Has there ever been a more famous – or should I say infamous – combination of letters and numbers? The AK-47, or Avtomat Kalashnikova to give it its official title, has become the most widely used piece of weaponry on the planet with between 75 and 100 million produced since 1949 – that’s roughly one for every 75 to 100 people on earth.
Sadly this is a gun that has had a nasty habit of finding its way into the most atrocious of conflicts over the last seventy years. Its rugged dependability has made it a favourite for many an insurgency, terrorist organisation, drug cartel and is today still used by countless governments across the world
This is the story of a gun that changed the way we fight, and one that has brought power, prestige and untold misery to millions. In terms of technological achievement, the AK-47 is in a world of its own. Never in history has a piece of weaponry been so mass-produced and so adored by so many. There’s nothing flashy about it, just a solid reliable gun that can often be bought for an absurdly low price with no questions asked.
World War II
Envy can push people to extraordinary levels – and so was the case with the birth of the AK-47 – or as the story goes at least. I’ve added that slight disclaimer because as with many of the heroic tales which tended to appear out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, this one too has a slightly hazy, yet glorious backstory. The USSR was the undisputed king of twisting myth and reality until it was impossible to distinguish the two and the legend that is the AK-47 is just that.
Anyway, the story of the AK-47 starts during World War II. As the Nazis began rampaging across the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, a few things were becoming clear to the desperate Soviet forces trying to halt the bulldozing blitzkrieg. Not only was the leadership structure an absolute shambles at that point, thanks in no small part to Stalin’s purges during the 1930s, but the soldiers defending the motherland were hopelessly ill-equipped compared to their German counterparts.
There are epic stories of Soviet forces charging German lines sometimes with only a single gun for every two or three men, a situation that would have been inconceivable to the Germans. Quite remarkably, the Soviets held on and eventually began inflicting Hitler’s first large-scale defeats. As they drove the Nazis back from Moscow and then St Petersburg, the motherland had been saved, but their success had been down to numbers, the terrible Russian winter and some awful military decisions by Adolf Hitler. Their technology compared to the Germans, with the exception of some of their tanks, was still incredibly poor.
The Soviets had been hugely impressed with the German Sturmgewehr 44, the first successful assault rifle, which had been used with great success on the eastern front. In response, the Soviets quickly produced their version, the SKS, which was designed in 1944 but didn’t enter service until the following year when the war was almost at a close. This was an upgrade on what Soviet forces had been using beforehand but came with several limitations, namely its 10 round limit and the fact that it wasn’t fully automatic. For the briefest of periods, it was the standard-issue gun for Soviet forces, until it was usurped by a gun that would eventually spread to all corners of the globe.
As far as curious contradictions go, the fact that the man who designed the most popular gun the world has ever seen was also a poet who wrote 6 books, is right up there. Mikhail Kalashnikov was born in 1919, the 17th or 19 children. During Stalin’s destructive reorganisation plans of the 1930s, he and his family were deported from their home in Kurya in southern Russia to Tomsk Oblast, further north.
Once he was a teenager he made his way back to his home and eventually began working in a weapons design bureau. In 1938 he was conscripted into the Red Army, first as a tank mechanic, but rose quickly and by 1941 he had attained the rank of tank commander.
In October 1941, as the Battle of Bryansk raged around him, his tank was hit and the young Kalashnikov was evacuated to hospital, where he spent the next six months recuperating. It was here, according to the glorious annals of Soviet Russia, that Kalashnikov overheard his fellow wounded comrades complaining about the dire weaponry they were using compared to the well-equipped German forces. Then and there, he decided he would design a gun that would match that of his nation’s enemies.
Things didn’t exactly happen all at once. Once discharged from the army he set about designing a sub-machine gun which was passed over by his superiors in favour of the SKS. His second attempt, which borrowed from the American M-1 Garand rifle, was also rejected but formed the basis of his entry into an assault rifle design competition in 1946 – yes, that really was a thing. His winning entry was known as the Mikhtim and it was this design that revolutionised everything.
The weapon that Kalashnikov submitted in 1946 was known as the AK-1, with another variant referred to as, you’ve got it, the AK-2. This was a gas-operated rifle that came with a curved 30-round magazine. Located above the barrel was a short-stroke gas piston and the gun also came with a breech-block mechanism, which closed the gun’s breech (end of the barrel) moments after it was fired.
It also came with a rotary bolt (a small bolt that essentially locks the bullet in place just before firing) and a two-part receiver (a receiver is firearm talk for parts of a weapon that house internal action components, such as the hammer, bolt and firing pin). These two receivers would later be combined into one, a change which many attribute the weapons’ famous reliability to. It also came with dual controls, meaning that there were separate switches for the safety and the fire selector. By 1946, Kalashnikov had a weapon that was streaks ahead of other submissions – but the design still wasn’t quite right.
In November 1947, a new model emerged. Sleeker and more reliable, much of this new design was recommended by Kalashnikov’s assistant Aleksandr Zaitsev who persuaded him to incorporate the two receivers into one and do the same with the safety and fire selector which was now included on the same switch.
This significantly simplified the design while also making it much easier to produce quickly. The gun was trialled extensively with the army, who immediately took a shine to it and in 1949, it was officially incorporated into the Red Army where it became an immediate favourite.
This is a weapon that has gone on to be adapted and tinkered with for decades now, but let’s begin with the original version that appeared in the late 1940s. The first Ak-47s weighed just 3.47 kg (7.7 lb) – which is lighter than your average domestic cat – and came with only 8 moving parts inside, which made cleaning and maintaining it quick and easy. Its fixed wooden stock measured 880mm (35 inches) in length with a barrel length of 415mm (16.3 inches).
