Soviet Gun, NATO Ammo: The 5.56 AK Buyer’s Guide

Soviet Gun, NATO Ammo: The 5.56 AK Buyer’s Guide

If you’re interested in owning a Kalashnikov but would prefer it chambered for something a bit more Western, here are the best 5.56 AK rifles you can buy.

The shooting world has experienced a bit of an impasse lately when it comes to Kalashnikovs. While the rifle platform itself has grown more popular than ever in the U.S. over the past few years, its flagship caliber—7.62×39—has been drying up. AKs were once a popular choice in this country explicitly because of the low cost and high availability of their ammunition, but that is unfortunately no longer true.


At the time of writing, the cheapest 7.62×39 ammo is almost 2 cents per round more expensive than the cheapest 5.56 ammo, and almost 5 cents per round more than the cheapest .223 Remington (source: AmmoSeek). This is primarily the result of the Russian ammo ban which cut off the import of brands like Tulammo, leaving existing stock in the States to dwindle. Until a high volume of 7.62×39 can be produced domestically and affordably, most American shooters will likely be better off sticking to more conventional Western calibers. While thankfully the word on the street is that Palmetto State Armory is setting up domestic production, it hasn’t happened yet, so let’s talk about 5.56 AK rifles.

Because 7.62×39 is now more expensive and less available than 5.56 NATO or .223 Rem., the only real reasons for a first-time AK buyer to still choose a 7.62 rifle would be if they prefer its ballistic properties or because of their desire for originality. So, for a practical range rifle in 2023, it now seems that a 5.56 AK will be the most logical choice for a prospective new Kalashnikov owner. This goes double for anyone who already owns a 5.56 AR-15. If that sounds like you, here we’ll be going over some history, things to be aware of and finally our picks for the best 5.56 AK rifles you can buy.

Brief History Of Military 5.56 AKs

When people refer to AKs as being the most prolific rifle in the world, they’re specifically referring to those chambered for 7.62x39mm. These have been used in nearly every significant world conflict since their inception. Whether produced in Soviet Russia itself, China or one of the several other nations to make them, they reached every corner of the globe and all variants shared the same ammunition and magazines regardless of any minor changes made to the rifles themselves.

While 5.45x39mm, the cartridge of the AK-74, never became nearly as popular as 7.62×39, it has still seen significant use. Its users primarily include or included Russia and ex-Soviet or ex-Warsaw Pact states, but others adopted it as well.

Compared to these, AKs chambered for 5.56x45mm NATO have seen only a fraction of the use. If you consider the Galil and its derivatives as members of the AK family, they are the most prolific. Of the more AKM-based rifles, however, not many got their feet off the ground.

An East German Wieger StG-940. Photo: Wikipedia.

East Germany started experimenting with the concept in the early 1980s with the Wieger StG-940, then Czechoslovakia followed suit shortly after with the LADA and ČZ 2000 designs. In the 90s, Russia developed the AK-101 and AK-102 for export, Serbia developed and adopted the Zastava M21 and Poland developed and adopted the FB Radom Beryl and Mini-Beryl. Of these, the Beryl has likely seen the most real-world use given Poland’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Beryl is therefore the 5.56 AK that can be best described as “NATO’s Kalashnikov.”

5.56 AK Rifles: What’s In The U.S.?

In the long and convoluted history of AKs imported into the United States, there were a decent amount chambered for 5.56×45. Not nearly as many as 7.62×39, of course, but enough that we don’t have the space to discuss all of them here.

Instead, the purpose of this buyer’s guide is to help you choose a 5.56 AK model that is new-production and readily available. The older imports are now generally considered to be collectibles, and if you manage to find one for sale on the secondhand market, expect to pay an arm and a leg. These include models such as the Valmet M71/S from Finland, the Norinco Type 84S from China and even some Saiga and Vepr rifles from Russia just to name a few.

A highly sought-after Norinco Type 84S. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

Most of these older imports are great, but always do your own research on quality, condition and appraisal before buying one. For those interested in a 5.56 AK as a shooter, however, one of the several available new-production models will serve them best.

Note On 5.56 AK Mags

There’s really only one area where 5.56 AKs have a distinct downside when compared to 7.62×39 or even 5.45×39 models, and that is magazine compatibility.

As alluded to in the history portion of this article, unlike the AK’s two more prolific calibers, there was never a standard spec established for 5.56 AK derivatives. Because almost every country that made one was independently experimenting with its own designs, it resulted in a wider variety of patterns and less compatibility between them.

