The birth of the Kalashnikov Platform
Few rifles are as iconic as the AK-47. It is the most widely used rifle on the face of the earth and has been used by America’s enemies and allies alike. While some see the rifle as a symbol of terror, others see it as a symbol of defense and vigilance; so much so that the country of Mozambique has chosen to feature the AK-47 on its nation’s flag. As famous, or possibly infamous, as the AK platform rifles might be, there is a rich history of innovation success on the battlefield that few other rifles hold.
During the closing years of WWII, the Soviet army took note of the German STG 44 that was being used against them and decided that they wanted a rifle of similar capabilities. The allure of an effective lightweight rifle capable of fully automatic function proved to be a devastating weapon against any foe on the wrong end. In addition to the need for an improved personal weapon system for their soldiers, the Soviet army had taken a shine to the 7.62x39 cartridge that was light enough to be carried en masse by the average infantryman, and it’s tapered design allowed for reliable operation even when using steel-cased ammunition. Many designers were tasked with creating a new service rifle, and one of them was Mikhail Kalashnikov.
While there is some conjecture over who initially created the first prototypes, Mikhail Kalashnikov is credited with the invention of the Avtomat Kalashnikova 47; so named for the name sake of the creator of the rifle and the year 1947 in which the rifle was originally introduced. Creation by committee is a common occurrence during military innovation, and the Soviet Union was in need of a less expensive and more capable rifle than the SKS which was more expensive to build and had less magazine capacity.
The first AK-47 rifles were issued to select units of Soviet soldiers in 1948 and were produced in the Izhmash factory. The rifle originally featured a flexible stamped receiver and a 30-round magazine with the option for semi or fully automatic operation. Soon after, the rifle was officially adopted as the standard issue weapon for the entire Soviet army.
Early variations included the AK-47 Type 1 with the original stamped receiver, the AKS with the metal under-folding stock, and the AK-47 Type 2 which proved to be easier for manufactures to produce reliable model by moving to a milled receiver in 1949. Further improvements were made for the AK-47 Type 3, but they were small changes that improved ergonomics, strengthened ancillary components, and made the rifle a slightly lighter weight in 1953.
The most notable improvements were a laminated plywood pistol grip, changing the location of sling swivels, a redesigned lightning cut near the magazine well, and an improved fire selector. The easiest way to identify the difference between a Type 2 and Type 3 is by the lightning cut; the Type 3 has a trapezoid shaped cut vs. the rectangular cut of the Type 2. Type 1 AK’s are very rare but can be identified by the stamped receiver and no dimple or lightning cut above the magazine well.
Eventually the receiver did return to a stamped design to save on costs with the AK-47 Type 4. This design used rivets and few weld spots that improved ease of manufacturing and provided a more durable receiver that resisted cracking under heavy use than the rigid milled receivers. This allowed for creation of reliable rifles to be manufactured in more plants, such as Tula, to increase the production numbers and meet the needs of the country. The Type 4 is commonly referred to as the AKM.
What Made the AK-47 So Popular?
Two main features of the AK-47 primarily contributed to the rise in popularity of the rifle. The ease of use, and the reliability. With so few moving parts in the rifle, even young children can be taught to effectively operate and maintain the AK-47. The main moving components are the bolt carrier, the bolt, and the trigger mechanism. There are no other moving components. A field strip of the rifle will leave you with only five separate pieces; the receiver, the dust cover, the recoil spring, the bolt carrier, and the bolt. There are no tools required to disassemble this rifle, and no small parts that can be easily lost or damaged.
While the loose tolerances of the rifle are often over-stated, they do contribute to the ability of the rifle to function in even the worst conditions. The large components allow the rifle to function whether it is wet, frozen, dirty, or all of the above. It usually takes a concerted effort to cause a malfunction in a properly manufactured AK pattern rifle.
As stated earlier, the ammunition used by the AK-47 also contributes to the reliability of the rifle. The 7.62x39 cartridge has a tapered body that resists malfunctions caused by case expansion during firing. Many rifles will experience more frequent malfunctions using cheaper steel-cased ammunition or when the rifle is dirty due to the tendency of steel casings to expand when firing.
Another reason the AK platform has become so popular is the ease of reverse engineering and reproducing the rifle locally. Countries such as Romania, the former Czech Republic, China, and Poland have done so, just to name a few. The Kalashnikov Concern (formerly known as Izhmash) claim that most AK platform rifles manufactured outside of Russia are done so without proper licensing.
The Man Behind the Rifle
Mikhail Kalashnikov was originally conscripted into the Soviet army in 1938, but due to his small frame and his knack for tinkering he was assigned the role of tank mechanic. As a tank commander in WWII, he was wounded and removed from combat. During his recovery, he worked on a new rifle design for the military; while this design was never adopted, his talent at rifle design was noticed and he was assigned to a design team.
Kalashnikov eventually made the rank of Lieutenant General and became a national hero. He designed more than 150 different firearms during his life. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 94 after battling illness for several years.