THE KALASHNIKOV RIFLE AND THE GERMAN CONNECTION
We know that groups of supremely experienced German engineers worked for both Cold War empires in the wake of WWII. But I was taken aback some years ago when a writer well versed in things Russian said, “Don’t you know Hugo Schmeisser helped design the AK-47? He was forced to go to the Soviet Union and worked for Kalashnikov.” “What!?” I nearly passed a kidney stone. This was heresy. Seven decades of Communism produced only one lasting triumph, the AK-47, and now a trusted source was telling me it was the work of some icy Teutonic genius? The truth, it turns out, is just much weirder. In 1945, Germany was a smoking ruin more in need of bricklayers than engineers, and the Soviet Union was shy about 20 million workers across the board. They had a powerful industrial base but their products were crudely made copies of Western designs.
America’s Operation Paperclip had quickly snatched up the cream of Germany’s rocket and aviation programs, as von Braun et. al. surrendered directly to the Americans. The Russians had similar but more complex motivations, and drafted German designers, softening the twisted arm with comfortable working conditions and decent pay. Besides, firearms manufacturing in Germany was forbidden by the occupying forces so opportunity within the trade was limited to the Soviet Union.
The East Germans who accepted the offer had household effects shipped to various cities. A series of trains wandered through Germany, picking up high-octane industrial minds - and their families - destined for the vast complexes east of Moscow. These trains had the windows painted over and once a German family boarded for the long ride east, there was no turning back.
When the Wehrmacht had invaded the Soviet Union in June of ‘41, the Soviets quickly evacuated entire factories, and their workers, and moved beyond tank and bomber range, into the Urals and Siberia. One of these cities was Izhvesk, little over 600 miles east, and 100 north, of Moscow. A state arsenal since 1800, it was home to the multiple factories which produced more than 12 million firearms during the Great Patriot War. About 3 million German soldiers were eventually captured, most in the last year of the war, and Stalin held onto them as forced labor, working throughout the Soviet Union. Many thousands labored in Izhvesk. Treatment varied for these men, but many were essentially slaves. Some Soviets “felt sorry for them and fed them. Others had lost relatives and hated them, and there were cases of beatings.“
The incoming German engineers’ families needed accommodations, so German POWs with skills were used to build blocks of apartments, using quality materials. These craftsmen were informed that they were building for German families and the quality control was extremely good. The apartments were four-plexes, but in a cost-saving measure, these were built around large common kitchens. Ironically, these German apartments are still inhabited, and considered a prestige address in Izhvesk - although none of the residents have spoken Hochdeutsch since the mid-1950s.
Among the engineers who came to the Izhvesk Mechanical Plant complex (rebranded as IZHMASH in 1976) in early 1946 was a sickly primadonna with impressive accomplishments. Hugo Schmeisser, 62, was the son of a firearms designer and in his youth had designed the Bergman 9X19mm Parabellum MP-18, one of the first successful submachine guns. Later, he pioneered the Sturmgewehrs, the first successful intermediate-power assault rifles. Schmeisser’s magnum opus, the 7.92X33mm Kurz StG-44, was a triumph of metal stamping, which is far lighter, faster and cheaper than milling solid bar-stock.
Kalashnikov and his assistants, Alexandr Zeitsev and Vladimir Deikin, had already completed a sound basic design in 1945, but were having extreme difficulty in production. The stamped receiver required the milled barrel trunnion at the front and the milled stock insert at the rear to be precision welded. Precision as in perfect - every time. The rejection rate ended up far too high. It was so bad that the Soviet Army ordered extended production of 7.62X39mm SKS-45 carbines while Kalashnikov’s team struggled.
It wasn’t long before German engineers were formed into a team at Factory 74, called Bureau 58, and assigned to assist Kalashnikov and other designers. Schmeisser came in to solve the stamped receiver problem. But did he? Problems started immediately. Written correspondence survives that document an ongoing contract dispute. He complained that his wife and son were sick and he wasn’t being paid enough to care for them. He also complained that he wasn’t being paid what he was promised when he signed the contract. Factory 74’s director, as well as the Communist party political secretary, were both in direct correspondence.
