An AK-47

Mikhail Kalashnikov: Russia's famous small arms designer

Was the recently deceased Mikhail Kalashnikov, known as the creator of the world’s most popular infantry weapon, a genius and a hero, or a false Soviet idol?

The post-war years in the Soviet Union saw a madcap drive towards establishing Russian ‘priority’ in matters scientific and technological. 

Polzunov invented the steam engine, Kotelnikov the parachute, Mozhaisky the aeroplane, Popov the radio, Petrov the electric bulb, Lodygin the electric arc, Tsiolkovsky the rocket, the Cherepanovs the locomotive and so forth.

And anyone disseminating information that disputed those historical facts had to be re-enlightened under the auspices of the State Administration for Camps.

Though Russians are now allowed to know about James Watt, that drive hasn’t ended, except that this time the rest of the world has been taken in as well. Hence we routinely credit the design of the AK-47 to a man who, though by all accounts decent and talented, didn’t quite deserve the accolades.    

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the ‘K’ in the family of weapons based on the original AK-47 rifle, died at the end of last year aged 94. The family that slays together, the Kalashnikovs have killed considerably more people than all WMDs combined, an achievement that made Kalashnikov a star in the firmament of armament design. As befits a star, his demise was eulogised in countless obituaries the world over.

Kalashnikov succeeded in life against the odds. Born in 1919, he came from a family of hard-working and independent-minded peasants. Those character traits made them incline towards scepticism about the Soviet regime and collective farms.

Such intransigence was bound to put them on a collision course with Stalin, and there could only be one winner. In 1930 the Kalashnikovs, along with millions of others, were dispossessed and deported to Siberia. Most of Mikhail’s siblings didn’t survive the trip, and his father died shortly after.

The youngster managed only seven years of school – he had to drive a tractor for a living, first in Siberia and then in a village near Moscow to which he managed to escape by forging his identity papers. Tractor turned to tank when Mikhail was conscripted into the army in 1938. By the time the war broke out on 22 June 1941, Sergeant Kalashnikov was a tank commander and a compulsive tinkerer.

He was constantly coming up with little inventions, such as a tank’s running-time meter or a gadget making it easier to fire a TT pistol through turret slits. Kalashnikov received a commendation from Marshal Zhukov which was accompanied by a wristwatch, a rare luxury at the time.

In October 1941, Kalashnikov’s tank was set alight and he took a bullet through the shoulder. Making his way back to his unit, he took part in several skirmishes, lamenting the ease with which German machine pistols outgunned Soviet obsolete bolt-action rifles.

It was while recovering from his wound that Kalashnikov set out to redress the balance of firepower. A gifted autodidact, he designed his first submachine gun. The rather crude weapon never made the grade, but Kalashnikov did – his talent was noticed and from then on he designed guns full time.

His breakthrough came in 1949 when the assault rifle bearing his name became the standard infantry weapon of the Soviet army – and soon of many others as well. The rifle has gone through several design generations and is still going strong over five continents.

Mistaken identity

All of this was mentioned in the obituaries. However, they all omitted a rather significant detail: Kalashnikov didn’t really design the Kalashnikovs, and certainly not the patriarch of the family, the AK-47.

Hugo Schmeisser did, except of course his original customer was Hitler’s army rather than Stalin’s. Obviously such a manifestly un-Russian name couldn’t be attached to a Soviet weapon, and a more suitable candidate had to be found. World-famous designers Shpagin (the ‘Sh’ in the PPSh) and Degtiaryov (the ‘D’ in the PPD) refused to take credit for somebody else’s work. Kalashnikov, a peasant autodidact and then a loyal communist, filled the bill perfectly.

“In fact, Avtomat Kalashnikova, or AK-47, has precious little to do with Mikhail Timofeyevich himself – he was merely APPOINTED to be its inventor,” writes Alan Petrov on Russian defence blog MAXPARK.

Schmeisser, however, broke even popular perception. Denied the acclaim he deserved, he was undeservedly, if unwittingly, credited with the German MP 38-40 machine pistol, such an ever-present star in war films. However, that ‘Schmeisser’ was developed by others, with Hugo contributing only the magazine. But the magazine had his name stamped on it – hence the confusion.

The ‘Schmeisser’, incidentally, was not as popular in wartime combat as in post-war cinematography. It was used mostly by army officers and NCOs, the Waffen-SS and the police. Grunts carried bolt-action Mauser rifles that had 15 times the MP 38-40’s effective range of 70m, but fell far short of its 500 rounds per minute rate of fire.

It was long before the Second World War that the Germans realised that firefights in modern mobile combat seldom presented targets farther than 300m away. At such distances, fire density was much more critical than the rifle’s range. This led to the idea of combining the features of a submachine gun and a bolt-action rifle in a weapon chambered for a hybrid round.

The gun itself came about later, but Schmeisser had already developed the firing selector switch, now a common feature on all assault rifles, in 1924. The hybrid rifle, Schmeisser’s StG44 (Sturmgewehr 44), went into mass production in 1944 and the Germans only had time to make 450,000 units.

At the end of the war Schmeisser was taken prisoner by the Americans, who perused his designs and found them wanting. They were embarking on a different path, at the end of which lay the M16, a more sophisticated weapon but one that relied on conscientious, trained and educated users.

The StG44 was less demanding and that’s precisely what made it attractive to the Soviet Army, or to be more precise to Stalin who approved every new design personally.  

Some 50 StG44s, 10,785 sheets of technical documentation and Schmeisser himself, along with his whole team and their families, were shipped to the town of Izhevsk in the Urals and put to work in harness with Soviet designers in 1946. His work done, Schmeisser was allowed to return to Germany in 1952, where he died the following year.

