The AK-47 is “simply” the best weapon for “firepower on a budget”.
This quote is coming from a person who prefers the AR family of weapons. Being a respected gun enthusiast, three friends recently asked me for advice on this very same question. Here is the advice I gave them regarding these two types of rifles and their decision:
The AR platform is versatile and can be modified as your skill set, purpose or budget change. Although, the principle design of the AR rifles are the same as its original inception (1950s), they have been substantially improved over the years and so has the ammunition. There is a myriad of choices today regarding AR’s from calibers, barrels, gas operation or piston and etc. making the decision about the AR platform as complicated as choosing between an AK and AR type rifle. Nevertheless, I suspect the question you want answered is what are the comparative advantages of these two rifles and how much will they cost?
First time buyers looking for an AR should purchase a “QUALITY” AR-15 from a reputable manufacture chambered in 5.56 NATO. You should expect to pay upward of $800. Purchasing a low quality AR or building an AR from a kit for a "first-time buyer" will spell disaster and cost you money later. The benefits you get from purchasing a completed rifle are the MFG warranty and assurance of a properly configured and functioning rifle (which you can later modify). I can guarantee that any owner of a quality built AR will tell you without regrets that it is well worth the additional cash. If you don’t have the money for a quality AR DON’T buy one!
The benefits of the AR-15 are well known. They are lighter ergonomic rifles that are modular, accurate & precise with low recoil. In addition the 5.56 NATO round has a flatter trajectory which enables less experienced shooters to hit their targets with less compensation for bullet drop. At the range this means you will have a competitive advantage in hitting smaller or further targets than a counter-part with an AK-47. In a firefight, this translates to quicker shot succession with an advantage of hitting a partially concealed adversary (which should be expected). After all, putting lead on your target first is what wins a firefight not ballistic superiority. Lastly, with “tender-loving-care” the AR-15 is just as reliable and dependable as the AK-47.
Where the AR-15 has finesse, the AK-47 makes up the difference with its sheer simplicity, ruggedness and affordability. Despite, the accuracy and recoil disadvantages, the AK-47 will still deliver lead on the target almost as fast as the AR-15. The reason is that most firefight scenarios happen within the effective range of the AK-47. (This will be especially true for home defense or SHTF situations.)
The AK-47 also has a significant ballistic advantage over the AR-15 (at the cost of slightly increased recoil). The advantage is the 7.62x39mm round which can penetrate soft-to-medium barriers with less deflection than the 5.56. This is important in an urban environment as you may be required to shoot at adversaries in vehicles, behind brush, fences and etc. Basically, in close range firefights between the AK-47 and AR-15 you will be on equal terms with the "trump card" being training & marksmanship skills. However, the greater the distance the greater the advantage will be for an adversary armed with an AR-15.
Nevertheless, the biggest advantage the AK-47 has is that the ammunition, magazines and rifle are significantly cheaper than a “quality” AR. (A year ago a good AK could be purchased for about $250 - $300 now they are around $450 - $600 due to a spike in demand based on the election). Despite the spike in price I don’t think there are many firearms that can compare to the amount of firepower per dollar that the AK delivers.
In conclusion what did my three friends decide on? Two purchased AKs and the other an AR-15. All three are happy with their decisions.
What is my choice for a go-to rifle? That would be my AR-10 which is chambered for 7.62 x 51mm NATO and set me back just over $3,500 for my configuration. (Sticker shock is the price you pay for quality optics!)
BTW: I didn’t mention the SKS because you said you didn’t want junk (although they are cheap avoid the temptation!). The AK is unquestionably the superior rifle compared to the SKS.