The History of the Kalashnikov

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

Virtually everyonein 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 whocreated its prototype at the opening of the Cold War. The number signifies1947, the year the Soviet army accepted the prototype for mass production. Withits short barrel, stock stained a brownish orange, and distinctive banana clip,the AK-47 and its derivatives long ago transcended their medium. They are notmerely the world's most widely recognized firearms. They are among the world'smost widely recognized things.

Now nearly 60years and perhaps 100 million rifles later, Mikhail Kalashnikov is both ageneral in semiretirement and Moscow's unofficial firearms ambassador to theworld. He agreed to share with FIELD & STREAM his observations as adesigner and as a lifelong student of firearms, and to discuss his experiencesas a hunter and shooter.

On this day alimited-edition series of decorative daggers had been released for public sale,each bearing Kalashnikov's signature and the unmistakable silhouette of therifles he designed. The daggers, each of which would be offered for pricesrunning into the thousands of dollars, seemed to have been created as much toboost 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 reachedinto the decorative box, withdrew the diamond-studded weapon, and thrust andswung it a few times through the air. It was a reminder of just what a daggerdoes.

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

Of the many thingsthat the name Kalashnikov has come to symbolize, for better or for worse, oneis undeniable: functionality. Kalashnikov's series of rifles, now ubiquitous,achieved global circulation in part because of two reasons central to theirdesign. They are simple to use. And they almost never fail. In an industryoften enamored with the new, his rifles remain riffs on simplicity. They haveundergone only modest modifications in more than five decades.

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

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

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

His mind islargely decided. He designed firearms, he said, to defend the rodina--themotherland. When he set out to fulfill that task, parts of his homeland wereunder Nazi occupation. He does not rue his choices. "I am a gunsmith,"he wrote in his 1997 memoir. "That explains everything."

A Gun Born ofNecessity

Born in 1919, twoyears after the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Communists to power, he livedhis early years in poverty on the Altai steppe, one of 19 children his motherbore in a peasant home. The privations of Russian rural life in the early 20thcentury were such that of those 19 children only eight would survive. And thehardships of the steppe were soon exacerbated by the state-ordered miseries tocome. Stalin sought to bring the peasants under the socialist yoke, seizingtheir land, crops, and livestock and forcing them onto collectivized farms.

The Kalashnikovfamily would not be spared. Before Kalashnikov was a teenager, his family wasblacklisted and shipped to Siberia, where his father died trying to scratch outa living in a new land. The young Mikhail eventually fled exile and took up anillegal life in Kazakhstan--a daring move and a secret he would hide fordecades.

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

Germany invadedthe Soviet Union in June 1941. Kalashnikov, by then a sergeant, was injuredwithin months when a shell stopped his T-34 tank and sent shrapnel through hisshoulder. As Soviet history tells it, while Sgt. Kalashnikov recuperated, hebegan tinkering with infantry weapons, eventually setting his mind on designinga lightweight automatic assault rifle that would expel the better-armed Nazisfrom Russian soil.

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

It was called theMP44 Sturmgewehr (assault rifle), and it could fire in full or semiautomaticmode. Chambered for a revolutionary new cartridge, a short 7.92mm round thatwas less powerful than a full-size rifle cartridge, yet far more powerful thanthe pistol cartridges for which submachine guns were chambered, the Sturmgewehrmade a deep impression on the Soviets who faced it.

Borrowing,Brilliantly

"I worked forour soldiers," Kalashnikov said. "I knew that our soldiers did notstudy 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. Butthe fact that he had made it without advanced training or specialized tools,and on his own initiative, so impressed the Soviet officers who examined itthat Kalashnikov was transferred to a military design bureau.

As Kalashnikovworked, the Wehrmacht crested, withdrew, and collapsed. When the war ended, theRed Army sponsored a contest among firearms designers to create a new line ofrifles that would fire the 7.62x39, a "short rifle" round that wassimilar to the German cartridge. Kalashnikov was credited with developing therifle that won, the AK-47, which became the standard infantry rifle for theSoviet army.

What Kalashnikov'sdesign team did was not only to invent but to borrow and improve, oftenbrilliantly. As is common in firearms evolution, the automatic Kalashnikovbears 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 gastube, which operates the action, is located above the barrel. This helps keeprecoil in a straight line and reduces the rifle's climb during automaticfire.

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

Kalashnikov alsobuilt considerable "slop" into the gun. Its tolerances, by Americandesign standards, were huge. As Kalashnikov explains:

"Mr. Tokarev[Fedor V. Tokarev, a noted Soviet arms designer] used to say that all partsshould be put together as tightly as possible, so that not a fleck of dustcould get in between. I, on the contrary, was always saying that it must bedesigned so that even a handful of sand wouldn't stop the mechanismworking."

And it won't. Norwill mud, dust, rust, ice, powder fouling, and neglect--it makes no difference.The AK almost always keeps on firing.

Soviet designersnever 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 itscartridge (2300 fps) limits its effective range to 300 yards or less. Butwithin those limits, it is remarkably effective. As it happens, almost allcombat occurs within these ranges, making the Kalashnikov a tool that isactually matched to its task and not to chalkboard standards that rarely existin use.

