by Fordy Smith
What & Where:
This was a 2 day class to learn how to operate the AK platform the Russian way. I ran a Russian Saiga AK in 7.62 with iron sights, a standard safety lever, and Warsaw length stock.
The training was at the Valor Ridge range in Harrogate, Tennessee. Beautiful range and facility that is rapidly building a reputation for some of the best training you can get. Its Reid Henrich’s range, but for this course he was just a student on the firing line with the rest of us. The instructors were Rob Ski from the AK Operators Union (Local 47-74) and “The Dimas” from Center-T. Dima is short for Dmitry which is both their names.
This is an approximately 1200 round class (around 1000 rifle and 200-300 pistol).
Equipment is up to you, just show up with a reasonably zeroed AK, at least 3 GOOD mags, a handgun of your choice, and whatever kit you decide to run with.
When in doubt, keep it simple, like AK itself. Show up with EMPTY mags. Every drill is specific. It helps a LOT if you have loose rounds in a water-resistant ammo can or equivalent. Mark your mags prior to class to make life easier during class.
Introduction and safety brief, then right into it. First drill was a 3 station round-robin that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to us at the time but ended up being a preview for day two. At the time it seemed like they were evaluating us for their benefit, but after the second day it was clear that this was to give us a baseline to evaluate ourselves and our progress at the end of the class. Very interesting approach and an excellent method of instruction.
Most drills were from a 15 to 20 meter “dress-right-dress” firing line. Some movement drills were done in teams of two while the rest watched.
Next was proper AK rifle presentation. Shoulders squared, lean forward, weak foot slightly in front, elbows down, weak hand gripping the mag with thumb forward. Index finger safety discipline as always. If you have a proper grip and body position there is no need for the internet-trendy Heisman stiff-arm 3-gun champion wanna-be grip that dominates the AR world on the internet right now. While they stress that they are giving you tools for your toolkit, they also make it very clear that this is how they run their rifle that they invented and perfected, from conscripted private to elite SF operators, and ask that you please consider the fact that they just might know their stuff (spoiler alert: they know their stuff). It’s also very ergonomic to hold and shoot it this way once you get used to it.
Every drill is practiced and repeated and dry fired many, many times, and then you drill down range empty yet again to check your target.
We then did the same presentation but with the strong foot forward. Doesn’t seem like a big difference, but from a comfort/ergonomics perspective its different enough to justify training from. While weak leg forward is preferred, when shooting after moving, you never know which foot might happen to be forward when you need to shoot so you need to be comfortable with both.
After every string of fire, they teach the “triple check” of a slight dip of the muzzle to check what you just shot at, a quick check of the chamber (to make sure the bolt is forward and you have no double feeds/etc, then a right 230 degree sweep followed by a left 130 degree sweep (I made those numbers up but the point is you can sweep a lot more area from your strong side so do that so you adequately check your six as well).
The two basic tiers of malfunctions were covered. The first is a bad round/light primer strike/etc. Rifle is running fine and you still have ammo but the round didn’t go off. First thing if you are operating in a team is to let your team know your gun is down by shouting “PROBLEM!” They recommend the over the top “AK roll” with the stock under your forearm for stability and control. Over the top puts the rifle in the most stable and controllable position as well as allows you to clearly view the charging handle, chamber and ejection port. Doing it underneath like everyone does on YouTube is basically running it in the blind. That might work fine on the range but under stress with gross motor skill degradation introduces a lot of risk for absolutely no upside. Much emphasis is placed on, however you decide to charge the handle, the ejection port area is kept completely clear. If you block it with your charging hand, you can easily introduce a double feed/stovepipe. Most charged the rifle with the meaty part of their palm facing towards them and it worked flawlessly.
The next malfunction was the double feed. It was only demonstrated, but a few guys ended up getting them for real during a drill. They showed how easy it was to introduce one by charging the rifle with your hand (or ground) blocking the ejection port. However it happens, you need to clear it by first removing the magazine and then fully racking the charging handle a few times, then back in with a magazine and charge the chamber. You do NOT want to immediately start racking the handle because that might just keep ramming the double feed into itself and might even turn it into a triple feed/etc. Again, let your team know by shouting “PROBLEM!” so they know to cover you while you get your gun back up.
