When you peel back the layers of legendary AK Builder Jim Fuller, you’ll find each layer is full of more profound amounts of passion. Although, the self-proclaimed “simple man” is anything but that. He has lived so many lives, each leading up to the life we’ve all known him in. Jim’s unapologetic, passionate, American spirit is fully displayed in every AK that leaves his hands. Honored does not describe the feeling I had to sit down with this brilliant yet “simple” man.
Jim Fuller Talks AKs
Skillset: When did you decide that “AKs are the thing for me”?
Jim Fuller: When I was in another country doing construction work in Central America. Some of the guys found an AK. That was down in El Salvador’s wartime around 1980. There was a lot of shit going on down there. We were doing temporary electrical power for some camp set up there. One of the people found an AK with a mag in the mud. It had just been dropped or something, and he brought it in. One of the other guys, a Vietnam veteran, said, “That’s an AK. I know what it is.” That was the first time I had ever seen one.
It was caked in mud and looked like shit. It was pretty rusty. He pulled the mag out. It was a loaded mag. “Whoa. Hang on, guys.” He loaded it up and fired it. Holy shit. Fucking gun works! When we returned to LA, I was at Beach Cities Armory and saw Chinese AKs for $189 on the wall. Ammo was like 5¢ a round.
This is a no-brainer. I’m getting this right there, and that was just the beginning. Fuck, this is insane! I knew it wasn’t a super accurate gun but it was more than accurate enough to just to plink with and have fun with, you know. And with ammo that cheap! Everyone went after it, like, “Why don’t you get an AR-15 and shoot brass ammo?” I said I will someday, but I kind of like this. It’s cheap. If I fuck it up, I don’t care.
Times Have Changed
I’ve told the story a lot about when I decided on them because the safety sucks on them. There are many things on them when they are in stock that aren’t very usable. Especially in those days because we didn’t think about stuff in the 80s like that. The first time I went into a gunsmith shop with one of those things, I was about lucky to leave without getting my ass kicked. That was a taboo gun in those days. Think about it: most of the gunsmiths were Vietnam veterans, and they all hated that gun. “Get that gun out of here. That’s a fucking Communist weapon. Get that fuckin’ gun out of my store. Don’t ever fuckin’ come back in here!” “Damn, sorry, dude.” So, I started working on them because no one else would. That first one I fucked up. I learned a couple of things.
Skillset: Had a $200 lesson.
JF: $200 was still a chunk of money back then, but it wasn’t that much compared to an AR-15 that was like $500 then. Plus, I had other things…women to spend money on. A different life, you know. I had to do man stuff, and that cost money.
Skillset: Since starting to smith on AKs in the early 80s, did you come across many different variants where you were like, “Oh, I’ve never seen this before”?
JF: The most that was around was Chinese stuff. Very prevalent. Valmet was around in those days. Hungarian AKs in those days, but those were a lot more expensive. A Valmet at that time was about twice as much as a Chinese one. I remember going into Beach Cities Armory, and they had a Dragonov on the wall. 1 of 100 that was imported. An actual full-length Dragonov and it was $350 bucks. That gun now is about 14 Grand. But still, Chinese AKs were $190. I’m a simple man.
Jim Fuller Builders Classes
Skillset: You’re simple, but you’re passionate. Because you’re passionate about it, the AK World was the first to have Builders Classes.
JF: I was the first one to do it. The first one we did was in North Carolina. I forget what year it was. It would have been around 2008 or 2009. Man, it was crazy. It was 26 people. But they were a lot easier to put on then because, in those days, when you bought a parts kit, the whole front half of the gun was still complete. You didn’t cut up barrels back then. So, basically, all you had to do to build a gun was rivet the receiver and plug the barrel back into it. So, we can do big classes like that. You’re only building half the gun, essentially. Eventually, that had to change because when the “barrel ban” came in, they were cutting up the front ends, too, so you had twice as much work.
Skillset: When was the “Barrel Ban”?
JF: 2010. 2011. Up until that time, all of the parts kits came over with full barrels.
Skillset: And they were cheaper too.
JF: Yup. Much cheaper. We used to buy Romanian parts kits for $99 bucks back when I first started building. And if you bought a bunch of them, they dropped it to about $75. Most of them were factory-packed guns that were never issued and were cut up. The Romanians never went to war, the same with the Polish.
When Poland went NATO, that was the biggest gift to the AK Gun World that could have been. They cut up all those beautiful Polish 7.62 guns and sent the parts kits here. There were millions of them here. Those were some of the best parts we ever had to build AKs with. Then, all of a sudden, they were gone.
Finland just went NATO, and they got all of those RK 62s. But Finland is the kind of people that will squirrel those away in one of their mountain caves and save them for the future. They have been that way for years. They have miles and miles of caves. It’s a complete system because it’s over their fear of the Soviet Union. They built that to hide from the Soviets if they came in. They are packed with everything.
