Gun History: The Origin Story of the AK-47

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This is an excerpt from Shooting Editor John B. Snow’s book, The Ultimate Shooting Skills Manual, which is available here. Keep an eye out for more shooting tips from his book here on the Gun Shots blog.

The name AK-47 is derived from the Russian words “Avtomat Kalashnikova”, in honor of its automatic firing capabilities and its principal designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov. The 47 denotes the year 1947, when the trials started on the version of the rifle that was finally approved for adoption by the Soviet armed forces soon after.

By any measure, the AK-47 is the most successful assault rifle in human history. In terms of the number of guns produced, duration of service, and worldwide deployment, it has no equal.

The genius of the rifle is not that it was original. It is actually an amalgamation of several preexisting design concepts. The trigger mechanism, safety catch, rotating bolt, and gas-driven action borrowed heavily from other firearms. But these features were combined with a platform that offered legendary durability and low manufacturing costs.

The result was a lightweight rifle with moderate recoil that was easy to wield and that still placed tremendous firepower into the hands of individual soldiers. Accuracy was a secondary consideration. The fact that it gave soldiers the ability to deliver massed fire in an effective fashion was what made it unlike any other rifle before and, some would still argue, ever since.

MEET THE MAN

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born in 1919 to peasants and went on to become a lieutenant-general in the Soviet Army, a Hero of the State, and one of the most famous firearms designers in history.

A self-taught tinkerer, Kalashnikov was conscripted into the Red Army in 1938 and because of his small stature and mechanical aptitude was made a tank mechanic. During World War II, he became a tank commander and was seriously wounded in combat. During his recuperation from late 1941 to 1942, he worked on a design for a new rifle for the Soviet military. That design was never adopted, but his ingenuity caught the eye of his superiors, who then reassigned him to a small-arms design group.

It was there that he, along with other engineers, developed the iconic AK-47. He continued to develop, expand, and improve the AK family of rifles throughout his later career. All told, he helped create about 150 different firearms designs.

He died in 2013 at the age of 94 in a Russian hospital after a prolonged illness.

THE AK-47 TIME LINE

1943: The Soviet Union develops the 7.62x39mm cartridge.

1945: A contest is launched in secret by the USSR to develop a new model assault rifle.

1947: Mikhail Kalashnikov and his team of designers create the AK-47, which is submitted for trials and accepted as the winning entry.

1949: The AK-47 is officially adopted by the Soviet Union.

1956: China creates its own AK-47 clone, known as the Type 56.

1959: The AKM is introduced. Its stamped metal (versus milled) receiver is much less costly to produce and allows for more widespread production.

1974: AK-74 is introduced in the lighter recoiling 5.45x39mm cartridge.