Key point: The rifle became popular among insurgents around the same time it began being exported.
Born into a poor peasant family amid the Bolshevik seizure of power, young Mikhail Kalashnikov aspired to become a poet. Instead, he fought as a tank commander in the Second World War and went on to design one of the most iconic firearms of the modern world: the AK-47. The first Kalashnikov rifle left a gargantuan legacy that is still unfolding to this day, but its many successors and variants are not without a footprint of their own.
The 1970s AK-74 is particularly noteworthy as the first major Kalashnikov revision, as well as the Red Army’s standard-issue rifle during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Almost five decades after its inception, here are five little-known facts about the AK-74.
1. The AK-74 continues to be circulated in staggering numbers.
The Kremlin is currently phasing out the AK-74 and its AK-74M variant in favor of the modernized AK-12 and AK-15 rifles, but a staggering eighteen million AK-74’s remain in circulation across the world. A chunk of that comes from official production licenses purchased by Soviet-aligned countries like Bulgaria and former Soviet nations like Azerbaijan.
Many more are unauthorized, less reliable reproductions that remain popular across Central Africa and in parts of Latin America. Yet others, like North Korea’s Type 88 rifle, are thinly rebranded copies made without a license.
2. Russian schoolchildren are taught to assemble AK-74’s.
Russia’s military may no longer be using it, but the AK-74 serves a curious purpose elsewhere in contemporary Russian society: schools. It was mandatory for many Soviet schoolchildren to fieldstrip and assemble AK-74’s within a certain timespan. In homage to this tradition, schools across Russia continue to hold that exercise in the form of competitions.
3. The AK-74 was the first Kalashnikov variant to experiment with a smaller round.
Whereas the original AK and its AKM variant use the 7.62x39mm cartridge, the AK-74 was the first of several subsequent Kalashnikov models to be chambered in a smaller, lighter 5.45x39mm cartridge. The change enabled lighter equipment loads, considerably reduced recoil and greater accuracy.
The Soviets realized that the move to a lower-caliber round will come at the cost of some penetrating power, but believed that the AK-74’s bullets will yaw earlier once inside the human body and thus inflict even more catastrophic damage against soft-tissue areas.
4. The AK-74 was even cheaper than the original, dirt-cheap Kalashnikov.
Despite boasting across-the-board improvements in handling and accuracy, the AK-74 was even cheaper to mass-manufacture than its predecessor due to slight tweaks in the 74’s production process. It also featured lower maintenance costs, saving additional money over the long term. Nonetheless, the AK-47 was so widely disseminated in export markets by the late 1970s that the AK-74 simply arrived too late to replicate the breakaway success of its predecessor.
5. Four countries bear the Kalashnikov on their flag or coat of arms.
This point is related to both the AK-74 and its predecessor, but warrants inclusion on this list for how well it illustrates the global reach of the Kalashnikov brand: Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and East Timor all depict the Kalashnikov rifle on their flag or coat of arms.
Interestingly, all four countries adopted this symbology at around the same time in the mid 1980s; by this time, the AK-47 had well established itself as the staple choice of guerillas and insurgents across the third world, and the AK-74 was first making waves as an export product.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a Ph.D. student in History at American University. This article first appeared last spring.