Sport Utility Rifles for Beginners

By Chris Oates

More commonly referred to as "assault rifles" in the media, sport utility rifles (SUR) are great fun as well as handy tools. Since I live in the country where dangerous critters abound, an AK-47 clone is at my bedside. Reliable, accurate enough for "bump patrol" in the night and the high magazine capacity is comforting when you hear a strange noise at 1:00 AM and the dogs are barking.

Many people are afraid of these guns because they are misunderstood. As mentioned earlier, people are used to hearing them called "assault rifles," which sounds threatening. (The Germans, who invented the type during WW II, coined the name "assault rifle" to differentiate it from their Mauser 98 standard infantry rifle. -Ed.) I have had mine for about two years and I have never shot anything except two-liter soda bottles. You can use most anything to assault someone; baseball bats, golf clubs, vehicles, not to mention your hands and feet. Thus, I like to call them "Sport Utility Rifles," a friendlier term.

Since the pre-2008 election polls do not look great for gun owners, quite a few people are buying SUR's right now in case they cannot get them later. Here are a few of the basic's you need to know when in the market for one of the basic models of SUR.

The AK-47 is the famous assault rifle (and in this case it really was an "assault rifle" -Ed.) of the defunct Soviet Union. It was also produced in most of the Communist countries of the old Soviet Bloc, as well as Red China, and has been widely used by revolutionaries and terrorists around the world ever since. New AK-47 clones average about $400 with a stamped receiver and you can get AK clones with forged receivers for about $700. The stamped receivers are a bit lighter, but not as accurate or durable as a milled version.

The 7.62x39mm cartridge is fairly powerful but a relatively poor penetrator with soft point (hunting) bullets due to inadequate bullet sectional density. FMJ bullets offer far more penetration, but are inferior in stopping power. If you live in an area with many neighbors, you would probably be better off with a pistol, shotgun, or less powerful SUR such as the US .30 M1 Carbine or Ruger PC4 carbine. Never use FMJ (military "ball") ammunition for personal protection, especially in populated areas, due to the danger of over-penetration.

AK-47 clones are very easy to field strip for cleaning and reassemble, as they were designed for use by mechanically unskilled peasants. Child soldiers in places like Africa do it all the time. Your local gun store should be able to show you how. It requires no special tools, only your fingers. AK-47's are generally very reliable and 7.62x39mm FMJ military ammunition can be purchased relatively inexpensively in 1,000 round lots. 

Colt produces the original version of the AR-15 and the genuine article carries a 2007 MSRP of $1300. This is the civilian version of the famous American M-16 service rifle. AR-15 clones start at around $700 and go up from there. The quality varies considerably and you generally get what you pay for. I'd say that decent clones average about $950 (in 2007 dollars). AR-15's can be had with chrome-lined barrels that may decrease accuracy somewhat, but make the barrel more resistant to corrosion than standard barrels.

AR's are more accurate and offer a much flatter trajectory than the AK-47 / 7.62x39mm, but require more maintenance for reliable operation. They are, however, easy to field strip and clean. AR clones are like adult Lego's with enough accessories to make your head swim. They come in calibers from .22 to .45, with .223 Remington (5.56mm NATO) being the original chambering and still by far the most popular. In fact, on most sales lists the .223 Remington is the best selling centerfire rifle cartridge in the world.

The .223 Remington is a fine varmint cartridge with proper (frangible bullet) ammunition, as it was developed from the .222 Remington series of dedicated varmint cartridges. In a bolt action or single shot varmint rifle it can be extremely accurate and it has also become popular for use in match rifles. Ammunition is very widely distributed and relatively inexpensive, particularly when loaded with the typical, but nearly useless (except for practice), 55 grain FMJ bullet. Like all rifle cartridges, the .223 has its limitations. It is a poor man stopper with military ball ammunition and should not be used for hunting animals larger than a coyote with any load.

SKS rifles, like the AK-47, are chambered for the 7.62x39mm cartridge. The SKS is an earlier, inferior Soviet design subsequently replaced by the AK-47 and it is best avoided. Like the AK-47, SKS rifles were at one time widely used and were produced in several Soviet client states. (Some models have a nasty reputation for slam-firing--going off when the bolt closes, without the trigger being pulled. -Ed.) However, SKS rifles average around $250 vs. the AK's $450. The SKS was designed with a 10 round internal magazine. You can get aftermarket SKS magazines that hold more cartridges, but they have a reputation for not working reliably.

Some states have already banned what they define as "assault rifles" and such definitions vary from state to state. If you want an SUR, be sure to check your local laws. Have fun and stay safe.

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Copyright 2007 by Chris Oates. All rights reserved.