Skillset: Speaking of NATO, what are your thoughts if Ukraine somehow gets into NATO? How will that change the AK scene?
JF: It’s hard to say. I’m more worried about our politics than I am about world politics because we’re really close to being able to make perfect AK parts here. If we can do that, I don’t really care about the rest of the world anymore because I know I can build.
Suppose we can get the last three parts (bolt, front trunnion, and bolt carrier) done, which is an expensive process to make correctly. It’s going to have to be a “Phase 2” thing. We must bring some money in to cover some of the expenses to take that step. But we will. Once we do, I won’t need foreign parts anymore. I want to make my own. I want the first full-spec real AK in this country, and I want my fuckin’ name on it.
Skillset: What is the biggest misconception about building an AK?
JF: We jokingly say that it’s more like blacksmithing than gunsmithing. There’s a little bit of truth to that. You do beat things around with hammers. Use brutal force. Use 12-ton presses. But it’s all controlled stuff. It’s just a different process of building things. The biggest misconception is that it’s easy. It is not.
The one thing that people need to realize is it’s such a well-designed gun that it can be built horribly wrong and still work. So, that’s why people say it’s easy. “Oh, I beat one together.” “How many rounds you got through it?” “A couple of hundred.” “Get back to me when you got 5,000. You won’t get that far.” The difference is ten years in technology. The AR is a product of the 50s and 60s. The AK is a product of the 40s. The technology is ten years older. They didn’t have CNC or reproducible stuff like that or computer-controlled cutting things like we have now. They had to do everything manually.
It’s funny because, in my early 20s, I had an opportunity through North Valley Occupational Center, and Lockheed Martin had a program for people to learn airframe mechanics. It was a six-month program where you were in a classroom for three months learning how to do it, and then you had on-the-job training for three months at Lockheed.
If they liked you at the end, they would offer you a position. They offered me a job, but, at that time, I decided to be an electrician instead, but I learned how to rivet. I learned the basics of aircraft riveting not knowing back then, which translated quite well to building these guns and understanding how it should be done right. That was the biggest thing.
Skillset: What’s your favorite part as an instructor in your Builders Class?
JF: I enjoy the Builders Class because it’s good camaraderie. That’s one of the reasons why I like doing private classes because it’s more intimate, and it’s always someone you want to hang out with. Think about it: who’s going to build an AK? We’ve had a really wide variety of people that came to do that. In the very first class we did in North Carolina, an elderly couple in their 70s were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary by building each other an AK.
It was cool as hell. These people were hardcore Christians and very straight. They thought it would be fun to build each other an AK. Like, how can you not love that? That’s so cute! They were such friendly people. They were so polite. Towards the end of the day, it was a two-day class. The beers would show up, and they were immediately out the door. We’ve had weird little circumstances like that. I’ve had three guys that were terminally ill and did it as a “bucket list.” That’s cool.
Skillset: What’s your favorite variant?
JF: The 105. It is the optimum AK ever made. Without a doubt…until the “Fuller Pattern” comes out. I’m just joking. Kevin (Yang) started calling it the “Fuller Pattern” because there’s differences in there. It’s not a standard AK. No doubt.
Skillset: What inspires you to continue building some of the best quality AKs on the market besides your passion?
JF: More than anything, I just see the AK declining instead of getting better. There was a time when I was busy with RD (Rifle Dynamics), and we were constantly trying to make it a better gun. “Let’s try this to see if it makes more.” “Let’s do this now.” “Okay, we’re going to offer this.” It elevated everything. I blame it a lot on the influencer side of things. I walk that with a fine line because some of these guys are pretty damn good. For instance, you know, Mike Jones (Garand Thumb).
I know Mike really well. He’s a good man. He’s a very smart man. Yes, he’s a big-time influencer, but you know what? He’s legit. He’s not a poser. Whereas there are plenty of others that just really are. They parrot what other people say and are really not experts in anything. Half of those people are just fuckin’ idiots, and they’ve drawn so much garbage into this industry by saying stupid shit and people believing what they say. We used to try to teach people how to use guns to fight. Now, everyone sees, “I wanna look cool and do mag dumps on Instagram.” Maybe I’m just being old.
Skillset: The purpose behind shooting is the skill and craftsmanship behind it. Some of the influencers out there are taking away from that.
JF: These influencers are given poorly made AKs, which will last the first mag dump, usually recorded, and break on the second or third one, but they will still push it because of money. The patriot in me and the guy that believes in self-defense, I don’t want to tell somebody that they have a cheap piece of shit. I want to tell somebody that a gun is okay as long as you don’t overuse it. If you can afford that, get that and be happy with it.
