What sets apart Mikhail Kalashnikov from other famous rifle designers? That’s a fairly simple question to answer. No other small-arms designer in history has breathed life into a rifle that has been manufactured in the quantities of Kalashnikov’s Avtomat. With estimates starting at 50 million, the Kalashnikov assault rifle has no peer.
The natural question to follow is why has this Russian design, scoffed at by many in the West, proven so popular and long lived? To understand the rifle, one must first understand its designer. If one understands Mikhail Kalashnikov, the secret of his Avtomat is revealed.
To reach the beginning of our story, we must travel back in time to the days of the Russian Revolution. On
November 10, 1919, in the time of the Russian Revolution, Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov was born in a small rural village of Kurya in the Altai Territory. His parents, Timofei and Alexandra Frolovna Kalashnikov, were peasants, and he was born into a very hard life. Of his mother’s 19 children (he being the 10th) only eight survived.
The world he grew up in was located 1,860 miles east of Moscow on the border of southern Siberia and Mongolia. Winter there is very cold, while summer is short, hot and often dry. Life was hard for the young Kalashnikov. He worked as a horse driver starting at the age of seven doing field work for a neighbor. His labor lasted from sunrise until 11 p.m. during the height of summer. It was at this early age that he learned the true price of bread.
Even so, he grew up the same as most children. He laughed, sang and played. At times he got in trouble, such as after falling through thin ice while skating or when caught smoking as a young boy. He had his first teenage crush, a young girl named Zina, and took to writing poetry. While those who knew him at this time thought he would eventually become a poet, he developed another passion: investigating mechanical devices. Anything mechanical he could get his hands on he took apart. And if something was broken, he tried to fix it.
Eventually, he ran into some trouble with the local authorities and left his family behind. He traveled to Kazakhstan with a friend and soon went to work at the Matai railroad station. Within a short time the Young Communist League had taken note of his hard work and enthusiasm. This led to a promotion to the position of technical secretary of the political department of the Turkistan-Siberian railway.
In the fall of 1938, Kalashnikov was drafted into the Workers and Peasants Red Army (RKKA). At his draft board he stated that he was technically minded and knew something of mechanical engineering. In doing
so he managed to be assigned as a tank driver in the Kiev special military region. Unfortunately, his company’s sergeant major took a dislike to the young man and made his life very hard. However, in the end Kalashnikov won him over, and it was here in his armored unit that he first displayed his ability as a designer.
First he invented a fixture that made firing a TT-33 service pistol more convenient from a tank’s pistol port. Then he went on to design an inertia revolution counter that kept track of how many rounds had been fired from a tank’s gun, along with a device that logged a tank’s running time.
It was the latter device that started him on his way. His work caught the attention of no less a person than General of the Army Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov. Impressed by what he saw, Zhukov ordered Kalashnikov be sent to Leningrad in June 1941 for the implementation of his invention. However, Nazi Germany’s invasion put an end to this. With his country suddenly under attack, Kalashnikov left Leningrad and made his way back to his unit, the 24th Tank Regiment. At this stage in the war, he, like most, was confident of a quick victory over the fascist invaders. He managed to rejoin his unit at a small railroad station near Kharkov. Here he was promoted to the rank of senior sergeant and given command of a T-34.
Senior Sergeant Kalashnikov first went into action in September 1941. Fighting at the far reaches of Bryansk, his armored unit became hotly engaged with the 16th Panzer Division. During this huge armored engagement, the Soviets inflicted heavy losses on the Germans. Fate would not smile on his unit long. During a counterattack in early October, Kalashnikov watched as his company commander’s tank took a direct hit. A second later he was blinded by a bright flash as his own tank was put out of action. Knocked unconscious, he awoke much later badly wounded. When his T-34 had been destroyed, a piece of its armor had been blown through his left shoulder.
Kalashnikov again escaped death when a German unit massacred his convoy of unarmed wounded while they were being evacuated to the rear. Caught behind enemy lines, Kalashnikov and two other survivors walked 15 kilometers before they received medical attention from a civilian doctor. They rested for a few days, then trudged for seven days to reach Soviet lines.
Due to the severity of his wounds, Kalashnikov spent a long convalescence in Evacuation Hospital 1133 in Yelets. It was while recovering that he became determined to design a sound submachine gun. In the hospital he heard wounded soldiers complain about having to share rifles due to chronic shortages. The men also spoke bitterly about the lack of automatic weapons in general and of submachine guns in particular.
