Around the world today there are few weapons as recognizable and infamous as the AK-47. To some, it is a symbol of oppression; to others freedom.
A rifle that is so ingrained in the psyche of the world yet whose origin is surrounded in mystery. But how did a Soviet tank sergeant with no formal training or schooling in manufacturing help create the world’s most prolific weapon, and how has its decades’ old design remained current?
How did the idea of AK-47, come to light?
At the end of World War 2, the people of the Soviet Union were feeling a mix of emotions. On one hand, they were joyous that the deadliest conflict in history was over, but on the other, they were cautious.
The Soviet government vowed that no foreign power would ever invade Russian soil again. They ensured so by not only claiming over a dozen satellite states in eastern Europe but by investing heavily in their defense industry.
By this time, the Soviets, along with the rest of the world, realized the inferiority of bolt-action rifles. Bolt-action rifles, such as the Russian Mosin Nagant, were deadly accurate and packed a huge punch, but they severely limited the rate of fire of soldiers as well as the amount of ammunition they could carry.
Soviet designers had already been experimenting for years to develop a weapon that could give the average soldier the fire rate of a machine gun but the accuracy of a rifle. All of that would change with the prototypes of Mikhail Kalashnikov.
Who was Mikhail Kalashnikov?
Kalashnikov spent most of his formative years in the harsh winters of Siberia. It was probably here that he learned the value of being able to operate equipment in the most extreme environments.
In his early teens, in search of a better life and work outside his native Siberia, Kalashnikov took an over five hundred mile journey in search of work. He finally found a job at a tractor factory and showed such promising skill that he was allowed to work with the local Red Army unit to fit rifles into their stocks at their armory.
From here, he was drafted into the tank corps in 1938 and when Hitler invaded Russia he found himself caught up in some of the largest battles of the war. After barely escaping a battle with his life in the fall of 1941, Kalashnikov was recovering from his wounds in a hospital when he heard frequent complaints from fellow soldiers about the reliability and capability of their current infantry weapons.
His first design of submachine gun
Wanting to help answer their problems, he immediately set upon developing a reliable and accurate automatic weapon upon his discharge. Soviet authorities ultimately rejected his first design of a new submachine gun.
However, this project was not in vain since he did gain their respect and admiration that someone with no formal education could create such an impressive prototype. He was then given a job helping develop new small arms and ammunition for the Soviet military.
He designed AK-47 ammunition
His first breakthrough came in 1944 when he designed the ammunition for the AK-47, the 7.62x39mm cartridge. This cartridge was groundbreaking in that it had a low enough charge to not produce too much recoil but had enough weight to give it a fairly straight flight path and medium to long-range.
The weight and recoil are important since this would enable users to sustain accurate, fully automatic fire while also being able to carry large amounts of ammunition into battle.
Soviets main weapons designer got ill
Then, just after the end of World War 2, one of the country’s most famous weapon designers became ill. Aleksei Sudayev had grown to national fame throughout the war by helping design a new submachine gun during the Siege of Leningrad while surrounded by the Germans in starving conditions.
The weapon is credited with greatly increasing the firepower of Soviet soldiers and helping defeat the Germans there. This feat made him a national hero and the Soviet government asked him to develop a full-scale automatic rifle.
Sudayev’s first design, the AS-44, was determined adequate but too heavy. He was asked to make another design, but his illness caught up with him and he passed away in 1946. Not wanting to stall weapons’ development after the loss of Russia’s most celebrated gun designers, the Soviet authorities decided to hold a competition.
The competition that put AK-47 on the map
They solicited any and all interested in the army of gun designers currently employed by the government to submit their best proposals. Desiring the incredible cash prize and prestige that would come with winning such a contest, Kalashnikov decided to enter.
Contrary to popular belief, he was not working by himself but instead had an entire design team behind him, including a woman who helped put his ideas into technically accurate sketches.
The team worked hard and they faced fierce competition. There were originally over 15 competitors all vying to have their designs picked up. Because there were so many interested, the competition was held in phases with more and more competitors being eliminated as their weapons went through a series of trials by the government.
The contest was held in secret and for good reason. In many similar contests of the past, those who had more established names might have been more inclined to be selected in order to please Stalin.
But Stalin only wanted the best product this time so each of the competitors was given a pseudonym and the members of the commission judging the contest did not know who was producing the firearms.
AK-47 design stood out in the competition
Throughout the competition, one feature about Kalashnikov’s design made it stand out from among the rest: its loose tolerances. Most weapons of the day meant that they were designed with what was called tight tolerances, meaning all the parts and pieces fit tightly together.
Kalashnikov’s team did the opposite by purposely designing a rifle with loose tolerances, which allowed for foreign debris like mud, sand, and water to enter the rifle and it would still work. This ruggedness and reliability would propel it to the final stage of the competition.
But before the final stage could begin in 1947, the three remaining designs were all required to go back to the drawing board to work out some of the kinks the commission had identified in each one.
