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A Very Brief History of the Most Iconic Firearm in the World

By: Sam Baker

The AK-47 is arguably the most recognizable firearm ever produced. All other contenders (sorry, AR-15 lovers) fall short. The AK’s design is ubiquitous and recognizable worldwide. Even those who know nothing of firearms are able to identify an AK by its telltale handguard, above-barrel gas-piston, and curved magazine, which together make for a distinctive silhouette.

Like Genghis Khan, the AK-47 is an eastern warlord with an enormous family tree. Each break in the AK’s lineage has its own peculiarities and features, but all are recognizable as heirs to the most famous gun of all time. The AK is the defining symbol of insurgent groups across the globe. Since its inception and deployment, the AK and its variants have seen action in every major conflict in the world. Its shots have been heard in every time zone and on every continent (perhaps barring Antarctica, though I would not be surprised). It’s featured on a variety flags, banners, and insignia. Children are named “Kalash” in honor of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the weapon’s inventor.

Needless to say, the AK-47 has taken on symbolic value far heavier than the 8 pounds of wood and steel that make it up. It has become more than the sum of its parts, more even than a weapon. It is a statement, though of “what” has always depended on who wields it.

Design and Designer
The genesis of the Автома́т Кала́шникова – Kalashnikov’s Automatic Rifle – began as World War II was entering a crucial juncture. The German military had begun deploying a weapon that had long existed as a concept but had yet to be put into the field: the assault rifle.

The term “assault rifle” has been corrupted, abused, and treated carelessly by the modern media, but what was meant by “assault rifle” at this time was a versatile weapon capable of fully automatic and semi-automatic fire, taking on the role of machine gun or a rifle as required.

The German incarnation of this concept was the Sturmgewehr 44 – “StG44” – which took a shortened Mauser 7.92mm ‘Kurz’ cartridge. German command realized combat seldom took place beyond three-hundred meters, so for an assault weapon to remain practical, it required a cartridge that bridged the gap between a full-powered rifle cartridge and the compact pistol cartridges taken by submachine-guns. Together, this made for a versatile weapon, capable of selective semi-automatic fire and suppressive fully automatic fire.

The StG44 saw limited action on the Eastern and Western fronts, but proved that German small arms development was significantly more advanced than that of the Soviets. The battle rifle used by Soviet ground forces, the Mosin-Nagant, was a sixty-year-old design at the start of World War II. Under fully automatic fire, the unwieldy 48 inches of the Mosin-Nagant, with its five-round magazine and bolt action, must have felt very dated indeed.

Enter Mikhail Kalashnikov, whose weaponry innovations would change not only the lives of the Soviets, but those of countless societies throughout the world for decades to come.

Kalashnikov was the seventeenth of nineteen children. His family had been labeled “kulaks,” which translates roughly to “capitalist peasants.” They’d been banished to Siberia shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1919. In 1938, Mikhail Kalashnikov was conscripted into the Red Army. During the “Great Patriotic War,” as the Soviets called World War II, he was a mechanic working on T-34 tanks. When Kalashnikov was wounded in action in 1941 and subsequently recuperating in the hospital, he was asked something by the soldier next to him that would change the course of history.

“Why do our soldiers have only one rifle for two or three of our men, when the Germans have automatics?” the solider asked.

Instead of shrugging in agreement and passively lamenting the fact they were outgunned by the fascists, Kalashnikov decided to remedy the situation.

“I designed one,” Kalashnikov later said in an interview. “I was a soldier, and I created a machine gun for a soldier. It was called an Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic weapon of Kalashnikov—AK—and it carried the date of its first manufacture, 1947.”

The AK-47 was adopted by Soviet Command and put into production in 1948. By 1956, it had been issued to the majority of the Soviet ground forces. Much like the T-34 on which Kalashnikov had earned his mechanical stripes, the AK quickly earned an enduring reputation as a simple and reliable military workhorse. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Legend
The most novice, disinterested, and uneducated person can tell you at least something of the AK-47. I performed a small and very unscientific test on some unwitting participants, asking the following questions:

“If you had to guess, what would you say a FAMAS is?” Answers included a watch, a brand of car, and predictably, “I don’t know.”

“What about a Galil?”

“A meatball?” “A kind of antelope?”

“What is an AK-47?”

“A gun.” “A rifle.” “A weapon.” “A machine-gun.”

Everyone I asked knew it was a weapon. Everyone I asked also knew the design had originated in the Soviet Union (though some people said “Russia”). When I asked, “Why is it famous?” the answers got a little more abstract, but nonetheless telling. “Lots of terrorists use it.” “It doesn’t break.” “There are lots of them.”

Terrorists do use AKs, but so do freedom fighters. They can break, though tanks have driven over them, and they’ve been dropped in swamp, and filled with sand and snow, yet continued to work. This writer once heard a first-hand account (perhaps a very exaggerated or falsified one, but still fun to repeat) from a veteran of the AK-47 being able to fire with a dead rat lodged in the receiver.
As to there being “lots of them,” some estimates put one AK variant for every 35 people. That’s quite something. More conservative estimates suggest 100 million AKs have been produced.

The AK-47, for all its infamy, for how many it numbers, and for all the good and evil that has been done with it, remains a humble weapon. In its most original and basic form, it is simply wood and milled steel. No plastic. No integrated optics. Just open iron sights and a thirty-round magazine.

The gun’s simplicity is why it is so iconic and why it fascinates me personally. Other firearms may shoot better, be lighter, be more effective in the field, and so forth, but the AK has something that can never be taken from it, nor given to anything else. Something abstract and unmeasurable. It is the weapon of the everyman; designed by an everyman to be issued to an everyman. No glamour. Just wood and steel and the vision of the person behind it.

Sam Baker is an historian and firearms enthusiast writing from Pennsylvania. Contact him at s.baker.writes@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.

Photo Credit: Zane DeGaine

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.