How Cold War politics made the AK-47 the world’s most ubiquitous gun. Plus—Fidel, Saddam, and the history of automatic weapons.
One weapon alone has been a consistent presence in modern war: the infantry rifle. Tanks can rout conventional armies. GPS-guided ordnance can scatter combatants. Land mines, suicide bombers, and improvised explosives have grabbed headlines in recent years. But the rifle remains preeminent. Few weapons are as accessible or can be as readily mastered. No other weapon appears in as many conflicts year after year. None is as sure to appear in every future war. And of all the rifles used today, one stands apart as the most profuse killing tool ever made: the automatic Kalashnikov, first known as the AK-47.
Virtually everyone has seen one. Estimates suggest that as many as 100 million Kalashnikovs and AK-47 derivatives have been made to date—one for every 70 people alive. With a stubby black barrel and parallel gas tube above, a steep front sight post and distinctively curved magazine, its unmistakable profile is a constant presence in the news. It is the world’s most widely recognized weapon, one of the world’s most recognizable things. Since its design in a secret contest in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Kalashnikov has flooded armories and arms bazaars and changed the experience of war.
A battlefield leveler, it can help threadbare fighters stand against, and sometimes defeat, modern conventional units backed by powerful nations. Six decades after Stalin’s death, and two decades after the Soviet Union unraveled, it is the most abundant firearm on earth and a primary weapon for guerrillas, terrorists, and many criminal gangs, a status it is likely to retain for at least a half century more.
Yet for all of this, few devices of our time have been as misunderstood. In the popular imagination, an unlettered sergeant of peasant stock, Mikhail Kalashnikov, conjured the AK-47 to form in an epiphany born of his innate genius and patriotic devotion. The weapon’s proliferation, according to most accounts, has been driven by a revolutionary design that makes it simple, rugged, and dependable. None of this is exactly the case.
The claim that the weapon sprang from the mind of a sergeant was a cheerful Communist Party parable created for the proletariat through extensive redaction and lies. Though this tale emphasized the heroic spontaneity of a single man, spontaneity, according to a close reading of available Russian records, played almost no role.
Similarly, the Kalashnikov’s design is not what makes the weapon ubiquitous in combat today. Though the gun is certainly an effective infantry weapon—and proved itself far superior to the M-16 in Vietnam—its global spread has more to do with trends in arms development and Soviet policy that made the production and distribution of assault rifles a key to Russia’s Cold War courtship of allies and proxies.
Today, soldiers take automatic weapons for granted, but the pursuit of a single weapon that could produce mass musket fire confounded generations of gunsmiths and engineers. Spurred by the American Civil War, the new manufacturing capacity in the United States introduced mass production to the craft of gun making, and rapid-fire arms became the business of speculators and engineers. With improvements in metallurgy, tool making, and precision labor, a flurry of fresh designs emerged. Among them was that of Dr. Richard Gatling, a physician who made his living inventing agricultural machines.
Gatling was neither a military nor social visionary. (One interviewer noted that he professed to feel “that if he could invent a gun which would do the work of 100 men, the other ninety and nine could remain at home and be saved to the country.”) But he was a tinkerer and salesman, and by 1862 he gave the concept of rapid fire an effective form in the Gatling gun, the first weapon commonly known as a “machine gun.” He circled six rifled barrels around a central axis, a design somewhat like a revolver in reverse. This was not a true machine gun or even an automatic; a hand crank rotated each barrel through its turns firing. But Gatling had created a weapon that was a step closer to automatic fire. [See “Mr. Gatling’s Game-Changing Gun,” Spring 2010.]
