How the AK-47 earned its (controversial) reputation

The AK-47 has seen action in numerous communist uprisings over the last six decades. It has forever changed the rules of modern warfare as it provides reliable firepower even to the least fortunate of fighting men – the untrained and unskilled who, more often than not, have none of the prerequisite military knowledge to win any kind of armed conflict.

If there’s one word in the previous paragraph that AK-47 pundits swear by, that word is “reliable”. A serious classic, the AK-47 is known as one of the world’s most reliable firearm. In fact, because of its legendary reliability, it has become so popular that it’s being produced in well over a hundred different countries.

Estimates put the total number of AK-47s manufactured since its year of release at over 200 million units worldwide. No other firearms in history have been produced with such staggering figures.

Doing an online search on its reliability returns thousands of independent tests done by gun enthusiasts, manufacturers and people in the military and law enforcement.

Sure, there will always be non-believers, people who find fault in everything (and there’s no problem with that – they’re the reason air bags are a thing, in a manner of speaking) – and some tend to subject their AK-47 to unnecessary abuse to prove that it too, like its major rival the M16, has flaws.

But by and large, the AK-47’s reputation for reliability is unquestionable, and will remain so for an indeterminate amount of time… or until rail gun technology is perfected to the point that it could dethrone gun powder-driven hand-held weapons as the human species’ best tool for self defense and pacification. But I digress.

I’m not here to talk about the AK-47’s reliability. I’m here to talk about how, even with its creator’s good intentions, it has become a symbol of revolutions, insurgencies and terrorism.

The AK-47s story

Very few people (save for historians and gun collectors) find the story behind the creation of the AK-47 interesting.

The father of this iconic rifle, the late Mikhail Kalashnikov, was a Soviet military man-turned-weapons designer. Born in 1919 and raised into peasantry in Siberia, Kalashnikov started his career as a lowly railroad clerk.

He joined the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic’s Krasnaya Armiya (more commonly referred to as the Red Army) in 1938. Upon joining, he was trained as a tank mechanic and assigned to man one of the T34s of 24th Tank Regiment. After his training, he started to display mechanical aptitude (he reportedly had been fascinated by machines as a child) and invented several modifications for Soviet tanks. Eventually, he was promoted to tank commander.

During the Battle of Bryansk in 1941 against Nazi forces, his tank was hit by a shell, leaving him wounded. As he was recovering from the wounds he sustained, thoughts of the enemy’s automatic rifles being far superior than the Red Army’s flooded his head.

As he was unable to return to the battlefield, he put effort into developing a similar weapon for use by their troops. In the next five years he would form a team that would later produce the first working prototype of his automatic rifle.

Less than a year later, he would join a firearms design contest that had been launched in 1947 by the Soviet Union’s Defense Ministry for members of the military’s arms design community.

Kalashnikov’s rifle entry won him the competition, and the Soviet Union gave it the military designation of AK-47 (abbreviated form of Avtomatni Kalashnikova, literally meaning the automatic of Kalashnikov, and the year ‘47).

Early Kalashnikov models were produced and distributed exclusively to Soviet soldiers, and contrary to what a lot of people think, the original design wasn’t as reliable as the ones we see commercially available today, not by any stretch.

The AK-47’s reputation for reliability was a result of years of hard work and fine tuning, with Mikhail continuously troubleshooting issues of each manufacturing run as they gradually became apparent.

The AK-47’s rise to popularity (and eventually, to notoriety) was a result of a government-led manufacturing impetus. For the next decade, the Kremlin would share its new rifles with like-minded states like China and East Germany. It would also order its Warsaw Pact vassal states to produce them.

Toward the end of the 1950s the Soviet Union had somewhat of a franchising model in place, providing factories run by other communist governments the specifications for the manufacture of countless Kalasknikovs.

Because of how easy it is to manufacture, more and more of the communist rifles were built. As their numbers grew, they started drifting from government hands. By the 1960s, factories were incessantly mass-producing AK-47s in the planned economies of the Socialist Bloc where governments distributed and stockpiled them by the millions for no practical reason.

By the 1970s and 1980s, with loose security and blatant corruption within the states holding them, the rifles became available to fighters for any (or no) cause. After the Warsaw Pact unraveled and the Soviet Union collapsed, many successor governments lost custody of their surplus, which provided an almost boundless new supply.

Some of the AK-47s were supplied to proxy forces and devious arms dealers, some were stolen from weapons depots that were either insufficiently protected or uncared for, and others were smuggled to other countries, eventually reaching the drug cartels of Mexico.

It was in the Vietnam War when the AK first saw widespread use. American soldiers witnessed how effective the AK-47 was, as farmers armed with the rifles gave them a run for their money in the battlefield. It was for this reason that the U.S. military adopted Eugene Stoner’s AR-15 and modified it to become the army’s standard issue M16.

The influence of the AK-47 and the weapons developed with it in mind (whether to emulate its reliability or counter its threat) became an integral part of most of the violent armed insurrections within the Cold War era. But its reputation hasn’t suffered the worst yet.

In the Soviet-Afghan War, the Kremlin supplied the Afghanistan government with AKs and other Warsaw pact weapons prior to the war. To counter this, the CIA provided the insurgents – the mujahideen – with endless supplies of Chinese-made AK-patterned rifles.

In an ironic turn of events, Kalashnikov’s creation would ironically be used against the Soviet… the very soldiers his brainchild was designed to serve and protect. But perhaps what’s even more ironic is the fact that within two to three decades of America’s involvement in this particular war, the same AK-47s they supplied the insurgents with would be used against them.

To this day, the Internet is rife with images and videos of al Qaeda and ISIS members – sworn enemies of America – holding the very rifles given to their countrymen by the American government.

Kalashnikov’s rifle has become a victim of its own success and will fuel terrorism long after a century of its inception. It’s unfortunate, but the AK-47’s reputation as the quintessential Jihadist terrorist’s weapon is here to stay.