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

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

From Soldier’s Vision to Soviet Workhorse (1945-1949):

According to BBC, the story of AK-47 begins with Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Red Army tank mechanic. Witnessing the limitations of Soviet firearms during World War II, particularly in harsh winter conditions, Kalashnikov envisioned a robust and user-friendly assault rifle. 

He began work on his design in 1945. The official trials in 1947 saw the birth of the Avtomat Kalashnikova (Automatic Kalashnikov), or AK-47, named after the year of its development.

The AK-47’s genius lies in its simplicity. Unlike its contemporaries, it prioritised reliability over ornate features. A stamped steel receiver kept costs low, while a gas-operated system ensured smooth operation even with minimal maintenance. This focus on practicality resonated with the Soviet military, leading to its official adoption in 1949.

Experimental AK-47 assault rifle, photo from the 1947 trials report. (Photo Credit: modernfirearms.net)

According to CNN, here are the basic details of the AK-47 rifle:

Primary function: 7.62-mm assault rifle

Weight: 9.4 pounds (4.3 kilogrammes) with a 30-round curved box magazine

Rate of fire:

100 rounds per minute (sustained)

600 rounds per minute (cyclic)

Effective range: 990 feet (300 metres)

Other features:

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

Experimental AK-47 assault rifle in disassembled form. (Photo Credit: modernfirearms.net)

A Global Phenomenon: Proliferation and Impact (1950s-Present):

The AK-47’s impact goes far beyond the Soviet Union. The Cold War saw the weapon become a cornerstone of Soviet foreign policy. Friendly nations received vast stockpiles, fostering an environment of proxy conflicts across the globe. 

The Vietnam War exemplified this, with North Vietnamese forces wielding the AK-47 against American troops equipped with the more complex M16. While the US ultimately won the war, the AK-47’s effectiveness exposed the limitations of high-maintenance weaponry in guerrilla warfare.
Beyond state actors, the AK-47 became a prized possession for rebel groups due to its affordability, ease of use and abundance on the black market. 

The fighters in Afghanistan, for instance, used the AK-47 to successfully repel the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. This success story emboldened resistance movements worldwide, transforming the AK-47 into a potent symbol of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles.

AK-47 assault rifle, manufactured in 1948 for field trials. (Photo Credit: modernfirearms.net)

Economic and Industrial Impact:

The AK-47’s proliferation was not just driven by military strategy; economic factors played a crucial role. The Soviet Union prioritised mass production, utilising stamped steel components and innovative manufacturing techniques to keep costs low. This focus on affordability, as scholar Matthew Carr argues in his book ‘The Kalashnikov Rifle: The Arms Maker and the Weapon Changed the World’, allowed the Soviets to not only equip their own vast army but also flood the international market with cheap, reliable AK-47s.

Furthermore, the Soviet Union employed a novel licensing strategy. Eastern Bloc nations like Bulgaria, Romania and (formerly) East Germany were granted permission to produce the AK-47 under license. This not only expanded production capacity but also created a network of regional suppliers, further accelerating the weapon’s global reach. According to Mikhail Kalashnikov himself, in his autobiography ‘The Gun Designer’, over 20 countries produced some variant of the AK-47 by the end of the Cold War.

‘Weapon of the Century’

The AK-47’s ubiquity is staggering. Countless articles, documentaries, books, and even movies mention its impact on global conflicts and the black market. A prime example is the documentary ‘Weapon of the Century.’ It takes viewers on a chronological journey through various wars, showcasing how the AK-47 adapted to each specific scenario. From frigid battlefields to dense jungles and even urban environments, the documentary builds the AK-47’s legend, tracing its path from battlefield trials to an enduring legacy.

AK-47: A Legacy of Power and Paradoxes

The AK-47’s legacy is a complex one. It is both a tool for liberation and an instrument of destruction. While its design brilliance and global reach are undeniable, its impact on individuals and societies has been far from uniform. As we move forward, understanding the multifaceted nature of this iconic weapon is crucial to addressing the challenges of global conflict and fostering lasting peace.

AK-47 Inventor Wrestled with the Moral Burden of Design

According to The BBC, Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, wrote a letter to Patriarch Kirill in May 2012, expressing fears of moral responsibility for the deaths caused by his rifle. He described enduring “spiritual pain” and questioned if he, as a Christian, was to blame. The letter, published in Izvestia, reveals his struggle with this guilt, signed as “a slave of God, the designer Mikhail Kalashnikov,” shortly before his death in 2013. Mikhail Kalashnikov died on December 23, 2013, at the age of 94.

 Few firearms hold the iconic status of the AK-47. Simple, reliable, and devastatingly effective, this assault rifle has transcended its military purpose to become a symbol of revolution, rebellion, and even national identity.    

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