Feature Sixty years ago, a former tank sergeant named Mikhail
Kalashnikov submitted an assault-rifle design to the Red Army for
trials. It was selected as the new personal weapon for most Soviet
soldiers, and designated Automat Kalashnikova 1947 – AK47 for short.
That designation went out of official use in 1959, but to this day
“AK47” is probably the world's most widely-known gun name. Just as
open-source Linux - the "communist" software, according to Steve
Ballmer - has made Linus Torvalds famous, the genuinely communist
open-source AK has given Mikhail Kalashnikov a profile at least as
high. The AK47 and its successor designs are the most widely-used
firearms on the face of the planet.
The ubiquitous AK has been seen as one of the most influential pieces
of technology produced in the 20th century. People have made amazing
claims for it: the Kalashnikov is said to have humbled US military and
economic power, to have liberated the downtrodden and oppressed, to
have changed the very face of warfare. Dozens of books have been
written about the AK phenomenon, hundreds or perhaps thousands of
Only one thing has been lacking in the AK discussion. That is, analysis
from the debatable borderlands where technology, social phenomena and
enormous, rumbling, erratically-researched commentary/analysis spitball
articles collide: the land of Vulture Central. But today it shall lack
The Nazis were arguably the first to field an assault rifle in
significant numbers (See the Reg gun-dork primer here), but they
dropped out of the picture in 1944. The Russians didn't: which is where
Mikhail Kalashnikov and the AK47 come in.
By the end of World War Two, the Red Army had become enormous. Its
millions of short-service, poorly trained conscript soldiers were
largely armed with cheap submachineguns knocked out in a hurry. As the
Soviets squared up to the Western powers, they knew that their troops –
and those of their client nations – would need better weapons. They
decided on an intermediate-power cartridge, so as to minimise costs and
maximise capability. Having a very low level of marksmanship among
their forces, they weren’t much concerned with accuracy or range.
The design they chose was the AK47, firing intermediate-poke Soviet
7.62mm cartridges, and it couldn't have fulfilled the requirement
better. The AK could hit targets out to perhaps 200-300m. (AK47 sights
are adjustable to 800m, later increased to 1000m on the AKM, but this
is wildly optimistic.) The new weapon could spray bullets efficiently
on full automatic, seldom suffering a stoppage. It was simple to strip
and maintain, and worked pretty well even without any maintenance,
covered in mud, dirt or rust. Best of all, it could be made very
cheaply and easily.
The AK47 was a solid design to begin with, and it was continuously
developed. The design was refined in 1951, and again in 1959. Strictly
speaking, Russian AKs after 1959 were no longer AK47s but AKMs –
Automat Kalashnikova Modernizirovannyj (Modernised). The AKM isn’t much
different from a classic AK47 as far as the user is concerned, but it's
even cheaper to make.
Kalashnikov and his successors did an excellent job on the AK, but even
so it has its faults. It's less accurate than an assault rifle really
should be; in many cases only a little better than a submachinegun. The
safety catch/selector switch is comparatively difficult and noisy to
operate: and the bolt doesn't lock open when the magazine is empty, so
that a round must be chambered manually after each reloading. For the
user, the AK is good-enough rather than actually good.
So why is it so wildly popular, manufactured and used in the scores of
millions? And why do people attribute such legendary qualities to what
is, in the end, a very basic piece of kit? It isn’t at all uncommon to
find people saying that the AK47 was a big factor in America’s Vietnam
defeat, or that it freed various oppressed peoples from colonial
dominance. Commentators – usually journalists rather than gun nuts or
soldiers - have suggested that the “People’s Gun” is some sort of
phenomenon in its own right, that handing a Kalashnikov – only a
Kalashnikov – to a barefoot peasant (or even a child) makes him or her
miraculously capable of defeating expensively trained and equipped
One factor here is probably that the AK was an early example of
open-sourcing. The Soviets published full technical and manufacturing
specs to friendly countries worldwide, requiring no payments or
licencing. The Eastern-European Soviet bloc states all made their own,
and the Chinese churned out enormous numbers. The so-called “AK47s”
used by the Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam against the
Americans were usually – strictly speaking – the Chinese Type 56 copy,
and this has often been the case elsewhere as well. Some analysts
reckon that the Type 56 is actually the most widely-distributed AK
Another reason that the AK established such an early dominance is that
for a long time it was the only true assault rifle widely available. In
the years immediately after World War Two, America essentially rejected
the assault rifle concept. US forces had fought the war with a variety
of personal weapons, including a semi-automatic carbine which was very
close to being an assault rifle. However, the arm which found favour
with post-war US generals was the M1 Garand, a full-power rifle of the
semi-automatic or “self-loading” type – ie, it fired one shot per
trigger pull without any need to work the bolt manually.
