November 10, 2016

AK-47, Kalashnikov

November 10 is the birthday of Mikhail Kalashnikov, born in 1919.

n. an automatic kalashnikov rifle; esp. (more fully AK-47) a model of this rifle, first manufactured in 1947
­—Oxford English Dictionary

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the quiet and conscientious creator of one of the most notorious weapons in history, insists that it is only historical circumstance that led him to create assault rifles instead of lawnmowers.

Atomic weapons and firebombings aside, World War II featured cramped combat between troops that necessitated special equipment. Unlike the British more than 100 years earlier who wanted to be able to kill more people at a distance (see shrapnel), the Germans realized that most rifles were too powerful for close encounters and wanted a weapon that could wreak havoc in tight quarters (see tommy gun). Hitler referred to their first mass-deployment creation as a Sturmgewehr, “storm rifle,” which became translated to “assault rifle.” The Russians were assaulted repeatedly by the German wondergun and were duly impressed.

Mikhail Kalashnikov was a tank driver in the Red Army in 1938 and promoted to commander before being wounded by Germans during the Battle of Bryansk in 1941. As he was recovering from his injuries, he began thinking about how best to drive the German hordes from his homeland. As he later mused, “It is the Germans who are responsible for the fact that I became a fabricator of arms. If not for them, I would have constructed agricultural machines.” Kalashnikov decided to start entering gun-building contests and finally came up big in 1947. His invention, was special because it was a true assault rifle (good for shooting on the run), had selective fire (semi-automatic for judicious firing and fully automatic for a kill-crazy rampage), was gas-powered (cartridges were almost magically chambered and ejected), and, most importantly, was cheap, durable, and easy to use—even in the cold and muddy conditions of the Russian front.

The Soviet Army officially accepted the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 (AK-47) in 1949, and, in the six decades since, more AK rifles have been produced than all other assault rifles combined. Kalashnikov was promoted to Lieutenant General but claimed never to have profited from the more than 100 million weapons bearing his name circulating around the world, surviving instead on a state pension. “My work is my life, and my life is my work. I invented this assault rifle to defend my country. I am proud that it has become synonymous with liberty.”

The AK-47 appears on the flags of Mozambique and Hezbollah, the coats of arms of Zimbabwe and East Timor, and the logo of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. For most of his life, Kalashnikov was philosophical about his namesake and generally impervious to insomnia. “If someone asks me how I can sleep at night knowing that my arms have killed millions of people, I respond that I have no problem sleeping, my conscience is clean.”

There is a museum and a monument honoring the gun designer in Izhevsk, Russia, where he died in 2013, but it is perhaps Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown who sums up Kalashnikov’s legacy most eloquently. “AK-47. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every mother****** in the room, accept no substitutes.