Guns and Gear

Romanian AKs: The Best Among The Worst, The Worst Among The Best. Part 2

In part 1 of this article, I talked about the first Romanian AKs and the ironic role one Romanian AK had in the dismantling of the Ceausescu dictatorship.

From the very beginning, apart from arming Romanian Army and Patriot Guards, both md 63 (AIM) and md 65 (AIMS) were exported extensively. One of the first customers in the early 70s was North Vietnamese Army (NVA). By the end of the war, in addition to Soviet and Chinese AKs, the NVA received some brand-new md 63s from Romania.

Romanian AK in the Vietnamese Military History Museum in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of

During the Iraq-Iran war, Romania supplied both sides with guns, making over 1.2 billion dollars in revenue. But North Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran were by far not the most controversial customers that favored Romanian AKs.

In the 1970s, Libya, ruled by Muammar Gaddafi, became one of the important customers for the Romanian defense industry. The relationship between the two countries had its ups and downs, for example, in 1981 Gaddafi and Chausescu managed to accidentally kill the Libyan Head of State Security during a hunting trip in Romania. Naturally, that particular round of negotiations did not go well.

But in the long term, this little party mishap did not stop weapon exports from Romania to Libya. In 1985, Romania had been warned by the US government that they should cease any military shipments to Tripoli or risk being labeled as supporting terrorism. This claim had some basis since large amounts of Romanian AKs were re-exported from Libya to Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.

But apart from the consequences of shady export deals, the Romanian defense industry faced another complex problem. Even though the country had a relatively independent policy and had no Soviet troops on its soil, it was still a part of the Warsaw Pact. And that required Romanian Army to switch from the good old 7.62×39 to the new 5.45×39 that was accepted into service by the Soviets in 1974.

The country’s leadership wasn’t very eager to spend money and resources on this massive rearmament. Therefore, the Romanian AK chambered for 5.45 was only accepted into service in 1986 under the name md 86 (AIMS-74 for export), 12 years after AK 74 became the primary service rifle of the Soviet soldiers.


Romanian md 86. Photo by Rob Stott, taken from the AK47 catalog book series

Romanian md 86. Photo by Rob Stott, taken from the AK47 catalog book series

Interestingly enough, md 86 was not a direct copy of the Soviet AK 74. Several features distinguished it from the Soviet rifle – the charging handle was curved upward, magazines were made of steel instead of bakelite; the rifle also had an East German-type folding wire stock and 3 round burst mechanism.

Naturally, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 deprived md 86 of any real future. After the fall of Communism, 5.45×39 was only used in the states that were once part of the Soviet Union.

Realizing that the 5.45×39 had no future, Romanian weapon design engineers created another version of their main rifle – md 90. This version simply combined handy side folding stock and the proven design of md 63. Throughout the 90s, it became a worldwide bestseller. It also has a special place in my heart – in my teenage years, the first and only airsoft gun that I had was an AKM converted to look like md 90.

Author's airsoft AKM on top of T-55 tank turret, 2007

Author’s airsoft AKM on top of T-55 tank turret

The wire folding stock on md 90 isn’t exactly comfortable, but it is so easy to produce that you can find it at almost any Iraqi gun market. In my article “Iraqi AK Upgrades and Accessories: “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly” I talked about how that sometimes creates an unusual problem, when some individuals steal stocks from issued rifles to sell them on the local market for profit, replacing the original stocks with cheap locally made copies.

There were also several versions of md 90 with short barrels chambered in different calibers. Designed for special forces and tank crews, they were also used by the feared Romanian secret police called The Securitate (Departamentul Securității Statului). Personally, I never encountered those guns in the field, so I can’t really say anything worthwhile about it.

Without a doubt, the most prominent identifying feature of Romanian AKs is a forward grip on the handguard. But the handguard can be replaced, also many md 90s have a conventional handguard. So, the best way to identify a Romanian AK is to look at the markings, which are pretty unique.

Markings on the export version of a Romanian AK

Markings on the export version of a Romanian AK

There are three spots where an AK is typically marked – a serial number on the left side of the receiver, on the trunnion, marking on the rear sight, and selector markings on the right side. Most countries did not mark the “SAFE” position of the selector, but Romania did. For the Romanian AKs produced for export, the “SAFE” selector position is marked with the letter “S”, automatic with the letter “A”, and semi-automatic, lower position is marked with the letter “R”.

In my experience, selector markings are the best way to determine the origin of the gun. Broken rear sights are often replaced. serial number is the first thing that is ground off when the gun ends up in the wrong hands. But very few individuals would alter selector markings.

Once upon a time, I had a very nice batch of supposedly Polish-made AKs in Iraq, but after closer inspection, I realized that many of those were not Polish. Serial numbers and factory stamps looked perfect and uniform, and rear sights were Polish, but the selector markings gave the truth away – some guns weren’t Polish, and the dealer just wanted to pretend he had a batch of new guns straight from the factory, hiding the fact that in reality, it was a bunch of mismatched guns he refurbished in some shed in the middle of the desert.

Markings on the domestic version of a Romanian AK

Markings on the domestic version of a Romanian AK

The rifles that were originally manufactured for the Romanian army and security services had slightly different selector markings: “S” for SAFE, “FA” for fully automatic, and “FF” for semi-auto. Md 86 (AIMS-74) has its own selector markings, where the infinity sign meant “fully automatic”, “1” was for semi-auto, and “3” indicated a three-shot burst.

In Part 3 of this article, I will talk about two main manufacturers of Romanian AKs and some issues that I’ve personally experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as problems other armorers had when using those AKs in Africa.

P.S. The author would like to thank Rob Stott for his photographs. Check out his website and series of books

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