Kalashnikov AK-47: A History of the Most Widespread Gun in the World

The Kalashnikov AK-47 is the most recognized gun in the world. It is the iconic symbol of revolution and rebellion. It has appeared on the flags and national seals of countries; it has appeared in iconic photographs of terrorists, guerrillas and liberation armies. It has been produced in over 30 nations, in numbers exceeding 100 million–and has been used by over 100 national armed forces. It has very likely killed more people than any other weapon in history. And here is its story . . . .


Kalashnikov AK-47

In 1938, a young tractor mechanic named Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, from the town of Kurya, Russia, was drafted into the Soviet Army. Because of his technical experience, he was assigned as a tank mechanic, where he designed a number of successful instruments, including a device to keep track of the number of shots fired by a tank gun barrel and the number of hours a tank engine had operated (necessary for maintenance). When the Nazis invaded Germany in June 1941, Kalashnikov was in Leningrad helping to test his devices before they went into production. In September, he was sent to the 8th Mechanized Corps as a Senior Sergeant, serving as commander of a T-34 tank at the town of Bryansk. In October the unit entered combat with the Nazi Panzers. Kalashnikov was wounded by German fire and was taken to a military hospital. He remained there for the next six months.

While recuperating in the hospital, Kalashnikov listened to the stories told by the Red Army infantrymen who had been wounded, who complained that their guns were inferior in quality to the Germans, and were often in short supply. During this time, the standard infantry rifle in the Soviet Army was the Model 91/30 Mosin-Nagant, a 7.62mm (.30-caliber) bolt-action rifle that held five rounds. Equipped with a telescopic sight, the Mosin-Nagant was an excellent sniper rifle, but it was not very well-suited for street fighting due to its tiny ammunition capacity. In late 1941, the Soviets had already decided that they needed a better weapon for close-quarters fighting, especially in urban areas, and began production of the Shpagin PPSh-41, a submachine gun that carried 71 rounds of 7.62mm pistol ammunition.

Kalashnikov decided to put his mechanical skills to use in producing a new weapon for the “Great Patriotic War”, and from his hospital bed he designed a submachine gun, which he submitted to the Army. His design was rejected in favor of the PPSh, but the Soviets were impressed by his engineering talent, and after his release from the hospital, Kalashnikov was sent to the Scientific Research Firing Ground in Moscow, where he designed another submachine gun, a light infantry machine gun, and a semi-automatic carbine. But none of these ever went into production.

The Nazis, meanwhile, were developing a new weapon of their own. Their own combat experience had shown them that they needed a gun that had the ammunition capacity and compactness of a submachine gun, but had more range and power than the pistol ammunition used in the submachine gun. The result was a new rifle that was shorter and more compact than the bolt-action Mauser, and used 30-round magazines loaded with special “short” versions of the 7.92mm rifle cartridge. The Germans called it the Sturmgewehr (“assault rifle”). TheSturmgewehr began appearing in 1944, though the Nazis were never able to manufacture a large number of them.

But the new concept had caught the attention of armies around the world, and after Germany’s surrender every industrial nation wanted their own version of the German “assault rifle”. The Soviets were particularly interested, and in 1945 they asked their designers to submit ideas for a Russian version of the StG-44, to use the short 7.62x39mm cartridge already being used by the Simonov SKS semi-automatic rifle. One of those designers was Mikhail Kalashnikov.

The design submitted by Kalashnikov was known as the AK-46. Superficially, Kalashnikov’s design was similar to the German rifle. Both guns used a gas-operated system, in which the exhaust gases from the cartridge are diverted from the barrel into a piston tube located above the barrel, where they push back the piston, extract the spent shell, cock the hammer, load the next cartridge, and leave the gun ready to fire again. Both guns could be set to semi-automatic, in which one bullet is fired for each pull of the trigger, or full-auto, in which the gun keeps firing bullets until the trigger is released.

But unlike the Nazi rifle, which was superbly engineered and manufactured to exacting standards, Kalashnikov deliberately designed his rifle to be simple, rugged, easy to manufacture and require little maintenance in rough field conditions. The rear stock, pistol grip and foregrip were all made from cheap wood; the receiver could be either milled from a solid block of metal or inexpensively stamped from sheet steel. The moving parts all had deliberate gaps left around them so if sand or mud got into the mechanism, it would still work. In 1947, Kalashnikov made some design changes to simplify the gun even further, and in 1948, the Soviet Army, after conducting field trials, decided to adopt the rifle.  It was given the name Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947.

