It's the most effective killing machine in human history - a gun that, on its 62nd birthday, is still killing as many as a quarter of a million people every year, in every corner of the globe. Invented by a gifted tank mechanic to save Russia's motherland from the invading German hordes in WW2, the AK-47 went on to rise to global prominence during the proxy battles of the Cold War. Even today, the most poorly trained militia group becomes a force to be reckoned with once it finds a supply of AK-47s - such is its simplicity, reliability, affordability and sheer killing power. We take a look at this amazing weapon's history, its significance and its brutal dominance of world politics.
Setting aside moral considerations, the definition of a great invention, to me, is one that catches on. One that changes the way things are done, one that has a far wider impact than, perhaps, its inventor ever intended.
Of course, a great invention also needs to be really effective at its purpose. And this invention is a weapon. It was designed to kill people and win wars - a pretty distasteful topic and I hope you can bear with us through some grisly details, because if you can get past that, this is really quite an amazing story.
In terms of effectiveness, the weapon we're looking at is quite probably responsible for more deaths than any other individual model of weapon in human history. Sixty years after it was first launched, this weapon still kills around a quarter of a million people every year.
Beyond that, it has truly changed the course of human history in so many different conflicts that we hardly have time to discuss them. This is a weapon that you can introduce into a war zone, and suddenly David starts beating Goliath. In today's modern warfare, it's the tool that lets "freedom fighter" groups - or "terrorist" groups, depending on whose politics you follow - hold off entire armies of well-trained soldiers packing million-dollar weapons systems. It's the weapon that's making life so tough for the U.S. forces now occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is, of course, Mikhail Kalashnikov's assault rifle: the AK-47.
World War 2: The AK-47 is born
To look at what makes the AK such a brilliant invention, we need to look back to its origins in World War 2, during Hitler's surprise invasion of Russia.
Russia's defense of the motherland was pretty much a battle of attrition. Hitler knew he couldn't hope to clothe and feed millions of surrendered prisoners of war as he advanced through Russia - so from the earliest battles, the Germans were given clear instructions to go for encirclement maneuvers, which let them define anybody inside their circle as "behind their lines" and exterminate them. The Eastern Front ended up becoming the bloodiest battle in all history, with as many as 5 million killed on the German side and more than 10 million killed on the Russian side.
And this was a new type of warfare, as well, to what had previously been waged. Open-field and trench warfare was much less common than vicious urban skirmishes, with every Russian that was able to hold a rifle fighting to the last bullet and bayonet for his piece of ground. You could partly call this kind of resistance bravery - but it was also partly due to the fact that Stalin had a habit of making gruesome examples of any soldier that retreated against orders. So it was a case of die fighting or die in shame for a lot of those poor Russians.
Either way, the fighting was at close quarters and the Russians' heavy machineguns, light submachineguns and slow but accurate rifles were struggling to keep pace with the German Sturmgewehr, or "storm rifle," the first of the modern "assault rifles" and an excellent gun that combined the midrange abilities of a rifle with the close-quarters firepower of a machinegun.
Mikhael Timofeevitch Kalashnikov had seen the wrath of these new assault rifles first-hand. As a tank mechanic-cum-tank commander, he had been in charge of a tank as the Nazi forces descended upon the town of Bryansk, south of Moscow, in September 1941.
More than 80,000 people died in that battle, and only a fifth of the town remained standing. Kalashnikov's tank came under artillery fire and Mikhail fled with a wounded shoulder, eventually reaching a friendly hospital after a terrifying two-day walk filled with visions of what the Germans were surely doing to the comrades he left behind. These visions turned to nightmares when he made it to a hospital bed, and he became obsessed with the idea of designing a new weapon that could save the motherland.
It needed to match the Sturmgewehr's light weight and fast, automatic fire. It needed to be cheap and simple to manufacture. And perhaps above all, it needed to be capable of functioning reliably in the incredibly difficult and diverse conditions of Russian warfare; you had to be able to shoot, strip and clean it with gloves on. It needed to work wet, dry, full of mud or sand. It needed to operate with wide enough tolerances such that its metal could expand and contract between the icy Russian winter and the warm summer, and the gun would still operate. Kalashnikov made his first sketches right there in his hospital bed.
It took him until 1947 to perfect his design to the point where it would begin to proliferate through the Russian army. The Avtomat Kalishnikova 1947 - or AK-47 was born.
It was born too late to help in World War 2 - although the Russians' sheer grit and determination helped them to win that conflict and drive Hitler out. For the next several years, Russian soldiers were careful to keep their AKs concealed in special pouches to disguise their shape - such was their belief that this weapon had the ability to turn the tides of war.
