Just before last November’s elections, I went on a bit of a buying spree. Okay, it was more than a “bit” of a spree, but with an uncertain future for firearms as a whole and imports in particular, I felt that at the very least, waiting would lead me to pay a premium for some of the firearm-related items I was looking to purchase.
So what was it that I had to have so badly? You may recall that I’ve always had a soft spot for AKs. Sure, I don’t shoot them very often (largely because they aren’t as suppressor-friendly as something like an AR), but they’re my absolute favorite guns to collect. In the past, I’ve gone to great efforts to convert a Saiga to AKM-like configuration and I also own and AES-10B and a Zastava M92. That’s all fine and good, but until last fall, I had no AK-74s of any sort. Every true AK collector needs a 5.45x39mm rifle or three in the safe and I had zero. As Donald Trump would say, “Sad!”
The first ’74 I picked up was a Bulgarian Arsenal SLR-104UR. I reviewed it a few months ago, so we won’t spend much time talking about it today. The second entry in my two-part shopping extravaganza was the ‘UR’s brother, the SLR-104FR. The SLR-104FR is a new-production AKS-74 made for the civilian market by Arsenal of Bulgaria and since Saiga imports from Russia were banned in 2014, it stands as the closest rifle to a true AK-74 available to US shooters and collectors.
About the Rifle
Arsenal of Bulgaria’s close ties with Russia date back to the very founding of the factory back in the late 1800s. Then, the site was intended to supply the new Bulgarian Army and leadership of the establishment was headed by Russian officers. Though the politics and economics in Russia changed drastically during the first quarter of the 1900s, Arsenal’s relationship with the Soviets changes very little. In 1956, the first Bulgarian Kalashnikov rifles rolled off the lines at Factory 10 (what we now know as Arsenal) under Soviet control. Since then, the Bulgarians haven’t produced every variant of Russian-pattern AK, but they’ve churned out a pretty respectable lineup – including versions of the milled AK-47, the AK-74 and its variants, and the RPK-74. Bulgaria also has a number of domestic Kalashnikov models, such as the AR-M9, that combine the traditional AK action with different furniture and accessories.
Of all factory AKs, the Bulgarian ones are often regarded as some of the best replicas of original Soviet/Russian guns. This is especially true of their AK-74s. Arsenal Bulgaria first began production of these 5.45mm rifles in 1984 and while they were working to get full-scale production turned up, they relied on Russian parts to fill the gaps. When their machines finally got up to speed, Arsenal’s rifles were almost perfect copies of early 1980s Russian AK-74s and AKS-74s. They’ve stayed that way ever since.
The current crop of semi-automatic SLR series rifles from Arsenal continue the factory’s legacy. I’ve been fortunate enough to own several factory-built AKs from places like Russia, Romania, Serbia, and now Bulgaria. Of the bunch, the Bulgarians and the Russians stand out as the nicest and between the two, it’s a dead heat. They’re incredibly similar in terms of build and finish.
Despite the SLR-104FR’s modern looks, it’s important to realize that the rifle is really an ‘80s AKS-74 at heart. The black polymer furniture with a folding stock often leads people to mistakenly call the ‘104FR an AK-74M clone. That’s not really true at all and there are several reasons why the rifle is more closely related to the sorts of AKS-74s produced by Izhmash in or around 1982 than the ones that have been rolling out of Russia in more recent years. Most notably, the SLR-104FR features a stock with a 4.5mm hinge pin, rather than the 5.5mm pin seen on newer models. While it’s risky to say the Russians never did something, I’m comfortable asserting that they’ve never produced a black, polymer folding stock with a 4.5mm pin. Elsewhere, the rifle’s ribbed dustcover, front sight block, gas block, rear sight leaf/block, receiver dimple, optics rail, and bolt carrier are all a little (or a lot) different than the ones found on current AK-74M rifles.