When production of the AK-47 began in 1949, however, problems appeared. The rifle’s receiver was being produced as a stamping, with the ejector and receiver guides then welded into place. The weldings were often defective, however, and it was decided to use a milled receiver, grinded from a single block of steel, instead. This made the rifle slower to manufacture and more expensive. In the meantime, Soviet troops continued to be equipped with the SKS carbine. By 1956, the AK-47 had finally begun to replace the SKS. In 1959, the technical difficulties in manufacturing the stamped steel receivers were worked out, and the new version, with some additional minor modifications, became known as the AKM (“Modernized Automatic Kalashnikov”). The AKM became the standard Soviet military rifle throughout the Cold War. A folding-stock version known as the AKMS was used by tank crews, special forces, and paratroopers, and a long-barreled version with a drum magazine was used as a light infantry machine gun. In 1974, a version of the AKM re-chambered to use smaller and lighter 5.56mm ammunition was introduced (the AK-74). It was first used during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and replaced the AKM. It is still in service with the Russian Army.

During the Cold War, the AK-47 and its variants were widely supplied by the USSR to various guerrilla groups and revolutionary armies. It quickly became valued for its ruggedness (an AK can be buried in the mud for days, rust completely shut, and if you dig it up and kick the bolt open, it will still fire) and its cheap simple construction (local gunsmiths were often able to turn out their own bootleg copies using sheet steel). Today in some parts of Africa, you can buy a locally-made AK-47 for $30, or four cows.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Izhmash arms bureau became a private company, which then merged with Izhevsk to form the Kalashnikov Concerns Company, which still manufactures the AK-47 and its variants in semi-automatic versions as sporting weapons. In the United States, Russian AK’s (or cheaper Chinese copies) can be bought for as little as $600.

Kalashnikov received a chestful of medals for his invention, including the Lenin Prize, the Stalin Prize, the Order of Lenin, the Hero of Socialist Labor, and the Hero of the Russian Federation. He also reached the rank of Lieutenant General. What he did not receive, though, was money–Kalashnikov never got any royalties for the AK-47. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, he turned his fame to his advantage by licensing the production of “Kalashnikov Vodka”, sold in rifle-shaped bottles. It was enough to net him an estimated fortune of $20 million.

Mikhail Kalashnikov died in December 2013, at the age of 94. A few years before, he had been asked by a reporter from the Associated Press how he slept at night, knowing that the weapon he designed had killed so many people over the years. “I sleep well”, Kalashnikov replied. “It’s the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence.” He concluded, “I created a weapon to defend the borders of my motherland.”


Mozambique national flag, with AK-47.


4 thoughts on “Kalashnikov AK-47: A History of the Most Widespread Gun in the World”

  1. When I was a conscript in the South African armed forces in the 1980s, I was issued with an R4 rifle. I don’t know whether it was based on the AK-47, but it sure looked very similar in profile. There is a certain irony in that… 🙂

  2. As I recall, Israel and South Africa were working together on a rifle design based on the AK-47 (the Israeli Galil, IIRC). They were also working on a joint fighter plane, and of course there have been all sorts of accusations that they worked together on nuclear weapons.

  3. Wouldn’t surprise me if they worked together on nukes. Of course, only South Africa turned out to actually possess any nukes, right? 🙂

    As for the fighter plane, it became important because South Africa’s aging Mirage fighters could no longer quite hold their own against the MiGs that the Angolans got from the Russians, and of course, no one in his right mind would sell us anything better.

    But as I recall, the fighter was a failure; the things had an annoying tendency to spontaneously drop from the sky. In any event, the apartheid regime made exactly the same mistakes as George Bush and, to an extent, Obama: thinking you can win a guerrilla war by better hardware for conventional warfare. In the end, hippies like you demonstrating in the streets a continent away, and trade unions here, did far more to end apartheid than any warfare.

  4. Pedantry alert:

    The AK74 was chambered for a homegrown 5.45x39mm round; the same length as the original 7.62 round, but a hair smaller in caliber than the 5.56x45mm US (and, eventually, NATO) round whose ballistics, lighter weight, and recoil the Soviets were seeking to emulate.

    But several other versions/developments of the original — licensed and unlicensed — were chambered for the 5.56 NATO round, including the Israeli Galil.

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