This Thanksgiving I found myself at a table with my uncle and my cousin’s grandfather, veterans of Vietnam and World War II respectively. We talked about normal family things, but at some point the conversation turned to war. With great interest I listened to them exchange stories about the forests of Alsace Lorraine and the jungles surrounding Saigon. It was at this point that my uncle began talking about Vietnam and his experiences there as an 18 year old Marine. It’s not hard to feel lazy and sheltered when you’re listening to someone recall their
The AK-47 is probably the most universally recognized weapons in the world. Developed at the end of World War II, it was released in 1947 by its namesake, Mikhail Kalashnikov. Known in Russian as the Avtomat Kalashnikova, which roughly translated means Automatic Kalashnikov, this weapon has gone on to be used in nearly every conflict since its introduction. Mass production of the weapon in Russia and former Soviet satellites and allies, as well as a market flooded with counterfeits, has made this weapon dirt cheap and easily accessible. Add in the fact that it is one of the most durable weapons in the world, one of the easiest to use, and one in which there are countless variants that use interchangeable parts, and you have the perfect recipe for use by militaries ranging from the largest in the world to loose knit guerrilla and revolutionary groups.
Mikhail Kalashnikov desired to be a poet, but was conscripted to fight in WWII by the Red Army and was assigned to be a tank driver and mechanic. While in the hospital during an illness, he heard complaints about the weapons of the time, and knew of the problems first-hand in his own experience. He set to work to design a new weapon, and based many of his designs, including the gas operation, off of the very first assault rifle in the world, the German made StG 44 (Sturmgewehr 44), as well as the component layout of the M1 Garand . The design proved to be popular and was adopted as the USSR’s assault rifle of choice. The 1947 model would go on to serve as the basis for the many variants of the AK-47 seen today.
The first main variant came in 1959, designated the AKM, which stood for Kalashnikov’s Modernized Assault Rifle. This design mainly improved the ability to mass produce the rifle but did not change the ammunition type to be used. Both rifles use the 7.62x39mm round. This round is mass produced and extremely cheap as compared to other ammunition types, further aiding the worldwide popularity of the weapon. These rounds are considered armor piercing and the Chinese production of the round features a steel core, making them illegal under Federal law to import into the United States. The casings are tapered to aid in the ejection of the case after firing, which helps prevent stovepipe jams during automatic fire. This tapering is what leads to the iconic curvature of the AK-47’s magazines, as the back of the bullet is larger in diameter than the end of the casing. Furthermore, the bullet is prone to fragmentation upon impact, creating serious internal injuries outside of the scope of original penetration. Bullets that do not fragment result in far less serious injuries.
Then in 1974 the AKM was phased out in favor of the more modern AK-74 model. This weapon resulted from the growing trend in modern militaries of using smaller ammunition in order to increase accuracy and allow soldiers to carry more bullets. The weapon is still approximately 50% interchangeable with older models, in terms of parts, but the main difference are the adaptations for use of the 5.45x39mm bullets instead. This type of ammunition is also steel core and possesses a full metal jacket, which makes this weapon armor piercing as well.
With smaller ammunition, the AK-74 is often seen with reduced or absent stocks, resulting in a lighter weapon and thus more mobility. This is a testament to the gun’s adaptability, allowing for not only modification or removal of the stocks, but also the ability to equip all manner of AK’s with scopes, grenade launcher attachments, bayonets, drum magazines, and other such mods as the user may require.
We have of course seen this weapon in countless video games, typically used by the enemies, be they Soviets or any manner of insurgent. The weapons are usually accurately depicted as being rather inaccurate, loud, and powerful. The weapon has proliferated widely across the world and has been used in countless revolutions, and this fact is evidenced by the flags of countries, organizations and other groups such as Zimbabwe, Hezbollah, East Timor, and the army of Iran. It is widely used as the weapon of choice in the drug cartels of Mexico, where it is known as the Ram’s Horn, due to its curved magazine resembling the curvature of the horn of, you guessed it, a ram. It is the most smuggled weapon in the United States and is heavily regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Chinese government has made wide use of counterfeits of this rifle, as have many other countries, due to the ease of reverse engineering the gun.
The major news of today is, however, the fact that the originator of the AK-47, Russia, is no longer happy with the weapon and is actively seeking out its replacement. It is reported that Russia currently owns enough AK-47s and its variants that they could equip their army ten times over, and experts estimate that there are enough of these rifles to equip all of the world’s armies combined. So though the weapon is currently 64 years old, it is doubtful we will see it disappear any time soon.