When you get down to the nuts and bolts (or more appropriately, rivets) of the SLR-104FR, it’s quite clear that the rifle is phenomenally well built. Each and every rivet is properly pressed into place and the receiver is fully heat treated. Moreover, the barrel trunnion is a proper, forged part. The folding stock locks solidly when deployed, enough so that at first, the release button that is pressed to fold it can be a little tight. My rifle’s sights were straight out of the box with little adjustment needed to get on target. Finally, there is no discernible wiggle in my example’s gas tube.
A major selling point for the SLR-104, beyond its factory-built status, is the inclusion of a true Bulgarian, cold hammer forged and chrome lined barrel. Bulgarian AK barrels are some of the hardest out there and should be some of the most durable as well. Since import regulations have effectively ended barreled kits here in the US, factory hammer forged barrels have become even more desirable than they once were. Rifles that do include them often carry serious premiums over those with US-made, button rifled pipes. I’m not sure most hammer forged barrels are worth the additional cost over quality US-made alternatives from a practical standpoint, but there is no denying that they’re more desirable to much of the market. The SLR-104’s barrel represents significant added value and helps to justify its hefty $1,000+ price tag.
The right side of the SLR-104FR is adorned with a standard AK-74 optics rail, hence the “R” in the FR designation. This rail accepts the gamut of ex-Soviet optics along with modern Picatinny mounts like those from RS Regulate. I currently have the BelOMO PK-01VS on my rifle and it mounts up perfectly to the rail.
Aside from the lighter, faster round, one important feature that helps to set the AK-74 apart from older AKMs is its highly effective muzzle brake. The one that is included with the SLR-104FR is US-made and is added by K-Var once the rifles reach the US. With its large, smooth collar, it looks more like the ones on AK-74Ms than the “zig-zag”, short-collared brakes that are more appropriate for a Bulgarian rifle. The performance of the two parts is essentially the same and I’ll touch on the shooting experience later in this review.
Since I briefly touched on the muzzle brake’s US origin, it’s appropriate that I discuss the 922(r) compliance parts that are included on the SLR-104FR. As it ships, the ‘FR’s US parts include the stock, pistol grip, handguards, muzzle brake, and fire control group (3 parts). By my count, that’s actually one extra part from a 922(r) perspective (9 foreign parts whereas 10 are allowed), but it’s probably because some versions of the SLR-104FR come with Bulgarian steel folding stocks.
If you look around, it isn’t difficult to find reports from disgruntled SLR owners who complain that the finish is weak. Paint applied over Parkerized steel is standard for many AKs, including Bulgarian rifles. The problem with the SLR is that the paint doesn’t adhere very well. Folks like Rob Ski over at the AK Operators Union have shown how the finish bubbles when the barrel gets hot and he’s been very critical of that fact. My rifle still looks great, but after installing and removing my PK-01VS red dot a few times, I can see how the paint has worn on the side rail. Though I wouldn’t mind a more durable finish, the SLR-104 sports the very same paint that is used by Bulgarian military rifles. For that reason, the purist in me is willing to excuse some imperfections.
The US-made handguards, pistol grip, and stock are all very high quality and are constructed of glass-filled polymer. The lower handguard sports a proper heatshield. The polymer folding stock may not be a correct or military spec part, but it works extremely well. In both extended and folded configurations, it locks up perfectly and does not wobble in the slightest. The polymer stock is also very nearly as comfortable as a fixed unit. It narrowly wins out over the steel triangle side folder, but absolutely destroys underfolders from a comfort perspective.
Folding the stock is simple. The round button at the left-rear of the receiver releases the stock to fold. It then locks into a latch at the left-front of the receiver. To once again deploy the stock, press the large button on the butt of the piece and swing it into place. Folding the SLR’s stock brings the rifle from an overall length of 37″ to just 27.5″.
If you’re new to AK-74s, but have used 7.62x39mm AKMs and the like, the first thing you’ll likely notice about the SLR-104 is how remarkably pleasant it is to shoot. The lighter round pairs with the highly effective muzzle brake to make the SLR and absolute joy. Some say that it has less recoil than a quality AR-15. I’m not sure if that’s true – they’re very different animals. Thanks to its long-stroke piston, the AK’s recoil impulse feels, well, longer than the AR’s. From a muzzle rise perspective, they’re effectively equals. Even without a brake, the inline nature of the AR’s bolt carrier and a shooter’s shoulder is advantageous.