Like in so many wars before, Russian soldiers were being sent off to fight with little more than the courage in their hearts. Kalashnikov resolved to change this. After numerous discussions with other wounded soldiers, he decided that he would design a lightweight and reliable submachine gun that was simple to manufacture. He not only accomplished this, but after being given a six-month sick leave, he returned to the Matai railway depot. Here, with considerable help, he produced a functioning model.
While his first design never made it past the prototype stage, it caught the attention of the leading Soviet small arms designer of the time, Anatoliy A. Blagonravov. Realizing Kalashnikov was a novice in the field of small arms manufacturing, Blagonravov suggested he receive a proper technical education and continue in this field. Kalashnikov was given the opportunity to study the history of firearms and the intricacies of design. When the Soviets began looking to replace their obsolete submachine guns with a modern 7.62x39mm assault rifle (Avtomat), Kalashnikov began.
His concept for the new rifle system was based directly upon his wartime experiences. He wanted it to be not only reliable, lightweight and compact but also simple to build and operate. Leading a design team, and receiving advice from senior colleagues, he had a prototype ready by 1946. This evolved into the famous Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 (AK47) as we know it today.
Officially adopted on June 18, 1949, the AK47 soon proved to be an incredibly rugged and reliable automatic rifle. With a length of approximately 341/2 inches and a weight of 9.4 pounds, it is quick-handling. Selective fire, it utilizes a rotating bolt operated by a long-stroke gas piston attached to the bolt
carrier. Feed is from detachable double-column 30-round box magazines. These hold a true intermediate cartridge, the 7.62x39mm M43, which is similar in concept to the German 7.92x33mm Kurz. This round gives the rifle adequate penetration and terminal performance at normal infantry engagement ranges, yet allows it to be fairly controllable on automatic fire.
Sights consist of a simple unprotected tangent rear adjustable in 100-meter increments out to 800 meters. The front is a protected post, front-adjustable for windage and elevation. Controls consist of a simple selector lever on the right side of the weapon’s receiver and a paddle magazine release. When the selector is placed in its uppermost position the rifle is safe, the action is sealed and the bolt cannot be withdrawn far enough to chamber a round. In the center position, the rifle is on automatic mode and fires at a cyclic rate of approximately 600 rpm. In the lowest position the rifle is set for semiautomatic fire. Initially, this model was fitted with wooden furniture and was not provided with a bayonet.
When first adopted, the rifle was built on a stamped-sheetmetal receiver. Structural problems led to a machined-steel receiver being introduced in 1951. Approved in 1953, this model weighed 8.4 pounds, had a butt of smaller dimensions that attached differently, and it accepted a bayonet. This is the classical AK47 that most think of. Unfortunately, its receiver, machined from a forged billet of steel, was time-consuming and expensive to make.
The AK47 was modernized to become the AKM (Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovannyi-Modernized Kalashnikov Assault Rifle) in 1959. The most significant change was the return to an improved stamped-steel receiver. Other changes included the addition of a hammer trip retarder, receiver impact point changed from the right front to the left front, sighting plane extended from 800 to 1,000 meters and the furniture changed to resin-bonded plywood. The extensive use of stamped parts reduced the rifle’s empty weight to just 7.4 pounds. At this time a multipurpose knife bayonet replaced the older-model bayonet then in service.
When the U.S. introduced the 5.56x45mm cartridge in Vietnam, the Soviets were quick to grasp its attributes. Realizing the potential of a small-caliber, high-velocity round, they developed a low-recoil impulse cartridge of their own: the 5.45x39mm. At this time the Soviets had done sufficient research to desire a revolutionary rather than evolutionary step in small arms. During the middle to late 1960s, a series of experimental rifles designed by Youriy Alexandrov were produced that eliminated felt recoil by way of a balanced counter-recoil system. Offering a greater hit probability across its entire effective range than the AKM or M16 series was capable of, his AL7 was a great step forward. However, at this time the Soviet Union did not have the funds to switch to an entirely new rifle design.
Rather than replacing the AKM with a different design, a new small-caliber version was developed. Chambered for the 5.45x39mm M74 cartridge, it was adopted as the AK74 (Avtomat Kalashnikova 1974) in 1974.
This small-caliber assault rifle differs from the AKM in more than just caliber. The most noticeable feature of this model is a prominent, and very effective, muzzlebrake. The foresight bracket is different, with a lug at its rear for the cleaning rod and a threaded cylinder at its front for the muzzlebrake. Another change is the addition of an oval spring washer at the rear of the gas tube and handguard assembly. Plus, the bolt carrier has been lightened, a protrusion added and the bolt itself is smaller with minute changes. Last, a grooved rubber buttplate is mounted. This model tips the scales at 7.2 pounds.