Copycat weapons

Only in 2009 did Kalashnikov acknowledge publicly, writes, that in designing the AK he had been ‘helped’ by Schmeisser.  

Kalashnikov only moved to Izhevsk in late 1947, by which time ‘his’ gun was more or less done and dusted. According to the eminent Russian historian Boris Sokolov, Schmeisser more than just ‘helped’ Kalashnikov: “For a long time now it has been no secret to the experts that the AK is a modernised copy of  the 1944 German assault rifle developed by Hugo Schmeisser’s design team.”

The kinship of the two guns has always been an open secret not only to experts but to anyone who ever saw the photographs of the StG44 and the AK-47 side by side. The two guns look like dizygotic twins, if not exactly identical. Of course, in their fine tradition of veracity the Russians have always claimed that this is where the similarity ends. It isn’t.

All the key features of the AK-47 were copied from the StG44. Kalashnikov claimed credit for developing the concept of high tolerance, or loose fit, in which the gas piston and bolt carrier’s parts fit loosely in the receiver, making the mechanism less susceptible to jamming caused by carbon build-up, lack of lubrication, rust, dirt or mud. In fact, another Soviet designer, Alexey Sudayev, had incorporated this principle into his AS-44, an exact replica of the StG44.

Though the AS-44 was experimental, many of its Schmeisser features – the trigger, double-locking lugs, unlocking raceway and the high-tolerance system – were later transplanted into the AK. The lugs and raceway were also used in the American M1, the first standard-issue semi-automatic rifle. Interestingly, like Kalashnikov, the inventor of the M1 John Garand was self-taught.

The long-stroke gas system and overall layout of the StG44 were copied faithfully into the AK, as was the banana magazine and, later, the stamped-receiver manufacturing process. However, the Soviets began to use stamped sheet metal only in the 1959 AKM version of the AK-47, something Schmeisser had been doing from 1943.

The AK-47’s gas piston has a 50 per cent longer stroke than necessary, making the gun less vulnerable to jamming due to insufficient lubrication. If it’s neither lubricated nor cleaned properly, an AK-47 is more likely than practically any other assault rifle in the world to absorb the punishment and still fire.

High tolerances throughout and the curved magazine, ergonomically designed for its stubby 7.62 x 39mm hybrid rounds (halfway house between pistol and rifle bullets in length), also simplify the maintenance of the gun, making it less likely to jam. This makes the Kalashnikov ideal for poorly trained Soviet conscripts and also for millions of barely trained and prepubescent paramilitaries all over the world.

This heightened reliability comes at a cost to accuracy, as the looser tolerances do not allow for consistent pinpoint precision. The AK-47 doesn’t quite match the M-16 or, say, Heckler & Koch’s HK416 in such characteristics, but the gun’s success suggests this is a compromise many armies, regular or irregular, are willing to make.

The AK-47 is impervious not only to careless use but also to harsh conditions. It’s one of the few weapons of any kind that can be totally submerged in water and still come out firing. Nor is it likely to rust as a result.

The gun’s bore and chamber, as well as the gas piston and the interior of the gas cylinder, are chromium-plated. This is important considering that the primers of practically all ammunition manufactured in the Soviet Union and its former satellites contained potassium chloride. This material is highly corrosive, but the chromium plating obviates the need for constant cleaning.
As the AK-47 only has eight moving parts, it can be stripped in under a minute, then reassembled just as quickly. Being such a simple design, the AK-47 is also cheap to make or indeed to buy: its black-market price varies from £3,000 in India to a mere £6 in Afghanistan.

Popularity of the AK

This explains why the AK is the most copied gun in the world. About 100 million have been made, one for every 60 inhabitants of the world, a staggering number acknowledged by Guinness World Records. Yet in 2006 Russia accounted for only 10 per cent of production. The rest were made in China and elsewhere, usually without the benefit of a licence.

Even independent Russian publications acknowledge the true inventor of the AK-47: “Not a single key component of the weapon was developed by Kalashnikov’s team,” writes Spetsnaz Magazine. Yet there’s little doubt that Kalasnikov did much to fine-tune the design, and also to expand the AK family.

The AK-47 has spawned numerous variants. The 1954 modification, for example, shed some weight thanks to a much-lightened milled receiver. This was transformed into the AKS, featuring a folded metal stock and designed for paratroops and tank crews.

Then came the still lighter AKM, weighing a svelte 6.5lb. The weight loss was due to a receiver made from stamped and riveted sheet metal. Originally designed for airborne troops, this is the most ubiquitous AK.

At the same time, Kalashnikov’s group turned the AK into the RPK, a light machine gun featuring a longer barrel and a bipod.

In 1974, the Soviets introduced AK-based assault rifles, carbines and hand-held machine guns chambered for rounds of lower calibres, specifically 5.45 x 39mm and the longer 5.56 x 45mm Nato round.

For all that, the Russians had been unable to patent any AK weapons until 1997 and Kalashnikov was not associated with the design of any gun other than the AK. He may have been a talented engineer, but his gift lay in improving existing designs. Even now the Russians refuse to acknowledge the extent of Kalashnikov’s indebtedness to the StG44.

This shows that, like energy in the First Law of Thermodynamics, the Soviet Union hasn’t disappeared. It has been transformed.

Justice demands that Hugo Schmeisser be acknowledged as the designer of the world’s most popular infantry weapon, while Mikhail Kalashnikov be known for what he was: a false Soviet idol, but a gifted man who lived a hard yet fruitful life. 

Alexander Boot is a Moscow-born and London-based writer and blogger, the author of ‘How the Future Worked’

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