At a little over 6.5 pounds, the SLR-104 weighs about the same as an AKM. It handles differently, though. The light polymer stock, larger front sight block, and 3.5 ounce muzzle brake all make the SLR-104 a little front heavy. The forward-skewed center of gravity isn’t enough to be annoying, but if you’re used to AKMs and similar AKs, you’ll definitely notice it.
In my review of the SLR-104UR, I noted that the trigger in that rifle was subpar. The SLR-104FR uses the same bang switch but unlike that example, this one hasn’t had the same false reset problems. The lack of failures doesn’t quite make the FR’s trigger any better. It still has a gritty 7.5 lb pull and it feels nothing like most two-stage examples. The first stage isn’t much of a stage at all. It’s more like take-up on a sloppy single-stage trigger. The reset is very audible (I mean loud), but it requires that the trigger be returned to the fully-forward position.
At this point, I have a little more than 600 rounds through the SLR-104FR. Most of the ammo used with the rifle has been Wolf 60 grain FMJ, but I have also tested Red Army Standard – again in the 60 grain variety. From what I can tell, all of the 60 grain 5.45×39 ammunition out there right now is the same (with an exception or two). The bullets are essentially 7N6-style, but without the steel insert. Instead of the steel, the 60 grain rounds feature fully-lead cores, but retain the cavity at the nose of the round. Each and every round I’ve tried with the SLR-104FR has fired and ejected perfectly. Since Rob Ski has taken an SLR-104FR past 5,000 rounds without failure, I’m not the least bit concerned about this rifle.
Accuracy testing has proven far more promising than most would expect from an AK, but I’m not in the “AKs must be accuracy dogs” camp, so the SLR hasn’t really taken me by surprise. Shooting five round groups at 50 yards has produced plenty of groups in the 1.25” to 1.5” range, which is good for 2.5 to 3 minutes of arc (MOA). While those aren’t amazing groups by any stretch, they’re respectable. I also scored a three round, 1-1.25 MOA group when sighting in my PK-01VS red dot but three rounds aren’t what the majority of shooters would consider sufficient for group measurement. Regardless, the SLR-104FR is at least as good as a non-freefloated, service-grade AR in terms of precision.
I’m quite happy with the groups I’ve managed with the SLR-104FR, but I must admit that they weren’t obtained with the factory iron sights. Out of the box, the rifle comes with standard tangent sights as found on almost all AKs. The rear leaf sports a U-notch and is adjustable for elevation in increments of 100 meters up to an ambitious 1,000. The front sight is a simple shielded post that can be drifted for windage and adjusted for elevation. Unless you have 20/20 vision, these sights can be a challenge. I certainly don’t have perfect eyesight so I have added a PK-01VS red dot to the gun and all of my groups were shot with it on-board.
I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that the SLR-104FR is an expensive rifle. $1,000 or more for a gun is quite a stretch for many folks and it’s particularly pricey for an AK (or at least it used to be). Some have even gone as far as to call Arsenal AKs “overpriced”. In the days of $300 barreled AKS-74 kits, that might have been true, but those times are long past and in the current market, I feel that the SLR-104FR is at least fairly priced.
Looking at the rifle itself, there’s a lot to like. It is well built and packed with desirable features. The barrel is a factory, cold hammer forged and chrome lined part while the side folding stock locks up tightly and is more comfortable than other Kalashnikov folders. The trigger and finish could both use work, but the latter is true military spec paint so it has disproportionate appeal to collectors like me.
More importanly, shooting the SLR-104FR is a joy. First, the muzzle brake is highly effective as it nearly eliminates muzzle rise and minimizes felt recoil. Second, the rifle is more precise than some might think. Groups on the 2 to 3 MOA range are absolutely attainable with little effort. That’s certainly good enough for a rifle like this. Though I considered several cheaper options when shopping for an AK-74, I’m glad I stuck with my original plan and went with the SLR-104FR.