How do you know when to reload versus when you had a malfunction? If Dirty Harry couldn’t count to 6 in a gunfight there’s no way you’re going to be able to count to 30. Easy: If you’ve been shooting a fair amount on a mag and it goes “click” its 100% safe to assume its out. If you happen to have a few rounds in your mag and happened to have a bad round/light primer strike/etc, just keep it simple and reload. That will clear the malfunction and top you off. If you have time to see the discarded mag has rounds left in it, and you have time to pick it up and pocket it, great. Otherwise reload and move on. If you’re not sure, do your malfunction drill. Worst case you charge an empty mag one extra time. Even then you’ve only wasted a second or less. AK was designed to be ran without the last round hold open feature that we’ve been falsely conditioned into thinking is an indispensable firearm foundation. You came here to learn the AK the AK way. Why wouldn’t you do it?
To reload, you tuck the stock slightly under your arm, grab a new mag, and with it still in your hand you use your thumb to sweep out the old mag. Its internet trendy right now to “slice” the old mag out with the new mag, and that of course works, but its less desirable because when you have tunnel vision and gross motor skill degradation you’re introducing more to look at and more to do with your hands. Using your thumb is preferred because “hands find hands”. Even in the dark or under stress, you can always put one hand to your other hand without having to look at it or practice it a million times. Index your thumb to the bottom of the trigger guard (just in front of your grip hand) and sweep the old mag out. You can do all this while looking at your surroundings. You will find the trigger guard because of where it is in relation to your grip hand. As always, step out of the line of fire. Then slightly rotate the rifle clockwise so you can see the mag well and lock the mag in place, then roll counter-clockwise so you can see the chamber and the handle you’re about to grab and charge over the top, then back on target.
After first learning the under the mag charge technique from the internet, the over the top has clear benefits especially under stress. Hands find hands and you can see what you’re doing as well as keeping the rifle under control the best. That said, if you run a large optic that sits on top of the dust cover you may have to go under. Or maybe you just prefer it. Or maybe it helps you shave a tenth off your buzzer time in laboratory conditions. Cool. But as a rule over the top seems like the superior charging method. That’s how those who invented the rifle and run it at the highest levels recommend and that’s good enough for me. Issue: settled.
Next was forward and left and right movement. Nothing intricate, just simple, natural movements based on walking. A working knowledge of the difference between left and right prior to class would definitely help, but even directional fluency isn’t enough to avoid messing that up sometimes.
With each new building block skill learned, previous ones are reintroduced and integrated. So moving in any direction to shoot you need to be prepared to clear a simulated malfunction. They simulate it by saying “problem” to which you respond by shouting “PROBLEM!” (to alert your team) while MOVING out of the line of fire and racking another round and back on target. After each string of fire you do your triple check: target, chamber, surroundings.
The Squatting position was covered, as this is the quickest way to get low and on target, as well as a very instinctual reaction to things like unexpected incoming fire. In other words, there’s a good chance you will be squatting anyway. The advantages are ease of transition (including returning to standing and moving) however it’s not as stable a firing position as kneeling. Practiced are shoulders squared as well as either foot forward, because you can’t always control how you will be positioned when you need to squat. Rate of fire while squatting is slightly slower than other positions as you don’t want to fall back onto your butt, but it’s still a pretty good instinctual firing position you can transition into quickly. Just because you are squatting doesn’t mean you won’t have a malfunction of course (“PROBLEM!”). After each string of fire, do your triple check.
Kneeling transition was then covered, again with your preferred weak leg forward but also with your strong leg forward. Short step, shoulders forward just like the first standing presentation you learned, but now move down as you step. It was a gravely range with some puddles after a rain, so many of us were glad we had high-speed tip of the spear tactical knee pads!
Wait a second, some of you have knee pads on? Aw hell naw! That’s cheating, get those things off! Knee pads build negative training habits, like slamming your knees to the ground in total comfort, but unless you wear them all day every day, that’s obviously not something you want to do. Even without them, kneeling transitions to a gravel surface is quick and secure as long as you get the fundamentals right. As always, “PROBLEM!” and triple check: target, chamber, surroundings.
