Mikhail Kalashnikov: The Father of 100 Million Rifles

Editor’s Note: Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the gunsmith credited with creating the AK-47, died on Monday in the Russian city … Continued

Editor’s Note: Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the gunsmith credited with creating the AK-47, died on Monday in the Russian city of Izhevk. He was 94. In 2006, Field & Stream contributor C.J. Chivers wrote an extensive profile on the general. We have republished that story here.

The designer of the most successful rifle ever made sat at a table in a quiet corner of the Kremlin. He was nearly 86 years old, but he retained the upright posture of the general he is. His pale blue gaze was firm and clear.

Virtually everyone in the world has seen the firearm that bears his name, the AK-47. AK stands for “the automatic by Kalashnikov,” the one-time Red Army sergeant who created its prototype at the opening of the Cold War. The number signifies 1947, the year the Soviet army accepted the prototype for mass production. With its short barrel, stock stained a brownish orange, and distinctive banana clip, the AK-47 and its derivatives long ago transcended their medium. They are not merely the world’s most widely recognized firearms. They are among the world’s most widely recognized things.

Now nearly 60 years and perhaps 100 million rifles later, Mikhail Kalashnikov is both a general in semiretirement and Moscow’s unofficial firearms ambassador to the world. He agreed to share with Field & Stream his observations as a designer and as a lifelong student of firearms, and to discuss his experiences as a hunter and shooter.

On this day a limited-edition series of decorative daggers had been released for public sale, each bearing Kalashnikov’s signature and the unmistakable silhouette of the rifles he designed. The daggers, each of which would be offered for prices running into the thousands of dollars, seemed to have been created as much to boost profits for the Russian firm that makes them as to salute the general. And so when a craftsman presented him with the first dagger in the series, Gen. Kalashnikov seemed to recognize the incongruity of it all. He abruptly reached into the decorative box, withdrew the diamond-studded weapon, and thrust and swung it a few times through the air. It was a reminder of just what a dagger does.

The gesture was playful, but its message was implicit: Tools are supposed to be used. Things are only as good as they work.

Of the many things that the name Kalashnikov has come to symbolize, for better or for worse, one is undeniable: 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. In an industry often enamored with the new, his rifles remain riffs on simplicity. They have under gone only modest modifications in more than five decades.

Things are only as good as they work. This is Kalashnikov, man and gun. “Some people think a simple weapon means that it is a slapdash job,” he says. “They are wrong. To make something simple is a thousand times more difficult than to make something complex.”

I have met with the general several times in the last two years, visiting him at his dacha and in Izhevsk, a formerly secret city tucked deep in the forests of the Ural range where Kalashnikov rifles are made, and now here at the Kremlin. He is a small and spry man, with an often beguiling mix of Russian hospitality and military formality.

He is also a mass of paradoxes. He mixes nostalgia for the Soviet Union with an appreciation that his once-closed world has been opened. He is gentle and unfailingly polite but also impassioned and eager to refute his critics. He seems to wear the world lightly, but after spending years helping to arm the Soviet army and having seen his firearms end up in the hands of terrorists, he admits to pondering questions of the soul.

His mind is largely decided. He designed firearms, he said, to defend the mother land. When he set out to fulfill that task, parts of his homeland were under Nazi occupation. He does not rue his choices. “I am a gunsmith,” he wrote in his 1997 memoir. “That explains everything.”

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A Gun Born of Necessity
Born in 1919, two years after the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Communists to power, he lived his early years in poverty on the Altai steppe, one of 19 children his mother bore in a peasant home. The privations of Russian rural life in the early 20th century were such that of those 19 children only eight would survive. And the hardships of the steppe were soon exacerbated by the state-ordered miseries to come. Stalin sought to bring the peasants under the socialist yoke, seizing their land, crops, and livestock and forcing them onto collectivized farms.

The Kalashnikov family would not be spared. Before Kalashnikov was a teenager, his family was blacklisted and shipped to Siberia, where his father died trying to scratch out a living in a new land. The young Mikhail eventually fled exile and took up an illegal life in Kazakhstan—a daring move and a secret he would hide for decades.

By the time Kalashnikov reached conscription age and entered the Red Army, the Soviet police state had reduced his country to near paralytic terror. But the rise of Adolf Hitler and the threat of German invasion served as a unifying force for a nation that had turned on itself. With war approaching, Kalashnikov thrived in the army, finding in this social leveler a sense of purpose and an outlet for his energies. It was at this point that he showed the first hints of his design sense. The fugitive farm boy, with little formal training, invented a successful tachometer that could be installed in his unit’s tanks.

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Kalashnikov, by then a sergeant, was injured within months when a shell stopped his T-34 tank and sent shrapnel through his shoulder. As Soviet history tells it, while Sgt. Kalashnikov recuperated, he began tinkering with infantry weapons, eventually setting his mind on designing a lightweight automatic assault rifle that would expel the better-armed Nazis from Russian soil.

Soviet infantry fought World War II with two basic small arms: one was the badly outdated Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 bolt-action rifle. The other was the PPSh series of submachine guns, reliable arms that were effective but only at short range.Something better was needed, and that something was in the hands of the Nazi Wehrmacht.

