Popular Mechanics talks to C.J. Chivers, author of , who shares some interesting insights on the infamous AK-47 assault rifle.
It was not really the sole invention of peasant genius Mikhail Kalashnikov, and the Communist world’s ability to distribute examples by the millions was not so much the result of the weapon’s simplicity and cheapness of manufacture as a serendipitous (from their point of view) result of command economies.
Rival teams were given a set of specification and deadlines, and through a series of stages the teams presented prototypes, and contest supervisors winnowed the field. Stalin liked these contests. They created urgency and a strong sense of priorities, and they helped speed along development. This was also a system without patents or even firm notions of intellectual property, at least as we know them in the West. So design convergence was part of the processâ€”the teams and the judges, as time passed, could mix and match features from different submissions. Think of a game of Mr. Potato Head. Now imagine a similar game, in which many different elements and features of an automatic rifle are available to you, and more are available at each cycle, and you can gradually pluck the best features and assemble them into a new whole. …
One common misperception is that the AK-47 is reliable and effective, therefore it is abundant. This is not really the case. The weapon’s superabundance, its near ubiquity, is related less to its performance than to the facts of its manufacture. Once it was designated a standard Eastern Bloc arm, it was assembled and stockpiled in planned economies whether anyone paid for or wanted the rifles or not. This led to an uncountable accumulation of the weapons. And once the weapons existed, they moved. Had the weapon not been hooked up to the unending output of the planned economy, it would have been a much less significant device. If it had been invented in Liechtenstein, you might have never even heard of it. …
For the Soviet Union, the AK-47 is arguably the most apt physical symbol of the Soviet period and what it left behind. It was the Kremlin’s most successful product, even the nation’s flagship brand, and it came into existence through distinct Soviet behaviors and traits. But it was a breakout weapon, and its fuller meaning and deeper legacy lie in its effects on security and war. It leveled the battlefield in many ways and changed the way wars are fought, prompting a host of reactions and shifts in fighting styles and risks. Its effects will be with us for many more decades, probably for the rest of this century, at least. This is perhaps its real legacyâ€”as the fighting tool like no other, which we will confront, and often suffer from, for the rest of our lives.
The correct translation of sturmgewehr, the felicitous term coined by Adolph Hitler himself, is really “assault weapon.” It is a “storm rifle” in the sense of a rifle desiged for storming enemy positions, not a weapon as formidable as bad weather.
Hitler’s coinage was a typically exaggeratedly romantic misnomer. The Sturmgewehr 42 was designed to be a compromise mixed-use weapon combining the some of the long range accuracy of the infantry rifle along with the firepower of the submachinegun. In WWII, the German Army found the role of infantry had changed. Instead of dominating the battlefield and exchanging fire with other masses of infantry, infantry principally spent its time accompanying and protecting tanks from being disabled or eliminated by other infantry. Most exchanges of fire were at close range where high rates of fire would be desirable, but simply taking away all the Mausers and giving every infantryman a Maschinenpistole-40 “Schmeisser” firing 9mm Parabellum cartridges did not seem a completely satisfactory idea either.
Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.