After every series of drills, when its time to check the target you show the instructors you are clear the Russian way: mag out, turn it around, bold held rearward so they can see both chamber and mag follower to assure both are empty. When you are verified clear you point rifle at your target and dry fire one meaningful aimed shot, put the safety back on and then you can relax. For a couple of seconds, but then its time to put your empty mag into the gun and dry fire your way down the range with a series of random commands of the things you’ve learned so far. Step forward, reaction left, reaction right, squat, problem, kneel, etc in random order. If you finish a movement before everyone else, start your triple check, but be prepared to re-engage before you finish. Any problem/malfunction while standing requires you to step out of the line of fire while you clear it.
Hits and misses (generally anything off a notebook sized sheet of paper that’s glued into a torso sized piece of cardboard is a miss) are marked and 5 push ups for each miss are prescribed to help cure accuracy deficiency syndrome.
During lunch the CEO of DDI (an American AK company) showed up and talked about his company, some upcoming products and developments as well as brought out a full auto AK for anyone who wanted to try. Coming up are some exciting stamped and milled AK’s as well as some that shoot those weird bullets that look like a plastic roll of nickels, whatever those are. ;) Rumor has it they will actually even work too, unlike some attempts by others. Stay tuned.
The rest of the day was more integration and practice of what was learned so far. After every drill we showed clear the Russian way, put in an empty mag and dry fired our way down the range to look at our targets.
We began with a review of the drills and skills from Day 1, and then on to new things.
First was prone transition (to and from). Basically it starts out the same as kneeling, but then you put a hand to the ground, transition the rifle to the forearm stabilization from previous drills, get prone, rest the rifle on the mag like a mono-pod and keep your strong side leg “cocked” in case you have to transition back up quickly. If you will be there longer, the legs spread apart with ankles flat against the ground applies.
After that we incorporate moving left and right while prone. The theory being if you see an enemy go prone in the grass, you will likely fire towards where you last saw him, and that’s likely what they will do with you. So after going prone in most situations, you would usually want to slide left or right. Some say that you shouldn’t rest a rifle on the mag because that could cause a feeding issue, but this is how the rifle and mag were designed. Any mil-spec rifle and quality mag will not have a problem shooting it this way and this is how it was designed and intended to be fired. After every string of fire, check the target, check the chamber, check your surrounding.
Malfunctions and reloads while prone are discussed and practiced extensively. First of all, “PROBLEM!” Secondly, roll the rifle so the charging handle is up and clear the malfunction. For a reload, check the chamber, rotate clockwise, grab a mag, sweep the trigger guard with your thumb (hands find hands) while looking down-range /a round, glance at the mag well while you put the new one in, rotate it counterclockwise, charge it keeping your hand clear of the ejection port, place the rifle back on the mag and back in the fight. Do all of this while STAYING LOW! Only raise your head/rifle/etc as high as you absolutely need to, only as long as you absolutely need to. Threat over? Check target, check chamber, check surroundings.
As always, drills are building blocks and are integrated into all lessons.
The firing line was divided into three groups and each sent to one of three round robin stations. Briefly covered was running with an AK. Basically you hold the rifle under your forearm facing forward with one hand. Its way more stable than it sounds. That’s why the under the forearm position is the foundation for so many transitions, reloads and malfunctions, etc.
On to a quick discussion on cover and concealment, and then an intro into how to “pie the corner” to clear a room. The younger Dima ran this station and did a tremendous job showing us so much in so little time. Covered and practiced were standing and kneeling, left and right. Along with this was shooting on the opposite shoulder. They said that while there is an application for changing hand positions, the fastest and simplest way is to keep your hands where they are and switch shoulders only, and (in most cases) look with your opposite eye. I found it much easier (and only a little slower) to close my right eye while doing this but your situation may vary.
In either case, LEAN OVER to get the next slice of pie. This reduces your exposure. Target engagement begins as soon as you see a portion of the target, not the whole thing. You give the bad guy one eye and an ear for a target, he gives you half a chest and an arm. Pretty good trade-off. Also keep your rifle straight up and down (normal position) and do not “cant” it because your sights will clear before your barrel will and you don’t want to shoot the wall or door frame. By keeping it straight you know if you see the target with your sights, you will be able to engage it with the physics stuff that comes out of the end of the barrel.
