Very few men can claim the legacy of changing the course of history with a single invention. Even fewer could claim to have accomplished it with just four kilos of sheet metal forged into a weapon costing less than $50. Mikhail Kalashnikov, who died last month at the age of 94, was one such man.
Kalashnikov’s invention, the ubiquitous AK-47, is probably the most prolific assault rifle ever produced. It has seen action in the hands of elite special forces like those of Israel, Russia and India as well as child soldiers of Congo, Somalia and Angola.
The AK-47 has been produced by several countries in the world and over 100 million of them are still in service somewhere—spewing death, protecting territory, hunting down rebels, launching coups and like the attacks in Mumbai, propagating terrorism. This is the weapon that drove Americans out of Vietnam and 15 years later, chased the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. It is the preferred weapon of soldiers, rebels, gangsters and terrorists. Ironically, the man who started it all was almost killed by his own government when he was a little boy.
Kalashnikov was born as the 17th child to poor parents in the hinterland of Russia and deported with his family to Siberia when he was just 11 years old. At 19, he was conscripted into the Red Army and, because of his small size, assigned to work as a tank mechanic, where he started tinkering his way through machinery. His innate aptitude led him to develop the design for a new sub-machine gun while he was recovering from his injuries after the Battle of Bryansk in 1941. This initial design was refined several times and culminated in an assault rifle that was formally inducted into the Soviet Army in 1949.
The AK-47 and its variants is vastly superior because it was designed with the soldier and rough combat conditions in mind. Consisting of just eight moving parts, the weapon is elegant in its design, rugged in construction and requires virtually no maintenance. Its simplicity of operations makes it one of the easiest weapons to learn, making it a favourite with guerillas and, sadly, child soldiers. Its legendary ruggedness allows the AK-47 to function under conditions like rain, mud and slush, where sophisticated weapons fail. Made of sheet metal—it is easy to produce in large numbers cheaply and because the design remained unpatented till 1997—many countries and militia did exactly that—taking it into service in over 106 countries in the world. Israel’s Galil, India’s INSAS and Pakistan’s PK-10 rifle are all based on the AK-47 design.
Perhaps the greatest testimony to this weapon’s legendary effectiveness is that defence forces across the world have consistently taken over the AK-47s captured from their enemies and used them as their own personal weapon. The Americans did that in Vietnam (and according to some claims, even in modern day Iraq and Afghanistan) as did the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka.
The longevity of the AK-47 has resulted in several historical paradoxes. For instance, Israeli defence forces captured vast quantities of AK-47s during their conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon in 1982. These weapons found their way to the Central Intelligence Agency, which routed them through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to the Mujahideen, who were at that time fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden, who cut his teeth in that conflict, was possibly one of the recipients of this consignment and the AK-47 he used to kill Russians was later brandished as his trademark while extolling jihad against the Americans!
The AK-47 has a museum devoted to it, is on the national flag of Mozambique, East Timor and the Hezbollah—all of whom credit their successful struggle to this rifle. In many parts of the world, the AK-47 has a stronger brand recall than Coca-Cola!
The versatility of the AK-47 has also made it a game-changer. In March 2003, American state-of-the-art Apache gunships attacking Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard were beaten back by a barrage of AK-47 gunfire that poured thousands of rounds, damaging each one of the Apaches, forcing the high-tech mission to be aborted. Constant attrition by AK-47s has caused more casualties to the allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq than all improvised explosive devices (home-made bombs) put together.
Nation states are realizing that a few hundred AK-47s supplied to easily trained insurgents can bleed several divisions of regular forces, a fact that India is all too familiar with. So the AK-47 has also become the preferred strategy of countries keen to cause perturbation among their adversaries. At a fraction of the cost of, say, a single tank or aircraft, several hundred guerillas can be trained and equipped to wreak havoc in perpetuity.
Ironically, while another game-changer, the atomic bomb, killed a quarter of a million at the end of World War II and was never used again, the AK-47 is estimated to account for that many casualties every year all over the world. Perhaps that is why its inventor, who didn’t get a single penny for the design beyond his pay as a Red Army soldier, said that he wished he had invented a lawn mower instead. Much like Albert Einstein, who wished he had become a watchmaker after he learnt of the lethal potential of the atom bomb.
Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the www.outstandingspeakersbureau.in and author of Everyman’s War (www.fb.com/everymanswarbook). The views expressed are personal.