When remembering the dead, we should focus on their good deeds. But in the case of general-lieutenant Mikhail Kalashnikov, who just died at the age 94, the “creator” of the famous, or rather infamous, AK-47 automatic rifle, and a few other things could have been mentioned in the New York Times obituary of 24 December 2013. Indeed, a number of important facts deserve to be clarified.
During WWII private Kalashnikov worked at a very low level in a weapon repair shop for the Red Army and never did anything more heroic than that. After the war he remained in the same army and the illiterate handyman was advanced to the rank of NCO. To this point in his life, he had not invented a thing, nor was he in a position to do so. So, it is interesting that his war stories kept changing over the years—because he could not substantiate his claims of what he had accomplished by providing any clear evidence.
To his credit, Kalashnikov noticed the undeniable qualities of the captured German MP 44 (Maschinenpistole Model 44), the first automatic rifle with a curved clip of 30 Kurz (short size) 7.92x 33mm cartridges. It was designed in 1942 by the famous Hugo Schmeisser, and, in spite of Hitler’s initial disapproval, it performed with deadly success on the front lines, even though it came much too late to win his war. Some 425,000 StG 44 (another abbreviated name for the Sturmgewehr/Assault rifle Model 1944) were produced, the majority ending up in the hands of the Allies. After the collapse of the Third Reich, the excellent multi-task qualities as submachine-gun, automatic rifle and long range carbine, made the new weapon greatly demanded throughout the world.
Unlike American and British specialists who refused to admit to the MP 44’s superiority and instead criticized it, Kalashnikov and the rest of his co-workers marveled over the Nazi wonder weapon and unsuccessfully tried to duplicate it. Kalashnikov believed it would be easier to copy the American M1 rifle, which would be a better bet for putting together a Soviet automatic rifle, and he unsuccessfully competed with other designers. Kalashnikov’s effort was noticed by the real Russian gun makers who also failed to duplicate the Nazi weapon. Two years after the war a similar automatic rifle that could fire a burst of bullets or a single bullet with the Kurz ammunition of 7.62x33mm was perfected by Soviet weapon designers.
Their accomplishment had an unexpected effect on the leaders in the Kremlin, who saw a unique chance to prove an important point: a simple soldier like Kalashnikov demonstrated that it was not intellectuals and engineers that were the main progressive force in the Communist society, but, as Lenin and Stalin preached, the creative power of workers. Thus Kalashnikov was elevated from a team leader and given the highest honors for creating the ultimate “defensive” weapon in the Communist arsenal. He was rapidly advanced in rank, entered politics, and enjoyed the materialistic advantages offered by this unexpected opportunity that fell in his lap.
The “new” automatic rifle was named after him and known as the AK -47, Avtomat Kalashnikova of 1947; it entered production in 1948. However, to reproduce the German engineering (even with the Soviet-captured MP44 blueprints and prototypes) proved to be a serious task, and the AK- 47 suffered many alterations until 1956 when it was finally ready to pass firing tests.
The Kalashnikov team’s improvements were to install a trigger mechanism and other copied pieces from American rifles made by Remington and Garand models. Ironically the Russians’ inability to exactly copy the perfect fit of the MP44 components resulted in a “superior” weapon in spite of sloppy craftsmanship. The A-47 had movable pieces that were loose enough so they didn’t jam. It took dirt so well that it could be fired even after being dropped in the mud. Chrome plated vital parts were crucial to the efficiency of weapon.
The new automatic rifle hybrid would rattle at any move and it was accident prone when discharged with a full blast if dropped on its fixed or folding wooden stock. But it was a dream for any untrained user: easy to take apart, maintain or repair, to load, aim and fire, and most of all, cheap to purchase and conceal because of its compact size. Even though it was altered mechanically from the original MP44, the AK-47 was a striking replica of it in shape and fire power.
Like the Russians themselves, the AK-47 could endure much abuse and still perform efficiently up to 800 meters. It could be used in hand-to-hand combat as a stabbing weapon with an attached bayonet. A heavier version of RPK -74 light machine gun, with a bipod and more fire power, followed immediately.
In the 1960s the entire Soviet Armed Forces and most of the Warsaw Pact armies were armed with the AK-47. Some 200 versions of the AK-47 were produced, and an uncountable number of others were manufactured without a proper license, bringing their active number to some 100 million in the entire world. The rifle became synonymous with a terrorist’s weapon, as it was used lethally in all civil wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions after the end of WWII. It was featured on the Mozambique flag, as a symbol of independence from Portugal. Any massacre in the world involves AK-47s that can be used even by child soldiers, killing more people than any other weapon in the history of the world. For centuries, the Russians flooded over their borders to loot, rape and murder people of other nations. Now their AK-47 continues their apocalyptic tradition.
It was typical for the aging Kalashnikov to express formal regrets over the excessive number and the misuse of his “invention.” But what he sincerely regretted was the fall of the Communist regime that made him famous and prosperous. He bitterly criticized Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin about their role in destroying the Soviet society that was so good to him. He was nostalgic about the Stalinist era that pampered him, and kept defending his “original” concept of his automatic rifle. He proudly lent his name to the “Kalashnikov vodka” brand, implying its strong qualities to knock out anyone. Kalashnikov kept posing dressed in his general uniform in which he always looked uncomfortable for he was never a real soldier trained to don any uniform. But he had to do so in order to show his many glittering medals, among them the Lenin and Stalin orders.
As for the Nazi wonder MP44 rifle, it was in great demand after the war and served in the armed forces of East Germany and other countries until the mid-1960s. It was copied and manufactured in Serbia and it had the opportunity to oppose its imitator AK-47 in many wars, from those in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Syrian revolution in 2013. Indeed, the Sturmgewehr 44 design inspired all modern automatic rifles, and it is the prized possession of any military museum in the world. Usually, next to it is the AK-47, regarded as a junk weapon for murderous men.
© 2013 Ion Grumeza