The Gatling all but missed the Civil War. But Imperial Russia soon discovered that the weapon lived up to its billing. During America’s Reconstruction, one of Tsar Alexander II’s military attachés arranged for the purchase of Gatlings and the rights to manufacture them. At the time, the tsar was expanding his authority in Central Asia, and his soldiers faced a holdout in Khiva, where the ruling khan refused to recognize Russian authority. Khiva was defended in part by the Yomud tribe, bearded steppe warriors on their home terrain. One day in 1873, a Yomud detachment came upon a Russian supply train near present-day Turkmenistan’s border with Uzbekistan. The Russians formed a square of wagons. At about 3 o’clock the following morning, the Yomuds charged. The Russians had with them two Gatlings under the command of an officer named Litvinoff. He later wrote:
Though it was dark we perceived in front of us the galloping masses of the enemy with uplifted glittering swords. When they approached within twenty paces, I shouted the command “fire.” This was followed by a salvo of all the men forming the cover, and a continuous rattle of the two battery guns. In this roar the cries of the enemy at once became weak, and then ceased altogether….At some distance to the right of our square stood the 8th Battalion of the line. Between it and us, at every step, lay prostrated the dead bodies of the Yo[mu]ds.
Other designers soon marketed competing manual guns. All of these were abruptly, almost instantly, supplanted less than 20 years later by Hiram Maxim and the first truly automatic weapon. Maxim was an arrogant, self-taught inventor and businessman from backwoods Maine who claimed to have designed a light bulb before Thomas Edison. His employer, the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, transferred him to London and at an exposition in Vienna, he later said, he met an American who offered advice.
“Hang your electrical machines!” the American said. “If you wish to make your everlasting fortune and pile up gold by the ton, invent a killing machine—something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility—that is what they want.”
Whether advice of the sort was ever dispensed is anyone’s guess. (Maxim was brilliant and cunning. He was also a rascal; as a businessman and raconteur he was comfortable with embellishment—and deception). What is clear is that Maxim decided to make a new weapon, and he had a different approach. He had fired a rifle before, and felt its kick. The recoil was evidence of wasted energy. Could some of this unused energy be harnessed? Maxim settled on a concept where the force of the recoil was put to mechanical use to slide the barrel backward, extract the spent cartridge, retrieve a fresh round, and fire again. This was a self-perpetuating cycle that lasted until the supply of bullets ran out.
In autumn 1898, the British brought Maxim’s guns into battle in Sudan, where they hoped that a conquest of Islamic forces would bolster their colonial presence from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope. More than 8,000 British and nearly 18,000 Egyptian and African troops massed to destroy forces loyal to the Sudanese caliph. Maxims were brought along, wrapped in silk. Before dawn on September 2, Sir Herbert Kitchener’s soldiers formed into order near Omdurman, anchoring one end along the Nile, the other in an arc across a plain. Winston Churchill, 23 years old, was with the British cavalry as the battle unfolded. Roughly half the caliph’s warriors had no firearms. By 8 a.m. the mismatch was obvious. Thousands of the Sudanese warriors had been struck. Not one had managed to come close enough to the British lines to throw a spear. Churchill watched the Sudanese charges lose momentum, waver, and stop. The survivors tried to get away. As he wrote later, there was little chance for that:
They rose by hundreds and by fifties to fly. Instantly the hungry and attentive Maxims and the watchful infantry opened on them, sweeping them all to the ground—some in death, others in terror. Again the shells followed them to their new concealment. Again they rose, fewer than before, and ran. Again the Maxims and the rifles spluttered. Again they fell. And so on until the front of the zeriba [British defensive enclosure] was clear of unwounded men for at least half a mile.
The British force had suffered 48 dead. Contemporaneous estimates of the Sudanese dead exceeded 10,000. Three days later Churchill accompanied a British horseback patrol that toured the plain and its grisly carpet of human remains. He was shaken, unable to square these sights with his understanding of war waged by a “civilized Power.” Modern weapons were no longer curiosities. War had entered a new phase.
“The terrible machinery of scientific war,” Churchill wrote, “had done its work.”
By the end of World War I, scientific war was a grim norm. All the major powers had machine guns, and they had learned to use them. This marked the period of full acceptance and integration of machine guns into conventional military service.
