History Of The AK-47

 A History Of The AK-47 Rifle

American soldiers first came up against the AK-47 in the jungles of Vietnam during the early 1960’s.  Before that, the earliest reference to this Soviet-designed weapon came from a 1953 CIA resource. A rough drawing suggested this new gun was a derivative of the PPSh – the Russian standard submachine gun.  However, during the 1956 Hungarian Revolt more accurate pictures were procured, this cemented the history of the AK-47 as a formidable weapon. Western observers took notice as they realized they were up against something new.

That something new is now something old: but it still gets noticed.  Like any weapons design that has been around for generations the AK has lovers and haters perhaps in equal amounts.  Supporters wax poetic about its reliability and robust ability to take abuse along with its comparatively low price (in otherwise stable markets).  Detractors condemn it for its supposed inaccuracy and often crude finish; some going so far as to accuse its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, of copycatting the design.  While it certainly will never be a tack driving range weapon, the latest estimates of their being anywhere between 100 and 200 million AK type rifles in the world suggests it is not an altogether bad weapon system. 

Famous The World Over

photo of history of the AK-47 rifle
From World Wars, to television and movies, the AK-47 is one of the most recognized weapons in the world.

The AK is perhaps the most distinctively recognized weapon in the world. From being emblazoned upon the flag of Mozambique, to being the weapon of choice of good and bad guys alike on the big and small screen.  It has been vilified as the weapon of oppression and embraced as the gun of liberation depending on where one falls on the global socio-economic-political spectrum. Objectively speaking, its production and dispersal across the world inspired a change to small arms development. The fact that it still is out there is a testament to its combat as wells as its political efficacy.

Like it or not, its designer, Kalashnikov did not design the gun completely in a vacuum.  While the AK epitomizes what people assume to be an “assault rifle” it was not the first.  The need to offer a selective-fire shoulder-fired weapon that had more punch than a submachinegun but less recoil than a full rifle was recognized even before bullets started flying in World War II.  Even the peacetime US Army, with oppressive peace time budget constraints, was looking into options of a middle ground rifle and adopted the M1 Carbine by 1940.  Of course, the Carbine was not select fire – the M2 was introduced a decade alter – but the notion that rifles needed to have 500 or more yard accuracy was being challenged in favor of fire superiority.

The German Influence

Many recognize that the first production assault rifle is the Sturmgewehr. As the story goes, during World War II Adolph Hitler inserted himself into the minutiae of everything going on, going so far as demanding that arms production focus exclusively upon submachine guns (SMG), or machine pistols such as the 9mm MP40 Schmiesser. 

What would become known as the Sturmgewehr, or assault rifle, was initially sent to the front for testing in 1943 under the classification MP43, or machine pistol ’43 to comply with those orders.  Yet it was not an SMG.  It fired a shortened rifle round, the 8mm Kurz, or 8mm Short (7.92x33mm) and it outperformed rifles and submachineguns in both assault and defense tactics.  Once the cat was out of the bag Hitler consented to his generals’ requests for more of these weapons, it was rechristened the Sturmgewehr (STG) ‘44, or storm rifle, or… “assault rifle.”

On the Russian side of events, Kalashnikov began exploring weapon designs from October of 1941 to June of 1942. He worked while recuperating from wounds received in the Battle of Bryansk. It is often pointed out that this is a year before the Russians were introduced to the business end of the MP43/STG44. Mikhail, like other Soviet soldiers, was dismayed that his countrymen lacked effective firearms. At this early stage of the war Russia was outgunned on the battlefield. Inspired, Kalashnikov began designing a compact submachine gun. His designs were not accepted, but they did get him invited to participate in working on a new medium-sized rifle. This next-generation service weapon was going to be centered on a new cartridge.

7.62 History

While debate ranges on how much the STG inspired the AK, its cartridge’s impact is pretty well documented. Not long after being deployed to the Eastern Front it was inevitable for an STG to get captured. The Russians were intrigued by this new weapon that looked like one of their smgs but fired a larger round. In 1943 after testing the cartridge and weapon they became committed to making a version of their own, but in keeping with Soviet doctrine, they wanted it in the caliber all their weapon barrels were bored to: 7.62mm. 

The result was the 7.62×39 M43 cartridge. Russians do not have time for things that do not work. This new cartridge was designed not to fail no matter what environmental conditions. The sloped body of the bottlenecked cartridge aided feeding and extraction but also led to the iconic curve of what would become the AK’s recognizable magazine.

Rise Of The 7.62×39

photo of 223 ammo next to 762x39 ammo outdoors
The 7.62×39 bullet (left), next to the .223 bullet (right).

The next year Kalashnikov presented a gas operated rifle chambered in this new round.  It was not a copy of the STG but instead showed influences from the American M1 Garand rifle with the gas system under the barrel.  The design lost to another rifle system submitted by Sergei Simonov which entered service in the closing days of the war as the SKS.

The SKS offered the fighting soldier improvements over the bolt action M91 rifles. It was not really an assault rifle, it did not have the selective fire feature to fit that designation (take note modern media). It was clear another series of weapons tests would be forthcoming.  Undaunted, Kalashnikov returned to the drawing board and kept fiddling with his design.  Learning from the SKS, he moved the gas tube to the top of the barrel, which of course was how the STG operated too. He removed the non-reciprocating bolt handle of his earlier design for a molded spur on the bolt body itself. He also made the dust cover serve as the combination safety and selector: all steps to simplify production and use. 

A New Prototype

In 1946 the Soviet military held another rifle competition and this new prototype was selected, christened as the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947. Production began immediately, and the Soviet military started receiving the first models in 1949.

