Russian inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov (born 1919) designed the most ubiquitous gun in the history of modern armaments, the AK-47. Known more fully as the Avtomat Kalashnikova Model 1947, the infamous Kalashnikov rifle was developed for Soviet army soldiers by one of their own, and went on to become the most manufactured gun in the history of weaponry, with an estimated 100 million produced by the start of the twenty-first century. Interviewed in 2003 by British journalist Nick Paton Walsh for the Guardian newspaper, Kalashnikov expressed no regret about the ultimate human cost his invention unleashed on the world. “I sleep soundly,” he told Walsh. “The fact that people die because of an AK-47 is not because of the designer, but because of politics.”
Kalashnikov was born in 1919 in the town of Kuriya in the Altai Republic in Siberia. He came from a poor peasant family in this steppe region, and was one of 17 children born to his mother, but one of just eight who survived to adulthood. The Soviet Union's forced collectivization of agriculture a few years after his birth brought severe hardships for the family, as their meager land and livestock holdings were seized by the state and they were ordered to work on large collective farms instead. His father was one of the many who resisted, and died in a labor camp in the more frigid part of central Siberia.
Fled into Kazakhstan
Kalashnikov was a tinkerer from an early age, and claimed to have made his first gun at the age of ten, which fired matchsticks. He quit school after word spread in his village that he was fixing an old Browning pistol that he had found—possessing a firearm in the Stalinist-era Soviet Union was tantamount to a death sentence—and fled to neighboring Kazakhstan, though he did not possess the necessary international travel documents and residency papers. He lived underground, but managed to obtain work as a clerk for the Turkistan-Siberian railroad.
At the onset of World War II in 1939, Kalashnikov was drafted into the Soviet Army, and by the time the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, he had reached the rank of tank sergeant. In his spare moments, he worked on improvements for the T-34 tank vehicles of his division, such as a device that counted the number of rounds fired from the machine gun mounted on the tank that let the personnel know when ammunition was running low. The German-Soviet encounters in the western regions of the Soviet Union were some of the most pitched and longlasting battles in the entire war, with heavy civilian casualties and vicious reprisals carried out by both sides. Thanks to Germany's long history of industrial development, the Nazis went to war with excellent rifles that were known as Sturmgewehr 44, abbreviated as the StG44, with Sturmgewehr translating as “assault rifle.” The Soviet Red Army, by contrast, still used an archaic single-shot rifle.
Kalashnikov was wounded in the Battle of Bryansk in October of 1941, a 19-day fight that took place about 200 miles from Moscow. The Germans annihilated Bryansk, and Kalashnikov suffered a shrapnel hit to left shoulder, but it took another week for him to reach medical facilities because of the fighting. Given a six-month leave by the Army to recuperate, he went to Almaty, the main city in Kazakhstan, and visited his former colleagues at the rail yard. He had already been thinking of a new kind of assault rifle, and manufactured a prototype with the help of the metal workers at the yard. When he showed it to a Red Army officer, Kalashnikov was recommended for a new assignment, this one with the firearms lab of the Aviation Institute in Kazakhstan.
Won National Competition
In 1943, Soviet arms engineers created a new gun cartridge—the cylindrical case that holds an explosive charge along with ammunition and is inserted into a gun— and asked him to develop a prototype for a gun that it would fit. He worked on that project until the war's end, when the Red Army announced a contest to create a new automatic weapon, and Kalashnikov beat out several other professionals with the winning design. He called it the “Mikhtim” after his first and middle names, Mikhail Timofeyevich, though the second name is known as a patronym in Slavic nomenclature and is the name of one's father. The rifle went into production in 1947 as the AK-47. Two years later, it became the standard-issue weapon for the entire Soviet Army.
Kalashnikov's rifle was easy to manufacture, requiring few advanced technical skills, and had just eight moving parts, which made it easy to take apart, clean, and put back together. Even if not maintained properly, however, it still fired accurately. The Soviets put it into production at several sites, and also licensed its manufacture in countries that were its Cold War allies, including Poland, Bulgaria, China, Iraq, and North Korea. Kalashnikov, meanwhile, spent much of his career with the Red Army as a designer of small arms working out of Izhevsk, a city in the southern Ural Mountains that was the Soviet Union's center of weapons manufacturing and closed to visitors. He was known to have supervised two famous German weapons experts, Hugo Schmeisser and Werner Grüner, who were forcibly relocated there in the years following World War II but released in the early 1950s. He also developed the PK Pulemyot Kalashnikova or Kalashnikov machine gun, as well as the RPK, the Ruchnoi pulemyot Kalashnikova or Kalashnikov light machine gun.