In the first decades of production of rapid-fire arms, the weapons were produced in few places and sold or distributed almost exclusively to governments. Armies, navies, state militias, territorial prisons, and the like could acquire them— not the common man. Machine guns were expensive. They were complex. They were large, often requiring draft animals to move them about. Many men were needed to operate and maintain them. Nothing about them was a consumer product. Adolf Hitler’s Germany was to change all of that.
Until the 1930s, a rifleman’s ammunition was almost universally of high power. Armies had been bewitched by the ballistic possibilities of high velocity, which could lead to long range, flat trajectory, and, with a heavy bullet, devastating injuries. Shifting to something smaller had proven difficult. Who, after all, would propose overhauling ammunition factories to produce a cartridge that, on paper at least, was less lethal?
After World War I, however, groups of officers began asking whether fidelity to maximum velocity and stopping power was a handicap. What was the point of a rifle that could strike a man two kilometers away now that soldiers wore camouflage and moved by infiltration? There were few targets at ranges beyond a few hundred yards, and not many marksmen could be expected to hit them. To those questioning the status quo, the drawbacks of traditional cartridges were obvious. To fire them effectively, rifles had to be made heavier, which consumed more resources, drove up costs, and made weapons unwieldy. And large cartridges did not lend themselves to automatic fire in rifles, which had to be made heavy and large to handle the heat, strain, and recoil.
By 1938 the Wehrmacht’s Army Weapons Office had entered a contract with an ammunition firm that developed the 7.92 Kurz, a cartridge roughly midway in size and power between the common military rifle cartridge and the pistol cartridges of the era. Kurz means short, and designer Hugo Schmeisser was assigned to work up plans for a new automatic or semiautomatic rifle that would fire this shortened round. In summer 1942, the Merz gun works, working with Schmeisser, delivered 50 prototypes.
A concept with scintillating military promise had been given shape: an automatic rifle of medium power that could be handled by any man, and that used ammunition small enough that a single soldier could carry both the rifle and a few hundred rounds. Most of the prototypes were sent to the Russian front for combat trials. The Wehrmacht was clearly satisfied. By early 1944 production of an updated model had reached 5,000 pieces a month; 9,000 rifles were made in April. Production was projected to reach as many as 80,000 rifles a month by 1945—nearly a million a year.
Schmeisser’s breakthrough weapon had only a short run in battle; Germany’s defeat ensured that. But it marked a critical development: the arrival and institutional acceptance of the reduced-power automatic. The sturmgewehr (storm rifle) was not a full machine gun; it had no tripod or sled or the traversing equipment for aim that would enable it to be firmly emplaced for highly accurate, long-range fire. But it was an exceptionally versatile rifle—well suited for single-shot shooting at typical combat ranges, and its automatic mode made it ferocious for close combat and effective for suppression fire.
As German units fell back, the sturmgewehr was picked up by Soviet troops. The Kremlin’s intelligence and research and development officers, already given to mimicry, went to work. By March 1944, they had put into production the M1943, a cartridge comparable to the 7.92 Kurz. Now weapons would have to be made to fire it.
One of the Soviet Union’s most successful young designers, Aleksei Sudayev, was put on the project first. Only a few years before, Sudayev had designed a submachine gun while under siege at Leningrad, in conditions approaching starvation. The weapon had been used to turn back the Germans. He was perhaps the brightest light in Soviet small-arms design.
Sudayev’s supervisors deemed his prototype assault rifle promising but too heavy. The designer fell severely ill before he could rework his weapon. In late 1945, with Sudayev fading, the Soviet military’s Main Artillery Department opened a secret contest within its constellation of designers to make a new automatic rifle for general issue. Unlike the entrepreneurial work of Gatling, Maxim, and others in the early age of rapid-fire arms design, this was a state-directed pursuit—Stalin’s will combined with Red Army administration.