We then moved to the longer distance stage with Rob Ski where we checked our zeros at about 50 meters, and then confirmed at petite silhouette steel targets at around 175 yards. Rob is a great instructor and motivator. Even though I only had single stack mag rigs, I found it really hard to crane my neck up enough to see the target in front of the sights. I got some hits but missed more than I hit. Others around me with optics were hitting more than I was, but I knew better than to blame it on the iron sights. Before I could adjust, it was time to move on to the next station. I was hoping I’d get another chance at those targets later.
Next was the pistol section. The bearded Dima who barely speaks english was running that station. We had already seen him operate the AK at a ridiculously high level, and even though he was always in charge of one group of 5 guys, this was his station with no interpreter. That said, he ended up being one of the best shooting instructors I’ve ever had. The old adage of “amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they can no longer get it wrong” is true, as he demoed everything with ninja level precision, yet was also somehow able to convey the information to us very well. Covered were precision shooting at typical pistol distances, the proper way to run (and stop) with a pistol, aimed and rapid fire shooting, shooting while moving (with and without using the sights) and drawing/reholstering techniques from a philosophical standpoint. Despite the language barrier, we always knew exactly what he was trying to tell us. I’m amazed how much I got out of the pistol section of an AK class from an instructor who doesn’t speak much english!
Soon it was time for the “final test”. This was also a 3 station round robin but with some slight modifications. The “pie the corner” station had t-shirts over the targets, which still had notebook paper sized targets beneath them. You were expected to shoot the paper areas only based on prior practice. Standing and kneeling, left and right corner. Misses meant push ups. Surprisingly most of us kept most or even all rounds on the paper.
We then lined up and on command, ran with the AK about 50 meters to the next station. The slowest two in the group do push ups. We then shot a pistol drill from concealment. Kneeling left and right, then run (and properly stop) then engage another target, then run and stop and engage another target.
Then we run to the long distance station and go prone for our final 3 rounds. Wait, what? My chance at redemption at the 175 meters station, and I only have 3 rounds? I didn’t regret my decision to run the class with irons one bit, but come on, only 3 rounds? What if I don’t hit any? With the pressure on I focused on the front sight and squeezed the trigger…miss. Crap! But something just didn’t feel right. It was my mag rig I was laying on like last time. I rotated it away and got that much further to the ground, stabilized my magazine and grip and took a couple deep breaths as the other shooters sent rounds down range. Some hit steel, some didn’t, and all were good shooters so I couldn’t beat myself up too bad if I didn’t connect with irons. But I really wanted this. Shooter number 2, send it! Breathe, relax, aim, squeeze. The beautiful sound of ringing steel and Rob yelling “HIT!” The other guys take their turn, and I know I have one more in the pipe and that’s it. The end of the class. I really want to go out on a high note by hitting two in a row. I think what I need to do now is to-”shooter number 2, send it!” Oh, ok. One deep breath and I know I have under two seconds before I start to shake. I see that little half-sized target taking up my entire front sight but I’m not aiming at the target; I’m aiming at an imaginary dime sized bulls eye in the middle of the target while focusing on the front sight so hard I can see the pores in the metal. The gritty but short and light G2 trigger breaks. The dust flies. Will I spend the long drive home wishing I ran the 2 MOA Aimpoint that I had in my range bag the whole time? Will I be an iron sights martyr? Smack! “HIT!” Not today, mother fucker.
Five push ups for my one miss and I was glad to do them. What a great way to end a great class. We policed our gear and trash and assembled for our class picture and graduation certificates and SWAG.
Over all I highly, highly recommend you take this class if you run, have or even like AK’s. There are many great training opportunities available from some widely regarded instructors. They all will make you better. I’ve taken a few and intend on taking a lot more. But for an AK I really don’t think you can do better than an AKOUL / Center-T class. They only do a few a year, so try to make it to one if you can. Class sizes are limited and the student to instructor ratio is low 5 to 1. And you’re learning the AK the way it was meant to be learned, taught by those who don’t just like it or happen to be good at running it, but highly trained, tip of the spear operators who can honestly say “this is my rifle”.