Adjustment that made AK-47 an icon
Kalashnikov was told the rifle was too heavy so he shortened the barrel significantly and also made his most significant design change to date. He combined the bolt carrier and the gas piston into one unit.
By doing so, he eliminated the number of parts needed which made manufacturing, repairing, and cleaning much easier. It was this rugged system combined with the loose tolerances that would eventually cement the AK-47’s legendary reputation.
Kalashnikov and his partners made three new models of their last design. As the legend goes, when they took it to the final test and disassembled and reassembled it for the judges, his competitors respectfully bowed out of the competition realizing that his design was so far superior to anything they had produced.
While this version of events is the subject of much debate and controversy as to if it actually happened or not, what is certain is that Kalashnikov’s design won the competition and was soon put into mass production for the Soviet army by 1948. Hence, the infamous AK-47 was born.
How did AK-47 become so practical and used?
Despite all of its technological advances and superior design, that alone does not explain how the AK-47 became the world’s most prolific and iconic assault rifle. How the AK-47 got there was because of a mix of politics and idealists as well as opportune timing during the Cold War.
The Cold War was not just focused on building bigger and better nuclear weapons. Sure, these were the most significant as they could cause mutually assured annihilation on both sides, but many simultaneous arms races were going on for conventional weapons as well. Tanks, planes, missiles, and even infantry small arms were all trying to one-up each other.
The AK-47 fell right into the middle of all of this by being able to be produced cheaply and rapidly. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Soviet Union was the standard-bearer for Communism in the world. As a result, they felt obligated to help out any fledgling Communist insurgency or country they could by all means available. One of their best methods was by flooding a friendly nation with AK-47 rifles.
The idea was two-fold. Firstly, it provided much needed military aid at little cost, and would ensure interoperability with Soviet troops in the future since they used the same weapons and ammunition. By supplying their own weapons to Communist states, the Soviet Union was also forcing them to continue to remain an ally since they would have to rely on the Russians to provide a continual supply of ammunition, spare parts, and replacement rifles.
The Soviets also had a political victory through the proliferation of the AK-47. By much of the world using the rifle, especially the vulnerable Third World or unaligned countries, they could claim that Soviet engineering was superior to the West and they had beaten Western defense industries. It also helped to boost public opinion of the regime at home.
AK-47 had to be improved constantly
The Soviet Union was not necessarily known for its high quality manufactured goods. Often, most household and domestic goods were of far inferior quality to those produced in the West. By having a reliable arms industry that could claim victory over Western products, the home industrial base could gain much needed public confidence.
Despite Russia’s desire to flood the world with as many AK-47s as possible, they were optimistically cautious to continue improving the design to keep pace with Western developments. During the first set of Army trials in 1948, some major changes were made. The ejector was redesigned and the return spring was thickened to make it more durable. Other smaller changes included recasting the charging handle into a crescent shape.
The next biggest development in the AK-47 came in the form of its receiver. The receiver is the main body of the rifle where the trigger group, bolt assembly, and magazine well are located. Kalashnikov’s original design was a stamped receiver. That means a piece of sheet metal is stamped into a mold for a part.
Doing so drastically cuts down costs by reducing time and labor. But when Soviet authorities started to mass-produce the rifle, they realized that creating stamped receivers in large quantities was not possible at the time for Soviet technology.
To compromise, they had to redesign the AK-47 receiver with the classic but more expensive method of milling. Milling involves taking a solid block of steel and grinding it down into a receiver. Milled receivers have much tighter tolerances than their stamped counterparts have, but take much longer to produce, driving up cost and limiting production capacity.
Demand for AK-47 became too high
It would take years for Soviet technology to finally adapt to producing a cost-effective and efficient stamped receiver, but in the meantime, the country had militaries to arm and revolutions to ignite. Probably the most substantial boost to AK-47 production was the formation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955.
This eight-country alliance in response to the creation of NATO, dictated that any country attacked would elicit a response from the others. The agreement also stated that these countries would fall under unified command by a Russian general and would be supplied with the same arms and ammunition: the AK-47.
But the Soviet Union simply could not produce the number of weapons needed to arm all these countries. After all, the Russians at this time only operated two factories for their whole military. As a result, each of these countries was granted licenses to produce their own local derivatives. In time, as these Communist countries became hard up for cash, they turned to one of the few reliable and desirable export commodities they had: weapons.
Other variations of AK came to life
In short order, these countries started exporting arms just like the Russians were doing and in almost no time at all the AK-47 was and remains to this day the most common rifle in the hands of soldiers. While the AK-47 would continue to get upgrades later in life, such as an ammunition change that became the AK-74 or smaller changes that became the AKM family, the principle of operation remained the same.
Even with these later designs, the original AK-47 makes up about 75 million of the current 100 million AK family-style rifles in the world today, cementing its continued use for years to come.
Featured image: AK-47, by spaxspore, licensed under CC BY 3.0