This is a rifle I bought strictly for home protection, at a residence we maintain far from the city. In those parts, law enforcement response during emergencies takes a while, hence the requirement for greater firepower.

AK-47 Heritage

For all intents and purposes, the Chinese Type 56 is a clone of the AK-47 assault rifle. It fires the 7.62x39mm Russian cartridge, and has both semi- and full-automatic fire capability.

It also shares the same heritage of ruggedness and reliability that have make the Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK) a huge favorite among the world’s fighting forces. Whenever a war breaks out, you can count on the AK (in one or more of its variants) being right there in the thick of it.

My particular example of the rifle came with the traditional orange-ish wooden furniture, which is now so out-of-place among the modern breed of “tactical” rifles. I personally think that the orange-ish color has a legitimate purpose—it was integrated to make the rifle easier to spot under inches of water, after it’s been concealed in a rice paddy.

Discovering the AK’s Secrets

I had always been curious as to what made the AK series so rugged and dependable. Once I had acquired this rifle, it was easy to find out.

When I removed the top cover of the Type 56’s receiver, I was almost shocked by how little there was inside the receiver box. There was an inordinate amount of space inside, and guns’s internal parts appeared to move with a large surfeit of vacant space around them.

It is precisely this abundance of operating room that makes a AK rifle so impervious to fouling. You could actually drop a few pebbles inside the receiver, and they would probably never get in the way of the gun’s mechanical components. The moving parts would simply push the pebbles aside as they moved, and the rifle would keep on functioning normally.

So why, you might ask, aren’t other battle rifles built this way?

The answer is, it’s a matter of design principle.

The most common way to build rifles today is to fill up as much empty space with metal, so that dirt and large particles can’t get between the moving parts. In this regard, Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man who designed the Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK) series, took a radically different approach when he built the gun. He left as much space as he could between the parts that moved, and that (either deliberately or by chance) left a lot of space wherein dirt could settle, without ever impeding the gun’s function.

Built-in Robustness and Ruggedness

The weight that he managed to save by doing this, was spent beefing up the critical elements of the gun: barrel, bolt, and magazines, included. Apart from the rifle’s wooden fore-stock, butt, and grip, everything on my Type 56 rifle is constructed entirely from steel. The barrel is so thick it almost appears to be match-grade; the rotating bolt is massive, and the receiver walls are all heavy-gauge steel sheet.

The magazines are reinforced where the feed lips lock onto the rifle. As any firearms designer will testify, the feed lips of any magazine are critical to ensuring reliable cartridge feeding. In the AK-47, you would be hard pressd to deform them, even if you wanted to. As any experienced shooter will tell you, magazines with deformed feed lips will cause stoppages; in a battlefield scenario, stoppages are liable to get you killed. The robust construction of the Type 56’s magazines (both the standard 30-rounders and the 75-round drums) contribute directly towards the reliability of this rifle.

The Type 56’s barrel comes chrome-plated from the factory, to reduce any incidence of fouling. It cleans out easily, and resists corrosion exceedingly well.

Ballistics of the Type 56

My personal reading with reference to the rifle would seem to indicate that the 7.62×39 round fired from the Type 56 leans heavily towards effecting bullet penetration. This means that bullets fired from the Type 56 are not easily deflected by brush (a plus in jungle warfare), and will reliably shoot through the common cinder-block walls used in house construction.

Because bullets from the Type 56 are so well stabilized, a hit from the rifle will usually result in a clean wound, with the bullet completely passing through the body. A strike in a non-critical area is more likely to maim or cripple rather than kill outright. This is in line with Modern Military Small Arms Theory, which favors rifles that injure more often than they kill.

Why is it considered better to injure an enemy soldier, rather than to kill him outright?

A rifle that injures an enemy combatant rather than kills him, takes more than a single enemy away from the field of battle. A dead soldier is usually abandoned outright in the heat of engagement. A wounded soldier, on the other hand, requires one or more other fellow soldier(s) to drag him to safety. This effectively takes additional soldiers out of the fight, for as long as it takes to secure and perhaps even look after the wounded combatant.

