Mikhail Kalashnikov had two separate life-changing moments while bedridden in a hospital. The first came when he realized his fellow Soviet Red Army soldiers lacked a universal weapon that could compete with the Germans during World War II. The second came from his death bed some 72 years after his initial idea led to the creation of the Avtomat Kalashnikov Model 1947. Better known as the AK-47, it became the most widely used firearm in the world, arming everyone from communist guerrillas and terrorists to soldiers and firearms enthusiasts.
Kalashnikov experienced hard times growing up in Kurya, Siberia. His family was deemed lavish peasants under the Soviet regime, so they were split up. Young Kalashnikov was deported to the Tomsk region with his father as a punishment for their wealth. When his father died, Kalashnikov’s mother remarried to support the family, and he hitchhiked some 621 miles back to his hometown to work as a tinker at a tractor station.
The self-taught mechanic was conscripted into the Red Army a year prior to Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. He served in a tank unit, eventually assuming the role as a tank commander. During the Battle of Bryansk in October 1941, three Soviet Union army units were encircled by German forces. While surrounded, the Soviet army fought on, preventing the Germans from overtaking Moscow, the capital of Russia, for two weeks.
In the heat of battle, Kalashnikov barely escaped certain death when he was pulled from his burning tank, badly wounded but alive.
“I was in the hospital, and a soldier in the bed beside me asked: ‘Why do our soldiers have only one rifle for two or three of our men, when the Germans have automatics?’” Kalashnikov considered that question for the next year while recovering in a hospital in Kazakhstan. Then he developed a simple and reliable rifle for soldiers just like him. Both durable and dependable, the AK-47 is a gas-powered 7.62x39mm rifle that was built to operate flawlessly in the harshest of environments — whether in the deserts of Afghanistan, the jungles of Vietnam, or the swamplands of Russia.
From its conceptualization in 1947 to current manufacturing, historians estimate that there are 100 million AK-47s in circulation. Similar weapons manufacturers and gun designers rose to acquire generational wealth — including Eugene Stoner, who was heavily involved in the development of the ArmaLite AR-15, which was the basis for the US Army’s M-16 — however since Kalashnikov developed his weapon system while serving in the Red Army, he saw none of the profits. The patent design was not considered his property, and he received no royalties.
“I’m a product of my times, and back then nobody ever thought about royalties,” Kalashnikov said in a 2003 interview. “All the countries in the Warsaw Pact got our technology and designs for free. We simply gave them away. I didn’t always agree, but those were the rules we lived under.”
His weapon system was handed out freely to communist partners, regimes, and guerrillas around the world. It became more than just a rifle, but also a means of leverage.
“The Kalashnikov was used as a political instrument — to gain influence or encourage insurgents the Soviet Union liked,” Maxim Pyadushkin, a Russian military expert, said. This was a reality faced by American servicemen in the Cold War and through proxy wars, conflicts, and later the Global War on Terror across every major war-torn hot spot in the world.
The Soviet Union paid Kalashnikov with rank, and as a two-star general he assumed senior positions within the Red Army while living modestly in Izhevsk, a Russian industrial city. It was also the home of a small arms factory, a curiosity that caused journalists and onlookers to turn away for decades.
Four countries have had an AK-47 on their national flag at some point during their history: East Timor, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, and Mozambique. Those four African countries have experienced civil unrest and genocide, and the AK-47 has acted as more than a symbol of death and destruction — it has been a symbol of protection and freedom.
The AK-47 has seen many different variants from its original design. The Russian arms trade proliferated the rifle with the most reputable figurines responsible for thousands of deaths.
“I sleep soundly at night,” Kalashnikov once said. Later in life, when his health was failing, Kalashnikov pondered whether his invention was a stain on the world. “I’m proud of my invention, but I am sad that it is used by terrorists,” he said, adding to his viewpoint that the AK-47 was for defense and not offense. “I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example a lawn mower.”
Kalashnikov died in December 2013 at age 94. Despite the controversy of his greatest invention, he has been memorialized in museum displays, and statues of him holding his signature AK-47 were erected in Russia in his honor.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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