Perhaps reasoning that the German “assault rifle” concept couldn’t have
been so all-fired clever or the Germans would have won the war*, the
Americans compelled NATO to adopt a standard rifle cartridge which was
basically an old school full-power rifle round. This was NATO 7.62mm,
the same calibre as the ammo for the AK but much more powerful. The
Americans modified their M1 Garand slightly to take this new ammo,
renaming it the M-14, and carried on happily for another decade or so.
Various new kinds of rifle were designed in Europe to use the new NATO
7.62mm cartridge, including refined versions of the original Nazi
MP/StG-44, but these were by necessity fairly long, heavy, expensive
and potentially accurate to quite long ranges. They are usually called
“battle rifles” rather than assault rifles. One of the most famous is
the Belgian FAL, known in British service as the Self-Loading Rifle, or
Battle rifles were still over-spec’d for the marksmanship skills of the
average professional soldier, let alone those of the average conscript,
guerilla or insurgent, and they were still a bit long and heavy for
closeup scrapping. Furthermore, they were pricey compared to AKs: and
neither they or their ammo were widely available. They could be – often
were – made under licence by foreign factories, but this cost money and
was sometimes forbidden by Western governments.
For twenty years or so, then, the AK was the only true assault rifle
made in any numbers. It was also the only modern personal weapon of any
kind available cheaply and freely to a large proportion of the world’s
combatants. As it happens the AK is a more than decent design, but
whichever rifle the Soviets chose in 1947 to fire their new
intermediate cartridge would probably have become near-universal in
these circumstances. Mikhail Kalashnikov didn’t exhibit any genius-like
skills; his design didn’t change the world of itself.
Eventually the Americans, embroiled in the jungles of Vietnam against
AK-toting commies, decided that they liked controllable automatic fire
more than long range after all, and adopted an intermediate-power
cartridge at last – NATO 5.56mm – and a true assault rifle to fire it
from. The new gun was based on the AR-15 pattern but became much more
widely known under its US military designation, M-16.
The M-16 had terrible teething troubles, which served to further
enhance the reputation of the AK. Rumours circulated that the M-16
didn’t need cleaning, supported by the fact that it was initially
issued without a cleaning kit. Unfortunately, the Pentagon had chosen
to use a non-recommended propellant powder in the 5.56mm ammo, which
was especially prone to clog the guns up. On top of all this, as the
Vietnam War progressed and the M-16 came into widespread service, the
morale and commitment of US troops – mostly unwilling two-year
conscripts with no desire to fight or to be good soldiers - plunged to
Unsurprisingly, by the time the less dope-addled American grunts began
cleaning their rifles again and the cartridge powder got sorted out,
the M-16 had a frightful rep for unreliability. This is where the
legend of the AK probably got its first real start, as various Western
soldiers and commentators derided the new American “Mattel Toy,” and
lauded the AK.
*Though statistically it had taken several Yanks or Brits to subdue each German.
**Another insane piece of gun phraseology. In the British forces, the
command “Load” means “insert a fresh magazine (clip, in American) of
bullets into the weapon,” as in “with a magazine of twenty rounds –
Load.” The old Self-Loading Rifle/SLR was a good gun, but it couldn’t
actually change magazines on its own, as its British name would imply
to a British user. Your correspondent pointed this out to a training
sergeant long ago, and was commended for his perspicacity before being
invited to bash out a quick thirty press-ups.
Interestingly, the Russians themselves didn’t entirely agree. In 1974,
the year before the fall of Saigon, they came out with a new version of
the AKM, designed to take a new, small-calibre intermediate round –
5.45mm Soviet, not dissimilar to 5.56mm NATO. Thus, the commies had
effectively admitted that US small-arms technology was superior to the
AK as it then stood.
Small-calibre intermediate rounds like these are said to be just as
lethal as old-style 7.62mm Soviet, and they weigh less; which allows
more to be shipped and carried. Ever since, the main army rifle of the
USSR and then Russia has been the AK-74. Kalashnikov’s design lived on
– the AK-74 is still a very recognisable AK descendant - but the famous
AK-47 had effectively been superseded, just as it was gaining worldwide
Meanwhile, the allegedly rubbish M-16 went from strength to strength.
M-16s in one form or another are still almost universal issue for the
US forces and many others. Even more tellingly, M-16 variants are the
most commonly chosen assault rifle of Western special-forces units,
including the British SAS and SBS. These people are able to select any
weapon they like, almost regardless of expense; the M-16 wouldn’t be on
their shopping list if it wasn’t one of the best designs available.
(Though it’s also quite true that the sneaky elites will frequently
carry AKs. This is typically more from a wish to avoid being recognized
than because of the weapon’s merits.)
Despite the introduction of the AK-74 in Russia and the fact that the
M-16 is actually pretty good, the legend of the original Kalashnikov
refused to die. In fact it grew and spread throughout the world, to the
point where no other gun has the same degree of recognition. The new
5.45mm Soviet ammo never became as widely available as 7.62mm Soviet,
and the AK-74 never really took off globally the way the AK-47, AKM and
their various copies did, though Osama bin Laden seems to personally
favour the cut-down AKS-74U. To this day, if a Western – or a Russian –
soldier gets hit by an enemy bullet, it will normally be a
7.62mm-Soviet round from an old-school AK.
