Even people who claim not to know anything about firearms know the AK-47 rifle. Simply put, it is arguably the most recognizable small arm in the world. In excess of 75 million AK-47s were produced, and weapons in the Kalashnikov-family based on the AK-47 exceed 100 million worldwide. Few weapons in the history of mankind have had such a lasting impact and it has been used by revolutionaries around the world.
According to a World Bank Policy research paper, published in 2010, of the estimated 500 million firearms in the world, more than one fifth were based on the weapon designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov.
The firearm became an icon of the Soviet Union but also of insurgents around the world. Its low production cost coupled with its ease of manufacture made it easy for vast numbers of the AK-47 to be practically given away to revolutionary movements during the Cold War.
It became such a symbol of world-wide revolution that it appeared on the Coat of Arms of East Timor and on the flag of Mozambique. Since the end of the Cold War the AK-47 brand—as well as its inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov’s name—was used on a variety of products, most notably vodka including an AK-47-branded version that had the bottle shaped like the familiar assault rifle.
Then there is the history, which sounds like a fairytale for gun lovers and history buffs.
It involves a Russian tank technician, who while recovering from wounds was able to design the infamous firearm, the Avtomat Kalashnikova—the AK-47.
It sounds too good to be true, and probably because it is.
First, there is the fact that Kalahnikov had little experience designing guns, and he was more of a tinkerer than a designer. But then there is also the fact that he claimed he was able to read up on firearms design while recovering. This was the Soviet Union during the Second World War after all, a nation fighting for its very life. Not everyone really believes that he just happened to have access to such manuals and that the NKVD readily allowed anyone to read up on Soviet weapons?
It is a myth to suggest that the self-taught Kalashnikov designed the AK-47 on his own. Gun designers rarely start from nothing, and this has been true since the development of gunpowder. Each new weapon built on past designs, and this is certainly true of the AK-47, which really wasn’t the first Soviet assault rifle either.
Likewise, for years Kalashnikov had suggested that he wasn’t influenced by the German StG-44/MP-44 assault rifle. However, there is no denying that Hugo Schmeisser—who was responsible for the StG-44—was forced to work for the Red Army, and likely had some role in the AK-47’s development. In fact, in recent years it has been speculated that Kalashnikov considered the best elements of the American M1 Garand rifle and the StG-44 and combined them. So while his design was revolutionary it was also somewhat evolutionary.
It is hard not to see the influence of the German StG-44 in the AK-47, just as it impossible not to see how the M14 rifle grew out of the M1 Garand. Yes, the operation of the AK-47 may have been more refined, but it was the evolution of past weapons—not the single work of a self-taught peasant. However, for the Soviets doesn’t the latter sound better, that a wounded peasant with little education went on to make the greatest gun of the 20th century?
The alternative: it was a German who made something better than a Russian. Now during the Cold War, which do you think Moscow wanted the world to believe?
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.