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1947: The AK-47, one of the world’s first operational assault rifles and probably the most durable and enduring small-arms weapons ever made, goes into production in the Soviet Union. More than 60 years later, it remains the standard infantry weapon in numerous armies, and a mainstay in the arsenals of rebels, drug traffickers and terrorists worldwide.
The AK-47 was the brainchild of self-taught inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov, the son of peasants. He was inspired to become a weapons maker during World War II, after listening to wounded Russian soldiers complaining about the poor quality of Soviet-made small arms.
Kalashnikov’s design was the final form for which the German-built Sturmgewehr 44 was the battlefield prototype. Experience showed the Germans that the average submachine gun was too muscular for reliable accuracy within a thousand feet, which made it sketchy in close combat situations. The existing standard 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge was thus shortened, resulting in the StG 44. That weapon, produced in sufficient numbers to see widespread action during World War II, is generally regarded as the first true assault rifle.
Elements of the StG 44 are plainly evident in Kalashnikov’s original AK-47.
Kalashnikov’s career as a weapons designer began in 1941, after he was wounded during the Red Army’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Bryansk. This battle is often cited as the inspiration for what became the AK-47, since Kalashnikov himself later said the defeat left him determined to create a weapon that would drive the Germans from Russia. (He had no hand in the development of the T-34 tank, the weapon that eventually did.) After recovering from his wounds, Kalashnikov was assigned to the design section of the Red Army’s ordnance directorate, where he spent the balance of the war working on the development of automatic weapons.
It wasn’t until after the war, however, that the weapon that would astound the world took its final form. The AK-47 (for Avtomatni Kalashnikova model-1947) was the culmination of an evolutionary process and represents the crowning achievement of Kalashnikov’s distinguished career, which has seen him twice named a Hero of Socialist Labor, among a slew of other honors. The Red Army adopted the AK-47 as its standard infantry weapon in 1949, and it was standard issue for the major Warsaw Pact armies as well.
Characteristic of all assault rifles, a selector level allows the shooter to choose between automatic (continuous firing) and semi-automatic (single-shot firing). The weapon is gas-operated, chambering a 7.62mm round. Like the aforementioned T-34 tank, the genius of the AK-47 lies in its sheer simplicity, which makes it cheap to manufacture, reliable to use, and durable in the field.
The Soviets weren’t the only ones to appreciate the virtues of the AK-47. Revolutionaries from Cuba to Angola to Vietnam, struggling to throw off the yoke of imperialism in their countries (or trying to impose a dictatorship, depending on your point of view), clamored for the weapon. Because many of these movements were directly supported by the Soviet Union, obtaining AK-47s (or, more colloquially, “Kalashnikovs”) in bulk was not difficult.
American soldiers in Vietnam, toting M16s prone to jamming, gained a grudging respect for the AK-47, too, when they began encountering them in large numbers.
Later, terrorist groups unaffiliated with any national liberation movement would also find it relatively easy to acquire the assault rifle. No surprise, considering 100 million of them, in their many variations, are still believed to be in circulation. Kalashnikov’s original 1947 model, however, is an exceedingly rare find.
Kalashnikov, now 92, has expressed regret that his AK-47 has become the weapon of choice in the terrorist world, but he suffers no pangs of guilt. “If someone asks me how I can sleep at night knowing that my arms have killed millions of people, I respond that I have no problem sleeping,” he said. “My conscience is clean. I constructed arms to defend my country.”