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

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The original AK47.

The AK47 was a solid design to begin with, and it was continuously developed. The design was refined in 1951, and again in 1959. Strictly speaking, Russian AKs after 1959 were no longer AK47s but AKMs – Automat Kalashnikova Modernizirovannyj (Modernised). The AKM isn’t much different from a classic AK47 as far as the user is concerned, but it's even cheaper to make.


The AKM of 1959. Not actually a big difference.

Kalashnikov and his successors did an excellent job on the AK, but even so it has its faults. It's less accurate than an assault rifle really should be; in many cases only a little better than a submachinegun. The safety catch/selector switch is comparatively difficult and noisy to operate: and the bolt doesn't lock open when the magazine is empty, so that a round must be chambered manually after each reloading. For the user, the AK is good-enough rather than actually good.

So why is it so wildly popular, manufactured and used in the scores of millions? And why do people attribute such legendary qualities to what is, in the end, a very basic piece of kit? It isn’t at all uncommon to find people saying that the AK47 was a big factor in America’s Vietnam defeat, or that it freed various oppressed peoples from colonial dominance. Commentators – usually journalists rather than gun nuts or soldiers - have suggested that the “People’s Gun” is some sort of phenomenon in its own right, that handing a Kalashnikov – only a Kalashnikov – to a barefoot peasant (or even a child) makes him or her miraculously capable of defeating expensively trained and equipped professional soldiers.

One factor here is probably that the AK was an early example of open-sourcing. The Soviets published full technical and manufacturing specs to friendly countries worldwide, requiring no payments or licencing. The Eastern-European Soviet bloc states all made their own, and the Chinese churned out enormous numbers. The so-called “AK47s” used by the Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam against the Americans were usually – strictly speaking – the Chinese Type 56 copy, and this has often been the case elsewhere as well. Some analysts reckon that the Type 56 is actually the most widely-distributed AK variant.

Chinese Type 56

The Chinese Type 56 copy. If you got shot by Charlie in 'Nam,

he was probably using one of these.

Another reason that the AK established such an early dominance is that for a long time it was the only true assault rifle widely available. In the years immediately after World War Two, America essentially rejected the assault rifle concept. US forces had fought the war with a variety of personal weapons, including a semi-automatic carbine which was very close to being an assault rifle. However, the arm which found favour with post-war US generals was the M1 Garand, a full-power rifle of the semi-automatic or “self-loading” type – ie, it fired one shot per trigger pull without any need to work the bolt manually.

Perhaps reasoning that the German “assault rifle” concept couldn’t have been so all-fired clever or the Germans would have won the war*, the Americans compelled NATO to adopt a standard rifle cartridge which was basically an old school full-power rifle round. This was NATO 7.62mm, the same calibre as the ammo for the AK but much more powerful. The Americans modified their M1 Garand slightly to take this new ammo, renaming it the M-14, and carried on happily for another decade or so. Various new kinds of rifle were designed in Europe to use the new NATO 7.62mm cartridge, including refined versions of the original Nazi MP/StG-44, but these were by necessity fairly long, heavy, expensive and potentially accurate to quite long ranges. They are usually called “battle rifles” rather than assault rifles. One of the most famous is the Belgian FAL, known in British service as the Self-Loading Rifle, or SLR.**

Battle rifles were still over-spec’d for the marksmanship skills of the average professional soldier, let alone those of the average conscript, guerilla or insurgent, and they were still a bit long and heavy for closeup scrapping. Furthermore, they were pricey compared to AKs: and neither they or their ammo were widely available. They could be – often were – made under licence by foreign factories, but this cost money and was sometimes forbidden by Western governments.

For twenty years or so, then, the AK was the only true assault rifle made in any numbers. It was also the only modern personal weapon of any kind available cheaply and freely to a large proportion of the world’s combatants. As it happens the AK is a more than decent design, but whichever rifle the Soviets chose in 1947 to fire their new intermediate cartridge would probably have become near-universal in these circumstances. Mikhail Kalashnikov didn’t exhibit any genius-like skills; his design didn’t change the world of itself.

Eventually the Americans, embroiled in the jungles of Vietnam against AK-toting commies, decided that they liked controllable automatic fire more than long range after all, and adopted an intermediate-power cartridge at last – NATO 5.56mm – and a true assault rifle to fire it from. The new gun was based on the AR-15 pattern but became much more widely known under its US military designation, M-16.

The M-16 had terrible teething troubles, which served to further enhance the reputation of the AK. Rumours circulated that the M-16 didn’t need cleaning, supported by the fact that it was initially issued without a cleaning kit. Unfortunately, the Pentagon had chosen to use a non-recommended propellant powder in the 5.56mm ammo, which was especially prone to clog the guns up. On top of all this, as the Vietnam War progressed and the M-16 came into widespread service, the morale and commitment of US troops – mostly unwilling two-year conscripts with no desire to fight or to be good soldiers - plunged to rock bottom.

Unsurprisingly, by the time the less dope-addled American grunts began cleaning their rifles again and the cartridge powder got sorted out, the M-16 had a frightful rep for unreliability. This is where the legend of the AK probably got its first real start, as various Western soldiers and commentators derided the new American “Mattel Toy,” and lauded the AK.

*Though statistically it had taken several Yanks or Brits to subdue each German.

**Another insane piece of gun phraseology. In the British forces, the command “Load” means “insert a fresh magazine (clip, in American) of bullets into the weapon,” as in “with a magazine of twenty rounds – Load.” The old Self-Loading Rifle/SLR was a good gun, but it couldn’t actually change magazines on its own, as its British name would imply to a British user. Your correspondent pointed this out to a training sergeant long ago, and was commended for his perspicacity before being invited to bash out a quick thirty press-ups.

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