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

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 23 2013 2:51 PM

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

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.”


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.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.