Stalin liked design contests, and particularly the possibility of gathering multiple viable proposals. Mikhail Kalashnikov, a senior sergeant with limited education who had not yet designed a weapon accepted by authorities, was among those allowed to enter. He worked with a team of officers and engineers, draftsmen and draftswomen to sketch a design proposal. The Soviet Union publicly celebrated its prominent konstruktors, as arms designers were known. Success would mean security, even fame. The first submission of the Kalashnikov team was of limited potential, but after the field was winnowed by late 1947, its final prototype was still in contention.
Curiously, the test rifles that Kalashnikov’s group presented to the first firing trials were very different from those submitted for the last tests. Indeed, the team came back with a new weapon altogether. At this point, the available historical record, already obscured by propaganda and conflicting statements, becomes cloudy. Many years later, Kalashnikov described his thinking as he prepared for the later round of tests: “In order to achieve the best results in this ‘run-off’ contest, I had to make a breakthrough in the design, not just improve it.”
By this account, at Kalashnikov’s insistence, he and Aleksandr Zaitsev, an engineer who assisted him, fundamentally redesigned the prototype. Kalashnikov and Zaitsev shortened the barrel and altered its main operating system, combining the bolt carrier and the gas piston into one component. This made the rifle easier to disassemble and clean. And the combined bolt carrier and gas piston were massive, giving the AK-47’s operating system excess energy to push through any dirt or accumulated carbon inside the weapon. This heavy system would contribute to its legendary reputation for rarely jamming.
The team reworked other components. The trigger mechanism was overhauled—a project that seems to have been led by Vladimir Deikin, a test officer assigned to work with Kalashnikov. The safety catch on the previous prototype, a selector lever, was replaced with a sheet-metal switch that would protect the area around the chamber, blocking sand, dust, and dirt.
Kalashnikov would later describe his supposed eureka moment. “I came up with several new ideas that turned my life upside down. I completely altered the general structure,” he said. “Sasha Zaitsev, my faithful right-hand man from the start of the competition, was at this time the only person aware of my real plan.”
Soviet propaganda mills repeated and glorified the inventor’s bold and forceful claim that he was the source of the design ideas that gave the assault rifle its final shape. But the story hasn’t stood up well over time. Zaitsev recalled things differently. He said he conceived of the changes; Kalashnikov, he said, opposed them. “I suggested the Kalashnikov assault rifle be entirely redesigned,” Zaitsev wrote. “I managed to convince him I was right.”
Others on Kalashnikov’s team have also challenged the rifle’s parentage. They alleged that Kalashnikov lifted the idea of an integrated bolt carrier and gas piston from Aleksei Bulkin, a rival designer. One former comrade asserted that Kalashnikov received inside help from a senior testing officer, Major Vasily Lyuty. In statements after the Soviet Union collapsed, Lyuty claimed to have shepherded the early Kalashnikov design through a disappointing showing at the trials. He said he overruled an evaluation from U. I. Pchelintsev, a testing engineer, which read: “The system is incomplete and cannot be further developed.” In all, Lyuty claimed, he recommended 18 changes to the first prototype, changes that Kalashnikov accepted:
I felt the test frustration deeply with Mikhail, because we were friends. This is why when he asked, as the chief of the testing unit, to have a look at the gun and Pchelintsev’s account to outline the improvement program, I agreed of course. In fact, I took up all the subsequent business in my hands, thank God I had the knowledge and experience needed for it. Having studied the tests report scrupulously I came to the conclusion that the design had to be redone almost anew.
Lyuty added that he and Kalashnikov worked side by side with Deikin, and the trio devised the prototype that became a finalist. Lyuty fell into official disfavor and was arrested in 1951, accused of participating in a counter-revolutionary group. He served time in a labor camp. In 1954 he was rehabilitated, but not before Kalashnikov had been decorated and elevated to an official model of socialist virtue. By then, AK-47s were circulating to the Soviet Union’s legions of conscripted troops, and the official version of the rifle’s origins was hardening into a simplistic tale: Kalashnikov, who had been wounded early in the Great Patriotic War, had set out to make automatic weapons to defend his homeland and succeeded in a flash of inspiration and resolve. The party crowed the news. One proud and wounded man’s epiphany, at a time of peril, had armed his nation. Or so the story went.
