In his book The Gun, author C. J. Chivers describes the heady post-war years of the mid 1940s, when the scramble to enter the atomic age was defined by enormous technological challenges, and when a humble Russian arms designer name Mikhail Kalashnikov would create something that would turn his name into veritable brand.
“The world had yet to develop a reliable and lightweight automatic rifle, a firearm that could fire at the rate of a Maxim gun out to typical combat ranges and yet be managed by a single man. Throughout fall 1945, Sergeant Kalashnikov and a larger design collective had worked on a submission for the contest’s first phase, which required competitors to submit a packet of technical specifications. The Main Artillery Department wanted a weapon that fired like a submachine gun but out to greater range. It issued the guidelines. The weapon must be compact, lightweight, highly reliable, simple to manufacture, easily operated, and composed of a small number of independent parts. And it must fire a new cartridge, only recently designed by Soviet ammunition experts. Sergeant Kalashnikov’s team made hundreds of sketches, detailing each of the proposed weapon’s main parts, trying to put a practical form to the commission’s request.”
Kalashnikov, who’s father had been declared a Kulak, and who’s family had grown in abject poverty, won the design competition to create the Soviet Union’s standard-issue rifle.
This rifle, the AK-47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova, or Kalashnikov’s Automatic, and the year it was developed, 1947) would be the standard-issue rifle of the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century and widely exported. Russia, and the Soviet Union’s successor rifles lean heavily on Kalashnikov’s design.
It’s So Easy, A Caveman Could Do It!
“Of the estimated 500 million firearms worldwide, approximately 100 million belong to the Kalashnikov family, three-quarters of which are AK- 47s,” wrote Phillip Killicoat, of Oxford University. Not bad for an arms designer with virtually no formal training.
Russian Weapon Philosophy: Quantity Over Quality
While much has been made about the Russian Federation’s S-400 exports, and other cutting-edge hardware, their bread and butter remain equipment destined for conflicts that don’t require fighting a nuclear-armed opponent that can field top-of-the-line equipment. The Soviet Union, and now Russia, excel at exporting weapon systems that are simple, robust, and easy to maintain for customers or partners that need a lot of firepower on the cheap.
The AK-47 is no exception.
Rugged enough to be used in the harshest of Arctic conditions, in far-flung Saharan deserts, or the wet and muddy jungles of southeast Asia, and simple enough to be used by both conscripts or child soldiers.
The market for such a weapon is enormous, and unlikely to disappear any time soon. As they say, “If it ain’t broke — don’t fix it!”
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.
Image Credit: A visitor holds an AK-47 at the Egyptian stand during the last day of Egypt Defense Expo, showcasing military systems and hardware, in Cairo, Egypt, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany