Many shooters think of AK-variants in a military context, but the semi-auto Vepr rifle as imported by Wolf Performance Firearms is built at the Vyatskie Polyany Machine-Building Plant (MOLOT) in Russia specifically as a hunting rifle. The plant was founded in 1940 mainly for producing the PPSh, and then in the 1950s and ’60s production included the Kalashnikov light machine gun, or RPK. The RPK can generally be thought of as a more heavy-duty version of the Kalashnikov, and in 1994 MOLOT saw the value of using its action as the basis for the Vepr hunting rifle.
Making military-style rifles into hunting rifles is nothing new, as we’ve been sporterizing Mausers for at least a century and simply repurposing stock military guns since the beginning of firearm invention. What makes the Vepr a hunting rifle is that it’s built to tight tolerances for increased accuracy, fitted with an ergonomic thumbhole stock, and equipped with a side rail for easy scope mounting. Its appeal as a hunting rifle is that, like the mailman, no matter what the weather, these guns always deliver.
“This isn’t your $500 AK because it’s not a $500 AK,” says Wolf’s C. J. Johnson. “This is a quality hunting rifle that we’re trying to get into the market so hunters can see the versatility of these guns.” That versatility is reflected in the Vepr’s available chamberings that include 5.45×39 and .223 Rem. at the varmint/predator end of the game spectrum, 7.62×39 in the middle, and .308 Win. and 7.62x54R for game as big as moose.
I requested a sample Vepr chambered for 7.62×39 for the same reason I’d request a sample Winchester Model 94 in .30-30 Win. — those are just the “right” chamberings for those style guns. Of all the various AK-type rifles on the market, the Vepr is arguably one of the highest in quality. It shows a level of metal fit and finish that’s even better than I’ve seen on “traditional” over-and-under and single-shot hunting guns from other Russian manufacturers, but unless you’re an Eastern European aficionado, the AK style is likely a bit jarring. It’s certainly different from the sleek bolt- and lever-action rifles Americans are used to for hunting whitetail, but its 8 ½-pound weight is similar to many wood-stocked bolt-actions, and its short 36-inch length makes it quick to point like a lever-action.
While 36 inches is short overall, the Vepr’s stock has a full 14-inch length of pull inclusive of a solid inch-thick rubber recoil pad, so you’re not scrunched up against the back of the receiver when shooting. The thumbhole is cut for right-hand shooters, but it’s not the least bit uncomfortable to hold and shoot the Vepr left-handed. That said, the buttstock has a full half-inch of cast to position the boreline more in the center of a right-handed shooter’s face, so left-handed shooters might have to adjust their cheekweld slightly when using the sights or scope.
The stock is reported to be walnut and the wood is dark with appealing figure, but the finish seems a bit sparse. Stippling on the grip and forend are functional and obviously done by hand. If you’re into changing furniture on guns, note that the Vepr has the “slant” instead of “straight” cut receiver and can’t use a standard AK or Saiga replacement buttstock without a slant cut adapter.
As it is sold as a hunting gun, the Vepr comes standard with two synthetic detachable magazines, one five-rounds capacity and the other 10 rounds. They rock into the bottom of the receiver nose-first. The mag release is conventional AK-style, but standard AK magazines will not fit in the 7.62x39mm-chambered gun. “The receivers are a little thicker, which is why you have to use our magazines and not the AK magazines,” says Johnson. Likewise, magazines for the other available Vepr chamberings are also unique.
Functionally, the Vepr uses a long-stroke gas-piston method of operation. Gas tapped from the barrel pushes the piston rod and bolt back as a single unit. That’s a lot of mass moving to cycle the action, and it’s been blamed for poor accuracy from AK-type rifles. I personally think that’s something of a red herring, because the M1 Garand is also long-stroke, and they’re often used in National Match competition.
“Everybody thinks that the AK-type rifle is just ‘spray and pray,’ and that’s just really not the case,” says Johnson. To help improve accuracy, the Vepr uses a cold hammer-forged barrel that Johnson says is “incredibly accurate.” It has a medium-heavy profile under the wooden fore-end and is turned to a slimmer profile forward of the gas block. Both the bore and chamber, as well as the piston and gas cylinder, are chrome-lined.
To test for accuracy, I asked Wolf to include with the Vepr a suitable scope base to mount on the side rail along with some 124-grain soft-point ammunition from its sister company, Wolf Performance Ammunition. The base simply slides onto the side rail and has a cam lock to secure it in place. It’s solid — much more solid than I expected — and provides a Picatinny-type rail slightly left of center over the top of the receiver cover.
Wolf’s 124-grain soft-point 7.62×39 load is ballistically similar to Federal’s 125-grain Power-Shok .30-30 load. The .30-30 load has only 60 fps and 221 ft./lb. over the 7.62×39, and those are quickly shed because of the differences in bullet shapes. “The 7.62×39 has the same ballistics as the 30-30 … it’s a great 200- to 250-yard rifle like the .30-30, but instead of paying $1 a round, it’s pennies a round,” says Johnson. While he and I will have to agree to disagree on the range capabilities of the .30-30, there’s no doubt that you get similar performance at a fraction of the cost — as I write this, there’s a $13 difference between a 20-round box of the two above-mentioned loads.
Unfortunately, the scope base Wolf sent was damaged in shipping, so I had to resort to shooting for accuracy with iron sights and middle-aged vision. The rear sight is both windage and elevation adjustable with elevation indicators numbered 1 through 10. “They’re not set for yards,” Johnson says of the sight markings. “They are simply indicators.”
With the rear sight set on the “5” indicator, I was dead-on at 50 yards. In the definitive work “Small Arms of the World” Smith and Smith indicate that an AK-type rifle “will group into 6 inches at 100 yards; this is about average for a military rifle at that range.” With 3-inch groups at 50 yards my benchmark for average accuracy, I settled in to see if MOLOT had really made the Vepr an above-average rifle.
My five-shot groups averaged between 1¼ and 1 ½ inches, so MOLOT has done a great job of ensuring accuracy. There were no malfunctions of any kind, which is what I would expect from such a proven design. There is no last-shot or other bolt hold-open feature, though you can lock the bolt open by pulling the charging handle all the way to the rear, holding it there and pulling the trigger, then lowering the bolt down gently against the hammer. Simply pulling back fully and releasing the charging handle brings the Vepr back into action.
Recoil was very mild, though if you go for a Vepr in .308 or 7.62x54R or otherwise have trouble with the recoil, you can simply knock out the pin that holds the thread protector on the muzzle and equip your Vepr in any chambering with a muzzle brake. Trigger pull was heavy at 6 1/2 pounds, but the trigger seems to “roll” over that 6 ½-pound mark instead of it feeling like you’re pulling against that much weight.
As an interesting anecdote, the Vepr I received was the filthiest gun I’ve ever been sent in 23 years of writing about guns. That’s not a criticism of Wolf, but a testament to its confidence in the gun’s performance ability. There was clearly no “cherry picking” of a sample gun here.
As I write this, the world is a little PO’d at Vladimir Putin and the U.S. has imposed various trade sanctions against Russia, including against some Russian gunmakers, so it would be apropos to mention the availability and possible future of Wolf’s Vepr. “Like everyone else, we’re dealing with the sanctions,” says Johnson. “We’re only affected in that we’re slower getting our guns in because we have to use a different port.” It remains to be seen if the current administration can find a happy place with Putin and if sanctions will ease or get worse. If things get worse, the Vepr could be one of those guns you’re glad you bought back when you could. If things get better and the Vepr appeals to you, it could be one of those guns you’re glad you bought for no other reason than its performance.