The AK-47 arrived to a time and geopolitical situation like no other: the dawn of the Cold War. It was a firearm that would become the standard weapon for socialist armies of workers and peasants. The platform for a compact automatic rifle was well suited for most uses in war, and could be readily mastered by conventional conscripts and revolutionaries alike.
Yet the assault rifle’s practical merits do not explain its proliferation. The AK-47 did not break out globally because it was well conceived or well made, or because it pushed Soviet small-arms development ahead of rifles then in favor in the West. Rather, it became the world’s most common military weapon because the Soviet Union discovered its value not just as a weapon but also as a political tool in the Cold War.
When Stalin, the impatient dictator whose engineers developed weapons of all kinds, died in 1953, he was replaced as general secretary by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev inherited the Kremlin’s foreign policy portfolio and the nation’s military-industrial complex, and as he learned to rule, he grasped how the two could be linked. Soviet arms became Soviet political currency, with Khrushchev emerging as an arms dealer extraordinaire. The AK-47 became his best deliverable tool in EastWest influence jockeying—a chip to secure friendships and bolster those willing to harass the West. Nations queued up to get the weapon, and Khrushchev pushed production higher.
As his arms dealing grew, the Soviet leader seized on another potential value. Circulating Soviet weapons and manufacturing specifications throughout the contested world would make interoperability with Soviet troops easier in future wars sparked as socialist revolution spread. One of Khrushchev’s early challenges was to institutionalize security arrangements in the European buffer zone. In 1949, Western powers had formed NATO and sponsored the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Kremlin replied by founding the German Democratic Republic. Moves and countermoves continued. In 1955, West Germany joined NATO. The Kremlin in turn bound its satellites together in a mutual defense agreement of its own, the Warsaw Pact. The treaty was signed by the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.
Initially, its significance was retaliatory and symbolic, a tit-for-tat escalation. But the treaty stoked assault-rifle proliferation, thanks to its fifth article, in which members agreed to a unified command. In the fall of 1955, when details of the command were circulated via a top-secret memorandum, the commanders of Warsaw Pact forces were instructed that they would be responsible for supplying “military items, in accordance with accepted systems of armaments.” The language referred to Soviet-pattern weapons, including the most prolific weapons of all— cartridges and firearms. The goal, according to one Soviet official, became the “constant modernization of weapons and combat equipment and the development of new and more sophisticated prototypes of weaponry. The Soviet Union plays a leading role here.…One of the important ways for coordinating military-technical policy is to standardize weapons and combat equipment.”
Through such cooperation, most Eastern Bloc soldiers would carry the same weapons and fire the same ammunition, thereby streamlining production and training while reducing expenditure on research and design. This laid the political and industrial groundwork for overcapacity in assault-rifle production. Plants producing Kalashnikovs and ammunition were subsidized in Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.
These countries armed their military and security services with the rifle but also became exporters. And the rules of their production, sales, and distribution had nothing to do with normal market forces. They were connected to centralized decisions and national goals. Stalin’s rifle was at the center of a socialist arms franchise. In time, its proliferation became an example of the law of unintended consequences viewed through the prism of the Cold War: The bloc’s members would provide arms for conflicts after their alliance was no more, extending the Warsaw Pact’s influence outside the region in ways that persist.
Under Khrushchev, the Kremlin also distributed its arms technology beyond its vassals. Just as with Warsaw Pact standardization, there were two main arrangements: first, direct transfers of finished goods; later, the transfer of licenses to produce them. The first plant outside Russia to manufacture AK-47 clones was an urgent project for China, and had origins in a secret collaboration between Stalin and Mao Zedong. Mao’s victory over the Kuomintang, the party of Chiang Kai-shek, and the founding of the People’s Republic of China had reinforced Stalin’s almost religious conviction in the allure of socialism and global revolution. The Chinese wanted to update their arms industry.
