New Delhi: Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov died on December 23 at the ripe old age of 94. Long before he passed away, the lieutenant-general's name had become synonymous with the most popular weapon of all time. His greatest invention, the AK-47 assault rifle, and its variants, will find mention in any history of armed conflict since the 1950s.
Along with its successors, the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947, as it is officially designated (from its year of induction), has been manufactured under licence, or ripped off, in at least 30 countries. Over 100 million of these weapons are in existence.
It is standard issue for armed forces in over 100 countries. It is also the weapon of choice for guerrillas and terrorists. The AK features on the flag of Mozambique, commemorating its role in that nation's independence struggle. It also features on the Hezbollah flag.
It is the strictly utilitarian concepts underlying the design that makes the rifle special. It was designed by a citizen soldier, for use by raw conscripts with little or no formal training. It is light enough at under four kg, fully-loaded to be lugged around by anyone and unfortunately, it has been used a lot by child soldiers.
The rifle can be dropped in mud, or water, or used in sub-zero conditions or blazing desert heat without recourse to cleaning, or special lubricants. It can be disassembled and put back together by anyone with two hands and 15 minutes training.
Kalashnikov hailed from a family deported to Siberia in one of Stalin's purges. The mechanically gifted teenager was conscripted into a Red Army tank brigade in 1938. His tinkering rapidly attracted attention. By the time Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the young tank commander had already invented an automatic ammunition counter for tank shells.
He was shot up in October 1941, and hospitalised until mid-1942. In hospital, Kalashnikov fraternised with wounded infantrymen, who complained about the poor quality of Soviet rifles. These were heavy with slow rates of fire; they required frequent cleaning and often jammed.
That feedback led him to design a better weapon. He knew that the Red Army was conscripting pretty much every able-bodied human being and throwing them into battle with an average of a fortnights worth of training. As a Siberian, he knew all about the famous Russian winter when engine oil and gun lubricants froze, and the less-famous Russian spring, when snowmelt turned roads into six feet deep rivers of mud. The weapon had to be cheap and easily mass-produced as well.
Those constraints drove design. Kalashnikov studied the best German weapons. He borrowed the gas-regulator from the German Mp43 and Mp44 (Maschinen Pistole 43, 44). He also adapted the trigger and safety mechanism of the American M1 Garand. It took him several years and multiple iterations before he got the design right, and the rifle entered service in 1947.
The AK-47 was one of several Soviet weapons that used the mass produced 7.62 mm cartridge. It had a gas-regulator, which uses the recoil from a bullet to chamber the next round. The gas selector allowed single-shot (one bullet per trigger pull), burst fire (a specific number of bullets per pull) or automatic mode (bullets fired so long as the trigger is held down).
The gun was relatively light. Later versions got lighter. It was built with a lot of play between moving parts. The curved shape allowed ammunition to load smoothly from the 30-round magazine to the firing chamber. The bore, chamber, gas-piston, etc, were chromium-plated to resist corrosion from cartridge gases. These features adjusted for the tendency of most precision weapons to jam. That reliability turned into a USP for the AK-47 which proved impervious to dirt, mud, water and climatic vagaries.
The rifle isn't very accurate. But as Kalashnikov knew, most firefights are at close range where volume of fire counts more than pin-point accuracy. It could be fitted with a launcher or a cup to fire grenades. The stock could be modified or folded to shorten the weapon for easy carriage and concealment. The action could be redesigned to lie behind the trigger, "bullpup" fashion, to shorten the weapon more. Special sights could be mounted.
By the time Vietnam came around, the AK-47 was used in most Soviet client states, including China. The Israelis adapted the design for the Galil assault rifle. India's INSAS is also based on the same principles. US soldiers in Vietnam often preferred using captured AK-47s to their standard issue M-16 since the AK-47 was more reliable in the jungle and fired a bullet with more stopping power.
From China to Indo-China and Korea, to North East India and Bangladesh, the weapon was ubiquitous by the mid 1970s. It also flooded into Africa with its multitudes of civil wars, and into Latin America, where the drug lords loved it. After the Soviet Afghanistan adventure, it was used by both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
The cartridges have got smaller. Modern AK variants chamber 5.56 mm. The materials used include carbon composites, plastics, etc., which reduce weight. But most modern assault rifles continue to borrow from the AK-47 design.
Kalashnikov is once reputed to have said that he wished he had "also" designed a better lawn mower. The operative word is "also". While he regretted that the rifle was so often used by terrorists, he had created it at a time of great need during the "Great Patriotic War". The AK-47 is perhaps the iconic symbol of the last 60 years of conflict. Drones and smart bombs are be more fancy and high-tech but the "populist" AK-47 has killed more people than all of those.