Today, we’re going to look at a fascinating part of American, and Chinese, firearms history, the Norinco MAK 90 (sometimes misspelled as MAC 90). Here, we’ll start with some general specifications for the MAK90, before getting into the history and where it currently sits in the American firearms market.
Mak 90 Specs
The MAK 90 or “Modified AK, 1990”, is a semi-automatic Type 56 assault rifle, chambered in 7.62×39, and produced by Norinco beginning in the year 1990. Generally, these guns were imported with 3, 5-round magazines and wood furniture including a thumbhole stock. They are by official definition, sporting rifles. But, if you look at it, it sure looks an awful lot like an AK47. This is where things get interesting historically.
Here, three threads are relevant if we’re trying to answer the question: is a MAK-90 an AK47. Those threads are the Chinese, Soviet, and American threads, and they weave together quite a tale.
Check out this custom animation video we created detailing the history of the Mak 90:
From the Chinese perspective, these guns are, in effect, AK47s. Many MAK90s were made on the stamped Type-56 receivers, which are the Chinese variant of the AKM. These came in about any configuration you can think of, from unfolding, short-barreled models for tank crews to long-barreled versions sporting big stocks and bipods. The main distinction of the MAK-90 is that it was only ever made in semi-automatic, making it eligible for importation, for example, into the lucrative private firearms market in the USA.
Norinco is the government-owned armory for the Chinese: they’ve also been exporting civilian arms for years, many of them copies of other nations’ designs. For example, our friends in Canada can get a Norinco copy of the M14 that was, supposedly, made from reverse-engineered copies of rifles captured in Vietnam.
If you ask the then Soviet Union, the MAK-90 is not an AK. That’s because the Chinese did not pay a royalty, nor did they get tooling, from the USSR to make the weapons. Instead, they’re apparently illegal, patent-infringing variants of the stamped AKM. This is emblematic of what most Americans overlook during this period of the late Cold War: despite being both ostensibly communist nations, the USSR and the PRC did not get along very well with each other, only really cooperating when their collective problem, the USA or NATO, made trouble, for instance, in Korea and Vietnam.
From the American perspective, the MAK-90 is in no way whatsoever an AK47. This is because, in 1989, George HW Bush interpreted the 1968 Gun Control Act through an executive order that banned the importation of assault rifles along two grounds. First was by name: the AK47 was named explicitly. The second was by a set of features, including pistol grips, bayonet lugs, and folding stocks, among many other, largely cosmetic features that apparently terrified the then-Republican government. A ban was passed without a law being written by congress, and thus the AK47 was banned, ending, for instance, the possibility of post-Soviet imports.
The MAK-90, on the other hand, was a sporting rifle that had a thumbhole stock, no ability to accept a bayonet, and even did away with the awful, terrifying threaded barrel by the addition of a penny’s worth of tack weld on the muzzle brake. As far as George HW Bush, the ATF, and Uncle Sam are concerned, the MAK90 is no more an AK47 than is your Remington model 700” both are sporting rifles.
The Chinese AK47
The MAK-90, is, in effect, a Chinese AK. It takes all standard AK magazines meant for 7.62×39 guns and functions exactly the same way that every AK platform rifle has since the year 1947. There are also a few benefits to the MAK-90 when compared to some imports that were made after the Assault Weapons Ban came into force under later administrations.
Foremost among these is that the MAK-90s were imported as complete, functioning firearms that took AK magazines, and the Chinese have gotten excellent at making AKs. This means that, as long as no one has done anything silly to them in the least 30 years, a MAK 90 is a good, reliable AK-style firearm. They generally shoot well, and, thanks to the chrome-lined barrels, eat cheap steel-cased ammunition for breakfast, lunch, and dinner without issues.
Thanks to their being imported before more draconian rules being put into place, the MAK-90 also has a standard AK magazine well: the modified magazine wells of later rifles from the former USSR are a persistent source of feeding issues, which is a large part of what earned the AK a bad reputation among American shooters. I, for one, would much rather a factory magazine well over one made by a warehouse worker with a grinder.
Modifying the MAK-90 is a little bit of a challenge. As with an AK, if you want to change a stock type, for example, it requires a lot of messing with the rear trunion, which a lot of people won’t want to do. Similarly, since AKs are often rough copies of one another, furniture from different nations’ weapons will likely require a fair bit of fitting.
With all of that said, if you want a Chinese-made AK47 style weapon in the USA, the MAK 90 is about the best you’re likely to get any time soon, unless by some miracle the international scene changes remarkably and we can import civilian Type 56s in from the People’s Republic.
Honestly, it would be less of a pain to order a brand-new, USA made AK, but if you want a Chinese weapon, which is a little rarer in the USA, then the MAK 90 is an excellent addition to a collection of imported firearms and is more than up to tasks of hunting, self-defense, and even competition shooting in the right hands.
According to the Russians and the Americans, the answer is no. Most people (and the Chinese) would say yes the MAK90 is an AK. And it takes standard AK magazines as well from the factory.
The MAK was designed to meet the importation requirements of the US under a 1989 interpretation of the 1968 Gun Control Act, and thus lacks some of the features of the AK, such as a pistol grip, bayonet lug, or possible folding stock and threaded barrel.
George has been an avid shooter for twenty years. He began shooting when he was gifted a Browning SA-22 for target practice. Now, as an academic, he combines his love of firearms and knowledge of history to write for firearms blogs and is still a frequent sight at the local range.