Today in History: The AK-47

73 years ago the AK-47 was completed. Will Vega writes about its impact since then.

Kurdish YPG fighters using AK-47s in Syria (credit: Kurdishstruggle on flickr)

On Nov. 13, 1947 the Soviet Union completed the prototypes for the Avtomat Kalashnikova, abbreviated with the year of its development to the AK-47.

During World War II the Soviet infantry’s standard small arms were the PPSh-41 submachine gun and the Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle. Neither of these weapons were particularly strong in their era; the Mosin was prone to jamming and the PPSh-41, which fired handgun rounds, was inaccurate and limited by its stopping power.

German forces rolled out the Sturmgewehr 44 in 1944; too late to have any effect on the Second World War, it was nevertheless the first complete and effective assault rifle. The Soviet Union, very interested in the development of a weapon with the sustained firepower of a submachine gun with the cartridge size and ranged accuracy of a rifle, set to improve upon the model produced by German engineers. Three years after the end of the war, the AK-47 was ready.

Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Russian engineer, spent the years after WWII developing gas-operated mechanisms that allowed for the AK-47 to function. Gas-operated weapons, having seen their infancy in the late 1800s, use the pressure created by the explosion of the cartridge to animate the apparatus that ejects the casing and reloads the next cartridge into the chamber — the smoothness of which is necessary for automatic or semiautomatic weapons. Kalashnikov is occasionally mentioned as having stolen the designs of the AK-47 from other weapons, but as with all engineering, it uses the ground covered by previous models and carried them forward; the AK is often described as a hybrid of the best elements of the Sturmgewehr 44 and semiautomatic American M1 Garand.

The AK-47 was designed with three facets in mind: to be reliable, simple in its design, and quick and cheap to produce. The rifle uses steel components that are easy to form, and the nature of its long stroke gas system means it can withstand an exceptional amount of foreign matter — dust, mud, etc. — without jamming. There are countless impressive stress tests on YouTube of the AK being dunked in a slurry of filth and fired reliably.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union and United States each waged ferocious proxy wars in Second- and Third-World countries. When the U.S. didn’t engage directly as in Vietnam or Korea they provided sponsorship and weapons to militant groups in Laos, Cambodia and several other conflicts, often doing so with relatively expensive weapons like the M14 and M16. 

The AK-47’s simplicity and cost-effectiveness, however, meant that Soviet allies could get ahold of a large number of decent weapons in greater volume than Western-backed militaries or paramilitaries. In the 1980s, as the U.S. embargoed countries like Syria and Libya, the U.S.S.R. took the initiative on supplying arms. 

The AK-47 still stands as a symbol of revolution in the Third World. Mozambique features its design on their flag to represent the military conflict that the U.S.S.R. supported during their civil war. Copies of the rifle are produced to this day and are still used by paramilitaries around the world. Lots of Western media portrays villains, criminals and gang members wielding the gun, while in other parts of the world it is used as a representation of struggle against imperialism and colonialism (Ireland being a notable European example). 

Technology has moved forward since 1947, and the weapons field with it. But few small arms hold as much historical significance as the Kalashnikov, and (in my personal opinion) none with as much aesthetic and symbolic appeal.

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