Fraud lawsuits, magic keyholing bullets, and the potential discovery of a vast but niche ammo manufacturer conspiracy…
Buckle up because we’re about to dig into the storied history of one of the weirdest American-made AKs – the Lancaster Arms AK-74.
You may be asking yourself, what the heck is a Lancaster Arms AK-47? Lucky for you, we’re here for a little show and tell.
I recently had the opportunity to take the Lancaster AK for a ride, and it was nothing short of an experience.
For a more detailed look at the Lancaster, check our video below.
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Table of Contents
Lancaster Arms…Who’s That?
While companies like Palmetto State Armory now produce some decent American-made 7.62x39mm AKs, tracking down a domestic 5.45 variant in the early to mid-2000s…well, that wasn’t a walk in the park.
For the AK enthusiast dead-set on snagging an iteration of the younger Kalashnikov platform, options were limited.
We’re talking the well-regarded but pricey Arsenal SLRs or the iffy Century Arms AK-74 that was possibly fitted with Bulgarian 5.56 AK barrels. (Hello, keyholing!)
Only one more option remained outside of Arsenal and Century Arms…a small company operating out of Arizona known as Lancaster Arms.
Their website is now defunct, but a quick cache search courtesy of archive.org shows they set up shop (or at least a web presence) in the mid-2000s.
They offered a bevy of milled and stamped AK-47 and 74 variants for a price that was hard to beat….like $600 or so.
The Rough Rider model we’re testing out today debuted around 2009 for an absurd $479.
Yep, you read that right…$479!
Lancaster’s reputation later took a hit, but initial reviews of the AK-74s were generally good.
Perhaps, the biggest grip cited was the slow turnaround time on orders purchased through Lancaster directly.
That’s pretty standard for small builders, though.
Where Are They Now?
That fantastic AK deal would soon be too good to be true.
By 2010, a collection of spurned Lancaster customers began a blog called Lancaster Arms Sucks. This site detailed a variety of absurd customer service nightmares.
According to the site, customers were sent total lemons.
When the guns were returned under the Lancaster Lifetime Warranty, they stayed at Lancaster’s facility for months. As customers called to check on the status, they would be given excuse after excuse.
Another nail in the coffin were allegations against the Rough Rider AK. Supposedly, flaws were so bad that the guns would beat themselves apart or outright explode, all before the 1,000-round mark.
The company would go on to face mounting legal hurdles. Ultimately, Arizona’s Attorney General ordered Lancaster CEO “Chet Durda” to pay close to $70,000 in restitution to customers.
Fun fact: Durda’s only web presence appears to be a Twitter account. Here, he claims to be an ex-international arms dealer turned movie actor.
So international mystery aside, where does this leave us? With a Lancaster Rough Rider AK-47 to test, of course!
But you can’t expect a rifle from a company with an…interesting…CEO to not throw us a few curveballs. And boy, did we dive into some conspiracies with this one.
Read on to learn more...
Not Your Average Range Day
A close friend of mine actually grabbed a Rough Rider 74 secondhand.
No worries, he checked the serial number against the recall list Lancaster issued before they went out of business. Luckily, this AK’s number was not within the problematic serial range.
So, we went for it!
We initially took the Lancaster AK out alongside the Romanian RPK (you can catch that review here.)
We intended to get some trigger time with both models; alas, it was not meant to be.
As soon as we attempted to chamber a round, we hit our first snag. We could not get the Wolf Polyformance WPA 5.45 rounds to chamber in the gun…at all.
The cartridges ALMOST chambered but, a few millimeters of space prevented the bolt from returning to battery.
The casings also appeared considerably damaged when forcefully ejected from the chamber manually.
So, we’ve got a rifle from a manufacturer with a whole slew of noted issues – including a reputation for overgassing so egregiously that rifles beat themselves out of a correct headspacing.
Could this be the issue?
We took the gun to an AK tech to find out.
The tech ran some rounds through it with no problem. Headspacing on the rifle also seemed pretty much perfect. He swapped out the recoil spring for a slightly stiffer one to mitigate slight overgassing.
It looked like the gun was not the issue.
