The AK-47 was made to be an intermediate rifle for Soviet foot soldiers, but it ended up being the first assault rifle.

When it comes to beauty, purity, and proportion, the precision engineering of a high-quality rifle is the same as that of a high-end watch or a Ferrari V-12. All of the metalwork is as close to perfect as the tools will let it be. Everything has been burnished, blued, polished, and shaped with absolute precision.

 The AK’s place at the top of the list of small arms is because it is as useful, durable, and easy to use as a plumber’s helper, and almost anyone, including children, can use it.

The AK-47 is the deadliest, most prevalent, and most game-changing individually-wielded weapon in the history of military weapons due to its characteristics. Sadly, in the history of revolt, revolution, coups, sedition, anarchy, riots, poaching, road rage, organized and unorganized criminality, and meaningless killings of all types, this has also been the case.

The “legend of Kalashnikov” has often been recounted by historians. It has occurred so frequently that it has become a folk tale. How Mikhail Kalashnikov, a senior sergeant and commander of a T-34 tank, recuperated in 1941 after being wounded in the war.

The story of how he overheard his infantry bedmates griping about their ineffective weapons and immediately began planning the development of an assault rifle to counter the MP 40 submachine gun they had watched the invading Germans use to slaughter numerous civilians.

How Kalashnikov, a casually educated tinkerer with no prior gunsmithing experience, eventually hit upon the innovative gas-operated system of the AK-47 after several failed attempts.

How legendary Russian arms designer Gen. Vasily Degtyarev, Kalashnikov’s sole serious opponent in the shoot-off to choose the new Soviet Army assault rifle, respectfully pulled himself out of the race when he saw how good the design was. How Kalashnikov never profited from his unpatented innovation.

The Soviet Union’s desire for a proletarian hero was met by the legend of the lone NCO who achieved greatness on behalf of the homeland, and we may never know the reality.

Kalashnikov received an armload of medals, including two Hero of Socialist Labor medals, and was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant general (although honorarily) without ever having to go through the ranks.

There’s a chance that Kalashnikov had some significant first thoughts, but a team of gunsmiths with vastly more experience likely conducted the sophisticated work of designing the AK-47 (Automatic Kalashnikov 1947).

Many “AKs” are descendants of the AK-47. The AK-47, AKM (AK Modernized, debuted in 1959), and AK-74 were created by Soviet arsenals in three generations, each with its own offspring (introduced into service in 1974). Most AK-47s are AKMs and their derivatives.

The development of reliable ammunition was crucial to the AK-47’s ultimate success. Infantry rifles of the Second World War era, like the iconic U.S. M1 Garand or the long-barreled Soviet Mosin-Nagant, were built to fire strong single-shot cartridges with high recoil but considerable range.

Their bullets were rapid, flat, and deadly at kilometer distances. The cartridges were expensive and long, so soldiers couldn’t carry enough to supply an automatic rifle that could fire hundreds of rounds a minute.

Any weapon light enough for a single infantryman to carry would have been shattered by the repeated recoil of such ammunition fired on full-auto. Submachine guns and pistols utilize short, low-capacity cartridges. Although lethal at close range, none of the weapons had the throw, accuracy, or stopping force required for serious firefights.

The inventors of weapons proposed an “intermediate” round, a cartridge with a powder capacity between a long rifle and pistol ammunition. Traditionalists were not convinced.

They questioned why anyone would want a weaker round. Why? Because the soldier could bring twice as many bullets, the recoil was so mild that even an amateur could handle it, and who cared if the bullet didn’t go far enough to drop a target the shooter could barely see? The shooter would have little chance of hitting such a moving target.

The German 7.92 mm MP 43/44’s intermediate rounds were very effective. Sturmgewehr (German for “storm rifle”) was Hitler’s choice of name for the weapon.

As far as historians are concerned, this was the first firearm of its kind; short-barreled, a compact, selective-fire weapon with a high-capacity magazine that could be fired in either fully automatic or semiautomatic modes (one round per trigger pull, with all cartridge loading and extracting done automatically). In automatic mode, its rate of fire was almost as quick as that of a real machine gun, but it was still manageable for a single soldier to carry and fire.

Without intermediate loads, the AK-47 would have been little more than a short-lived, hip-firing machine gun comparable to John Wayne’s belt-fed.30-caliber weapon from a 1940s war film.

Nigerian army
A Nigerian soldier with Ak-47

The AK-47’s simplicity and durability are what set it apart from other weapons, despite its advantages such as manageable weight, relatively low recoil, intermediate rounds, and small size (especially useful in urban combat, where a long barrel would be impractical).

An eight-year-old Ugandan illiterate could disassemble and reassemble an AK-47 in an hour due to its simplicity (depending on the variant, there may be as few as eight moving parts).

The AK-47 is widely regarded as a “soldier-proof” weapon. Any sloppy grunt, mujahideen, drive-by shooter, African child soldier, or bodyguard for a drug lord would have difficulty breaking, harming, or jamming it. You can drag it through the sands of a desert, put it down in a muddy swamp, immerse it in a river, and neglect to clean it for a few months, and it will still work. In contrast to more refined firearms, the AK’s clearances and mechanisms are robust enough to shrug off dirt and grime.

AKs half-buried for months in a moist Vietnamese jungle or left behind in the Sinai were ready to fire after a boot kick dislodged the rusty bolt. It also helps that its chamber and barrel are lined with chrome to stop rust.

“Perfection is the enemy of good enough” seemed to be true a lot of the time when it came to how the Soviets made weapons. The T-34 tank, the MiG-15 fighter, and the AK-47 are all examples of why it’s important to make weapons that are “good enough” instead of wasting time trying to make them perfect.

