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How AK-47 Emerged As ‘Weapon Of The Century’

Russian general and inventor Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov poses with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The AK-47 assault rifle is a weapon widely known for its simplicity, reliability and effectiveness. Originally designed for military use, it has become a powerful symbol associated with revolution, rebellion and even national identity. However, this iconic firearm has also had devastating effects, causing countless deaths in the pursuit of wartime objectives, political agendas and social change.

From a soldier’s vision to the Soviet main weapon (1945-1949):

according to BBCThe story of the AK-47 begins with Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Red Army tank mechanic who, after witnessing the limitations of Soviet firearms during World War II, especially in harsh winter conditions, envisioned a rugged, easy-to-use assault rifle.

He began work on the design in 1945. Official trials in 1947 resulted in the Avtomat Kalashnikov (Automatic Kalashnikov), or AK-47, named after the year of its development.

The AK-47’s genius lies in its simplicity. Unlike its contemporaries, the AK-47 prioritized reliability over decorative features. Its stamped steel receiver kept costs down, and its gas-operated system ensured smooth operation with minimal maintenance. This no-nonsense approach resonated with the Soviet military, and it was officially adopted in 1949.

Photo of a Kalashnikov AK-47 prototype assault rifle, test report from 1947

Photograph of an experimental AK-47 assault rifle, 1947 test report.Photo credit: modernfirearms.net)

according to CNNThe basic details of the AK-47 rifle are as follows:

Key features: 7.62mm Assault Rifle

weight: 9.4 pounds (4.3 kilograms) with a 30-round curved box magazine

Rate of fire:

100 rounds/min (sustained)

600 rounds per minute (cyclic)

Scope: 990 feet (300 meters)

Other features:

It is one of the most widely used assault rifles since production began in the former Soviet Union in the early 1950s. The modern version is the AKM rifle. Iraq produced two copies of the Tabuk rifle, in 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm.

A disassembled experimental AK-47 assault rifle.

A disassembled experimental AK-47 assault rifle.Photo credit: modernfirearms.net)

Global Phenomena: Diffusion and Impact (1950s to Present):

The AK-47’s influence extended far beyond the Soviet Union. The weapon became a cornerstone of Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War. Friendly nations received large numbers of AK-47s, creating an environment of proxy wars around the world.

The Vietnam War demonstrated this, as the North Vietnamese used the AK-47 against American troops equipped with the more complex M16. Though the Americans ultimately won the war, the effectiveness of the AK-47 exposed the limitations of a high-maintenance weapon in guerilla warfare.
The AK-47’s affordability, ease of use, and abundance on the black market have made it a valuable weapon for insurgent groups beyond state agencies.

Afghan fighters, for example, used the AK-47 to repel a Soviet invasion in the 1980s, a success story that inspired resistance movements around the world and made the AK-47 a powerful symbol of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle.

An AK-47 assault rifle produced in 1948 for field trials.

An AK-47 assault rifle produced in 1948 for field trials.Photo credit: modernfirearms.net)

Impact on economy and industry:

The popularity of the AK-47 was not just a military strategy; economic factors also played a key role. The Soviets prioritized mass production, using stamped steel components and innovative manufacturing techniques to keep costs down. As scholar Matthew Carr argues in his book The Kalashnikov Rifle: The Weapon Manufacturer and the Weapon that Changed the World, this emphasis on affordability not only enabled the Soviets to equip their own vast military, but also to flood the international market with cheap, reliable AK-47s.

Additionally, the USSR employed a novel licensing strategy: Eastern Bloc countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and (former) East Germany were allowed to produce the AK-47 under license. This not only expanded production capacity but also created a network of regional suppliers, further accelerating the global spread of the weapon. According to Mikhail Kalashnikov’s own autobiography, “The Gun Designer,” by the end of the Cold War, more than 20 countries were producing some variant of the AK-47.

“Weapon of the Century”

The AK-47’s prevalence is staggering. Countless articles, documentaries, books, and even movies have documented its impact on global conflicts and the black market. Documentaries are a prime example of this. “Weapon of the century.” Viewers are taken through a chronology of different wars, showcasing how the AK-47 adapted to each specific scenario. From frigid battlefields to dense jungles and even urban environments, this documentary builds the legend of the AK-47, tracing its journey from battlefield testing to its enduring legacy.

AK-47: A Legacy of Power and Paradox

The legacy of the AK-47 is complex. It is both an instrument of liberation and an instrument of destruction. Its brilliance in design and global influence are undeniable, but its impact on individuals and societies has been uneven. As we move forward, understanding the multifaceted nature of this iconic weapon is essential to meeting the challenges of global conflict and fostering lasting peace.

The inventor of the AK-47 wrestled with the moral burden of the design

according to The B.B.C., Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47, wrote a letter to Patriarch Kirill in May 2012 expressing his fears about his moral responsibility for the deaths caused by his rifles. He said he was enduring “mental anguish” and questioned whether, as a Christian, he was responsible. The letter, published in the newspaper Izvestia, reveals his struggle with guilt and was signed “Slave of God, Designer Mikhail Kalashnikov” shortly before his death in 2013. Mikhail Kalashnikov died on December 23, 2013, at the age of 94.