In line with the same theory, the Type 56 is also a medium- rather than a long-range rifle, designed to engage targets at ranges of up to 400 meters. This is viewed as the maximum range at which most engagements are fought on today’s battlefields.

Type 56 Controls

The rifle has a large lever on the right side of the receiver, which functions as a combined safety and fire-selector switch.

The lever’s topmost position renders the firing mechanism safe. In this position, the lever locks the bolt and also covers the rifle’s ejection port, preventing dirt from entering the gun.

The second position is for fully-automatic fire. The rifle will continue to discharge projectiles until the trigger is released, or until the magazine is emptied. The lowermost lever position is for semi-automatic fire. The rifle discharges one bullet every time the trigger is pulled, and will automatically reload itself for the next shot.

A lot of AK users have wondered about the progression of the AK’s selector switch. “Why does the full auto position come first?” They ask. “Shouldn’t the switch have been designed to select the semi-automatic before the full-auto mode?”

There are two schools of thought surrounding the enigma of the AK-design fire selector switch.

The first school of thought postulates that, being a Russian design, the AK rifles favor the use of fully-automatic fire over more deliberate semi-automatic operation. To support this argument, it has been pointed out that during World War II, the Russians heavily favored the use of fully automatic submachine guns over bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles. The AK rifle’s selector switch, therefore, offers full-automatic fire as a first option, and selective, semi-automatic fire as an afterthought.

The second school of thought sees the selector switch’s unusual progression as an ammunition-saving and safety feature.

Imagine a front-line camp full of sleeping infantrymen awakened in the middle of the night by an enemy attack. The half-dazed soldiers grab their loaded AK rifles and, in an adrenaline rush, flick their rifles’ safety switches off as quickly as they can.

The tendency here is to throw the lever as far as it will go—all the way down—which puts the AK in semi-automatic mode.

This produces one shot every time the trigger is pulled, instead of a massive spray of bullets whenever the trigger is touched off.

Now very few things can be quite as dangerous as a group of infantrymen wildly firing fully automatic at unspecified targets at night. The design of the AK’s selector switch actually mitigates that.

Forcefully operating the selector switch and having it move all the way down to semi-automatic mode, reminds the soldier that he is only half-awake, and that he needs to take deliberate aim at his targets, instead of engaging in what has come to be known as “spray and pray”.

Should he require fully automatic fire, he needs to make a deliberate, conscious effort to obtain it from the rifle, by moving the selector lever halfway up. This effectively makes semi-automatic mode the real default setting of the AK, which directly contradicts the first school of thought.

How the Type 56 Operates

The gun operates by bleeding a small amount of gas from behind the bullet, as it approaches the muzzle. That gas is used to push a piston above the barrel rearward. This piston is connected to the rotary bolt. The rearward movement of the piston unlocks the rotary bolt and drives the bolt backward in a circular motion. This movement ejects the empty cartridge shell, resets the firing mechanism, and strips a fresh round from the rifle’s magazine. In a mere fraction of a second, the gun is ready to fire another shot.

Its cyclic rate of fire is approximately 650 rounds per minute, which is about the limit of controllability using this particular rifle and cartridge combination. The Type 56 discharges the 123-grain projectile of the Russian 7.62x39mm cartridge at a velocity of 2,400 feet per second. This means that in spite of the rifle’s heft, there is still enough recoil to drive the rifle’s muzzle upward. A cyclic rate of 650 rounds per minute is generally regarded as the optimum rate of fire than the experienced Type 56 user can handle.

At this rate of fire, a Type 56 assault rifle in full-automatic mode will empty a standard 30-round magazine in about 2.8 seconds, and disgorge the contents of a 75-round drum magazine in under 7 seconds.

Primary Drawbacks

The Type 56’s main drawback is, of course, its weight. Lighter-weight battle rifles are definitely available today. To an infantryman already burdened with a load of personal equipment, the Type 56 may not be as practical to carry as a lighter weapon. Especially since a fully-loaded 75-round drum for the Type 56 weighs almost as much as the rifle itself.