By August 1951, the Soviet army agreed to provide specifications for eight types of weapons, including mortars, machine guns, pistols, and Mosin-Nagant rifles (a Russian AK-47 precursor). By 1952, it provided data for manufacturing artillery and tanks. The AK-47 was still in early production runs; the Soviet Army did not share it. But by the mid-1950s, China wanted newer guns. In 1956, production of the Type 56, the first Chinese version of the AK-47, began in Factory 626, in Beian.
Khrushchev had moved quickly. At the time of Stalin’s funeral, a single arms plant in the Urals was making the AK-47. Three years later, the world’s two largest military forces had parallel assembly lines for standardized assault rifles. By 1958, the Kremlin would share AK-47 technology with North Korea. The Soviet Union’s military aid to Egypt would expand to tool a Kalashnikov plant there.
Between such deals, and the rolling openings of assault-rifle assembly lines in the Warsaw Pact nations, the Kremlin ensured production of Kalashnikovs at a scale no other firearm had ever seen.
Herein is a commonly overlooked significance of the AK-47’s development, lost to the retelling of fables: The Soviets, copying a German concept, created the circumstances for the crossover weapon, the gun that would let automatic rifle fire jump from state hands to individuals. The AK-47 was small. No mule, crew of men, or truck was required to move or operate it. Its ammunition was lightweight; a teenager could carry a few hundred rounds. Its variant with a wooden stock could be hidden beneath a blanket. Those with a folding stock could be slung under a coat. It provided flexibility—allowing whoever carried it to fire a single shot or blast out bursts.
In clinical terms, automatic arms had evolved to an eminently useful form. All of the things that might be done with bullets at the distances of typical small-arms engagements could now be done with one automatic weapon that most anyone could carry and use. And this distilled piece of firearms technology had become the output of planned economies, which could manufacture them in numbers beyond what anyone outside organized socialist police states would need or want. Industrial and political currents in the Soviet Union had lined up to make the AK-47 the world’s gun, the automatic rifle for everyman.
The impact on the latter half of the 20th century is difficult to overstate. Though born at a time when Hiroshima and Nagasaki suggested that ultimate power rested with the nations that had the nuclear bomb, the Kalashnikov tipped the scales for the underdog. In Vietnam, it gave local guerrillas a key advantage over expeditionary American forces, whose jam-prone M-16s proved a liability.
In the 1980s, Afghan rebels armed with U.S.-supplied AK-47s fought the Soviet Union to a standoff. Uganda’s Idi Amin hoarded the guns, and kept a nation under heel—until his storehouses slipped from government custody and empowered local warlords, insurgents, criminals, and Joseph Kony, the leader of an army of child soldiers who is, by any reasonable assessment, a madman.
By the 1990s, the weapon was a staple of dozens of the regional wars that plagued Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East. According to the United Nations, small arms—primarily assault rifles—were the principal weapons in 46 of the 49 major conflicts in that decade. Since 2001, the United States military has become one of the largest known purchasers of Kalashnikovs, which it has handed out by the tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq, where many of them have again slipped from state hands, and are turned against their purchasers.
More than a hundred years ago, at the dawn of the age of rapid-fire arms, Richard Gatling wrote President Abraham Lincoln, pitching his gun as a weapon for “men of ordinary intelligence” who might crush the rebellion and keep the nation together. With the creation of the AK-47 and its spread around the world, Gatling’s dream became reality. Firepower was now readily available for almost any man of ordinary intelligence, whether he was in uniform or not, trained or not, legal or not, supervised or not. It could even be handled by a child. War, and the world itself, had been indelibly changed.
Adapted from The Gun, by C. J. Chivers. Copyright © 2010 by C. J. Chivers. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. For more about the book, see cjchivers.com.
Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.