I usually tell people to buy a WASR. You can get one for $900 bucks, and, honestly, that’s a 100,000-round gun. You’ll have to rebarrel it. The barrel’s the weak point but the gun will go 100,000 rounds if you keep rebarreling it. I know because I’ve done it. “Buster” (personal AK-105 build) is at 70,000. My old Krink went to 120,000 rounds with 5 barrels.
Politics in the AK World
Skillset: How has the Russian Ban affected the US AK community?
JF: It took it a long time to hurt us. It went into effect about two years ago. 7.62 is still around. It’s the other calibers that…5.45 is getting crazy. 7.62x54R is the same. Unfortunately, my PKM… it’s hard to find food for that. 7.62 is still hanging in there. Most of the 5.45 is going to the war. We’re getting 7.62 from so many different countries. We really didn’t need Russia. The country of Belarus’s whole existence is to black-market the shit out of Russia. They don’t have any other industry there. They have warehouses to store stuff that comes out of Russia. It just sits there long enough to become goods on the open market.
Skillset: You and Karen (Fuller) started RD (Rifle Dynamics) in 2007. Why did you step away from it in 2017?
JF: I sold it in ’17. I actually left in ’19 because I was on a contract. Our directions just went different ways. I think it was for the best.
Skillset: You landed in Phoenix with Travis Haley. How did you meet him? By the way, there’s a running joke that you both are related, and no one wants to say anything.
JF: It’s actually rather funny. It was after he left Magpul; I remember I was home one day doing some social media or something like that. I think it was a direct message on Facebook from Travis. Travis Haley? What the fuck?! This is a fuckin’ joke. What the fuck does an AR guy want to talk to me for? I ignored it. He sent another one. He was like, “This is Travis Haley. Are you the guy that built this gun?”
SWAT Magazine did an article on some 5.56 AKs I built for law enforcement and never sold them, but it was an attempt to make a law enforcement AK. But they did an article on it. He saw that. The design of those guns was basically the original 501 design at RD. I messaged him back like, “Who the fuck are you?” He said, “Nah, dude, really. It’s Travis Haley. Here’s my number. Call me.” I dialed the number, and it was fuckin’ Travis Haley.
“Ah. Okay. It’s nice to meet you, but why are you calling me?” “I want an AK like that, but in 5.45.” “Okay, but you’re like an AR guy.” “No, I’m not. My first gun was an AK. I’m an AR guy because I worked for Magpul. AKs are not Magpul. I don’t work for Magpul anymore, so I want an AK. I’ve looked at what’s out there, and you’re building the most forward-thinking stuff. When I saw that gun you built, I wanted to know if you could build that in 5.45 because that’s the caliber I want to run.
Skillset: A video of you playing guitar at this year’s IDARM (Independence Day Action Rifle Match by Independence Training) is floating around. What inspired you to start playing the guitar?
JF: In the 80s, I played guitar in primarily nightclubs. I’ve been out of the music industry for a really long time. I didn’t even listen to music for a long time. I’ve been busy raising my kids. I just wasn’t interested in it. I left the music industry with a bad taste in my mouth, and Didn’t listen to music all the way through the early 90s. Zoltan (Five Finger Death Punch) brought me back into it. I started to listen to [Five Finger Death Punch]. Like fuck, these guys are good. I’m not saying that because I know the dude, but they are actually good. I was like, I need to listen to music again. I’m missing out. I’m inspired again, so I thank Zoltan for that.
Skillset: What are you doing to preserve your legacy in the AK World?
JF: Um, I’m training a couple of guys right now that I have incredibly…a lot of faith in. Ben (Vigil) down there has just been amazing. To be honest with you, there are a lot of things that I can’t do that well anymore. I’m having some issues with my hands and vision, and Ben has been a godsend. He carries that passion. Ben is the guy. He’ll continue to build stuff. Travis will also do it too. I got my book coming out. Legacy? Who knows? This country may not be around in a couple of years.
Jim Fuller, the Author
Skillset: You said your book is coming out, but what would the name of your autobiography be?
JF: “A Fuller Life”
Skillset: That’s so awesome!
JF: It was Travis’ idea. I’m not that smart. The original idea was “Lessons Learned”. [Travis] said, “Naw, man. It is not about lessons. It’s about your life. It’s Fuller.”
“Minute of Man”
History of the AK-47
“It’s about the people”, Jim Fuller said. “It’s a tool for people. Just like Mikhail said, he built a gun for his country and his people. He built a simple gun for his people to use. I believe in that.”
In late 1941 to early 1942, recovering from a war-related shoulder injury, Mikhail Kalashnikov began to design the most widely used fighting rifles outside of the United States. After several prototypes with unwavering reliability, the Avtomat Kalashnikova was born in 1947. Hence the name AK-47. It was later adopted by the Soviet armed forces a couple of years later. Since then, the design of the platform and the primary caliber, 7.62×39, have evolved over the decades, with more countries producing the platform with their own nuances.
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