It was so reliable, even when soaked in bog water and coated with sand, that its Soviet testers had trouble making it jam. And its design was a testament to simplicity, so much so that its basic operation might be grasped within minutes, and Soviet teachers would soon learn that it could be disassembled and reassembled by Slavic schoolboys in less than 30 seconds flat. Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dim-witted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields.
For the purpose for which it was designed — as a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or undue complications — this was an eminently well-conceived tool. The carefully packaged history of Soviet times, a cheerful parable for the proletariat, was that the AK sprang from the mind of a gifted if unlettered sergeant who wanted to present his nation an instrument for its defence. This was a message made in the Communist Party's propaganda mills.
It required redaction and lies. In publishing this account, the Soviet Union resorted to enough invention, some of it cartoonish, that even Mikhail Kalashnikov eventually publicly criticised it, albeit lightly. The AK did not result from an epiphany at the workbench of an intent Russian sergeant.
Heroism, in the classic sense, was nonexistent here.
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Spontaneity, according to a close reading of the available records, played almost no role. The automatic Kalashnikov was the result of state process and collective work, the output not of a man but of committees. And its wide distribution and martial popularity did not occur because the rifle is, as General Kalashnikov often said, "simple, reliable, and easy to use".
Ultimately, it was its production by the tens of millions by governments that gave them away or lost control of them that made the Kalashnikov the world's primary firearm. One way to understand the nature of its familiarity is this: had the AK been created in Luxembourg, few people would likely have ever heard of it. But Luxembourg could not have created this weapon, because it lacked the Soviet bureaucracy and the particular historical pressures that ordered the Kalashnikov to its form within the USSR. The Soviet state is the inventor here — both of the weapon and its fables.
In the mids, while the Soviet Union staggered out of Stalin's reign, the Kremlin was in a unique position. It was both the world's standard bearer for socialism and a nation with the military power to help fraternal nations with their armament desires. Soviet arms became a form of Soviet political currency. To compete with this new weapon, combatants faced a choice.
Either use the Kalashnikov, or come up with a rifle that could match it in a fight.
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War reorganised around Stalin's gun. Nations queued up, seeking their share, as did revolutionary groups, and, later, terrorist organisations.
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As the AK gained acceptance and approval in the Soviet army, the Kremlin used it as a readily deliverable tool in the game of East-West influence jockeying, both as a diplomatic chip to secure new friendships and as an item to be distributed to those willing to harass or otherwise occupy the attention of the West. On the practical side, convincing allies and potential allies to select Soviet equipment expanded standardisation. It also made client states accept that in the event of their own local wars, they would need to be resupplied via the Kremlin. The result was a logistical and psychological arrangement that created dependencies serving Kremlin interests.
On the political side, sharing military technology cemented allies and made new friends for the Kremlin, all the while helping to frustrate the West. Foreign acceptance of Russian firearms created the impression that Soviet equipment was preferable to Western military products. For a nation that struggled to manufacture decent elevators and shoes, in a system in which wool shirts were not necessarily wool, approval of a Soviet weapon served as a refreshing endorsement of an industrial base often making shoddy goods.
For all of these reasons, the period centred on the s marked the most important years for the Kalashnikov line. The weapon had been developed. The man credited for its invention would be given public stature and material rewards and would be regarded as a proletarian hero. The infrastructure would be built to manufacture the assault rifle across the socialist world, and the Russian assault rifle would see its first combat use — both by conventional forces and by insurgents.
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The United States military, all the while, would misjudge the meaning and significance of the AK's arrival. Beyond dismissing the value of the socialists' main firearm with parochial superiority, it would develop weapons for its own forces that would fail when it mattered most, losing one of the most important but least-chronicled arms races of the Cold War.
The Kalashnikov Era had arrived. We are living in it still. Tanks can rout conventional armies. GPS-guided ordnance can scatter combatants. Land mines, suicide bombers, and improvised explosives have attracted more attention in recent years. Yet the rifle remains pre-eminent. Whenever an idea organises for battle it gathers around its guns. Few weapons are as accessible or can be as readily learnt.
No other weapon appears in as many conflict areas year after year.
