On the 23rd of December 2013, legendary inventor of the AK-47 Mikhail Kalashnikov died of old age. During the second world war, after being hospitalised due to combat wounds, Kalashnikov supposedly overheard fellow Soviet soldiers complaining about their rifles. Being a mechanical engineer, he decided to develop a new Russian rifle: the AK-47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova), or simply called the Kalashnikov. Loved by rebels, self-proclaimed freedom fighters, terrorists and third-world armies alike, this rifle exceeded the wildest expectations of the USSR when first introduced: its simple, durable and deadly design still makes it a prime export product of Russia and one of the most popular guns in the world.
The Peasants’ Rifle
The second world war and its geopolitical successor the cold war made it clear that both the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had developed a distinctly different approach to combat and weaponry.
On the one hand, the USA usually had well-trained and equipped soldiers at their disposal, which meant they could have more precise and difficult rifle designs. On the other hand you had the Soviet strategic vision of the Red Army peasant-soldier sent to fight for the communist cause at and beyond their borders -a romantic image inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution. Sharing its USSR-border with around 15 neighbours the USSR had to send out civilians to defend their homeland on multiple occasions during the 20th-century. The fact that the USSR was often forced to throw their conscripted civilians with no prior battle training onto the battlefield , meant a different approach to gun design was needed: Soviet rifles had to be straightforward and easy to use. Accuracy was not a top priority, simplicity was key.
The AK-47: ubiquitous and indiscriminate
Cheap to manufacture and assemble, the AK-47 gave the USSR a major head start as a weapon supplier for their socialist and communist allies during the cold war. Today for no more than €350 AK-47′s can be bought via the internet. In action films, AK-47 replicas are usually not used: it is cheaper to buy a real AK than to pay for a well-fabricated replica. Wildly distributed and modified (surprisingly the USA is currently the biggest manufacturer), the AK-47 has been used everywhere, from the jungles of Central- and Latin America, to the steppes of Asia and the deserts of Africa.
Even though the United States tried to produce an American equivalent to the AK-47, the M16, their gun has never enjoyed the success of its Soviet counterpart. Numbers of usage staggeringly show that the AK-47 is by far the most popular gun: numbers easily go above 100 million AK-47 produced and in circulation, whilst the M16′s produced is estimated at around 10 million.
This brings us to another explanation as to why the AK-47 is still the most popular rifle in the world. Thanks to it easy-to-use mechanism and a bountiful supply of battle-ready weapons supplied via unscrupulous arms dealers, the AK-47 is bound to appear wherever a revolution, coup or countercoup begins. It has been proven multiple times that children can pick it up from the ground and start shooting, which is exactly what some do or have to do. Even under water, or totally covered in mud, the AK-47 will fire. The anecdote of an AK-47 which was buried for 18 years together with a whole bunch of other military weaponry illustrates this point well: after being dug up, it was the only gun that worked perfectly.
Spread all over the world, and incredibly easy to produce, the Kalashnikov will continue to be assembled for years to come -most often ending up in the wrongest of hands. In September 2013, Al-Shabab terrorists used the AK-47 to sow death and destruction in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, costing the lives of 72 people. From Libya, Syria and Somalia to Mali and Afghanistan, the AK-47 is the weapon of choice for terrorism.
Looking back on his invention this was one of the things Mikhail Kalashnikov regretted the most: “I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists.” In his many interviews, he stated that he never lay awake at night wondering about all the lives his invention has taken, though he deplored their widespread use as instruments of crime and terror. As veteran of the eastern front of the second world war, he instead tells us the world needs to blame the Nazi’s for making him a weapon developer in the first place :“I just designed the AK-47 because my motherland needed to be defended. It was designed as a weapon of defense, not offense.”
The gun and the successful Soviet propaganda-machine brought Mikhail Kalashnikov both fame and notoriety, landing him a top spot in the former USSR weapons-manufacturing bureaucracy and six legislative terms in the Supreme Soviet, the USSR’s primary legislative body. After the fall of the USSR, Mr. Kalashnikov still reminisced nostalgically about the Soviet-Union and continued to appear in public to try to recast the AK-47’s notorious legacy in a positive way and complain about the knockoffs that are being manufactured illegally by former Soviet allies and cutting into Russian sales.
Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the rifle that has started and ended more revolutions than any other weapon in history, died on Monday in Izhevsk, the capital of the Russian republic of Udmurtia, where he lived. He was 94.