There are certain features that are common to Soviet designed hardware that becomes evident to observers. As mentioned before Russians do not have time for things that do not function as they are intended. At the same time, if a tool designed for a specific function suffices for a different application, they will happily use it as such, even if that was never the original intention. That tendency to promote function over form fit well both with Russian pragmatism and Soviet manufacturing.

What this means for the AK47 is that while its accuracy was typically less than precise – sometimes referred to as simply a “bullet hose” – it had a durability and simplicity to it that appealed to the Russians on a political and cultural level. Given the AK’s diaspora throughout the, its appeal was not exclusive to residents of the Motherland. The rifle is simple to use, simple to clean – admittedly not often a priority by many of the rifle’s users over the years. It’s also impressively reliable if not maintained and cheap to replace if it somehow did break. Finally, component parts are not particularly high tech if repair is opted instead of replacement.

AK-47 Model Varients

photo of an ak47 receiver and safety switch
The stamped steel receiver is the most common variant of the AK-47.

There was, of course, a manufacturing learning curve in the early days of production.  Ultimately these resulted in models that are divided into four types: type 1 from 1949-1951; type 2 from 1951-1954; type 3 from 1954-1959 and from then on, the Type 4 or AKM.  Types 2 and 3 are notable because they were made on milled receivers instead of the stamped steel.  This made them heavier and less prone to torqueing or “twisting” when being fired and potentially more accurate than their stamped steel siblings. 

It is worth pointing out, however, that this rigidity also made them prone to cracking when heavily used.  Whether it was weight or cost-effectiveness, Type 4 returned to a stamped steel receiver with pins, rivets and a few spot welds.  In the pursuit of simplicity, a heavier and longer barreled version was made as a squad automatic weapon (SAW): the RPK.  The Type 4 is the cheapest of all Soviet-made AKs and the most prolific that earned the rifle its reputation for being remarkably reliable and ultimately disposable.  Small wonder it became the hard currency the USSR used to court client states throughout the Cold War. 

Accuracy With The AK-47

Kalashnikov’s objective was to equip a fighter not with a long-range precision weapon but a tool that made each individual capable of holding their own. Or at the very least able to make themselves a presence on the battlefield with a select-fire, fully automatic weapon. The upside for the user being that it was cheap and readily available. To that end he was undoubtedly successful.

a photo of a target shot with 7.62x39 ammo at 25 yards
A target shot with 7.62×39 ammo at 25 yards.

For accuracy, standard expectations were for the rifle hit a man-sized target at 300 meters. Getting 10 shots consecutively on such a target can prove difficult with most production models. Consistent hits at 100 meters are more common and given the training – or lack thereof – of the conscript or irregular forces that the AK was supplied to over its history, this was acceptable.

That does not mean that the rifle was not improved upon. Many users have participated in tweaking or fine-tuning their personal weapons to achieve better results. When design changes were proposed, accuracy was not the motivating cause. After reviewing combat reports from the Vietnam War, the AK’s largest deployment thus far, The Russians chose to rechamber their rifles in a round that mimicked the performance of the 5.56 NATO round. 

The idea being smaller cartridges meant more could be carried, even though magazine capacities remained at thirty. This was the AK74 chambered in 5.45×39: a narrower bullet with lighter recoil, better controllability and grievous tumbling when it entered soft tissue. 

AK-47 Future Proof?

The newer generation served throughout the Russian’s dalliance in Afghanistan where it, ironically, went up against the AK47. To date, the Russians still use the 5.45×39 round but the widespread success of both the 47 and its larger round make abandoning the 7.62×39 logistically unacceptable. 

Starting in 2001 the AK100 series of rifles were introduced. These new models offered better ergonomics and accessory options for sights and lights.  They are also manufactured in 7.62×39 and 5.45×39 but also 5.56 NATO. It seems that this series of rifles is designed not only for export but also, discomfortingly enough, for use anywhere in the world using locally sourced calibers. A logistics boon for any invading force trained on a specific weapon system. 

photo of a man shooting an ak47 rifle in the woods illustrating the history of the ak-47
The AK-47 has been proven to be a versatile rifle on and off of the battlefield.

Returning To The 47

Today there are AK variants made in over thirty countries, including the United States. Its simplicity allows for it to be easily reverse-engineered. Many “cottage industries” are able to produce service quality units out of workshops in the mountains of Pakistan or plains of Africa. Meanwhile many first world “official” manufacturers have made efforts to further the rifle’s accuracy, performance and service life. 

These efforts to improve the rifle should are not a failing of the original design. Rather, the AK47 has proven itself to be a very versatile platform that has answered the needs of the official and less legitimate world-wide shooting community. Quite simply, bad gun designs do not survive seven decades of use everywhere in the world. 

While many gun enthusiasts may deride the gun’s use of rudimentary machining, the simplicity of components and variance of performance qualities. This is really done from the perspective of comparing apples to Twinkies. The AK design was never meant to be on par with the M1 or M14 Service rifles. Although, they were its direct competitors when it was introduced. When it comes to arming a great many people as quickly and cheaply as possible, however, the AK47 certainly serves its purpose.

a photo of the history of the AK-47 modular rifle platform
The modular AK-47 rifle platform.

AK-47 AK-47 or Clone AK-100 Series
Furniture  Yes Included Yes
Optics With side mount equipped models With side mount equipped models Yes
Sights Inserts After Market, Inserts Inserts
Alternative Calibers No Not Available No
Trigger Upgrades Yes After Market, Yes Yes

 

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