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AK47: the open-source weapon that took the world by storm

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Feature Sixty years ago, a former tank sergeant named Mikhail Kalashnikov submitted an assault-rifle design to the Red Army for trials. It was selected as the new personal weapon for most Soviet soldiers, and designated Automat Kalashnikova 1947 – AK47 for short. That designation went out of official use in 1959, but to this day “AK47” is probably the world's most widely-known gun name. Just as open-source Linux - the "communist" software, according to Steve Ballmer - has made Linus Torvalds famous, the genuinely communist open-source AK has given Mikhail Kalashnikov a profile at least as high. The AK47 and its successor designs are the most widely-used firearms on the face of the planet.

The Register meets General Kalashnikov

El Reg meets the general.

The ubiquitous AK has been seen as one of the most influential pieces of technology produced in the 20th century. People have made amazing claims for it: the Kalashnikov is said to have humbled US military and economic power, to have liberated the downtrodden and oppressed, to have changed the very face of warfare. Dozens of books have been written about the AK phenomenon, hundreds or perhaps thousands of articles.

Only one thing has been lacking in the AK discussion. That is, analysis from the debatable borderlands where technology, social phenomena and enormous, rumbling, erratically-researched commentary/analysis spitball articles collide: the land of Vulture Central. But today it shall lack no more.

The Nazis were arguably the first to field an assault rifle in significant numbers (See the Reg gun-dork primer here), but they dropped out of the picture in 1944. The Russians didn't: which is where Mikhail Kalashnikov and the AK47 come in.

By the end of World War Two, the Red Army had become enormous. Its millions of short-service, poorly trained conscript soldiers were largely armed with cheap submachineguns knocked out in a hurry. As the Soviets squared up to the Western powers, they knew that their troops – and those of their client nations – would need better weapons. They decided on an intermediate-power cartridge, so as to minimise costs and maximise capability. Having a very low level of marksmanship among their forces, they weren’t much concerned with accuracy or range.

The design they chose was the AK47, firing intermediate-poke Soviet 7.62mm cartridges, and it couldn't have fulfilled the requirement better. The AK could hit targets out to perhaps 200-300m. (AK47 sights are adjustable to 800m, later increased to 1000m on the AKM, but this is wildly optimistic.) The new weapon could spray bullets efficiently on full automatic, seldom suffering a stoppage. It was simple to strip and maintain, and worked pretty well even without any maintenance, covered in mud, dirt or rust. Best of all, it could be made very cheaply and easily.

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