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None is as sure to appear in each future war, if only because no other weapon is as well suited for as many missions and tasks. And of all the rifles available for war today, the Kalashnikov line stands apart as the most abundant and widely used rifle ever made. Virtually everyone has seen a Kalashnikov.
With its stubby black barrel with a parallel gas tube above, its steep front sight post, and the distinctive banana clip, its unmistakable profile has become a constant presence in the news. It is the world's most widely recognised weapon, one of the world's most recognisable objects. More than six decades after its design and initial distribution, more than 50 national armies carry the automatic Kalashnikov, as do an array of police, intelligence, and security agencies.
But its fuller terrain lies outside the sphere of conventional force.
The Kalashnikov marks the guerrilla, the terrorist, the child soldier, the dictator, and the thug — all of whom have found it to be a ready equaliser against morally or materially superior foes. Celebrated by Soviet propagandists as a tool for self-defence and liberation, its first lethal uses were for repression — crushing uprisings in East Germany in and in Hungary in , and for shooting fleeing civilians trying to cross the Iron Curtain's borders. Once it grew beyond border and crackdown duty in Eastern Europe and became an automatic weapon for global combat service, it was instantly a groundbreaking firearm, a weapon that rearranged the rules.
In the s, when American Marines encountered AKs in urban warfare, at Hue City in Vietnam, they discovered that a single guerrilla with a Kalashnikov could slow a company's advance; they used cannon to rubble buildings in which AK-toting Viet Cong marksmen hid. Its power, today a battlefield norm, was at first of an almost unseen sort, at least among the weapons that could be wielded by one man. Engineers in Finland and Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia secured early versions of the weapon and developed unlicensed knock-offs straightaway.
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After leading the revolution that put him atop Cuba, Fidel Castro amassed stores of Soviet assault rifles and distributed engraved Kalashnikovs as gifts. Idi Amin armed his Ugandan forces with Kalashnikovs and appointed himself president for life. Its followers cross all lines. The Egyptian army outfitted itself with Kalashnikovs. The great numbers of its manufacture and the multiple sellers offering it ultimately ensured that it would be turned against the army that created it, as was the case in the Soviet-Afghan war and then again in Chechnya.
By the s, with several sources simultaneously arming both sides of the Afghan conflict, the country filled with AKs and their derivatives. A durable assault rifle can have many lives over the decades of its existence, and in Afghanistan the weapons were recycled repeatedly, passed from fighter to fighter by many means. In the Panjshir Valley, a chasm in the mountains north of Kabul, the rifle sometimes became a family heirloom.
The valley had been the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the early years of the war; its canyons became backdrops for mujahideen legend. Several times the Soviet army thrust armoured columns up the valley, sometimes enveloping the guerrillas by using helicopters to land troops on mountain passes to cut off withdrawing mujahideen. Each time the Soviet forces controlled territory briefly before being subjected to persistent attacks. The valley was never conquered, and its villages were never co-opted or tamed.
First among the Soviet army's foes was Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ethnic Tajik commander whose charisma and tactical adroitness became part of Afghan lore. After one Soviet incursion, Massoud attended the funeral of a dead guerrilla. He lifted the man's Kalashnikov and carried it to the deceased man's younger brother, Ashrat Khan. The commander's mastery of quiet ceremony, like his sense for tactics, had reached a high state of polish. Ashrat Khan extended his hands. He accepted the rifle. Afghans were using it for the same purpose that Mikhail Kalashnikov insisted had motivated him — to defend their native land.
The rifle assumed uses that were at once soldierly and ceremonial, and over the decades it reached far beyond conflicts in which the Kremlin played a primary role. When Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, was mourned in by his followers in Gaza, his casket was guarded by masked men at the ready with folding-stock AKs. The scene was a throwback. Six years earlier along the Cambodian-Thai border, the body of Pol Pot was attended by teenage gunmen carrying an Asian version of the same gun.
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Mastering a Kalashnikov is one of the surest ways to become an underground fighter in our time. In Belfast, both sides used them in clashes and political art. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, student notebooks from Al-Qa'ida camps showed that the opening class in jihad curricula was a lesson on Kalashnikov's avtomat.