The AK-47: How one Soviet citizen armed the Soviet Union’s Red Army — and virtually every group of coup plotters, terrorists, and revolutionaries the world over.
The story of the AK-47 begins in the aftermath of the Second World War. The United States and their allies — including the Soviet Union — had entered the jet age, and made huge technological advances. Barriers that once seemed surmountable, such as flying at the speed of sound fell like a house of cards. Aircraft capable of mind-numbingly fast Mach 3 speeds became not unusual. The nuclear arms race was also underway, and saw American and Soviet nuclear weapon stockpiles ballon in size.
And while the revolution in aviation and nuclear weapons was defined by feats of engineering and technological know-how, a much quieter revolution was also underway, one that didn’t involve flying or the splitting of the atom — but rather the rifle.
In 1947, a relatively unknown Russian small arms designer named Mikhail Kalashnikov perfected his new rifle design. The rifle’s humble design borrowed heavily from late-war German designs that, while capable, came too late in the war to turn the tide in Nazi Germany’s favor.
Kalashnikov’s rifle followed the strict design requirements handed down by Soviet higher-ups: The rifle had to have a high rate of fire like a submachine gun, but have greater range and stopping power than what those pistol-caliber guns could offer. Soviet ammunition experts designed the cartridge that would fulfill these requirements, demanding that the intermediate 7.62×39mm cartridge be used.
The result was the iconic AK-47 rifle, considered by many to be the most-produced rifle in history, with roughly 100 million-plus in existence, and representing perhaps 20 percent of the world’s firearms.
Strength in Numbers
The AK-47 is still prized today for its simplicity and robust design, while able to remain combat-effective in the most austere, rugged conditions.
Though not known for its accuracy, the rifle has nonetheless been manufactured by dozens of countries the world over, with workmanship varying from high-end, precisely made weapons to AKs of questionable quality. Literally hundreds of AK-copies and derivative designs exist today, many of which remain standard-issue for both the Russian military as well as other countries.
In the mid-1970s, the AK-47 was supplemented, then gradually superseded by the AK-74, a similar assault rifle design chambered in the smaller 5.45×39mm cartridge.
In an interview, Mikhail Kalashnikov expressed no qualms about the design, despite the weapon’s use in countless wars, coups, and revolutionary movements. “Blame the Nazi Germans for making me become a gun designer,” he said in an 2007 interview. “I always wanted to construct agriculture machinery.”
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.