As 5.56 AKs have grown in popularity in recent years, magazines have become more available as well and finding some that will work in your rifle is now less of a challenge. That said, whichever model you select, you will still need to do your own research to ensure magazine compatibility.

A surplus bakelite 5.45×39 AK-74 magazine and a Pod Arms 5.56 conversion follower. These typically need to be loaded with a few less than 30 rounds to ensure reliability, but it's a nice option to have for style points.

Looking at magazines manufactured by the same factory as your rifle is the best place to start, but there are good aftermarket options as well even if they sometimes require minor fitting. Also, thanks to the recent introduction of the Pod Arms 5.56 AK follower, you even have the option of using surplus AK-74 mags.

The 5 Best 5.56 AK Rifles:

WBP Jack 556SR

WBP 5.56 Jack 556SR rifle

The WBP Jack 556SR is probably the best general-purpose, all-around 5.56 AK option on this list. WBP AKs from Poland are one of the relatively newer makes to be imported into the U.S., but so far, their reputation has been very good. The Jack 556SR is the company’s most basic 5.56×45 model and its general form is that of a plain-Jane AKM. It’s also one of the more affordable models currently available.

These come with nice Polish laminated wood furniture, an enhanced magazine release and an enhanced safety selector. They also feature a side-scope rail, a threaded muzzle (14×1 LH, slant brake included) and an intact bayonet lug. The only minor downside to these is that their barrels are nitrided rather than chrome-lined, but people tend to make a bigger deal out of that than it really is.

MSRP: $1,299 // ;

FB 223S Beryl M1


Also from Poland, one could describe the FB Radom Beryl as the most premium option on this list. Not only do they have an excellent reputation for quality, but this is also the only 5.56 AK with any significant historical provenance. While the others here are fine shooters, none have the military history of the FB Beryl.

Many have purchased these to be both collectibles and shooters, and some have even bought two or more so they can fill both roles. Whichever appeals to you more, it doesn’t matter, this is likely the best 5.56 AK currently available in the States.

Based on the Polish service rifle, these have a few features that deviate from typical AK-based rifles such as their furniture and optics-mounting system. They still share compatibility with a lot of generic AK accessories, but be aware that it’s not 100 percent. These have chrome-lined 18-inch barrels, and they can be ordered with either a 1/28 or 14/1 LH threaded muzzle. The extra barrel length also helps to provide 5.56×45 with a bit more velocity. This model doesn’t have a side-scope rail, but optics can still be installed via other methods such as the proprietary Beryl system.

MSRP: $1,569.99 // ;

Zastava ZPAP M90


Introduced in 2021, the ZPAP M90 has become a popular 5.56 AK option as well, but they have some distinct pros and cons.

Firstly, while they’re arguably more durable due to their 1.5mm-thick receivers and bulged front trunnions, they are also noticeably heavier. This is compounded by the fact that it sports an 18.25-inch barrel (chrome-lined and threaded 14/1 LH), but that provides more velocity to the projectile as well.

Notably, these also feature an adjustable gas block and a side-scope rail, and they ship with an enhanced safety lever, a Magpul Zhukov folding stock, an MOE grip and a Hogue rubber handguard. Note that this is still a Yugo-pattern AK, however, so any replacement furniture will need to be as well.

MSRP: $1,223.99 //

PSA AK-556


This option is for the prospective purchaser who already has an AR-15 and doesn’t want to deal with buying new AK mags. This is because the unique advantage of the PSA AK-556 is its AR magwell adaptor that allows it to use AR-15 magazines, and it even has a bolt release. PMAGs are recommended for the best function, but some others can work as well.

Besides this standout feature, the rifle also has a bulged front trunnion, a side-scope rail and a 16-inch barrel. The barrel is nitrided, threaded 1/28 and ships with a muzzle brake. The standard version comes with generic polymer furniture, but PSA also offers more tactical models with railed handguards and folding stocks.

MSRP: Starts at $999.99 //

Arsenal SAM5


To get this out of the way, personally, I find that AKs from Arsenal of Bulgaria are overhyped and overpriced. They’re good rifles at their core, but click around online long enough and you’ll see they’ve experienced more issues than their reputation would suggest. That said, the SAM5 is on this list because it’s the only milled receiver 5.56 option available. For those who are dead set on having a milled rifle that’s both heavier and more durable than it probably needs to be, this is the one for you. The overall weight of nearly 10 pounds should make recoil nonexistent, however.

The 16.3-inch barrel is chrome-lined and threaded 14/1 LH and they ship with an AK-351 muzzle brake. If the weight and price don’t dissuade you, the SAM5 can still serve you very well.

MSRP: $1,899.99 //

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