New gun owners, like butterflies, mature in stages. First, you bought a shotgun for home defense.
Then you bought a handgun and took a concealed carry course for your license.
After a little while spent maturing in a cocoon, you’ve reached the third stage of ownership: What kind of cool rifle should you get?
Cool Rifles You Can Realistically Afford
In the United States in 2020, there are basically three cool rifles you’re going to choose between: the SKS, AK-47 and AR-15.
Sure, there are some more exotic rifles you can own, and there’s a whole wide world of hunting rifles on the wall at your gun shop, but the tacti-cool options for people who already own a Garand are pretty much limited to these three.
Each of these rifles does a similar job.
More powerful than handguns and more accurate than those messy shotguns, a modern sporting rifle delivers a small, fast-moving bullet to a target between 50 and 600 yards.
Anything farther than that, you’re probably spending more on optics and training than it’s worth. Anything closer, and it’s probably better to invest in a 12-gauge or just let the guy steal your laptop.
So which rifle should you get?
First Things First: What Are SKS, AK-47 and AR-15 rifles?
In order to make your decision, it’s helpful to know a little about the rifles you’re looking at.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what you’ll be shooting:
The SKS is the oldest of the three modern sporting rifle designs.
Originally built as a semi-auto carbine to supplement the venerable old Mosin-Nagant, the first 2.7 million SKSs were produced by comrades working at Tula Arsenal and Izhevsk Arsenal from 1945 to 1958.
After that, the Red Army adopted the AK-47 as its standard, leaving the SKS largely in the hands of the Chinese, who produce the rifle as a Type 56.
A few other countries made their own variants, such as Yugoslavia’s PAP and the Romanian M56.
The SKS has the typical rifle body made of wood, with no pistol grip or fancy-pants polymers used in its construction.
Usually chambered in the Soviet 7.62x39mm round, the SKS often sports the ominously curved banana magazine from under the breech area.
Other common variants have a non-detachable magazine you have to load with a clip.
Most of the cooler variants of an SKS also have a swing-out bayonet under the muzzle, which if we’re being honest is probably going to just stay stowed most of the time, unless your local range safety officer is chill.
Like the other rifles on this list, the SKS operates as a semi-automatic self-feeding rifle.
The cycling mechanism uses a short-stroke gas piston with a tilting bolt carrier group that’s way more like the American M14 than it should be.
When you first get the rifle, there’s going to be a lot of sludgy grease called Cosmoline in the gas system, so clean it extra well.
This is the go-to bad guy rifle of all time. It looks cool, and you’ll look cool too if you’re holding one. Ice Cube owns an AK, which he seldom shoots on good days.
Since its design in 1947, and especially since its wide implementation after 1958, the rugged old Автома́т Кала́шникова has been stamped out over 100 million times in all sorts of countries that don’t exist anymore.
The classic AK fires the same round as the SKS, though with a somewhat reduced muzzle velocity due to the shorter barrel and gas-hungry impingement system.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the guts of the AK-47 are not in any way similar to the German StG-44, which the AK superficially resembles on the outside.
Instead, Mikhail Kalashnikov designed the gun as a sort of high-speed variant of the M1 Garand.
You read that right — the ultimate communist rifle uses a short-toss gas system with a bolt carrier group that’s basically a slimmed-down Garand whose bolt carrier is knocked over on its side and slung over the barrel, instead of underneath it.
Don’t tell anyone about that.
One difference you’ll notice right away when you start shooting your AK-47 is how it totally isn’t a real AK-47.
That is to say, the real deal (and the excellent fakes they make in Afghanistan) has a fire selector switch on the right side of the receiver that switches from safe mode directly to fully automatic, then to 3-round burst fire, and then to single shot.
Unless you’re on very good terms with the ATF, yours will just hop from safe to semi-auto.
In 1950, the United States had 10 million M1 Garands in its inventory and dozens of new allies whose last battle rifles were bolt action relics of WWI.
So, kindly old Uncle America gave most of those rifles away to South Korea, Japan, West Germany, and South Vietnam, among others.
For a short time, the U.S. Army switched over to the M1A and the M14, but both of these were felt to be inadequate.
What was needed, Pentagon planners decided, was an absurdly delicate little plastic rifle that would cost 10 times as much as an M1 and choke to death in Mekong River mud as soon as it got wet.
Oh, and if it could fire a really inadequate round, that would be perfect.
Thus was born the M16, which the army swears it finally ironed out the bugs on. The civilian version of that gun is the AR-15.
Named for the Armalite Rifle Company, which originally designed both guns, the AR-15 has taken on a life of its own as the go-to civilian rifle for life-and-liberty-minded American patriots.
Typically chambered in .223 Remington/5.56 NATO, but available in .308 Winchester/7.62x51mm NATO and even 6.5 Grendel, the AR-15 is totally effective at basically everything, from varmint eradication in backwoods West Virginiato hog hunting in Texas.
How Do They All Stack Up?
Now that you’re an internet gun expert, here’s how the rifles all stack up against each other in vital stats:
Don’t worry about accuracy.
Unless you’re a competition shooter, military sniper or you live on a property with 500-yard vistas where you might have to take out a burglar, all of these rifles will do everything you want at any range you need.
With a nice little optic, all of them are more accurate at 500 yards than you are, so there’s no comparison to be made here.
How good a gun feels in your arms is as subjective as how you like your hugs.
Some people like the classic lines of the SKS baseball bat-style profile, which rests nicely on the shoulder for good recoil control.
Others swear by the space age design philosophy of the precision injection molded grips on the AR, and yet others prefer the look and feel of an AK.
You can probably rent each gun at the range to get a feel for how it carries.
AR-15s are mostly made by free market capitalists in countries where you can sue for defective products.
As a result, they’re all pretty standard in their build quality. Almost all commercially available ARs draw from the same pool of parts makers.
If anything, the quality of your build mostly depends on the skill of your builder.
Build quality on AK rifles is a whole different kettle of fish.
Both the AK and the SKS were made in so many places (and subject to far fewer products liability lawsuits) that they range from world class quality to these-screws-don’t-fit.
While any rifle accepted for import is probably just fine, it’s a good idea to read reviews of the specific rifle and company you’re thinking about buying from.
You’ve heard it all before: The AR-15 is a delicate flower that takes constant maintenance, while the AK and SKS work best after spending the night in a bucket of mud.
This is a myth, but like most myths, it’s partially grounded in truth. Your basic hurdle with an AR is keeping the gas system clean.
Just remember that even an AK jams eventually, so field stripping and oiling it at least as often as you change your smoke detector battery is a good idea.
Price jumps around a lot with rifles, and today’s steal is selling tomorrow for a mint.
Though the SKS was going for $200 back when the Bush Administration approved imports, that price has jumped to over $500 after import restrictions enacted under President Obama.
Same deal with the AK, which should run you around $650 today.
AR-15 prices are a kaleidoscope that changes with your manufacturer and accessory package, but you can find a decent Bushmaster for around $500 and a very decent M&P for maybe $750.
All these rifles are cool, but they’re cool in different ways.
The SKS is the least “military” looking one, so you can usually trust it to get around the latest ban. The AK is super cool and has the hunching appearance of a cyborg predator.
The AR-15 is the classic black rifle, so you can expect restrictions based on appearance, but the universal mounts all over the barrel shroud should help you camouflage the thing under optics, handgrips, lights and lasers.