If you ever want to start a fight at a gun store, the easiest way may be to ask whether 9mm is better than .45.
Another good way to get the sparks flying, though, is to wonder aloud whether the AK-47 is better than the M-16.
The debate over these two rifles is as intense as the Cold War that spawned them.
It isn’t a question easily answered, and it’s a subject plagued by a tremendous amount of bias and subjectivity.
So, of course, we’re going to tackle that question now.
The Cold War
To understand the fierce loyalties and seething hatred of the two sides in this firearms debate, you must understand how the rivalry came about to begin with.
During the Cold War, the two largest superpowers on the planet waged an ideological — and sometimes hot by way of stand-ins — war.
Those two superpowers were the United States and the (spoiler alert) now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
From the end of World War II until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R fought a bitter campaign all over the world.
Although the two never officially clashed militarily, both militaries would fight numerous engagements in foreign lands that were proxies for their real foes — each other.
The AK-47 was the official military rifle of the Soviet Union, and the M-16 was the official rifle of the United States.
Naturally, there would be a bit of Cold War spillover in the hearts and minds of the people who are fans of these firearms.
For the record, that’s not a jab, and no one is suggesting that people who prefer the AK-47 are Soviets.
It’s just that the ideological divide between the two arms is equally as bad as that of the divide between communism and capitalism.
It might even be worse.
An Overview of the AK-47
Regardless of which camp people align with, most agree that the AK-47 is a fantastic rifle.
Even the hater will grudgingly admit that it’s one of the finest rifles ever created.
The rifle itself was created by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947 specifically for use in the Soviet army.
After being wounded during battle in World War II, Kalashnikov spent months in the hospital with fellow soldiers.
He overheard them complaining about the unreliability of their battle rifles. Upon his discharge, he decided to do something about that issue.
That's one of the biggest praises you'll hear about the AK-47 — that it’s extremely reliable.
It's truly one of the most reliable firearms ever created. Its gas-operated piston system virtually guarantees it will function every time the trigger is pulled.
It's a select fire rifle with safe, full auto and semi-automatic firing modes.
It has remained in production since its introduction and has spawned numerous variants.
Unlike most AR platforms, the AK can use folding stocks, which require a fixed buffer tube assembly.
This allows the AK platform to be a generally more vehicle-friendly platform when barrels are shortened and folding stocks are used.
An Overview of the M-16
The M-16 is also a highly regarded rifle, although it’s worth noting that this is largely due to its current iterations.
Historically, and especially at its inception, it was not as well received as the AK.
Designed by Eugene Stoner in the late 1950s and adopted by the US military in 1963, the M-16 is gas operated and uses what's referred to as a direct impingement system.
The gun is chambered in 5.56x45 NATO.
The M-16 is an AR platform firearm. AR platforms are intuitive, ergonomic, and more ambidextrous than the AK.
They are generally lighter-weight, versatile, and modular. Tons of variation and customization are easily done by any civilian.
The M-16 rifle itself is an inherently accurate platform, and this is one of the main points cheered on by its fans.
In fact, the M-16 is arguably as accurate as the AK is reliable. Interestingly, in its original iterations, it suffered some issues with reliability.
This was due to a few design elements, changes in certain components and the environment of the jungles in Vietnam.
Comparing the AK-47 and the M-16: The Details
Internal vs. Long Stroke Piston
One of the main points of contention between fans of the two rifles, aside from the caliber (which we will get to), is that of the gas systems.
The M-16 system works by utilizing what’s called a direct gas impingement system.
As the gasses expand and push the bullet down the barrel, some of the gas is rerouted through a gas port to a gas tube running over the barrel and back into the receiver.
This gas pushes the bolt backward, allowing it to rotate and extract the spent casing before being pushed back forward by the buffer spring to chamber a new round.
The AK-47 also utilizes the gasses of the round but in a different method.
As the gasses expand out of the barrel and into the gas system, they operate the piston.
The piston pushes the bolt and bolt carrier backward to perform the same functions of ejecting the spent casing and chambering the new round.
Both of these systems have benefits and drawbacks.
The advantages of the AK-style gas piston system include better reliability, cleaner operation, and cooler temps.
The AR direct gas impingement system, by contrast, is lighter weight, with fewer moving parts that can interrupt accuracy.
A large portion of the debate between these two rifles is centered on the caliber.
The M-16 platform prefers the smaller 5.56 while the AK-47 utilizes the larger 7.62.
Fans of the 5.56 insist that it's the superior round because it retains accuracy over greater distances.
Its detractors insist the round is too small and lacks the stopping power of the much larger 7.62 cartridge.
There might be a bit of bias involved in these arguments, as both rounds are accurate and both have similar wound capabilities based on testing.
Despite its larger size, the 7.62 can also sometimes punch through a target without severe damage to tissue, which is one of the primary arguments leveled at the 5.56 round, since 5.56 is fast and narrow.
It's worth noting that a common criticism of the 7.62 round is that it's less accurate than the 5.56.
However, this would appear to be related to the stability of the weapon platforms rather than the rounds themselves.
It's also worth pointing out that both platforms have received numerous improvements in subsequent iterations that have largely addressed the cartridge-related arguments against them.
AK fanboys are always quick to point out the reliability of their chosen platform as well as the reliability issues that the M-16 had at its adoption.
Also, the wood and steel components of the AK-47 are known to handle more of a beating than the steel and plastic of the M-16.
The problem is that neither of these guns is made the same as they were when they were introduced.
The AK is not solely manufactured in steel and wood anymore, and the modern M-16 descendants aren't completely plastic — not in the same way that they used to be, anyway.
Modern polymers are much more durable than the plastics of the Vietnam era.
Plus, the reliability issues of the M-16 were quickly addressed with the addition of chrome lining, a forward assist and proper cleaning tools.
Just as it isn’t accurate to judge the modern AK-47 variants based on the lack of accuracy of the first models, the same holds true for judging the M-16 on its reliability at the beginning.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking to yourself: Wait, so which one is better? That’s the thing.
Despite rampant fanboys and Cold War-level disagreement over chosen platforms, these are both very good rifles.
They’re truly equally capable rifles, and you can’t go wrong no matter which you choose.
The real question you should be asking yourself isn’t which rifle is better. It's "Which rifle is the best fit for me?"
Both have well over half a century of use in every battlefield of the modern era.
They’ve both proven themselves to be highly capable rifles that you can stake your life on, if need be.
So, take your time, try them both out and see which one suits you and your intended use best. Consider the cartridges used by each and which is more available to you.
Decide which is more important to you: faster and more accurate bullets, or larger projectiles for greater knockdown power.
Just be prepared to have to justify that choice to a hater who has nothing better to do for the rest of your natural life.
But seriously, know that someone will always have something to say about any gun you buy.
But you didn’t buy it for them — you bought it for you, and that’s all that matters.