The Low-Tech Gun That Changed Everything

Photograph by Peter Marlow/Magnum

1947 The Soviet Army introduces a gas-operated assault rifle, named for inventor Mikhail Timofeyovich Kalashnikov.

For reasons that escape me, somewhere in my closet is a T-shirt with a silhouette of an AK-47 on its front, personally inscribed to me by the AK’s inventor, Mikhail Timofeyovich Kalashnikov. Now I remember: A friend encountered him at a gun show (where else?) and had him autograph the shirt for me. He said that Mr. Kalashnikov “couldn’t have been nicer. A very warm guy.”

Fast-forward 15 years. Another friend rang me to ask, “Would you like to shoot an AK-47?” Next day I found myself in a gravel pit in Maine holding the gun that changed the world. I aimed and squeezed the trigger. The 30-round clip emptied in less than the time it took to type this sentence. There was nothing sleek about it. The gun’s stubby and sort of clunky and makes a low-tech buda-buda-buda sound, far different from the crisp crack and whistle of an M-16.

But then, you’ve surely heard it yourself, either on the evening news or in an Oliver Stone movie. Most days, the newspaper has a photo of someone firing it or holding it aloft. Very often, that person will be 12 years old. As C.J. Chivers writes in The Gun, his definitive history of the AK-47 and its predecessors, the Gatling and Maxim guns, “Anywhere large numbers of young men in civilian clothes or mismatched uniforms carry Kalashnikovs is a very good place not to go; when Kalashnikovs turn up in the hands of mobs, it is time to leave.”

AK stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova, after its inventor, then a 28-year-old former Soviet tank commander; 47 refers to 1947, the year it came online. Chivers is at pains to note that Comrade Kalashnikov was “not the sole creator of the original AK-47,” but rather “a mid-level player in a large system, and never its engine.” Stalin had tasked his military complex with coming up with a small arms automatic weapon “that would ensure the safety of the rodina, the great Russian homeland, and equip fraternal forces in the expanding Kremlin sphere.” He also wanted a hero. These were in short supply, since he had killed most of them—along with scoundrels—during the purges. Thus most of the credit was given to Comrade Kalashnikov.

The irony, as Chivers documents, is that the AK-47 ended up being “christened with blood not as a tool for liberation or to defend the Soviet Union from invaders. It made its debut smashing freedom movements. It was repression’s chosen gun, the rifle of the occupier and the police state.”

It was used to put down uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956. In 1962 the first martyr of the Berlin Wall, a young man named Peter Fechter, was shot with AKs by East German border guards and left to slowly bleed to death. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Kalashnikov was the trademark weapon of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army used it effectively. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Black September terrorists trained theirs on Israeli athletes. Salvador Allende, president of Chile, turned one on himself in 1973 as coup plotters closed in. Both sides in Northern Ireland used it to work out their differences over the doctrines of the Trinity and Immaculate Conception.

President Anwar Sadat went down in a hailstorm of AK rounds on the reviewing stand in 1981. The AK’s become so ubiquitous in Africa that the acronym now also stands for “Africa Killer.” Chinese troops used it to cleanse Tiananmen Square of student protesters in 1989. That year saw it put to at least one good use, on Christmas Day, when Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife met their end in a fusillade of AK fire. But such satisfying instances are rare. When Osama bin Laden spoke to the world by video after Sept. 11, his AK-47 was there beside him, a real-life version of Gollum and his “preciousss.”

The Kalashnikov, writes Chivers, “marks the guerrilla, the terrorist, the child soldier, the dictator, and the thug—all of whom have found it to be a ready equalizer against morally or materially superior foes.” There may be as many as 100 million in the world today, one for every 70 people.

How did this come about? Simple. Literally—the weapon’s genius lies in its simplicity. A child can learn how to operate it in minutes. A masterpiece of user-friendliness, it has relatively few working parts. And here, perhaps, is the strangest irony of all, given that it was produced by the Soviet Union, which could barely design a toaster: It almost never breaks. AKs made in the early 1950s are still in use in Afghanistan in the 21st century. The average disassembly time for an M-16, the standard small arm of the U.S. Army infantry, is 80 seconds; for the AK, it’s 34 seconds.

On the 60th anniversary of its invention, Vladimir Putin issued a chest-thumping celebratory decree. Today, under his leadership, the Crimea and Ukraine have become the latest AK-47 fields of fire. On the occasion of Kalashnikov’s 90th birthday, the gun’s inventor received his country’s highest honorary award, the Hero of the Russian Federation medal.

In Chivers’s account, Kalashnikov emerges as an elusive and ambivalent figure. But then he was a product of the Soviet system, which persecuted, among so many others, his own father. On the one hand, Kalashnikov says, “I sleep soundly.” But his memoirs strike a more ruminative tone: “Arms makers have strange destinies!” he writes. “They are saluted with shots they never expected, and it is not orations of music that remind one of jubilees, but moans and screams.”