It was called the MP44 Sturmgewehr (assault rifle), and it could fire in full or semiautomatic mode. Chambered for a revolutionary new cartridge, a short 7.92mm round that was less powerful than a full-size rifle cartridge, yet far more powerful than the pistol cartridges for which submachine guns were chambered, the Sturmgewehr made a deep impression on the Soviets who faced it.

Borrowing, Brilliantly
“I worked for our soldiers,” Kalashnikov said. “I knew that our soldiers did not study in academies. What they needed had to be simple and reliable.”

His first rifle,made in a Kazakh rail yard while he was on convalescent leave, was flawed. But the fact that he had made it without advanced training or specialized tools,and on his own initiative, so impressed the Soviet officers who examined it that Kalashnikov was transferred to a military design bureau.

As Kalashnikov worked, the Wehrmacht crested, withdrew, and collapsed. When the war ended, theRed Army sponsored a contest among firearms designers to create a new line of rifles that would fire the 7.62×39, a “short rifle” round that was similar to the German cartridge. Kalashnikov was credited with developing the rifle that won, the AK-47, which became the standard infantry rifle for theSoviet army.

What Kalashnikov’s design team did was not only to invent but to borrow and improve, often brilliantly. As is common in firearms evolution, the automatic Kalashnikov bears distinct traces of previous infantry weapons. From the Sturmgewehr MP44,the AK-47 assumed its silhouette: pistol grip; short barrel; high front sight;and long, slightly curved magazine. Also as with the MP44, the weapon’s gas tube, which operates the action, is located above the barrel. This helps keep recoil in a straight line and reduces the rifle’s climb during automatic fire.

Its bore and chamber were chrome-lined (as had been done with the Japanese Arisaka rifle). This reduces corrosion when the rifle is not cleaned. The action and trigger mechanism owe much to the American M1 Garand rifle. One element that made there combination so successful was the spareness with which it was done. There were few parts in this weapon, and very few moving parts. And they were all simple, strong, and relatively easy to assemble.

Kalashnikov alsobuilt considerable “slop” into the gun. Its tolerances, by American design standards, were huge. As Kalashnikov explains:

“Mr. Tokarev [Fedor V. Tokarev, a noted Soviet arms designer] used to say that all parts should be put together as tightly as possible, so that not a fleck of dust could get in between. I, on the contrary, was always saying that it must be designed so that even a handful of sand wouldn’t stop the mechanism working.”

And it won’t. Nor will mud, dust, rust, ice, powder fouling, and neglect—it makes no difference.The AK almost always keeps on firing.

Soviet designers never bought into the concept of precision fire for the average infantryman,and so the AK-47 is inaccurate by our standards, and the low velocity of its cartridge (2300 fps) limits its effective range to 300 yards or less. But within those limits, it is remarkably effective. As it happens, almost all combat occurs within these ranges, making the Kalashnikov a tool that is actually matched to its task and not to chalkboard standards that rarely exist in use.

The Universal Rifle
No one knows for certain how many Kalashnikovs exist, but one point is beyond dispute: They are the most abundant firearms on earth. Since the Red Army accepted the AK-47 prototype, licensed variants of that design have been made in at least 19countries, including Poland, Cuba, North Korea, East Germany, Bulgaria, Egypt,China, Russia, Romania, and Iraq. Knockoff versions, or weapons incorporating main elements of the Kalashnikov operating systems, were developed in Finland,South Africa, Israel, and Sweden. A single comparison provides a sense of the scope of the Kalashnikov’s spread. The second most abundant rifle on earth is the American M16; roughly 8 or 10 million have been made. Serious estimates put the number of Kalashnikovs and its derivatives as high as 100 million.

This vast circulation has given rise to one of the enduring myths about the general—that he has not enjoyed any material reward for the product made in his name. It’s true that he did not become a wealthy man, but he himself rejects wealth as the only measure:

“I am told sometimes, ‘If you had lived in the West, you would have been a millionaire long ago.’ Well, they value everything in that green stuff. But there are other values. Why don’t they see these values?”

He went on to list some of them: two museums built in his honor, 30 years in the Supreme Soviet, a huge bronze bust in the hometown from which his family was once exiled. Most of all he seems to value his reputation for selfless labor, a Soviet ideal he still holds dear.

A Kalash in Your Future?
These days the path of the Russian firearms industry that is entwined with his name is less clear. With the Soviet Union long past and the remnants of its firearms industry struggling, Izhmash, the factory in Izhevsk where Gen. Kalashnikov worked, is now partially privatized. Although it seems likely to continue providing rifles domestically, its future as an international heavyweight is uncertain, in part because it must compete with its previous success.

In recent years, Izhmash has tried a new approach to complement its past: manufacturing and marketing sporting firearms based on the Kalashnikov design system, including shotguns that it markets to upland bird and waterfowl hunters. It also makes bolt-action rifles for hunters and biathletes, all with solid wooden stocks replacing the laminated plywood furniture of the familiar military line. These sporting arms—including the Saiga semiautomatic shotgun and the Saiga semiautomatic rifles—have found a market in Russia and have started to turn up in the United States.

The general expects that they will succeed, although it is too early to tell. “I think with time American hunters shall hunt with guns designed by the man sitting in front of you,” he told me. Such a notion would have been unimaginable not so many years ago. And the guns may not take.

But when the general speaks, he does so with the knowledge that for half a century, everywhere Kalashnikovs have gone, they have found their followers and made their mark.