Mikhail Kalashnikov's Runaway Invention

The Russian tank commander created one of the world's most popular weapons. He would have rather designed a lawn mower.
Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man behind the AK-47, visits an exhibition of his rifles at the defense plant in the Urals city of Izhevsk. (Reuters) 

Mikhail Kalashnikov, who has died aged 94 in Izhevsk, will forever be associated with one of the world's most iconic—and controversial—weapons.

When his AK-47 or "Kalashnikov" assault rifle first went into production more than six decades ago, it is unlikely that he envisaged it would not only become the standard-issue firearm for Soviet forces but would also become the weapon of choice for countless guerrilla fighters, terrorists, and even criminals around the globe.

Kalashnikov was one of 19 children born to a poor peasant family in Russia's southern Altai region in 1919, just a couple of years after the Bolshevik Revolution. In his youth he dreamed of becoming a poet. He actually wrote poetry his entire life and also published six books, but it was his talent as a self-taught designer that was to make his name. "There are many bad poets out there without me," he told reporters in 2009. "I went along a different path."

The path Kalashnikov was ultimately to follow in life began when he was drafted into the Red Army in 1938. He became a tank driver and mechanic, rising to the rank of tank commander by the time he was wounded in combat during World War II in October 1941. It was while he was recuperating in hospital that Kalashnikov reportedly heard some other soldiers complaining about the unreliable nature of Soviet Army rifles. Kalashnikov's own frustrating experience with standard-issue weaponry prompted him to try his hand at designing a submachine gun.

Although the first blueprint that he submitted for a new weapon failed to convince his superiors, his talent as a designer was noted and he was reassigned to firearms development by the army's artillery directorate in 1942. He adapted his work to enter an assault-rifle design competition in 1946, and by the following year his winning entry had become the prototype for the "Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947" (AK-47), which was to ensure its creator's place in history.

Within two years, the AK-47 was being used by the Soviet Army and it became the military's standard-issue rifle in 1956. Its durability, reliability, and the ease with which it could be used under various conditions ensured that it quickly became a staple feature of practically every theater of operations during the Cold War.

The huge role it played in many Soviet-supported guerrilla insurgencies, such as the Vietnam War, ensured that it became a counterculture icon, with perhaps only Alberto Korda's famous photo of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara carrying greater resonance. The AK-47 was even incorporated into the national flag of Mozambique in homage to the crucial role the weapon played in that country's liberation movement.

But if the Kalashnikov's efficiency and reliability has been its great strength as a weapon, it has also become a cheap and easily available form of lethal force, with some saying that the AK-47 has been responsible for more deaths than the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. More than 60 years after it first went into production, it is estimated that there are as many as 100 million AK-47s now in circulation around the world.

It has moved from the battlefield to become ubiquitous in other settings—a weapon favored by the likes of Mexican drug cartels and Islamic extremists. "In some places, an AK-47 assault rifle can be bought for as little as $15, or even for a bag of grain," former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in 2001. "They are easy to use; with minimal training, even a child can wield one. They are easy to conceal and transport. Since they require little maintenance, they can last for decades."

It is a legacy that Kalashnikov admitted made him uncomfortable.

"When I see [al-Qaeda leader Osama] Bin Laden with his AK-47, I get nervous," he told Reuters in 2002. "But what can I do, terrorists aren't fools: they too chose the most reliable guns."

He denied any culpability for the fact that his weapon may often have ended up in the wrong hands. "I created a weapon to be used for the protection of the borders of my Fatherland. It is not my fault that [my gun] is being used where it is not supposed to be used," he said.

Kalashnikov also said that he would have "preferred to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work, such as a lawn mower."

Nonetheless, Kalashnikov often reacted with prickly defiance when asked about the numbers of people killed by the weapon he invented.

"[People ask sometimes,] 'How do you sleep knowing that so many people have died because of your weapon?' It's not the designer who is to blame, but politicians who cannot agree by peaceful means so that the weapon is never used."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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