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

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Interestingly, the Russians themselves didn’t entirely agree. In 1974, the year before the fall of Saigon, they came out with a new version of the AKM, designed to take a new, small-calibre intermediate round – 5.45mm Soviet, not dissimilar to 5.56mm NATO. Thus, the commies had effectively admitted that US small-arms technology was superior to the AK as it then stood.

Small-calibre intermediate rounds like these are said to be just as lethal as old-style 7.62mm Soviet, and they weigh less; which allows more to be shipped and carried. Ever since, the main army rifle of the USSR and then Russia has been the AK-74. Kalashnikov’s design lived on – the AK-74 is still a very recognisable AK descendant - but the famous AK-47 had effectively been superseded, just as it was gaining worldwide fame.

Meanwhile, the allegedly rubbish M-16 went from strength to strength. M-16s in one form or another are still almost universal issue for the US forces and many others. Even more tellingly, M-16 variants are the most commonly chosen assault rifle of Western special-forces units, including the British SAS and SBS. These people are able to select any weapon they like, almost regardless of expense; the M-16 wouldn’t be on their shopping list if it wasn’t one of the best designs available. (Though it’s also quite true that the sneaky elites will frequently carry AKs. This is typically more from a wish to avoid being recognized than because of the weapon’s merits.)

Despite the introduction of the AK-74 in Russia and the fact that the M-16 is actually pretty good, the legend of the original Kalashnikov refused to die. In fact it grew and spread throughout the world, to the point where no other gun has the same degree of recognition. The new 5.45mm Soviet ammo never became as widely available as 7.62mm Soviet, and the AK-74 never really took off globally the way the AK-47, AKM and their various copies did, though Osama bin Laden seems to personally favour the cut-down AKS-74U. To this day, if a Western – or a Russian – soldier gets hit by an enemy bullet, it will normally be a 7.62mm-Soviet round from an old-school AK.

Osama and his favourite gun

Osama is often pictured with an AKS-74U stubby.

In keeping with open-source principles, Mikhail Kalashnikov never made any money from his design directly, though he did gain the rank of General. Since retirement, he has also lent his name to the marketing of “Kalashnikov” branded vodka, presumably planned to sell at an inflated price in the same way that Porsche sunglasses or Ferrari man-perfume does. The good General gave us his thoughts on Vodka, guns and Russian courage, which you can read here.

The amazing, continued escalation of AK47 hype has certainly not gone away. There have been at least two books just in the past couple of years, and authors or reviewers have described the sixty-year-old shooter as “the weapon that changed the face of war,” “the single most deadly weapon ever produced,” “A force in itself,” and even "a flamboyant symbol of masculinity,” god help us.

Mozambique national flag

The national flag of Mozambique has an AK on it.

In classic bonehead style, one American librarian refers to it as “this simple submachine gun ... a superior weapon to the American M-16 ... [which is] an inferior, lightweight machine gun,” no doubt causing many an eye to roll among the gun-dweeb community.

Izhmash, the commercial arms concern descended from the Soviet small-arms apparats, nowadays holds rights to the AK designs. Like General Kalashnikov, the firm has given up the old-school open source philosophy of communist days, and is engaged in attempts to get licencing income from overseas. The Russian weaponeers, after failing to win any wide adoption even in Russia for the overly-fancy new AN-94 in the 1990s, have now bowed to the inevitable and are once again offering basic 7.62mm-Soviet AK-style weapons for export and licencing.

Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez last year purchased a hundred thousand “AK-103s,” almost indistinguishable from old-time AKMs, and plans to build a factory in Venezuela to make more. This could be seen as socialist fashion triumphing over practicality, but on the other hand a lot of people have never been very convinced about the deadliness of modern 5 ½ mm slugs. Meanwhile, plenty of people all over the world are still settling their disputes with the original article.

The AK-47 isn’t what people claim for it. It’s far from unique; it doesn’t miraculously make peasants into soldiers; it didn’t change the face of battle. Vietnamese peasants would have driven demoralised US draftees back across the sea without it. The horrors of modern Africa, child soldiers and all, owe more to machetes and tribal hatred than to any kind of firearm. Automatic fire isn’t the big deal everyone thinks; competent gunmen normally fire individual aimed shots.

But the Kalashnikov is a perfectly good design; and more than that, it’s fashionable. The AK-47 is dead; long live the AK-47. ®

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