So, we turned to the ammo. Did we get a bad batch of 5.45?
And this, my friends, is where it gets interesting…
An Ammo Conspiracy?
Turning to the web for a little research, we had to really dig to find anything useful. But what we did find was pretty interesting.
There was a ton of anecdotal evidence that other 74 owners – Lancaster owners in particular – experienced incredible malfunction while using Wolf 55-grain hollow points.
Rather than drop more cash on another variant of 5.45 ammo, we grabbed an inert 5.45 7N6 round to see what would happen.
It chambered just fine.
Here comes the a-ha moment!
When compared side-by-side, we observed that the 7N6 was shaped differently than the Wolf hollow point.
Like seriously, how are these both considered 5.45??
With some solid clues, we snagged surplus domestic 7N6 and Tula 5.45x39mm 60-grain. Lo and behold, they’re the same shape and size.
They both feed, fit, chamber, fire, and extract just fine.
That leads me to ask…what the heck is going on with the Wolf ammo?
Wolf Ammo: Part of a Cover-up?
In all honesty…that one is still up in the air. We have a few guesses, though.
Originally, we thought this box of ammo was a fluke. The size and shape of the Wolf hollow point almost look like a .223 projectile.
Given that some stateside AK-74 builders were allegedly using 5.56 barrels in their 74s, we began concocting some kind of conspiracy corkboard of possibilities.
Chiefly, that the Wolf rounds were somehow an attempt to mitigate the crazy keyholing that comes from firing 5.45 out of a 5.56 barrel by inserting a 5.56 projectile into a 5.45 casing.
Admittedly, our theory is pretty out there. But also, 2020 has broken everyone’s brains. If you’re not at the point of jumping to conspiratorial thinking at the drop of a hat yet – don’t worry, you will be.
While there is undoubtedly a certain allure to donning a tinfoil hat and feeling like you’ve uncovered some kind of vast, niche, ammo manufacturer conspiracy theory…there’s likely a much simpler answer.
That answer revolves around how the standard 5.45 cartridge operates.
Class Is In: A Quick Lesson on the 5.45
A cross-section of 7N6 reveals that there’s an open pocket of air just behind the round’s penetrator.
That, combined with a lead plug crimped into the base of the bullet, shifts the bullet’s center of gravity rearward. This induces a higher chance of the round yawing when it strikes a solid surface.
The bullet then deforms and tumbles as it travels through flesh – which, generally speaking, creates more complex tissue damage.
Coincidentally, this is what’s often cited as the reason the 5.45 cartridge earned the moniker “the poison bullet.”
Folks generally seem to be aware (at least in a pop culture sense) that the round tumbles somehow.
Because some of the early AK-74s built on Bulgarian 5.56 barrels were keyhole machines, I suspect a certain amount of people still think the 5.45 round has some kind of magic property that defies physics.
So, they’ve internalized that the round tumbles like a punted football straight out of the barrel, which….No.
The Truth About Wolf
In any case, it looks like Wolf’s 5.45 hollow point chose to ditch that pocket of air entirely.
This lack of air pocket shortens the projectile and ultimately causes a ton of issues in a variety of rifles. Namely, some AKs won’t chamber it.
This isn’t conclusive, but it’s the best we can come up with after going on a wild goose chase on decade-old defunct AK-centric forums.
And it makes a lot more sense than Wolf/Barnaul/Tula jamming .223 bullets in 5.45 casings and calling it a day.
Now, Let’s Test the Lancaster AK
With the conspiracy theories to bed and the rifle functional once more, let’s test this thing!
Don’t get me wrong; a normal 7.62x39mm AK is tons of fun. But, there’s just something about the controllability of 5.45 that I really enjoy.
For all intents and purposes, it feels like an AR disguised as an AK. Obviously, that makes sense considering the 5.45 was the answer to NATO’s speedy 5.56.
Features, Details, and More
Starting at the front, you’ve got the iconic AK-74 muzzle brake. It features three venting holes on the top and sides to mitigate muzzle climb and two enormous chambers up front, which reduce recoil.
The brake does its job pretty damn well – the barrel barely moves. No doubt, it’s a contributing factor for why shooting an AK-74 is so much fun.
