There are numerous debates that will likely never be resolved – Coke vs. Pepsi, rock vs. country – but when it comes to firearms, the debate goes deeper than mere opinion, especially when it is the AK-47 vs. M16. Both were developed during the Cold War, and while Soviet soldiers and Americans never actually met (fortunately) on the battlefield, the weapons have been used against one another in countless other conflicts.
Tale of More Than Two Assault Rifles
When considering the two weapons, we must first focus solely on the military-used versions – not the various semi-automatic modern sporting rifle versions. However, the issue is still complicated by the fact that there have been numerous variations of each one.
Thus simply stating “the AK is better because of X,” fails to address whether the conversation is actually about the AK-47 as it was developed and produced between 1948 and 1951, or is the AK-47 as it was improved in the early 1950s. Then there is the fact that while AK-47 is generally the nomenclature that is used, the modernized AKM was the most ubiquitous variant in service. Then there were the variations such as the AKS-47 and AKMS.
The M16 is as complicated, with the AR-15, M16A1, M16A2, M16A3, M16A4, XM16E1, M4 and even Mk12 being notable variants. Yikes.
AK-47 vs. M16 – Just the Basics
To strip it down to the basics, the debate should focus on generic issues. In this case, focus on the action, which is both similar and a little different.
The AK-47 is gas-operated and features a rotating bolt with a long-stroke gas piston. The M16 by comparison is also a gas-operated rifle and features a rotating bolt with direct impingement.
The cartridges are also similar yet just a tad different – the M-16 fires the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge while the AK-47 was chambered for the 7.62x39mm. Both feature iron sights, while the M16 has generally been considered to have the better range – 300 meters for the AK-47 compared to 460 meters for the M16.
The M16 had a higher rate of fire, 700-950 rpm compared to the 600 rpm of the AK-47, and most shooters – including those that have used the weapons in combat – have tended to agree that the M16 is the more accurate. A trade-off is that the accuracy and range don’t equate to penetration. While both are deadly, the AK-47 may be the deadlier weapon when its bullets meet flesh.
Both weapons featured radical designs that were a departure from the firearms employed during the Second World War. The AK-47 was designed to be a simple, reliable weapon that could be manufactured quickly but also cheaply. As movies such as Lord of War noted, it is so simple a child could use it.
The M16 featured a far more refined design, and even though it was called out for looking too much a toy thanks to its lightweight materials including aluminum and fiberglass, it was rugged and it is about 30 percent lighter than the AK-47. However, the M16 requires greater maintenance and cleaning.
The AK-47 clearly wins out in terms of its simple construction but also the fact that it can be mistreated and still keep working. Clearly, it was designed for insurgents and revolutionaries in mind, while the M16 is pure capitalism for people who like nice things.
AK-47 vs. M16: Who Wins?
It is thus easy to see that while the U.S. military had acquired some eight million M16s as of 2003, there were approximately 75 million AK-47s produced during the Cold War. If numbers count as votes, then the AK wins hands down and why it truly was the “weapon of the 20th century.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.