On the Death of Mikhail Kalashnikov, Who Invented a Gun So Simple a Child Could Use It

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Dec. 23 2013 2:51 PM

On the Death of Mikhail Kalashnikov, Who Invented a Gun So Simple a Child Could Use It

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In this file photo, a masked Palestinian gunman shields his face with his AK-47 assault rifle.

Photo by David Silverman/Newsmakers

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian armorer credited with inventing the AK-47 “Kalashnikov” automatic rifle, has died at age 94. Kalashnikov was a self-taught inventor and Soviet soldier when, in 1947, he lent his name to what is perhaps the most iconic firearm of the 20th century. A recent estimate suggested that there are approximately 100 million Kalashnikovs in existence today—one-fifth of the world’s total gun supply. “There are a dozen or so words that are the same in every language of the world,” Elena Joly wrote in the preface to 2006’s The Gun that Changed the World. “They include the words ‘taxi,’ ‘radio,’ ‘Coca-Cola’—and ‘Kalashnikov.’ ”

Born in 1919, Mikhail Kalashnikov spent much of his boyhood in Siberian exile before he was conscripted into the Soviet Army in 1938. Injured in the Battle of Bryansk in 1941, Kalashnikov spent months convalescing in a military hospital. Though he had little formal education, Kalashnikov had an innate talent for tinkering, and spent his days lying in bed and pondering the Nazi forces’ superior firepower. He would later say that “here, in spite of the pain of my injury, I was obsessed night and day by a single thought: inventing a weapon to beat the fascists.”

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The AK-47 was that weapon. (Though Kalashnikov was always credited as the sole designer of the AK-47, this may have been Soviet propaganda—an effort to make a hero out of an individual who had done great things in service of the state.) “I designed a machine gun for a soldier,” Kalashnikov said years later. While the AK-47 wasn’t the first “assault rifle,” it was certainly the most simple. It was light. It did not jam. It was easy to understand and inexpensive to manufacture. As John Forge wrote in 2012’s Designed to Kill, “Compared to any similar weapon, the AK is very easy to use, and thus, even a poorly or barely trained soldier—or one wearing gloves in Siberia—or, sadly, even a child, can use one effectively at close range.”

The rifle soon became standard Soviet Army issue, and, over the next two decades, the USSR freely licensed the gun to its allies. Versions of the rifle were soon being manufactured in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, China, North Korea, and many more countries. As the gun spread, it assumed symbolic properties. As Phillip Killicoat noted in a 2007 working paper for the World Bank, “an image of the rifle appears on the Mozambique national flag, and ‘Kalash,’ an abbreviation of Kalashnikov, is a common boy’s name in some African countries.”

Reliable and simple, the AK-47 allowed an inexperienced fighter to match up against a better-trained opponent. During the Vietnam War, for instance, the Vietcong used AK-47s to repel American forces, equipped with inferior M-16s. As such, the gun became immensely popular among guerrillas and rebels worldwide. But it would be naïve to think of the gun as an unalloyed symbol of liberation. As C.J. Chivers wrote in his book The Gun, the AK-47 “was repression’s chosen gun, the rifle of the occupier and the police state.” The gun was put into service in Prague, in East Germany, at Tiananmen Square: “almost any place where a government resorted to shooting citizens to try to keep citizens in check. It would be used by Baathists to execute Kurds in the holes that served as their mass graves. It would shoot the men and boys who were herded to execution in Srebrenica in 1995.”

The gun became popular among terrorist groups, too, and this bothered Kalashnikov. In a 2002 interview with a German newspaper, he expressed regret over the weapon that made him famous. “I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists,” he said. “I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work—for example a lawnmower.”

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.