At the dawn of the Cold War, former Soviet soldier Mikhail Kalashnikov, 26, led a team in the design of a lightweight assault rifle, the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947. Now, 65 years later, some 100 million AK-47s have been produced – 10 times the number of US Army M16s. The original weighed roughly 4,5 kg and married the best features of a submachine gun and a long-range rifle. “The AK-47 is often said to be poorly made, but many of its features were well-matched to the conditions of war,” says CJ Chivers, The New York Times war correspondent and author of The Gun, a history of the AK-47. The rifle is effective, if unoriginal. “Think Mr Potato Head. This gun is a bunch of pre-existing systems combined into a new whole,” he says. A revised AK-47, the AKM, entered production in 1959; the most prevalent AK, its knock-offs are manufactured all over the world (the gun below has Chinese origins). Chivers gives a guided tour.
By Erin McCarthy
Designers replaced the AK-47’s solidwood stock and handgrip with less expensive and sturdier plywood in the AKM. (This model, however, features solid wood.) Rifles with folding metal stocks, better for tight spaces, were made for airborne and armouredvehicle troops.
The AK-47’s trigger group borrows from the designs of American infantry rifle maker John C Garand, who created the M1, and German gun maker Hugo Schmeisser, a Soviet prisoner at the time the original AK-47 was devised.
The rifle’s receiver anchors the integrated gas piston and the trigger group. In the 1940s, workers created the receiver by machining a 1,8 kg block of steel into the 680 g component. “It took 150 different machine motions to make it, so there was a huge manpower loss there,” Chivers says. The AKM’s stamped sheet-metal receiver simplifi ed production and reduced the rifle’s weight to about 3,6 kg.
The integrated gas piston and bolt carrier’s parts were designed to fit loosely in the receiver, making the mechanism less susceptible to the effects of carbon build-up, rust and dirt – and thus less prone to jamming. Kalashnikov claimed credit for these ideas, but they were actually adopted from other Soviet designs of the time, including Alexey Sudayev’s AS-44. After Sudayev died in 1946, his “loose fit” concept was used by other designers.
4 Selector switch
The AKM has three modes of firing regulated by the selector switch: safe, when it cannot fire; semi-automatic, for squeezing off single shots; and automatic, to spit lead at a rate of 700 rounds per minute.
5 Gas piston
The AK-47’s combined bolt carrier and gas piston design – taken from a competitor – gives the gun’s operating system more energy. As each round is fired, gas rushes into a chamber via a port in the top of the barrel, driving back a piston that withdraws the bolt from the chamber and ejects the spent cartridge. The springloaded magazine forces the next cartridge into place; a return spring thrusts the piston and bolt assembly forward, chambering the cartridge and preparing the rifle to fire again. The system’s stroke is 50 per cent longer than necessary, so the weapon often functions even when impeded by fouling, foreign substances or lack of lubrication.
The banana-shaped cartridge holder is a borrowed design, in keeping with the AK-47’s cobbled-together make-up. “The curved, detachable magazine had been used on weapons of Soviet provenance, including the AS-44, an early Red Army attempt to knock off the (German) Sturmgewehr,” Chivers says. But the Soviet Union found that this design was less likely to jam, in part because its shape fit the 7,62 x 39 mm round, which was tapered and stubby – unlike many types of earlier ammo, which were longer and less tapered.
7 Protective coating
Like its intentionally loose design, the rifle’s rust-resistant phosphate coating increased its reliability. In addition, the barrel and chamber were chromed on the inside, another rust retardant. Anti-corrosive features are literally life-saving; in Vietnam, the US military’s inadequately protected M16s often jammed because of pitting and corrosion, leaving the soldiers vulnerable to their Kalashnikov-equipped adversaries. “The US Army thought they had a kind of steel that wasn’t susceptible to corrosion,” Chivers says. “They were wrong. After the US coated the rifl e and chromed the inside, the M16 did pretty well.”
Way of the gun
Way of the gun how the AK-47 became the go-to rifle for insurgents, rebels and warlords the world over.
First, the cartridge: after its troops face German assault rifles in WWII, the USSR makes the M43 (7,62 x 39 mm) as a basis for a new rifle.
The USSR launches a secret contest to design an automatic assault rifle – using the M43 round – at a facility near Moscow.
Designers led by Mikhail Kalashnikov create the AK-47, which is accepted as the Soviet soldier’s standard weapon in 1949.
Revolutionaries in Hungary defeat Soviet troops and grab AK-47s, presaging the gun’s use by rebels.
Production of China’s first version of the AK-47 assault rifle, known as the Type 56, begins.
Chile’s Salvador Allende becomes the West’s first elected Socialist head of state; Fidel Castro gives him an AK-47.
Mozambique places an AK-47 on its national flag.
A movement to ban assault rifles in the US begins after a man kills five schoolchildren in Stockton, California, with an AK-47 knock-off.
Notebooks from terrorist camps across Afghanistan reveal that all trainees learn the history of AK-47s.
Saddam Hussein is captured in Iraq with two AK-47s, a 9 mm Glock and $750 000 in US currency.
The Iraqi Army will have an arsenal consisting of Kalashnikovs and 180 000 US Army-issued M16s