The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 3 - June 2014


Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, inventor of the most famous weapon in the world, the AK-47, died on 23 December 2013. Kalashnikov was, above all, a craftsman. He worked all his life to make the weapons he created the best in the world. He was born in 1919 in Kyrya, Russia. In 1930, his family were declared to be 'kulaks', (wealthy peasants) and deported to Siberia. A frail child, Mikhail suffered from various illnesses and almost died. He was attracted to all kinds of machinery, but also wrote poetry and continued to write poetry all of his life. Kalashnikov's parents had to combine farming with hunting to survive, and thus Mikhail, in his teens, frequently used his father's rifle. He continued hunting into his 90s.

In the 1930s, Kalishnikov left his family and returned to Kurya, hitchhiking for nearly 1 000 km. He found a job as a mechanic at a tractor station and developed a passion for weaponry. In 1935, he was conscripted into the Red Army. Because of his small size and engineering skills, he was assigned as a tank mechanic, and later became a'tank commander. While training, he made his first inventions, which concerned not only tanks, but also small weapons, and was personally awarded a wrist watch by General Georgy Zhukov.

Kalashnikov served on the T-34s of the 24th Tank Regiment, 10Sth Tank Division, before the regiment retreated after the Battle of Brody in June 1941. He was wounded in combat in October 1941 and hospitalised until April 1942. While in the hospital, he overheard some fellow soldiers complaining about the Soviet rifles of the time. Seeing the drawbacks of the standard infantry weapons being used, he decided to construct a new rifle for the Soviet military. During this time, Kalashnikov began designing a sub-machine gun. Although his first design was not accepted into service, his talent as a designer was noticed. From 1942 onwards, Kalashnikov was assigned to the Central Scientific Developmental Firing Range for Rifle Firearms of the Chief Artillery Directorate of the Red Army.

In 1946 he entered a competition to design an assault rifle. His winning entry, the 'Mikhtim' (named by combining the first letters of his name and patronymic, Mikhail Timofeyevich) became the prototype for the development of a family of prototype rifles. This process culminated in 1947, when he designed the AK-47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947). In 1949, the AK-47 became the standard issue assault rifle of the Soviet Army and went on to become Kalashnikov's most famous invention. It was made for the use of peasants like himself, mostly untrained in the use" of weapons, but he never made a cent from his design, which was not patented until 1999.

Kalashnikov was a real Soviet Russian patriot. He idolised Stalin. He served for 30 years as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, an honour awarded him because of his inventions. But he worked very hard, never took holidays, and drove himself to design better weapons. He was upset by the uses his great design was put to - especially when it was turned on Soviet troops in Afghanistan. His ambition was to be remembered for his poetry.

The weapon that bears his name is so simple to use that a child can use it. Sadly, throughout Africa and elsewhere, many do. It has a distinctive short barrel and curved magazine, and it is tough. It is not that accurate, but it is fast. Any competent user can let off around 100 bullets a minute. And it is a survivor. Lug it through jungle, swamps, forests, deserts, mountains - it still works. It almost never jams. Above all it is cheap to make and copy. Around the world there are more than 100 million of these weapons in circulation, many of which have been cause death and destruction on a huge scale.

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