Why was his pay lacking? Remember that Hugo Schmeisser’s father was firearms engineer Louis Schmeisser? Where did young Hugo learn his trade? That’s right, Dad, who may have got him his early start working for Bergmann; what we’d now call on the job training. Among other patents, he received one for the MP-18 9X19mm Parabellum submachine gun. But when he designed the 7.92X33mm Kurz MP43/44/ StG-44 for Haenel, the firm got the patent. So Factory 74’s manager told him he had insufficient education to justify higher pay. As an added sod-off, the political secretary accused him of having a "capitalistic political view,” and they involuntarily extended his contract by six months. Schmeisser was not well-regarded by his colleagues, neither Russian nor German. Most considered him obstructionist and believed that if the stamped receiver obstacles could be solved, they would be allowed to return to Germany. Basically they wanted to solve the problem and go home. Schmeisser’s German boss, Karl Barnitzke was also criticized in a report, saying, “he has good technical skills but his political views are unsettled.”
Considering the situation, life wasn’t to bad. They couldn’t leave, but neither could their Soviet colleagues. Vital to national security, Izhvesk was a sealed city. But the Germans and Russians became friends and so did their children. Many of the Germans had worked in the Soviet Union during the ‘20s and '30s, when both nations were struggling to recover from World War I. And many Russian engineers had been educated in German universities. As with most educated Europeans, they spoke many languages. The children went to the same parties, but for the German families there was a nighttime curfew.
In the meantime, precision welding eluded Kalashnikov’s production specialists, and under the Cold War pressure of 1949, the Soviets went to a heavier milled receiver. It was a quick fix, but machinery originally used for Mosin-Nagant rifles was easily converted. Many of the Germans were allowed home following Stalin’s death on March 5th, 1953.
One of these was a manufacturing genius named Werner Gruner who, before the war, had worked at Großfuß AG. This firm built stamped steel lanterns and kitchen appliances. In the late 1930s Großfuß decided to compete for an army contract to build a replacement for the expensive 7.92X57mm MG-34 machine gun. Gruner attended an army machine gunner’s course and in the evenings, picked the brains of experienced gunners. He then cheerfully returned to Großfuß, promptly designing the MG-42. The MG-42, “Hitler’s Buzz Saw”, was arguably the best general purpose machine gun of the 20th century. Overnight, Großfuß went from about 500 to 5,000 employees. Werner Gruner’s personality was the opposite of Hugo Schmeisser. Bright and gregarious, Gruner was a Charming win-win manager and skilled engineer. He had received advanced degrees from night studies in the '20s and early '30s, and was still in his early '40s when the Soviet Military Administration in Germany “imposed a work requirement.” One must remember while these German engineers were comfortable and well compensated compared to their Soviet counterparts, they were still in some ways indentured servants. Considering conditions in East Germany at the time though, they were living in a gilded cage.
So, did the Germans actually design, or help design the Kalashnikov rifle? On this subject, Russians become quite defensive. Their cultural legacy was at stake. When the subject is broached, the claws come out and hissing is narrowly avoided. Two of my source articles, translated from on-line Russian-language sites, speak of “evil” and “insidious” rumor - mongering.
Let’s do the math. The original Kalashnikov design, immature, was presented in 1945, but Sergei Simonov’s SKS-45, a down sized copy of the successful 14.5mm PTRS-41 anti-tank rifle, walked away with the production order. Kalashnikov either asked for or was forced to accept German help in 1946 but failed to offer a production-capable stamped rifle. The crew at Factory 74 of the Izhvesk Mechanical Plant fell back on the milled receiver and launched full-scale production in 1949. By 1952, almost every German engineer was back in Thuringia, East Germany, (gun country, analogous to Connecticut River Valley or Brescia, Italy) confronting the somber reality that was the Communist police state. The stamped receiver problem hadn’t been fixed. Kalashnikov and his design crew kept at it, tenacious as guard dogs gnawing on a gulag escapee, but it wasn’t until 1959 that the riddle of the stamped receiver was solved and production began on the stamped 7.63X39mm AKM.
Kalashnikov had started the design while the Germans were still the enemy, and delivered a successful firearm to the Soviet military, but he had not yet conquered the stamped receiver he started to build. The two most talented Germans working with him were specialists in stamped metal manufacture. Perhaps the delay in introduction of the stamped AKM was a case of “Don’t mess with production until we have enough Kalashnikov rifles to fight the NATO.” But are we supposed to believe that the Germans fixed the problem, and that the Soviets then sat on the project for seven years?
Ultimately, my gut is snagged by a quote by Hugo Schmeisser, who was asked shortly before his death, how much did he have to do with the design. He is supposed to have replied,“I gave the Russians a few tips.” How much of the success was German - if any - we’ll never really know. One thing is certain. If the project had failed, it would have been a former Soviet tank mechanic who would have been shipped off to Siberia.
—Interesting submission by fallschirmjager