In fact it wasn't until 1956 that the AK saw its first proper public outing, as Khrushchev dispatched the Red Army to quell an uprising in Budapest, Hungary. 50,000 Hungarians died in that battle, and only about 7,000 Russians.
The Cold War years - the AK becomes Russia's greatest gift to its allies
But the AK really took off over the next 25 years during the Cold War. As Larry Kahaner points out in his excellent Washington Post article, America and the U.S.S.R. both knew they were exposing themselves to the possibility of atomic attack if they were to face each other in direct warfare. Mutually Assured Destruction, as they called it, M.A.D.
So instead, each of these superpowers would quietly thwart the other's movements by sneakily supplying weapons to their enemy's enemies. Russia started quietly giving countries like China, East Germany and North Korea free licenses to start mass-producing the AK-47. Decades of Cold War aggression had the U.S. and U.S.S.R. fighting so-called "proxy battles" in distant countries with terrible fighting conditions, poorly-trained soldiers and virtually no infrastructure in place for weapons repair and maintenance.
And here's where the AK was absolutely perfect for the job. I mean, if you put the AK-47 up against the vast majority of American firearms, it looks like it comes up short on paper. It's well known to be wildly inaccurate due to its wide manufacturing tolerances and poor sighting equipment. If you watch one being fired in slow-motion, you can see the whole thing bending and flexing around with each shot, it looks like it's just about to fall apart - and that adds to the recoil effect, making it even less accurate if you're holding the trigger down in full-automatic machine gun mode. (See video)
So yes, the AK is absolute rubbish if you're shooting at a target or aiming for a fella that's running between bits of cover a couple hundred meters away. But, if you're fighting in the jungles of, say, Vietnam, where American troops first had to come up against the AK, the situation's a bit more like this: you're hiking through the dense, wet forest with your platoon, you can't see very far because of all the dense vegetation, your nerves are on a razor's edge because, any second, you might come across an enemy squad. Now, they've either been waiting for you and setting traps, or they'll be just as surprised to see you as you are to see them.
This is not an environment that rewards great accuracy. Half the time you're shooting before you've even seen where the enemy is, all you've got is a few muzzle flashes and noises to go by. The AK-47's lack of accuracy could almost be seen as an advantage in this kind of war theater; every group of shots gives a wider spray than with a more accurate gun; you've got a better chance of hitting something.
And while we're in Vietnam, let's remember that the AK was designed by a tank mechanic to be ready for action through that foul Russian winter that brought both Napoleon and Hitler to their knees. You can be sure of death, you can be sure of taxes, and you can be sure that your AK-47 will fire, no matter what.
The sheer reliability of this thing is absolutely astounding. There's videos all over the Internet of AKs being pulled out of sand, mud, water, running them over with Humvees... You can pull them straight out and start shooting. (see video)
There's a famous story of the American Army Colonel and military journalist David Hackworth coming across the body of a Russian soldier that had been dead and buried in mud for more than a year. He drags the soldier's AK-47 out of the earth, points it at the sky and fires a clean 30 rounds without even dusting it off.
If you look after a Kalashnikov, you can get up to 40 or 50 years' worth of active service out of them. Abuse the hell out of the thing with sand, water, poor maintenance and you might find it lasting a mere 20 years. And if a part does break, the design has proliferated to every corner of the globe and it's hardly changed in more than 60 years. You can grab a 1950 magazine and plug it straight into an AK that rolled off a Chinese production line yesterday and start shooting. It's like the Volkswagen Beetle of firearms.
So in Vietnam, when the American M-16 assault rifle started jamming in jungle warfare, you had this bizarre situation where U.S. troops would often throw away their slick, sophisticated firearms and pick up any AK-47 they could get their hands on from dead enemy soldiers. And this kind of thing starts a legend growing; all the might and money of the United States couldn't build a better gun than the cheap, simple communist Kalashnikov.
The AK's Russian winter origins had other advantages in Cold War conflicts; because it had to be designed to be completely operable and field-strippable in thick winter gloves, Mikhail Kalashnikov designed it to be exceptionally easy to use, clean and assemble. You can take a person off the street anywhere in the world, sit them down, and teach them how to own and operate an AK-47 in the space of a few hours. You don't need special equipment to clean them - in fact, if you tie a few knots in a bootlace and dip it in engine oil, you can drag it through the barrel and clean the thing as well as you need to.
