The Lesser Known Origins of the AK-47: How the Legendary Rifle Came to Be

The Lesser Known Origins of the AK-47: How the Legendary Rifle Came to Be

Posted by Peter Naroni - WW2 and Cold War Historian on Dec 14th 2023

The AK-47 rifle, the most famous rifle in the world, stands out as one of the most influential and widely adopted firearms ever conceived. To understand just how widespread the impact of the Kalashnikov has been, one only has to take a glance at Mozambique’s national banner, which bears the image of a Kalashnikov sub-machine gun.

          Developed in 1947 and accepted as the official assault rifle of the Soviet Union in 1949, it was not long before the winds of its fame spread throughout the world. The AK-47 soon became the symbol of revolution in Columbia, Mozambique, Afghanistan and other nations. However, the true history of how this revolutionary automatic weapon came into being and its little-known creator remain shrouded in intrigue. This article will uncover the objective facts behind the genesis of the original Automat Kalashnikova, before it evolved into the global phenomenon it is today. 

The national flag of the Republic of Mozambique that was adopted on 1 May 1983

         An important fact that remains unknown to most of the world is that the AK-47 was the brainchild of Senior Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Soviet tank mechanic, who designed it while recovering from injuries during World War II. Lying in a hospital bed after being wounded in the Battle of the Bryansk, Kalashnikov and his injured peers in the hospital pondered on why the German war machine was much more efficient. Perhaps out of bitterness and frustration, a soldier in the bed beside his asked him why the Red Army’s soldiers had such a shortage of rifles-one or two for every 3 soldiers- against the Germans who seemed to have no shortage of automatic rifles. That was the question that drove Kalashnikov’s mind to ponder hard on how to come up with an automatic rifle for his fellow soldiers-lest the difference in rifle quality made all the difference for the infantry men. Throughout World War II, the Sturmgewehr 44rifle used by German forces made a deep impression on Soviet command and left them wanting more from their standard issue. It is crucial also to mention that at this point in the war, the quality of weapons available in the frontline was scarce and chosen arms had substantial repercussions. Battles were won or lost depending on the quality of armor on the tanks available, for instance. Thus, he began developing weapon prototypes in the hospital. Kalashnikov’s ambition was to craft an automatic rifle with simplicity, reliability, and effectiveness. 

          The Small Arms Factory in Izhevsk, an industrial city on the western slopes of the Ural Mountains, was tasked by the Soviet military to develop a new rifle combining semi-automatic and fully automatic modes. They brought the self-taught Kalashnikov onto their design team. Despite his lack of formal training, his durable automatic rifle prototype was well-received by the factory engineers. Izhevsk’s population of 300,000+ was deeply impacted by WWII, with a large portion of working-age men conscripted. This labor loss made the need for easily manufactured armaments acute. It is important to note that the Soviet Union lost between 11.5 and 14 million soldiers during the war, according to varying historical reports from Soviet researchers - not accounting for civilian deaths. After refining and adapting thru feedback from use conducted in 1944-46 guided by exhaustive field testing from troops, the finalized Automat Kalashnikova AK-47 was formally adopted in 1947 and entered full production at Izhevsk. 

At its Core - A Study in Simplicity and Reliability 

          Kalashnikov’s ingenious engineering was shown through the AK-47’s simple yet reliable core design. With only 8 moving parts and loose clearances between components, the AK-47 provided resilience against fouling, corrosion, and wear. The long-stroke gas piston operation enabled smooth cycling even when precision was compromised. The mostly steel and wood construction also reduced production costs and complexity compared to more precision- machined weapons. Yet the AK-47 proved rugged and reliable enough to gain a reputation among the soldiers that used it for decades. In summary, the rifle is not expected to jam when a company of soldiers is approaching your trench, whether you are in Siberian winter, in a rainy, muddy forest in Vietnam or in the hot, dusty sun of the Kalahari. Born in Siberia, it is easy to understand why its maker had to ensure that the gun worked perfectly even in low temperatures. Also, perhaps in consideration of the fact that most people are right hand, its design includes a right-handle reloading lever, making it a popular choice for most people who desire simplicity and reliability of their weapon in all types of weather. 

          Other factors that make the AK-47 so reliable in comparison to its peers include its, efficient, reliable magazine which guarantees an ease in loading the weapon. The efficiency of its magazine alone puts it head and shoulder above many modern assault rifles, which have the vast majority of their malfunction incidences related to a faulty magazine. Surprisingly, the most distinctive feature of the magazine is its oversizing. Also, it’s the magazine body displays a simple curve, and has a power turret that includes ingenious geometry to support the magazine when locked in the rifle-the feeding turret bears relatively long feeding lips which substantially reduce the risk of power failure by controlling the movement of cartridges until their tips enter the barrel chamber. 

Why the AK-47 was a Breakthrough 

          Up until the AK-47’s debut, automatic rifle designs suffered from two primary deficiencies - excessive complexity leading to reliability issues, or simplicity achieved by sacrificing controllability and accuracy. The AK-47 pioneered a hugely successful middle ground. While using simple components and loose tolerances for reliability, the AK-47’s action design greatly tamed recoil and allowed for controllable automatic fire. The intermediate 7.62x39mm cartridge, combined with simple sights optimized for typical engagement ranges, allowed for acceptable accuracy for an automatic rifle while drastically improving ammo load versus full power rounds. These breakthroughs yielded a highly controllable select-fire rifle with monumental reliability - the genesis of the AK-47’s tactical prowess. 

Spawning Countless Variants Over Decades 

          Although the earliest production models were manufactured at Izhevsk, the AK-47 was ultimately produced globally, both through licensing and imitation. The rifles were reliably used by the militaries of 55+ nations and countless guerilla and revolutionary movements. The most produced variant stayed true to Kalashnikov’s original vision. The AKM, introduced in 1959 with stamped sheet metal engineering, retained the AK-47’s core traits while being cheaper and lighter to manufacture. Some minor production details evolved over decades across various factories, but key criteria like the 7.62x39mm ammunitionrifle sling, overall operation method, and reliability remained steadfast. 

AKM Assault Rifle model - 1959 to present day

The AK-47 Left an Indelible Mark 

          No definitive total production quantities exist, but it's estimated over 75 million authentic Automat Kalashnikova and variants have been manufactured to date. The rifle left an indelible imprint across countless armed conflicts and military campaigns since its introduction. Truly a watershed moment in small arms development. While the Soviet Empire that birthed it collapsed long ago, Mikhail Kalashnikov’s eponymous and ingeniously straightforward design endures in the modern era. Much of the world still soldiers on with variants of his creation. And the AK- 47’s revolutionary attributes continue inspiring new platforms. Few firearms can claim such wide-ranging influence. But thanks to one determined sergeant’s drive for simplicity and reliability within extreme adversity, the AK-47 pioneered a mold breaking automatic rifle concept that changed small arms history forever.

If you liked that read, check out our post on the East German Republic AK47!