Continuing down the rifle, we have some rad plum furniture.
This article is already riddled with mystery, so what’s one more for discussion’s sake.
No one really knows why the Soviets used plum instead of black. Some folks think black dyes were either commercially unavailable or cost-prohibitive to the Soviets during that time.
Others theorize plum was chosen intentionally as a way to break up the silhouette in early night vision technology.
Regardless, the plum here is a really neat detail.
The entire gun is built on a Nodak Spud NDS-2 receiver, which itself is based on the Bulgarian SLR-105 patterned AK-47s Arsenal imported/is still importing. Sitting on the receiver is your typical AK dovetail rail.
We’ve mounted an Obzor collimator sight to this one.
Straight up, the Obzor is pretty rad. I believe it’s currently issued to Russian big army units as the 1P63.
Essentially, it uses ambient illumination to provide a T-style crosshair with a triangular reticle, requiring no batteries or electronics to operate.
Additionally, in lowlight situations, the reticle changes to a more simplistic “T” that appears inside the space where the normal reticle sits.
And it’s powered entirely by tritium.
A small throw lever on the side initiates a contrast filter, which moves a small shade into place. This makes the reticle more visible in brighter conditions.
On our range day, no one spoke techy Russian (bummer) so windage and elevation adjustments were slightly baffling. Eventually, we got the optic zeroed, though.
Surprisingly, it actually worked really well.
To be honest, I didn’t feel quite as fast with this AK as I normally do – at least in terms of target acquisition. I’m not accustomed to the sort-of chin-weld style aiming you need when using an AK with an optic mounted this high.
Once I got the hang of it, though, I nailed 250-yard steel easily. Shooting with the 1x optic was repeatable and fun.
Let’s Talk Triggers
Lancaster’s Rough Rider appears to come with a slightly upgraded Tapco trigger. It’s pretty decent.
You’ve got a small amount of take-up and a clean break almost immediately.
It’ll catch you a bit off guard if you’re not familiar with AKs. Once you’re in the zone, though, it feels smooooth.
Where Does This Leave Us?
It’s a bit of a bummer that Lancaster Arms went down like it did. I actually had a ton of fun with their AK-74 during the time I spent with it.
This particular rifle is likely a sterling example of a Lancaster build in the earlier days. Ya know, when quality control was still a consideration.
While it seems a ton of customers had an absolute nightmare dealing with Lancaster’s CEO by the end of it all, if you got a good Lancaster AK, then you were likely stoked about snagging something this fun!
It’s tickling a bunch of milsurp nerd boxes for me, personally.
By The Numbers
If you get a good one, that doesn’t fall under the probelmatic serial number set, then you’re good to go. If your Rough Rider features a bad batch serial numbers, then proceed with caution. Also, watch out for that Wolf ammo aside.
The Obzor optic mounted high meant that my cheek rested higher on the stock that I was accustomed to. This took a little time to figure out, but ultimately, I made the necessary adjustments.
I had no issues nailing steel targets at 250-yards. The muzzle brake helps reduce recoil and, overall, it’s a very manageable platform.
The AK arena has a thriving aftermarket. Feel free to slap on accessories and extras at will.
Back in the day, these things were a definite value. $459 for an AK-74, sign me up! Alas, they’re no longer in production so you won’t be seeing these prices again.
Again, if you can snag a Lancaster AK, with a decent serial number, you’ll have tons of fun at the range. These things are a blast to shoot! But you will need to do your research.
If, on the other hand, you prefer a 74 that works out of the box, I’d forgo searching out a Lancaster and opt for a PSA AK-74 instead.
Conspiracy theories aside, the Rough Rider 74 by Lancaster Arms was a fun AK-74 to shoot. Given its iffy quality control history, though, it’s a toss-up whether you should buy.
I suggest doing some research and preparing to dive into a bunch of internet forum graveyards before committing.
Don’t forget to take a look at our full video review to see the Lancaster in action.
Have you tried out a Lancaster? Let us know about your experience in the comments below. Want more AK-74 goodness? Check out our review of PSA’s AK-74 and our round-up of the Best AK Pistols (which includes some 74 models.)