Designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov after the Second World War, the AK-47 has remained one of the most recognizable and even infamous small arms in the world. Since its introduction in the late 1940s, more than 75 million have been produced, and it has been a “go-to” weapon for movies, TV shows, and video games. The Kalashnikov family of small arms is of course more than just the AK-47 – the original design has been improved, enhanced, and upgraded.
As a result, the Kalashnikov has become one of the most prolific series of weapons ever produced. According to a World Bank Policy research paper, published in 2010, of the estimated 500 million firearms in the world, more than one-fifth were based on the weapon designed by the self-taught Kalashnikov.
Did The Soviet Peasant Have Help?
Questions have repeatedly been asked in recent years regarding how much outside assistance Kalashnikov, the peasant engineer, actually had in the firearm’s design. It has been suggested that Kalashnikov may have taken ideas from a concept first devised by gun designer Alexei Sudaev and improved it – likely with insight and/or input from German designer Hugo Schmeisser, who was forced to work for the Soviets after World War II.
Regardless of who exactly created the AK-47, or at least played a role in its development, it has remained a weapon known for its reliability. It is a weapon used by insurgent forces around the world in some of the harshest conditions. Those carrying it may have been dedicated to their respective cause, but likely lacked the discipline of a professional army – where countless hours are spent cleaning and maintain a weapon.
To that end, the AK-47 has been ideal for those who don’t adhere to “spit and polish” type drilling. Instead, the weapon was developed based on experiences gained when Russian soldiers – many of whom were conscripted to defend the motherland – fought for their very survival. It wasn’t uncommon for those conscripts to be deployed to the front line almost immediately, with little training and almost no instruction on weapons maintenance.
“There are several reasons why AK is one of the most reliable assault rifles,” Vladimir Onokoy, head of the Department for Military-Technical Cooperation of the Kalashnikov Concern, maker of the AK-47, told Russia Beyond.
“The first reason is the Russian system for weapons testing and evaluation,” Onokoy. “Created after WW2, this system analyzed the experience of the Great Patriotic War and, consequently, new improved requirements for small arms were established. Since then, the top priority has always been reliability – if a firearm does not work in the actual environment where it will be used, the rest simply won’t matter.”
Minimal Cleaning Still Required
Today the Russian Army may put far greater emphasis on cleaning of weapons to ensure they’ll function in the field, yet the same can’t be said of the less professional forces that have continued to utilize the AK-47 and other Kalashnikov small arms. The Taliban could be one of the most recent examples of a force that utilized the assault rifles in harsh conditions because it was reliable.
Knowing that weapons need to function even if the soldier fails to do the bare minimum, the AK and its derivatives have been refined to further make certain the weapon is ready for use in any environment. The AK is unique from other designs in that it has a minimum number of moving parts, while it is built around a simple concept that can help expel dust and dirt from the weapon. Likewise, while other guns can jam if the action is fouled with sand and other debris, the AK’s gas system is adjusted to ensure sufficient speed of the moving parts to keep it operational in nearly any environment.
“The quality of production and the amount of work put into the new generation of the AK by the design engineers,” said Onokoy. “They research, test, and go into every detail. As a result, when Russian made AKs were tested along with AK replicas made in other countries, only the Russian AKs would pass the tests.”
This isn’t to say that the weapon is self-cleaning – and no weapon can operate indefinitely without basic maintenance, but the AK is simply more forgiving.
However, its reliability does come with a notable tradeoff. It lacks the accuracy of the American M16 line of weapons. This may explain why as the Taliban captured vast quantities of American-made weapons they quickly swapped out their battle-proven AKs for the M16. Now that the fighting could largely be over, the M16 might be the weapon to maintain the peace, even if the AK proved crucial in the Taliban’s victory.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.