Return to AK-47 (thing)
|The Assault Rifle|
Before The Great War, infantry rifles tended to be long and heavy, firing highly powerful rounds. They were manually reloaded by operating a bolt, and designed for accurate volley fire against massed ranks of enemy soldiers, or against troublesome natives whose dark skin showed up against the desert background. But trench warfare showed that long-range firepower was best left to machineguns, and that the infantry needed something for close-quarters battle, something better than a bayonet. Pistols filled a gap but lacked firepower, whilst the newly developed sub-machineguns which appeared towards the end of the war were superb at close quarters, but lacked the range for use in the open. The Americans came up with the idea of a rifle that could be converted into a sub-machinegun and back again - the Pederson device, fitted to the M1903 Springfield - but it was fiddly to operate and the soldier still had to carry two lots of ammunition.
Amongst some of the more progressive armed forces it was felt that the ideal universal infantry arm would be a weapon designed to fit the gap between the two extremes of sub-machinegun and rifle; a weapon that could spray bullets when fired from the hip, and fire single shots or bursts accurately from the shoulder. The adoption of a single weapon for all troops would also result in savings in materials, training, and ammunition supply. For this to be achieved, the weapon would have to fire a bullet intermediate in power between a pistol and a rifle round. It would have to work. And it would have to be cheap.
Germany led the quest for universal, multi-purpose weapons with the MG34 machine-gun and the MP42 Sturmgewehr, which meant "storm rifle", or "assault rifle". An effective weapon, it was technologically and philosophically state of the art. The majority of Germany's soldiers fought and died on the Eastern front, and from 1943 onwards Soviet troops encountered an opponent armed with an advanced, intermediate-cartridge assault rifle, the very first to be issued for military service. In common with many Nazi wonder weapons, the MP42 was not produced in enough numbers to turn the tide of the Soviet advance. And no matter how effective it was, an infantry rifle could not prevent the Soviet industrial machine from churning out vast quantities of excellent tanks. Rifles do not win world wars. By the Second World War they did not even win great battles. But the wars that followed the Second World War were not world wars. They were not great wars. They were dirty little skirmishes fought in jungles and deserts, and mountains, between a large number of small groups of men and women, and sometimes children. Children can hold and fire an AK-47.
Nonetheless Kalashnikov had made waves, and his next design was considerably more successful. Balancing light weight, firepower, robustness and economy, the Avtomat Kalashnikova was a gas-operated select-fire assault rifle chambered for the new Soviet M1943 7.62x39mm round, known in the west as 7.62 short. Although Kalashnikov's invention physically resembled the MP42 and took a similar design philosophy, the two weapons used different mechanisms and cartridges. A prototype of the AK was completed by 1946, with the first production version emerging the year after; it took until 1949 for the rifle to be formally named. It became the Avtomat Kalashnikova, Model 1947, or AK-47. With the official deployment of the weapon in 1949, Mikhail Kalashnikov achieved a certain kind of fame, helped by his good looks, his status as a war hero, and his youth - he had designed the rifle when he was twenty-six, and was thirty years old when it was adopted as the standard infantry rifle of the newest world superpower. With Hiriam Maxim, John Browning, Richard Gatling, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, Mr Kalashnikov is part of a melancholic group of people whose machines - metal objects held together with bolts and pins - have expressed and facilitated one of the most fundamental components of the human condition. Although Mikhail's family name was to be immortalised by the AK-47 his rewards in the material world were limited. He did not receive royalties for the AK-47, and indeed the design was not patented. It was widely copied throughout the world.
The AK-47's weak spots are ergonomic. The safety lever is large and clumsy to operate. The wooden stock and handguard can rot away in swampy conditions. The pistol grip is not particularly comfortable. The sights were poor, even in modern versions of the rifle, and nasty damage to the exposed gas channel above the barrel reduces the AK-47 to a dangerous single-shot weapon.
Service History, Foreign Policy, Rivalry, and Infamy
Soviet Russia initially concentrated on exporting the less capable Simonov SKS, and during the Korean war the North Korean and Chinese forces were predominantly equipped with a mishmash of WW2 surplus weapons, SKS rifles, PPSh sub-machineguns, and grenades - it took until Vietnam for the AK-47 to become an icon in the west. Both the Viet Cong guerrillas and the regular North Vietnamese army were widely equipped with Chinese and Russian Kalashnikovs. The weapon proved well-suited for fighting in forests and built up areas, situations where short range firepower and imperviousness to mud and rain were paramount. The AK-47's standard magazine held thirty rounds. In Vietnam, American infantrymen were initially equipped with the M14 and later the M16, which held twenty rounds. The M14 was heavy and high-powered, and soldiers could not carry very many of the M14's 7.62x51mm bullets. The M16 was lighter, but it was beset by teething problems, and accusations that the SS109 round it fired was not powerful enough to reliably penetrate thick foliage without being deflected. Whatever the truth of this, the AK-47 seemed to have no problem on that score.
Rival rifles during the cold war included the FN FAL (which was used by the British Commonwealth and several European nations) and the Heckler and Koch G3 (which was used throughout Africa, and wherever the FN FAL, AK-47, and M16 were not used). Both designs were more powerful than the AK-47, which was during the 1960s and 1970s often referred to as a sub-machinegun. The AK-47 nonetheless proliferated around the world. Apart from being the Russian army's standard rifle, the AK-47 became a potent tool of Soviet foreign policy, being supplied en masse to any government, opposition, or armed organisation that supported Soviet aims. The weapon's legendary robustness, its cheapness, and the wide availability of parts and ammunition made it perfect for guerrilla groups and terrorist organisations. By the 1970s the weapon had become infamous for this reason, and it still retains an air of menace, helped in part by its brutalist styling and prominent magazine (which is caused by the chunky, tapered design of the cartridge - the smaller-calibre AK-74 had a much straighter box). The magazine assumed ridiculous proportions with the 45-round RPK light machinegun, which was essentially an AK-47 with a heavier barrel, a new stock, and a bipod.
Modern Kalashnikovs are produced in a variety of calibres by Izmash; the modern equivalent of the AK-47 is the AK-103, a black plastic rifle chambered for the same old M1943 cartridge. In America, remanufactured Eastern European rifles and sporterised imports are popular amongst civilians who do not mind being thought of as psychopathic loners. In the world of motion pictures, Kalashnikovs tend to appear in the hands of the villains, or in the hands of the heroes after they have escaped from captivity after knocking a guard unconcious.