Mikhail Kalashnikov, arguably the 20th century’s most influential firearms designer, died last year at the age of 94. Born into a farming family in Kurya, Kazakhstan in 1919, who were later denounced a ‘kulaks’ when they resisted collectivisation. Kalashnikov would go on to design the world’s most recognisable weapon. With millions manufactured, dozens of clones and copies made and inspiring many more the AK-47 is a truly iconic rifle. Its rugged construction, reliability and ease of use made it a people’s weapon, used in every corner of the globe.
Kalashnikov’s career as a ‘Konstruktor’ or Soviet weapons designer began when he was wounded during World War Two and was invalided home to convalesce. He began work on several submachine gun designs which, while not adopted, proved his promise. By mid 1943, the Soviet military had captured a number of German prototype MKb.42(H) machine carbines during fighting around the Cholm Pocket. The MKb.42(H) later became the StG-44. They deemed the intermediate cartridge to be ideal for the types of combat they found their troops involved in. In 1943 Kalashnikov designed a rival design to Simonov’s SKS, he also began work on a new automatic rifle also chambering the new Soviet M1943 cartridge. This new intermediate round influenced by the German 7.92 Kurz was smaller, at 7.62x39mm, and more controllable under fully automatic fire than the standard 7.62×54mmR round.
Kalashnikov’s submachine gun chambered in 7.65x25mm, c.1942 (source)
Over the next three years Kalashnikov and his design team worked on what would become the Avtomat Kalashnikova. The first practical prototype the AK-46 was substantially different from what would become the finished product. The initial design was found to be too complicated with numerous moving parts. The profile of the receiver was much lower, with the gas piston sitting closer to the barrel. The selector and safety were separate and much smaller on the left side of the receiver. (see image #2) But even with all these differences the rifle is undeniably an AK, the profile of the gas piston housing, front sight post, iconic curved magazine and pistol grip are instantly recognisable.
Kalashnikov explaining his designs to senior officers (source)
He refined the design with the assistance of Vasily Lyuty (who was overseeing the new rifle test programme), Vladimir Deikin and Hugo Schmeisser the designer of the MKb.42(H)/StG-44, who was forced to assist the Soviets between 1945 and 1952. The new rifle was tested against several rival designs but final testing of the rifle (then designated the KBP-580) was completed in January 1947 and the Avtomat Kalashnikova was selected.
The rifle was officially adopted in 1948 and for the first decade of its service life was shrouded in secrecy. Production of the rifle was initially slow and widespread issuing of the AK-47 did not begin until 1956 with specialist units receiving them first. During this time the SKS acted as the Soviet Army’s primary weapon. It was first publicly seen in action during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Small elements design and production of the weapons was continually revised during early production and in 1959 the Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy or AKM was introduced. The AKM improved production rates and had a redesigned stamped steel receiver which improved the weapon’s accuracy, reliability and made it lighter.
With the introduction of the smaller 5.45x39mm round in the 1960s the Russian army sought a new rifle. A revised AK design developed by А. D. Kryakushin with Kalashnikov’s guidance as selected as it allowed for minimal production changes and retained existing troop familiarity This rifle was adopted as the AK-74. Kalashnikov also developed the PK series of general purpose machine guns while the RPK is also based on his original design.
By the 1980s the AK had become the world’s most produced firearm with millions made and many countries producing their own clones. Its ruggedness and reliability made the rifle ideal for poorly trained conscripts and guerillas and became extremely popular across Africa and Asia. During the 1960s and 70s it became forever associated with the Viet Cong and the Vietnam War. In the 1980s it again appeared in the hands of the Afghan Mujahideen and later the Taliban. During the 1990s it was seen regularly during news reports from the disintegrating Communist Bloc and conflicts of Central Africa. It has been called the People’s gun, the anti-imperialist’s gun or simply the ‘Kalash’. By the 21st century the weapon had gained its own cultural and social meanings appearing on flags, in computer games, on tv and in films, in the hands of African child soldiers and propped up next to Osama Bin Laden in his infamous videos.
In his later years Kalashnikov was frequently asked how he felt about his rifle and whether he regretted designing it. For many years he replied that it was merely a tool but in a 2012 he wrote a penitent letter to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church admitting that the use of his rifle by criminals and terrorists and the deaths it had caused plagued him. He wrote: “My spiritual pain is unbearable. I keep asking the same insoluble question. If my rifle deprived people of life then can it be that I… a Christian and an orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” The Patriarch replied absolving him of any blame, saying: ”The church has a very definite position: when weapons serve to protect the Fatherland, the Church supports both its creators and the soldiers who use it.”
The rifle is instantly recognisable, even for people who know nothing of firearms. Its legendary reputation for ruggedness and reliability is unparalleled and it has served as the Russian army’s service rifle for almost sixty years with over 100 million AK pattern rifles and machine guns being made since the 1950s. Kalashnikov continued to hold the title of chief designer at Izhevsk and was awarded dozens of prizes including the Stalin Prize, Hero of Socialist Labour, Hero of the Russian Federation and Izhevsk State Technical University was named in his honour. He died in 2013, at the age of 94 from a gastric hemorrhage.