You can see how this kind of everyman's weapon can start causing a bit of chaos once the genie's out of the bottle - you don't need to have a trained military to put up a solid fight if you've got these kinds of guns. All you need is local knowledge, and any kid with the guts to stand and fight for his home town can become a little Rambo. So America retreated from Vietnam, and Russian Communism took this as a great win.
The Genie is out of the bottle - the AK-47 bites Russia back
At this stage, the genie is starting to poke his head out of that bottle. Because now America realized what was possible when you gave Kaashnikov assault rifles to barely-organized militia groups in third world countries. So when the Soviets flooded into Afghanistan in 1979 to support the communist Afghan government against Islamic radicals, the U.S. saw its first chance to turn the famous Russian rifle back on its creators.
Over the course of the 10 years that Soviet forces spent in Afghanistan, The United States C.I.A. pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting the Mujahiddeen rebels, covertly channelling all kinds of weaponry their way - and significantly, arming them with Chinese and Egyptian Kalashnikov knockoffs by the container load from wherever they could be found. What the Soviets expected would be a short and decisive campaign turned into a bitter, unwinnable conflict, and the Mujahiddeen gave the Soviets every bit of the inglorious, embarrassing defeat that the Vietnamese handed out to the Americans.
Now the AK-47 had become a powerful symbol of resistance in the face of mighty superpowers - that familiar curved magazine started showing up on military statues all over the world. You wanna look like a strongman, hold up one of these things. All over Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East, counterfeit factories churned them out by the millions. Freedom fighters brandished their AKs in photos and videos in any corner of the globe where civil wars or resistance movements were breaking out, holding them up as if to say "we've got Kalashnikovs, and we're not gonna budge." It's become such a powerful political tool that it appears on the emblems of several war-torn countries - and features prominently on the flags of both Mozambique and the Hezbollah.
And if Afghanistan didn't totally let the genie right out of that bottle, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union was the last straw. Enormous stockpiles of Soviet weaponry, including massive numbers of AK-47s, flooded both the black market and official channels. Prices for this already cheap firearm came crashing down, to the point where in some parts of the world, the AK-47 is now cheaper to buy than a live chicken.
And of course, a lot of those AK47s that America bought for the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan are now being pointed right back at U.S. forces, because as it turns out, radical Islamists don't like American invasions any more than they like Soviet ones. We might like it when David beats those other Goliaths, but once people have a bunch of AK-47 assault rifles, they suddenly develop an ability to call the shots in their own homeland.
The AK-47 - still a deadly force in today's world
The World Bank now estimates that out of a total of around 500 million firearms in circulation around the world today, around a fifth are Kalashnikovs - and something like 75 million are AK-47s or counterfeit knock-offs.
Production continues in dozens of countries including Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Iraq, India, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Poland, Serbia and the Sudan. Pakistani tribesmen have pulled the thing apart, measured it up and started building their own. In fact, counterfeiting is so common around the world that Russia is starting to make some very capitalist-sounding copyright and patent complaints about this, the most communist of all weapons.
If it was possible to measure such things, you'd almost certainly find that the AK-47 has killed more people that any other weapon in history - and its horrifying tally is showing no signs of slowing down. We hear surprisingly little in the western world about the genocides in Darfur, Rwanda, the Sudan and other places around the world, but you can bet the AK-47 plays a major part.
And all this began with that sketch in Mikail Kalashnikov's hospital bed back in 1941. The AK-47 must go down as one of history's greatest ever inventions. It's more than 60 years old now, but it seems certain to make a huge impact on warfare and politics well into the forseeable future.
A last word from Mikhail Kalashnikov
Perhaps we'll leave the last word to Mr. Kalashnikov himself, who turns 90 this November and lives around the corner from the Kalashnikov museum in Russia's Ural Mountains. He's been recognized as a folk hero for his work - and while he doesn't make any royalties for his invention, he's been making a pretty penny off his own name brand of Vodka.
On the 60th anniversary of the AK's debut, Kalashnikov was asked if he had any regrets about creating the biggest killer the world has ever seen. He replied: "I invented it for the protection of the motherland. I have no regrets and bear no responsibility for how politicians have used it."
Imagine, though, turning on your television every night, and seeing that beautifully, perfectly functional shape you spent your finest years creating. That banana shaped magazine, that wooden grip that you spent so long perfecting. And there it is in the hands of an Osama Bin Laden, a South American revolutionary, a Somali pirate, a Burmese military policeman, creating death and destruction and genocide. That rogue genie that turns quick conflicts into long-fought, deadly battles. It's not lost on Mr. Kalashnikov. In another interview, he admitted: "I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work - for example a lawnmower."
For more information:
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more