The AK74 saw heavy combat in Afghanistan and proved to be a capable and accurate combat rifle. Eventually, the AK74 was updated to become the AK74M (Avtomat Kalashnikova 1974 Modernizirovannyi-Modernized 1974 Kalashnikov Assault Rifle). Adopted in 1991, it features a side-folding stock and furniture made from a glass-filled polyamide material. Barrel length is approximately 16.37 inches, and weight is 7.4 pounds. In addition, a rail for mounting optics is provided on the left side of the rifle’s receiver. This is the current service rifle of the Federal Russian Army.
When the Russians shifted to the 5.45x39mm M74 round, they quickly found that many of their traditional foreign customers were no longer placing orders. Countries that had used the older 7.62x39mm M43 AKMs in heavy combat were reluctant to switch from the older, well-proven cartridge. It is also interesting to note that Kalashnikov himself has a strong disdain for the 5.45x39mm M74 cartridge, much preferring the original 7.62x39mm M43. So the Russians, in an attempt to bolster sagging sales, introduced the AK100 series. AK, of course, still stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova, while 100 is an old coded designation of the Izhmash Armory. Using the AK74M as a base, rifles and carbines in 5.56×45 (AK101, 102) and 7.62×39 (AK103, 104) were introduced along with a carbine in 5.45×39 (AK105). So the new designation gives both the model and manufacturer.
The Kalashnikov series is very much a product of the designer’s times and experiences. It is simple to manufacture, requiring only basic machinery, and so is easily produced in huge quantities. This allows it to be used to arm large armies in the case of total war. Not only that, but it’s also relatively inexpensive to produce. Due to this, it will not drain a poor country’s economy. Extremely rugged and reliable, it will continue to function in even the harshest of environments. Since it’s easy to operate, training even uneducated troops to use the Kalashnikov is not difficult. In the hands of well-trained troops, it has proven to be highly effective. While an aging design from a previous generation, the Kalashnikov will soldier on well into the future.
Lunch with the Legend
Exiting the van, we headed up the walk toward the summer home of Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov. After traveling thousands of miles, my friends and I had finally arrived at the home of the man himself. In Russia he is a legend, a hero of the people known to every school child. I knew the legend, and now I was about to meet the man.
The door opened, and he met us on his porch. Dressed in Reed-pattern camouflage pants and a light shirt, Kalashnikov warmly welcomed us. Our hosts introduced us, and we followed him inside. The home sits in the midst of an attractive and well-kept garden with many flowers and exotic plants. The cottage was floored and walled in nicely finished pine boards. Rustic, it was obviously the home of a man who loved the outdoors.
We removed our shoes, and he invited us into his living room. There we settled ourselves around him and presented him with a few gifts. Mr. Kalashnikov is a serious knife collector, so we felt a presentation-grade Ka-Bar would be appropriate. In Russian tradition, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin, which he gave in return. Along with the knife, we gave him letters from American firearms enthusiasts who owned various versions of his rifle and respected his design. As a Life member of the NRA, this made him smile—and he exhorted us to keep the anti-gunners at bay.
Then Marco Vorobiev, a veteran of the Soviet Army, emotionally thanked him for designing the rifle that had saved his life during his service in Afghanistan. This greatly moved him, and you could see the tears well up in his eyes as he nodded knowingly. You could tell that it was for a moment such as this that he had worked so hard around the clock so many years ago. “My intentions were to build a rifle to protect and defend my Motherland. Simple and utterly reliable rifle, which our young soldiers could trust and depend on. Today, some people accuse me of making a weapon of war, a weapon used by terrorists. That was never my intention. I designed my rifle only to defend my country.”
Over the next few hours we had a chance to get to know and dine with the man behind the legend. A gifted storyteller, he made us feel right at home with colorful tales from his past. He grew up in exciting times and talked about his youth, his days as an aspiring firearms designer and, of course, his weapons. He expounded on how he felt the Soviet switch from the 7.62x39mm cartridge to the 5.45x39mm was a huge mistake. And he reminisced about time spent with Eugene Stoner, who became a dear friend before he passed away.
As we sat discussing firearms and sharing stories, I became impressed by how down-to-earth Mr. Kalashnikov is. Originally, I had not been sure what to expect, but in the end my expectations didn’t matter. He far exceeded them with his friendly open attitude and fatherly demeanor. When our time together was over, all too soon, I came away with the impression that Mikhail Kalashnikov is one legend who actually lives up to his reputation.