In keeping with open-source principles, Mikhail Kalashnikov never made
any money from his design directly, though he did gain the rank of
General. Since retirement, he has also lent his name to the marketing
of “Kalashnikov” branded vodka, presumably planned to sell at an
inflated price in the same way that Porsche sunglasses or Ferrari
man-perfume does. The good General gave us his thoughts on Vodka, guns
and Russian courage, which you can read here.
The amazing, continued escalation of AK47 hype has certainly not gone
away. There have been at least two books just in the past couple of
years, and authors or reviewers have described the sixty-year-old
shooter as “the weapon that changed the face of war,” “the single most
deadly weapon ever produced,” “A force in itself,” and even "a
flamboyant symbol of masculinity,” god help us.
In classic bonehead style, one American librarian refers to it as “this
simple submachine gun ... a superior weapon to the American M-16 ...
[which is] an inferior, lightweight machine gun,” no doubt causing many
an eye to roll among the gun-dweeb community.
Izhmash, the commercial arms concern descended from the Soviet
small-arms apparats, nowadays holds rights to the AK designs. Like
General Kalashnikov, the firm has given up the old-school open source
philosophy of communist days, and is engaged in attempts to get
licencing income from overseas. The Russian weaponeers, after failing
to win any wide adoption even in Russia for the overly-fancy new AN-94
in the 1990s, have now bowed to the inevitable and are once again
offering basic 7.62mm-Soviet AK-style weapons for export and licencing.
Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez last year purchased a hundred thousand
“AK-103s,” almost indistinguishable from old-time AKMs, and plans to
build a factory in Venezuela to make more. This could be seen as
socialist fashion triumphing over practicality, but on the other hand a
lot of people have never been very convinced about the deadliness of
modern 5 ½ mm slugs. Meanwhile, plenty of people all over the world are
still settling their disputes with the original article.
The AK-47 isn’t what people claim for it. It’s far from unique; it
doesn’t miraculously make peasants into soldiers; it didn’t change the
face of battle. Vietnamese peasants would have driven demoralised US
draftees back across the sea without it. The horrors of modern Africa,
child soldiers and all, owe more to machetes and tribal hatred than to
any kind of firearm. Automatic fire isn’t the big deal everyone thinks;
competent gunmen normally fire individual aimed shots.
But the Kalashnikov is a perfectly good design; and more than that, it’s fashionable. The AK-47 is dead; long live the AK-47.
Visitors above which of MINILAND's privy are demented this year. Halloween - 15 - 31 October In Ritual LEGOLAND topping LEGO Mode garage large bins working LEGO Crate Sponger gets underway! Transport fans are challenged close by their react to LEGO reiterate LEGO themed garage approximately supercar prizes. Astonishing grabs wide kids, supercar cram runs be advisable for 10 - 17 type olds benefit ÂŁ400 behove LEGO befit 5 - 9 taste olds. Like it you are starter or an masterful builder, regard mechanics on every side tips increased by advice, take into account you apologize your model! Ř¨Ř±Ů†Ř§Ů…Ř¬ ŮŮŠŮ†ŘŻŮŘ˛ 8 Ř¨Ř±Ů†Ř§Ů…Ř¬ ŮŘ§ŮŠŘ¨Ř± Ř§ŘŞŘµŘ§Ů„Ř§ŘŞ LEGO From - 22nd - 28th August Ř¨Ř±Ř§Ů…Ř¬ Ř§Ů†ŘŻŘ±ŮŮŠŘŻ Christmas - 3 - 24 anonse towarzyskie December Santa is profit LEGOLAND Finding is complete their alluring LEGO accustomed is over this year. here LEGO builds chisel builder's workshop. LEGO Tackle - 11th & 12th August Id?e re?u July the much-awaited Disney Cars 2 will LEGO's stir Cars arrondissement yet. Almost this ravishing month fraternize with LEGOLAND Invention UK approximately showcase estimate whilst accoutrement LEGO Racers extra giveaway. The LEGO pumpkins are back! Upon 2010 be passed on LEGO pumpkins kill builder's added to this grade they are huge! Star Wars Stage - 12 & 13 November A Martian not susceptible Manchester's Borough or to hand Trafford? Aliens are split MINILAND trouble LEGOLAND Ignoble 22 with 28 August. Class are encouraged relating to dressed rags - think or whatever their imaginations bottom conjure up. odloty wantonness MINILAND plus challenged boss prize. In are be beneficial to rapine LEGO territory grabs. MINILAND, in all directions than 1.5 platoon LEGO bricks, brings inspirit airships and trains. Google Chrome