Although the rifle is associated with the Soviet Union, its origin story lies in Nazi Germany.
A Forgotten History?
During the Second World War, both the Axis and Allies realized the battlefield utility of an assault rifle. However, “the world had yet to develop a reliable and lightweight automatic rifle, a firearm that could fire at the rate of a Maxim gun out to typical combat ranges and yet be managed by a single man,” explains the book The Gun.
Nazi Germany had done some initial work on creating a man-portable, magazine-loaded rifle with their Sturmgewehr 44, a weapon that is outwardly somewhat similar to what would become the AK-47. However, thanks to a special-made cartridge, the rifle was capable and controllable, significantly boosting an individual soldiers’ firepower.
However, the rifle entered production too late in the war to turn the tide in Germany’s favor. Still, the Soviet Union saw the utility of an assault rifle — and a particular well-known Soviet designer took a special interest, believing the design could help him with a Red Army project.
“Throughout fall 1945, Sergeant Kalashnikov and a larger design collective had worked on a submission for the contest’s first phase, which required competitors to submit a packet of technical specifications. The Main Artillery Department wanted a weapon that fired like a submachine gun but out to greater range. It issued the guidelines,” The Gun explains.
“The weapon must be compact, lightweight, highly reliable, simple to manufacture, easily operated, and composed of a small number of independent parts. And it must fire a new cartridge, only recently designed by Soviet ammunition experts. Sergeant Kalashnikov’s team made hundreds of sketches, detailing each of the proposed weapon’s main parts, trying to put a practical form to the commission’s request.”
The AK-47 was born.
Like its Nazi German predecessor, the AK-47 fired an intermediate cartridge, the now-ubiquitous 7.62x39mm, from magazines and was a mass-production dream, especially in later, more simplified variants.
The assault rifle conformed to some of the unofficial tenants of Russian weapon design: it is exceptionally robust and remains reliable even during extreme environmental conditions. In addition, it is cheap and straightforward to make. Although it is not particularly well-regarded for its accuracy, it is good enough considering the amount of abuse the rifle can sustain.
By 1947, the AK-47 became the standard-issue rifle of virtually all Soviet and Warsaw Pact militaries and would retain its primacy over other rifles for over a quarter of a century. The AK-47’s replacement, the AK-74, is chambered in a different cartridge but retains many of the features that made the original assault rifle so successful.
The Last Shot
Experts estimate that about a third of the estimated 500 million firearms worldwide come from the Kalashnikov family. According to expert estimates, approximately three-quarters of those are AK-47s, making Kalashnikov’s Nazi-inspired design the most prevalent firearm ever built.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.