Ask anyone who has served in the armed forces during a conflict and they’ve probably heard its signature sound. The Avtomat Kalashnikova model 47 — or AK-47 as it is more popularly known — has a sound when fired that is unlike any other. The Kremlin announced today that the inventor of this storied weapon, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has died at age 94.
If the first battle between the American colonists and the British produced “the shot heard ‘round the world,” Kalashnikov designed the gun that fought ‘round the world. It and its technological descendants are synonymous with the Soviet Block, China, Vietnam, all across Africa and the Middle East. It is likely the most ubiquitous small arm ever produced.
Writing for the BBC, Jonathon Marcus commented, “Mikhail Kalashnikov’s 1947 design became the standard equipment of the Soviet and Warsaw pact armies. Versions were manufactured in several other countries, including China. With its distinctive curved magazine, the Kalashnikov became a revolutionary icon in the hands of militants and insurgents around the globe.”
Turn on the evening news tonight and you’re likely to see insurgents, terrorists and perhaps even child soldiers scattered throughout the globe’s most troubled places holding the AK-47 defiantly aloft.
Marcus further framed its importance: “If the name of Samuel Colt and his revolver is associated with the 19th Century, then the gun of the 20th Century is undoubtedly the Kalashnikov.”
The gun had its origins in the latter days of World War II. The Soviets needed something to match the German Sturmgewehr and its 7.92mm Kurz cartridge. In many regards, it marked the maturation of the assault rifle concept: a rifle with high magazine capacity and selective fire that allowed one shot to fly with each pull of the trigger or, with the flip of a switch, ammunition to be discharged in fully automatic mode. The AK’s caliber was also a thing of inspiration. Neither an overpowered full-size rifle nor a smaller submachine cartridge but somewhere in between, was the M-1943 - later the 7.62x39mm. The intermediate-size M-1943 cartridge made for a weapon that was easy to control.
In his book, The Gun, Pulitzer Prize winning writer and New York correspondent, C.J. Chivers traces the weapon’s place in cultural and military history. In his history of the AK-47 Chivers states that the gun was designed to function well inside the actual conditions of war: “It’s very, very simple. It’s almost intuitive. You can take it apart very quickly and put it back together just as quickly. It’s simple to clean. It’s simple to maintain… All of these things mean that if you’re not particularly attentive in caring for it, it’s still going to last and it’s still going to work.”
Work it has. According to some estimates, as many as a quarter of a million people die every year at the end of an AK-47 barrel.
Casting it as one of the inventions that changed the world, writer Loz Blaine states: “This is a weapon that you can introduce into a war zone, and suddenly David starts beating Goliath. In today’s modern warfare, it’s the tool that lets “freedom fighter” groups - or “terrorist” groups, depending on whose politics you follow - hold off entire armies of well-trained soldiers packing million-dollar weapons systems.”
We’ve certainly collected ample evidence to support Blaine’s contention.
Kalashnikov didn’t respond well to questions about the terrible toll his invention facilitated. Rather, he focused on the technological achievement. In some regards this is much like Dr. Frankenstein focusing on the reanimation process instead of the thing out terrorizing the village. Given the enormity of the AK-47’s effect on the globe, this emotional distance was probably necessary. For our part, we hope the world continues to produce his kind of genius, just in other fields.