Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer and developer of the ubiquitous AK-series of combat rifles, passed away in Russia at the age of 94. Born in 1919 as the son of peasants during the early years of the Soviet Union, he outlived his birth country to become one of the best-known names in the world today. It is a name that has many meanings in many different places, across a world shaped by the weapons he designed. In some parts of the world, his name was shortened to “Kalash,” and was given as a title of honor in warrior cultures like those in the Horn of Africa. His iconic AK-47 actually appears on the flag of Mozambique, a tribute to the combat rifle’s importance to their revolutionary origins. Most of all, more than 100 million of his classic AK-series rifles have been produced worldwide, making it the most widely produced and recognizable family of firearms in the history of the world. Not bad for a humble tank sergeant and tractor mechanic turned gunsmith and designer.
True gunsmiths have always been a rare and unusual breed of craftsmen. Their particular profession combines elements of engineering, machining, woodworking, blacksmithing, chemistry, and physics, and the best of them have names that transcend the weapons industry. Gunsmiths like Henry, Spencer, Browning, Thompson, and Garand all placed their names on the most personal of weapons that warriors have taken into battle over the past several centuries. It is a list that, more than a half-century ago, already included Mikhail Kalashnikov. However, if the Soviet Union had had its way, Kalashnikov’s name would’ve never become a household word.
It was about this time that his mechanical tinkering turned to genuine invention, as he began to work on small arms, which resulted in an award (a wristwatch) from no less than Georgy Zhukov, the future Marshall of the Soviet Union.
Following the Russian civil war, Kalashnikov’s family was deported to Siberia, where they scratched out a living as peasant farmers and hunters. Along the way, the young Kalashnikov learned to shoot and developed his skills as a mechanic. By 1938, he had been conscripted into the Red Army, where his mechanical skills and diminutive size almost automatically sent him into tanks. It was about this time that his mechanical tinkering turned to genuine invention, as he began to work on small arms, which resulted in an award (a wristwatch) from no less than Georgy Zhukov, the future Marshall of the Soviet Union.
With the start of the Great Patriotic War in 1941, Kalashnikov found himself in combat, and was wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Bryansk in October of that year. Hospitalized until April of 1942, he heard his fellow soldiers complaining about their rifles, and began to think about how he might improve upon the existing small arms of the Red Army. Kalashnikov’s first firearms design, a submachine gun, never made it into production, though it did garner the attention of the Central Scientific-developmental Firing Range for Rifle Firearms of the Chief Artillery Directorate of the Red Army, to which he was duly assigned. His next design effort would start him on the road to becoming a firearms legend.
The beginnings of the AK-series rifles can be traced to the appearance of a new German infantry weapon in late 1943: the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44 – which literally translates to “storm” or “assault” Rifle). The StG 44 (which was also known as the MP 43/44) was designed to replace conventional rifles, carbines, and submachine guns with a single weapon, firing a lightweight, intermediate (between rifle and pistol caliber) size 7.92X33mm Kurz cartridge. Able to fire both single shots and fully automatic bursts, the StG 44 was the template for every assault rifle design in the world today. The Red Army, which was on the receiving end of those early StG 44s in combat, quickly saw the value of such a weapon, and created their own lightweight, intermediate cartridge – the M43 – that measured 7.62X39mm. Kalashnikov’s first attempt to design a weapon using the M43 cartridge was a carbine, which lost out to a competing design (the SKS from the Simonov Bureau).
Kalashnikov, however, saw the possibilities of both the M43 and a weapon like the German StG 44, and begin to work on one in 1945. His “Maxim” assault rifle design won a Red Army competition in 1946, and became the basis for his Avtomat Kalashnikova Model 1947 (Automatic Kalashnikov 1947), which was issued to Soviet troops in 1949. Gas operated, and capable of both semi- and full- automatic fire, the AK-47 was initially as much a secret as the Soviet atomic bomb. Publicly released photos of the weapons were forbidden for years, and troops equipped with the weapons had to carry them in special bags to conceal their details. Ironically, the basic form of the AK-47, especially the 30 round “banana clip” magazine, today makes it one of the most recognizable firearms in history.
At the time, the AK-47 was almost a decade ahead of contemporary Western designs, which tried to use full-size rifle caliber cartridges like the NATO 7.62X51 mm round. These weapons, like the American M14 and Belgian Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal Fusil Automatique Léger (FAL – for Light Assault Rifle) were nearly uncontrollable when firing at full automatic. Not until the introduction of Eugene Stoner’s Armalite AR-15/M16 in the 1960s, with its M193 5.56X45mm intermediate cartridge, did Western military forces have anything like AK in service. And even then, Kalashnikov’s rifles often bested the Western designs, even in the hands of untrained insurgents and rebels.
In fact, it was that ability of the AK-series rifles to be operated and maintained by peasants, to be able to fire under almost any condition or circumstance, that has made its legend over the past seven decades. To say that Kalashnikovs are tough it is an understatement. Some have literally been run over by tanks, picked up out of the mud, and fired straight away without problem. From the beginning, Kalashnikov had designed the AK-47 with fairly “loose” tolerances between the moving parts, meaning that dust, mud, moisture, and other contaminants would make jamming unlikely. His use of lightweight, stamped metal parts and a highly adaptable design, including versions with folding stocks and re-chambered to use the Soviet 5.54X39 mm round, has made them popular across the globe. The simple design meant that it could be maintained and cleaned by virtually anyone, with little more than a rag and some motor oil.
To say that Kalashnikovs are tough it is an understatement. Some have literally been run over by tanks, picked up out of the mud, and fired straight away without problem.
Despite the incomparable successes of his firearms designs, which also included machine guns and shotguns, it might surprise many people to find out that Kalashnikov was not a wealthy man. In fact, outside of military circles, his story was little known prior to the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union. Despite this, he leaves behind a resume that few others of his unique profession can claim. For his life’s work, he was made a lieutenant general in the Red Army, and awarded virtually every decoration that was possible, including Hero of the Russian Federation. And despite more than 100 million of his rifles being produced worldwide, he enjoyed only a modest financial reward, since the basic AK-47 design was only patented in 2007. Despite this, Kalashnikov survived the demise of the Soviet Union and the rough post-Cold War years in relative comfort compared to so many of his countrymen. And on the rare occasion of his traveling overseas or hosting visitors, he was showered with the richly deserved compliments and accolades that were his due, as probably the last great gunsmith in human history.