectile at over 3,200fps, but surprisingly close to some of the other .30 calibers (albeit with a lighter bullet).
Winchester produces a higher-quality 123gr FMJ which has similar ballistics to the steel cased cartridges, but offers a much cleaner option which is likely more accurate should that be a concern.
Interestingly, Wolf ammunition lists all of their AK-47 ammo 123gr 7.62x39mm offerings on the same line in their ballistics table. Either they really are all identical, or they are similar enough that the folks at Wolf don’t worry about the specifics.
Cheap, steel cased 7.62x39mm HPs are a decent choice for a dedicated truck gun; this is the rifle you toss behind the seat in case you need to eradicate coyotes, wild boars, or what have you on the morning checks. The idea behind the truck gun is it will invariably get beat up over the years, so why load of that scuffed up rifle with high-end AK-47 ammo when you’re going to be taking potshots at varmints?
Soft Points are in production by both the Russian importers and by some American manufacturers. It really just depends on your needs when you load up. If I’m going on a dedicated hog hunt, I’ll splurge and pick up a box of Winchester Hog Special or Hornady SST® (okay, not exactly a soft point but it is close enough for Soviet work). But if I’m loading up a beat-up SKS for my farm truck, Wolf 123gr SP is a fine choice. It will punch through the tough hide of a scourge hog, or deliver a devastating blow to a coyote or raccoon.
Wolf 7.62×39 123 GR FMJ (Steel) VS Fiocchi 7.62×39 124 Gr FMJ (Brass)
Wolf is readily available in 1,000 round spam cans and runs around $0.20 per round. It is everything we have talked about in a steel case FMJ: built for mass consumption. Not super clean, not sexy at all, but it matches the AK-47 just fine.
The ballistics of Wolf steel are not going to be much different than Fiocchi 124gr brass. The main concern being the effects of dirty steel cased ammo vice significantly better brass cased ammo. If I am running a bargain basement AK, I’m going dirty. If I am shooting a CZ-527 in 7.62x39mm, or even a Mini-30, I’ll opt for the cleaner, smoother brass from Fiocchi.
Tula 7.62×39 122 Gr FMJ (Steel) VS PMC 7.62×39 123 Gr FMJ (Brass)
Tulammo is everywhere and always seems to be in stock. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful, and it shoots acceptably well for popping targets and beer cans. PMC is not Hornady, but it’s quality brass-cased ammo and reloadable. Again, the ballistic qualities are fairly identical, so we are looking at price point and how much Hoppes #9 you want to use.
Silver Bear 7.62×39 123 Gr FMJ (Steel) VS Federal American Eagle 7.62×39 124 Gr FMJ (Brass)
This is an interesting comparison because Silver Bear is a steel case, but with a catch. Silver Bear takes the typical steel case and flashes a zinc plating on it. The zinc increases the lubricating quality of the steel case. It also extends the shelf life of the round (since steel does tend to rust). However, it is still a one-time item so it is out of the question if you want to reload.
American Eagle is a subsidiary of Federal Premium which is primarily tasked with target and plinking ammo. It is well received and makes a quality product, which is fully reloadable.
Is The AK-47 Platform The Best Value?
The 7.62x39mm has a lot going for it. It is everywhere, it is cheap, and it offers a ballistic profile which is good for a lot of different types of shooting. From duty and defense to varmint control and hog reduction, it even works well for deer hunting for short-range applications. The added benefit is how inexpensively you can practice, particularly if you are okay with steel cases.