Still, the AK series of rifles (and its clones) still constitutes the most widely-produced battle rifle in recent history, and we can expect to feel its presence in worldwide conflicts for many more years to come.

Is Fully-Automatic Fire Necessary?

Personally, I dislike firing in full-automatic mode. I believe that firing fully automatic, even in short bursts, actually makes it more difficult to hit whatever it is that you’re aiming at. Your sights get thrown off target by the first shot, and even farther off by succeeding shots. (Inexperienced shooters, especially, finish up by shooting the rifle at the sky.) To complicate matters, the greater the range becomes, the less likely you are to hit what you’re shooting at.

I prefer the deliberate cadence of semi-automatic rifle fire. You can fire one shot and wait until the rifle’s sight drop back on your target, before squeezing off a second shot. Then you repeat the process as necessary, until you get the desired result. This makes it a lot more likely that you’ll actually hit what you’re shooting at. It also saves a great deal of ammunition.

So why do battle rifles provide automatic fire at all?

Fully-automatic discharge is mainly intended to provide “covering fire” during fire-and-maneuver operations. To move from one position of cover to another during a firefight, you have to make the enemy stop firing at you. You do this by intimidating him with fully automatic fire. When he stops firing and puts his head down, you or other members of your team take the opportunity to maneuver in relative safety.

Given all this, I seriously doubt whether I will ever find the need to employ the Type 56 in fully automatic mode. Still, it’s enormously comforting to know that the option is available, if and when its use might be expedient.

Built-in Bayonet

A noteworthy feature of the Type 56 is a permanently-attached “spike” bayonet under the rifle barrel. This bayonet neatly folds away when not in use, and can be pivoted 180 degrees forward when the situation demands it. A sturdy, spring-loaded lock holds it in place, both in the open and in the closed positions.

This is one feature which differentiates the Type 56 differs from the AK-47. The integration of a built-in bayonet was most likely dictated by Chinese military doctrine, which still recognizes the need to dominate in close-quarters combat. A bayonet-mounted rifle, after all, still has a longer reach than any survival knife.

Type 56 Customization

Since the bayonet precluded the use of any standard bipod attachment, and I wanted to integrate a bipod on my particular rifle, I adapted one to fit over the folded bayonet. In effect, the bayonet runs through the bipod mount, and the bipod can be quickly detached by simply unlocking the bayonet and slipping the mount off.

The bipod mount I use provides approximately 10 degrees of horizontal traverse, and eliminates the need to actually move the legs of the bipod to swing the rifle’s muzzle left or right.

Unlike the AK-47, the Type 56 is not configured to accept scope-mounting as it comes from the factory. Mounting any kind of optics requires that you install a base plate on the left side of the receiver. The standard inverted-L optics bracket designed for AK rifles slides into and locks onto this base plate. With a picattiny rail sitting on top of the inverted-L bracket, you can put almost any type of telescope or reflex sight on your rifle.

The scope I chose is a 3X to 9X variable with a 32mm objective lens. The crosshairs on this scope can be illuminated in red for low light work. It also has picatinny-style mounts port and starboard, to accommodate additional accessories. The attachment on the right of the scope is a co-axial spotlight which can illuminate objects up to 100 meters away; the attachment on the left is a green laser designed for daytime use.

The original orange butt stock was replaced with a custom-built wooden unit with a significantly elevated check piece. This was necessary to bring the shooting eye level with the scope. Unlike the original wooden butt stock, however, the replacement unit does not have a recess to hold the rifle’s cleaning kit.

Instead, the cleaning equipment gets stored in the hollow, aftermarket pistol grip. This aftermarket unit is molded from polymer, and is decidedly more ergonomic than the original wooden grip.

Care and Maintenance

The only thing you have to watch out for on the Type 56 is rust.

It helps to remind yourself that this is an all-steel gun, which is subject to corrosion from humidity and firing residue. Giving the rifle a thorough cleaning after use helps; so will coating it with good quality oil or grease before putting it away.

If you happen to forget either of these precautions and discover a little rust, don’t worry—AK-type rifles in worse shape than yours have been known to function splendidly—in the worst battlefield conditions known to man.