The AK-47 achieved immortality not because it was effective in the conventional war for which it was designed (the Cold War, which never escalated to the point where the world’s two major superpowers engaged in direct combat) but because it was a purely military weapon that escaped the confines of armories and official control.

This was the first time something of this magnitude had happened with military equipment, while some in the early 1930s had worried that the Thompson submachine gun would find a large civilian market. In 1934, before the advent of the gun lobby, Congress approved the National Firearms Act, which among other things, restricted individual access to automatic firearms.

Since the AK was so easily and cheaply mass-produced in the 1970s, it spread like wildfire. (More than 75 million operational AKs are thought to be in circulation today, making this family of weapons the most popular in history.) The AK was treated as another infantry weapon during the immediate years following World War II. It made its first public appearance and performance in Vietnam, shocking audiences worldwide. As far as the Western specialists were concerned, it was a weak, inaccurate, and short-range weapon.

An American soldier with Ak-47 during the Vietnam war

U.S. troops in Vietnam had Nothing comparable, so the Army and Marine Corps quickly deployed the new M16 assault rifle. At first, the M16 failed miserably. No one had thought to give the troops cleaning kits, even though they needed to be meticulously maintained, unlike the AK.  The early M16s rusted quickly because neither the barrel nor the chamber was chrome-lined like the AK. 

The war in Vietnam legitimized the Kalash, and the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 – its own Vietnam — opened the floodgates and let the weapon out into the wild. Unfortunately, the United States of America is partly to blame for this.

Since the AKs used by the Soviets shot slugs with thin shells over cast-in airspace, the Afghan mujahideen were understandably terrified of them. The fragmentation of such bullets upon impact with flesh or bone carved out massive wounds that quickly grew infected. 

A Taliban fighter with Ak-47

The mujahideen asked their American supporters for weapons, believing the Soviets were poisoning their bullets. “eventually succumbed and bought hundreds of thousands of AKs, largely from China,” writes Larry Kahaner in his detailed book AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War about CIA Station Chief Howard Hart in Pakistan. When it comes to the proliferation of the weapon, “Hart’s choice… may have been the most crucial single contribution.” By the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States had become one of the top buyers of AKs.

For years, the Soviet Union has been supplying AK-47s to other communist countries and friendly nations like Cuba. Moscow also gave a number of other countries license-free access to manufacture the goods. Considering how simple the weapon was to construct, it was a matter of time until rogue manufacturers mass-produced it in Middle Eastern bazaars.

Nonetheless, Afghanistan marked the first time the weapon genuinely went crazy. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union came the opening of armories across the region, and it is believed that as much as 80 percent of the small guns used by the Soviet Army were stolen, most of them AKs.

AKs achieved self-sufficiency as their use extended across Africa and Southeast Asia. AK-47s became known as “the African credit card” as rebel leaders like warlord Charles Taylor, who assisted in the ouster of Liberian President Samuel Doe in 1990, offered them to their followers as a means of recruitment. It has been stated that AK-47s are rented out by the hour in Pakistan, with purchasers making a down payment before deploying the weapon in a robbery to cover the cost.

Ex-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously stated in a speech that used AK-47s could be purchased for the price of a live chicken in the Third World. In fact, the price of a used AK-47 can range from $150 to $1,000, and even more during peak demand periods (e.g., civil war, narco-terrorism).

Black market prices for a fully automatic AK produced in China can easily exceed $10,000 in the United States, while semiautomatic variants (including various duplicates, some built in North America) go for $400 to $3,500, with the average being around $1,500. The level of anxiety among American gun owners over planned assault rifle prohibitions correlates inversely with the price of guns in the United States.

The AK-47 is now more than just a weapon for war. Like a holstered Colt Peacemaker on a cowboy’s hip implies a lot about him, it serves as a symbol and social statement in many countries and civilizations. The most well-known gun in the world is the Kalashnikov.

 Teenagers in Peru, aboriginal whale hunters, rap artists in the city, Hutus and Tutsis, Somali warlords, Sunnis and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, Diane Feinstein, and Sarah Palin can all say, “That’s an AK-47.” When Hollywood wants to show that a character is bad, they give him an AK, and everyone who watches movies knows what that means.

Saddam Hussein with Ak-47

Saddam Hussein could have picked up any gun in the world, but he never went far from an AK-47 because it was his signature weapon. It said, “I am against imperialism. Death to the West!” The same goes for Osama bin Laden and his Kalash. In Afghanistan, an AK that was taken from a Soviet soldier in battle was worth a lot more than one that the CIA brought in from China.

Akin to the practice of counting coups or claiming a scalp, it served as a symbol and more in the 1980s. According to Gordon Rottman’s concise but comprehensive book The AK-47, “throughout the world, an individual’s act of swearing alliance to a regime, an insurrection, a warlord, a drug lord, or a crime band was rewarded and confirmed by gifting an AK.” The gift of an AK-47 to a modern warrior is as significant as the traditional bestowal of a spear, shield, or headgear.

Because the AK-47 and its variants are the most efficient mechanism ever created that permits a man, woman, or child to kill another human being with the least conceivable skill, training, effort, or expense, they earn the title of “Weapon of the Century,” at least in the early days of the century.

A wide variety of AK models, attachments, and enhancements are now available, thanks to the success of the Kalash. Since a well-maintained Kalashnikov can still function reliably for another quarter century, and a gunsmith can recondition or remanufacture it with minimal effort, the world will continue to benefit from comrade Mikhail Kalashnikov’s innovation for some time to come.