The UniversalRifle

No one knows forcertain how many Kalashnikovs exist, but one point is beyond dispute: They arethe most abundant firearms on earth. Since the Red Army accepted the AK-47prototype, 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 incorporatingmain elements of the Kalashnikov operating systems, were developed in Finland,South Africa, Israel, and Sweden. A single comparison provides a sense of thescope of the Kalashnikov's spread. The second most abundant rifle on earth isthe American M16; roughly 8 or 10 million have been made. Serious estimates putthe number of Kalashnikovs and its derivatives as high as 100 million.

This vastcirculation has given rise to one of the enduring myths about the general--thathe has not enjoyed any material reward for the product made in his name. It'strue that he did not become a wealthy man, but he himself rejects wealth as theonly measure:

"I am toldsometimes, 'If you had lived in the West, you would have been a millionairelong ago.' Well, they value everything in that green stuff. But there are othervalues. Why don't they see these values?"

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

A KALASH IN YOURFUTURE? These days the path of the Russian firearms industry that is entwined with hisname is less clear. With the Soviet Union long past and the remnants of itsfirearms industry struggling, Izhmash, the factory in Izhevsk where Gen.Kalashnikov worked, is now partially privatized. Although it seems likely tocontinue providing rifles domestically, its future as an internationalheavyweight is uncertain, in part because it must compete with its previoussuccess. (Markets are already flooded with its durable guns, making it cheapertoday to buy a batch of excess AKMs, the successor to the AK-47, in a bazaaralong the Pakistan border than to purchase a similar quantity fromRosoboronexport, the Russian arms trading agency.)

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

The generalexpects that they will succeed, although it is too early to tell. "I thinkwith time American hunters shall hunt with guns designed by the man sitting infront of you," he told me. Such a notion would have been unimaginable notso many years ago. And the guns may not take. But when the general speaks, hedoes so with the knowledge that for half a century, everywhere Kalashnikovshave gone, they have found their followers and made their mark.

Anatomy of anAK-47

THIS IS ACROSS-SECTION OF AN AK-47 ADAPTED FOR MECHANIZED INFANTRY BY REPLACING THE WOODBUTTSTOCK WITH A PIVOTING METAL ONE.

Receiver The receiver and bolt have plenty of play in them, as do all the movingparts.

Fire Selector The rifle adjusts for semi- or full-auto fire via this selector lever on theright side of the receiver.

Magazine One of the trademarks of the Kalashnikov is the reddish plastic magazine. Itholds 30 rounds.

Gas Cylinder Its placement above the barrel lowers the line of recoil and makes the riflemore manageable.

Barrel The small powder charge of the 7.62x39 cartridge allows the use of ashort(16.34-inch) barrel.

Q + A WITHKALASHNIKOV

Given hisexperience at the center of the largest firearms enterprise on earth, F&Sasked Gen. Kalashnikov to discuss a variety of topics. Here is a selection ofhis answers, a window into his world.

On the differencesbetween a sporting and military rifle. A sportsman, unlike a soldier, does not have to run, jump, crawl, throw thegun, dive in the water, and so forth. Sporting guns are handled with more care.Also, the quality of the bore of a sporting gun is higher to ensure betteraccuracy. The weight of a sport gun is not of great importance. Some sportrifles are very heavy, hard to lift, but the accuracy is perfect. But for asoldier weight is very important. He has to carry so much himself, all hisammunition and so on.

On what he seeksin a sporting rifle. A hunting weapon should also work in any condition: when it is raining,snowing, when it is cold. The animal will not forgive your mistake if yourcarbine misfires or if the animal is wounded. So the hunting weapon must be asreliable as the military weapon.

On the differencebetween Russian and American sporting arms. They are very similar because approaches to sport shooting are similar all overthe world. I don't find any significant difference.

On the type ofhunting he prefers. The kind of hunting you choose depends on your age. There was a time when Iliked hunting waterfowl and upland fowl, hare, and big, hoofed animals. But oneneeds stamina to hunt this kind of game. To get a hare you must really run andjump a lot. At my age I cannot do it anymore. Or take a wood grouse. It is noteasy to hunt grouse at my age: You need good hearing because you can move onlywhen the dog bells. When it stops belling, you must stop moving. Now I have"professional deafness," and I only scare the bird.

These days I huntonce a year for big game, the moose. I go with a team of hunters. We've workedtogether and known each other for a long time. I tell you what: I am alwaysupset if we kill the game from the first attempt in a first drive. I would liketo stay in the forest longer to extend the communion with nature. And when westay there long, make two, three, four, up to five drives, it is moreinteresting, there is something to talk about afterward, let alone thecommunication with other hunters, communion with the forest and nature.

On teaching, orimproving, marksmanship. Lecturing on the subject is of no use. Of course, it is necessary to know basicrules, but only shooting helps to get the feel of it. One should get accustomedto the sound of a shot. Even trigger pulling needs practicing, especially ifthe hunter is not accustomed to the sound and is all tense expecting it.Shooting and more shooting! This is my answer to this question.

On what to expectof new firearm design. Firearms development will depend on the appearance of a new cartridge. It isthe common practice here and in the United States and any other country. We doour work on the basis of a new cartridge. When a new type of ammunition isdeveloped, we start working on a new model. We designers are the second stageof the process: first the cartridge, then it is our turn.

On whether smallarms design is a mature field. Small arms were first to appear and will be last to die.

For a huntingstory Kalashnikov shared with the author, go tofieldandstream.com/kalashnikov

[See Caption Above.]