my experience is based on 2 romanian AK47s and a single chinese SKS, I've shot others but these are just the ones I've built personal impressions from.
in my experience, unless you are willing to spend more than $1,000 there are no good AKs out there. of the rommies that I've dealt with(one was mine, the other my brothers) one of them had canted front sights and neither was capable of reliably feeding with steel magazines. we had to use the more expensive, clunkier, bulkier plastic magazines from Promag or tapco.
another prominent problem with the AKs was chronic rust build up, it didn't matter what ammo we fired from them, cleaning techniques or how arid we kept them in storage. they just rusted non stop, a major factor that helped me convince me to sell mine. the old adage that it is easier to clean, maintain, repair an AK than an AR15 is complete and utter horse manure propagated by people that have never attempted to clean the 2 side by side, I cleaned my AK at least once every time I got to come home on leave and have only cleaned my AR15 twice in the 5 years I've owned it. I can guarantee you that if I had to, I could strip and reassemble my AR15s in less than a minute, at my best I think I accomplished a full field strip and reassembly in 3 minutes on my AK. another major issue was a complete inability to adapt the design to accommodate optics comfortably. I played around for 3 years to get my wasr to a setup that I could use in a practical manner while still being somewhat comfortable but every attempt from paracord stock wraps to handguard mounted red dots failed miserably. I finally sold mine. my brother sold his just this last month because there was nothing that his AK could do that his ar15 in 7.62x39 couldn't do better.
now enter cheap chinese SKS. I bought it in december with the stock heavily beat up and poorly fitted and the entire gun had more grease than an old ford tractor. I've cleaned it a few times and am still finding cosmoline. the design is much simpler and way easier to get back together. I have found it very easy to adapt several parts to make it suit my personal tastes and needs better. I replaced the horrible combloc leaf sights(same as the mosin nagant and AK47) with a rear mounted aperture sight which greatly improves sight picture and ease of accuracy. the stock change is so simple that even a caveman could do it, I have a new stock on the way with M4 stock and pistol grip and am dubbing it the poor mans evil black rifle.
another final thing I would like to point out is the accuracy. with decent ammo the best I could have hoped for was to hit a 8x8 steel target at 70 yards with the AKs. with the SKS that same 8x8 is easier to hit at 200 yards from sandbags.
I heavily recommend the SKS over the AK, the SKSM that you want that takes AK mags will cost a little more and be a little harder to find but should still fall inside the $500 budget you've alloted yourself. 4
all guns lost in a tragic smelting accident.
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