Meanwhile, Kalashnikov's AK-47 began to achieve a certain level of notoriety. In 1964, rebels in the African nation of Congo were using them in a struggle that pitted them against U.S.-backed forces, and in the late 1960s they became a status symbol for Arab commandoes across the Middle East. A factory in Egypt manufactured them for Syrians, who in turn provided aid to Al Fatah and other guerrilla organizations that were fighting Israel. Esquire's Guy Martin explained their impact on the developing world, asserting that “Kalashnikovs have decided the fates of nations by enabling people who could not afford to determine the shape of a battlefield to decide where war was possible.”
Beloved by Soldiers
Kalashnikov's rifle was used by the North Vietnamese Communist forces during the Vietnam War, and their superiority was well-known to U.S. soldiers, some of whom preferred to trade their inferior, problem-plagued assault-rifle counterpart, the M16, for the Soviet-made gun when AK-47s were captured along with enemy troops. Writing in Field & Stream C.J. Chivers noted that the name Kalashnikov had become synonymous with “functionality. Kalashnikov's series of rifles, now ubiquitous, achieved global circulation in part because of two reasons central to their design. They are simple to use. And they almost never fail.”
At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, an Arab group took several Israeli athletes hostage with the help of the barrels of their AK-47s, which they used to break into the Israeli team members' rooms in the Olympic Village dormitory compound. Later that decade, when the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan, the resistance movement of mujahadeen fighters were backed by the United States, which sent Kalashnikov rifles into Afghanistan via Pakistan. Those weapons were later used by the Taliban fighters in their attempt to establish an Islamic theocracy in Afghanistan in the 1990s. By that point, the Kalashnikov had even made its way to the United States, and was the weapon of choice in urban gang warfare. In cities like Los Angeles or New York City, they fetched prices as high as $600 each. Fifty years after they first went into production, the official count for the number of Kalashnikovs produced was 70 million, but unofficial totals added at least another 30 million to that number.
Kalashnikov never benefited financially from his invention, since it took place in the Soviet era of collective labor. He was lauded, however, as “Hero of Socialist Labor” and was given a seat on the Supreme Soviet, and remained a celebrated figure. His milestone birthdays became occasions for civic celebrations in Izhevsk, and in 1994, when he turned 75, Russian President Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007) said that a patent might be in the works. That never happened, but the cash-strapped former Soviet state found other ways to capitalize on the world-famous Kalashnikov name, including a vodka brand and a line of hunting knives. The city also opened two museums dedicated to his invention, and honoring his lifetime of service.
Regretted Mass Production Numbers
In the interview with Walsh for the Guardian years later, Kalashnikov—having risen to the rank of general— was able to speak freely about his thoughts on the matter. “I made it to protect the motherland. And then they spread the weapon [around the world]—not because I wanted them to. Not at my choice. Then it was like a genie out of the bottle and it began to walk all on its own and in directions I did not want.” He repeated the same sentiments when Chivers, writing for the New York Times, visited Izhevsk for the general's 80th birthday celebrations in 2004. Noting that the AK-47 was designed to save the Soviet Union from the Nazi threat, he reflected that “it is a pity it was used in other inadmissible conflicts.” Chivers found Izhevsk an aging city, no longer closed to outsiders but struggling with the loss of manufacturing jobs. “Like the city he helped put on the map, General Kalashnikov still flashes fondness for much of the socialist ideal,” Chivers wrote. “As he worked the crowd this week, he used the word tovarishch, or ‘comrade,’ not with the bitter irony of some post-Soviet Russians but with casual sincerity. He wore a medal bearing Lenin's intense, jaw-forward gaze. He spoke of the value of labor, not just to state but to self. ‘Work—and only work— can bring you to a high position,’ ” he was quoted as saying.
Esquire, June 1997.
Field & Stream, March 1, 2006.
Guardian (London, England), October 10, 2003.
New York Times, November 11, 2004.