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Mikhail Kalashnikov’s AK-47 – The gun that changed the battlefield forever

Goran Blazeski

The AK-47 was designed after the end of World War II by the Soviet Union. Its name in Russian is “Avtomat Kalashnikova, ”in honor of its automatic firing capabilities and its principal designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov. The number “47” stands for the year 1947, when trials started for the version of the rifle that was finally approved for adoption by the Soviet Armed Forces soon after.

The AK-47 has become one of the weapons of choice for many groups and one of the most commonly smuggled weapons in the world. It’s known as the most successful assault rifle in human history. It is indisputably the most produced and iconic firearm design of all time.

A Type 2 AK-47, the first machined receiver variation

A Type 2 AK-47, the first machined receiver variation

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born on November 10, 1919, into a peasant family, and went on to become a Lieutenant-General in the Soviet Army, a Hero of the State, and one of the most famous firearms designers in history. He developed the famous AK-47 assault rifle. At first, he was a tank mechanic and later he became a tank commander during World War II. After that, he was reassigned to a small-arms design group where he developed the iconic rifle.

The Kalashnikov was designed for soldiers who had to endure terrible conditions on the battlefield. The AK-47 was a lightweight rifle with moderate recoil that was easy to wield and that still placed tremendous firepower into the hands of individual soldiers. It needed to work in wet, dry and muddy conditions. It took Kalashnikov until 1947 to perfect his design to the point where it would begin to proliferate through the Russian army. Thus, the AK-47 was born.

Mikhail Kalashnikov at the Kremlin, December 2009. Photo Credit

Mikhail Kalashnikov at the Kremlin, December 2009. Photo Credit

As Larry Kahaner has pointed out, the AK-47 “was so simple, and yet so revolutionary, that it would change the way wars were fought and won. The AK-47 has become the world’s most prolific and effective combat weapon, a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for less than the cost of a live chicken. Depicted on the flag and currency of several countries, waved by guerrillas and rebels everywhere, the AK is responsible for about a quarter-million deaths every year. It is the firearm of choice for at least 50 legitimate standing armies and countless fighting forces from Africa and the Middle East to Central America and Los Angeles. It has become a cultural icon, its signature form — that banana-shaped magazine — defining in our consciousness the contours of a deadly weapon.” 

C.J. Chivers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent for The New York Times, has encountered the Kalashnikov while reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq. His new book, The Gun, traces the migration of the AK-47 across the world, detailing the consequences of its spread.

Viet Cong soldier armed with an AK-47, standing beneath the flag of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam

Viet Cong soldier armed with an AK-47, standing beneath the flag of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam

There is a famous story about the American Army Colonel and military journalist David Hackworth coming across the body of a Russian soldier that had been dead and buried in mud for more than a year. He dragged the soldier’s AK-47 out of the earth, pointed it at the sky and fired a clean 30 rounds without even dusting it off.

In Vietnam, the American soldiers were armed with the American M-16 assault rifle but there are cases where US troops would often throw away their slick, sophisticated firearms and pick up any AK-47 they could get their hands on from dead enemy soldiers. With all the money and technology that Americans had at that time, they still couldn’t build a better gun than the cheap, simple communist Kalashnikov.