It fired 7.62×39mm shells at a rate of 600 per minute. Now, I know what you’re thinking, with only 30 rounds per magazine you’re going to get through that incredibly quickly. And yes, you’re absolutely right. Using the gun in fully automatic mode the shooter would find themselves out of ammo in the blink of an eye – which is why it was generally used in semi-automatic mode. One of the brilliant last-minute design changes was to place the semi-automatic selector at the bottom, with automatic and then safety above it, rather than in order of rate of fire. This meant that in flash its user could go from safety to the bullet conserving semi-automatic mode.
This brings us to a few other design factors that would make it hugely popular around the world. The gun’s recoil was fairly mellow (as far as guns go) which meant that it didn’t need to be used by a large-battle hardened soldier capable of controlling a huge recoil. Its intermediate-range shells meant that it couldn’t hit distances far away (its effective range was 350 metres (380 yds), but their lightweight meant that soldiers could carry more of them into battle. In any case, it was soon found that for use in urban fighting situations, it was much better to have something like the Ak-47 rather than a more powerful rifle with a further range that required heavier shells and came with the kind of recoil that leaves a bruise.
In short, the AK-47 was perfect for smaller soldiers fighting in close combat situations – and has even been referred to as being“soldier-proof” to demonstrate its ease of use. And this brings us to one of the more disturbing aspects of this weapon. It’s so light and easy to use, it could be fired by a child, and sadly in some parts of the world that is exactly what’s happened. Over the years countless images have emerged from across the globe showing child soldiers often gripping an AK-47. With their small stature, it is one of the few weapons that they can handle easily and with an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 child soldiers operating around the world, it puts the weapon of the 20th Century in a very dark light.
While we tend to use the blanket name AK-47, that’s often not at all accurate. It’s probably best to refer to them under the umbrella, ‘Kalashnikov’ family as there have been countless variations along the way. Going through them all would no doubt be informative, but hardly riveting viewing, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll keep it to the highlights.
The first major change came with the AKM which appeared in 1959. This was an even more simplified model which made mass-production ever easier. The overall weight was reduced by 1 kg (2.2 lb), while the accuracy when firing in automatic mode was improved along with other minor reliability issues. It’s thought that just over 10 million were produced in the Soviet Union until 1977.
The AK-74 was introduced in 1974 and again improved accuracy while also improving its effective range. That being said, 50% of the gun is exactly the same as the AKM, which shows that most changes were smaller tweaks. The gun was first used by Soviet forces during the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, where the CIA reportedly offered $50,000 for the first retrieved AK-74, which they were no doubt interested in studying.
If you think things may have tailed off after the fall of the Soviet Union, then think again. Russia has continued the evolution of the AK, all the way up to the present day with the AK-12. This very much feels like a next-generation AK, with a firing range of 800 metres (890 yards) and significant ergonomic improvements, including a lightweight shoulder stock and better grip. It can also fire a broader range of shells that makes it more adaptable, but much of the essence of the gun has stayed the same since 1947.
The Gun that Took Over the World
The spread of Kalashnikovs around the world has made them an extraordinary success, but also the bringer of death to millions. If we want to talk about the biggest military killers, it’s easy to think about the atomic bombs that hit Japan, but those numbers pale in comparison to those who have died staring down the barrel of a Kalashnikov.
Exact numbers are of course impossible to gauge, but look at almost every significant (or even small scale conflict) after World War II, and some variation of the Kalashnikov has been present. From the Vietnam War to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, from Somalia to Yugoslavia, from the Congo to the Syrian Civil War still ongoing, the Kalashnikovs have played a key role. Every year, it’s believed at least 100,000 die of injuries inflicted by Kalashnikovs (or rather by the person holding the Kalashnikov) but that number could be considerably higher.
It’s not surprising that these weapons developed an almost symbolic revolutionary aura to them, especially during the Cold War. Whether rebels were fighting the Capitalist U.S or Communist Soviet Union, they invariably did so with Kalashnikovs. To give you an idea of just how important this weapon has been to some, Mozambique, East Timor, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso have all incorporated an image of it on their national flag. While around 50 standing armies around the world currently use Kalashnikovs for their soldiers.
Nowadays it’s often not completely clear where the guns have even come from, because not only is it the most sold weapon on the planet, it’s also the most copied. Its simplicity has made the design easy to replicate and countries around the world are now producing their own versions. Twenty countries currently (and officially) make Kalashnikovs, with China being the largest manufacturer – though it’s not exactly clear how many.
Do Guns Kill People or Do People Kill People?
This is a topic that regularly riles, but spare a thought for good old Mikhail Kalashnikov. Had he been born in the United States, he most likely would have made a fortune from the patent of his design. However, being born in the Soviet Union meant that he never received any extra money for his design and continued to be paid the standard Soviet wage even after the gun became a global phenomenon. But if that irked him, it was not the matter that troubled him as he neared his death in 2013. In a letter to the Russian Catholic Church, he wrote,
“The pain in my soul is unbearable. I keep asking myself the same unsolvable question: If my assault rifle took people’s lives, that means that I am responsible for their deaths.”
The AK-47 and its offspring are still causing carnage around the world, with cases of them being purchased for as little as $10. The going price is typically higher, perhaps $100 to $300, but it’s still ridiculously cheap for a hugely successful killing machine. Those selling guns often hide behind the statement that a person needs to make the conscious decision to pull the trigger – guns don’t kill people, people kill people – but with some of the poorest, most desperate people in the world readily supplied with Kalishovos and fighting in wars that external forces often tend to antagonise for their own benefit, it’s a difficult ethos to completely align with. People are certainly responsible for killing other people, but does it have to be so absurdly easy?