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Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, weapons inventor, died on December 23rd, aged 94
Jan 11th 2014 | From the print edition of The Economist
THE weapon is so simple that even a child can use it. Alas, many do. Pick it up, with its distinctive short barrel and curved magazine, and it feels compact, robust and not too heavy. The controls are easy. One lever swivels through three settings from safety to single shot to automatic fire. Changing the large magazine takes a few seconds. Although it is not that accurate, with a kick on the recoil, a competent user can fire around 100 bullets a minute. Best of all, it works fine in any conditions—wet, sand, jungle. Even when dirty, it almost never jams. It is cheap and quick both to make and to copy—of the 100m Kalashnikovs in circulation in 2009, about half were counterfeit. No wonder that, for 50 years, this has been the weapon of choice for guerrillas everywhere, from Vietnam to the Congo and from Nicaragua to Iraq.
Mikhail Kalashnikov laboured all his life to make his gun the best. He cared, as keenly as any craftsman, for order and simplicity. If he saw a piece of litter, he had to pick it up. If a fly dared to enter his apartment, he had to shoo it out. He liked to be surrounded only by lovely objects and good books: Montesquieu, Seneca and the Russian poets, Nekrasov and Esenin, whose works he had long tried to imitate. Lovely things included, to his mind, the AK-47. Though judged by others a pretty crude piece of kit, it was his passion, and he never ceased to try to perfect it.
This compulsive tinkering was inborn. Any old piece of machinery he found as a child on the family farm had to be taken apart, to see how it worked. He kept a cache of bits in the hope of making a perpetual-motion machine. As a teenager he fell in love with an old pistol, also repeatedly taken apart. He shed tears when, because it was illegal to carry such a thing, he had to throw the pieces away in the forest. Constant reassembling, as well as straight borrowing, were essential qualities in a weapons-maker. The AK-47 combined components from the Browning rifle and the Garand carbine, as well as elements unchanged from the 17th century.
For Motherland and Stalin
In appearance, especially in his winter coats, he was as short, compact and robust as his most famous gun was, and with ever-increasing rows of medals on his chest. Called up for war service, he made such a diminutive tank commander that he was better off inventing and designing. His first gadgets were for tanks, including a device to make it easier to fire a pistol through the slits. The idea for a better rifle came to him as he lay in hospital in 1941-42, his left shoulder shattered by shrapnel at the battle of Bryansk, and heard other soldiers moaning about the uselessness of their rifles, and how few they had. He knew that first-hand; on his way to the hospital, Germans armed with MP-38s had massacred the other injured men in his convoy. The Motherland had to be better defended. And the job was up to him.
His first ventures in weaponry were over-complicated and unsuccessful. He and his collaborators kept striving. His rifle design eventually won in 1947 (hence “47”), and became standard issue two years later. It was made for use by peasants like himself, the sort who filled the Soviet Union’s conscript army: untrained men more used to stacking hay, and wearing thick gloves against the cold. He later developed the PK light machinegun, also for them.
Someone told him that Stalin had kept the prototype AK-47 on his desk for several days. He thrilled to think of it—oddly, for it was on Stalin’s orders that his family in 1930 had been labelled kulaks (rich peasants and enemies of the people), evicted from their farm and deported to Siberia. In the same year, his father died from privation and exhaustion. As a teenager, he kept trying to get back to the village that had been home; he ended up wandering to Kazakhstan and working as an engineer at Matai railway station. He blamed Stalin for none of this, however. He loved him.
That love was all the more fervent because he felt branded for life as an enemy of the state. He kept his history quiet. At 30, when (to his huge surprise) he was made a deputy to the Supreme Soviet in honour of his inventions, he expected to be turned away from the first session. He never was in all the 30 years he served, but love and fear fuelled his devotion to his guns. He worked round the clock, neglected his family, never took holidays—unless you counted hunting trips with another of his inventions, the self-loading Saiga carbine.
All of it was done for Russia—or, strictly speaking, for the Soviet Union in which he still believed, not the modern country of bandits and nouveaux riches that he could hardly recognise. Not one kopeck came to him from the AK-47, he said. He lived comfortably enough but, like any wise peasant, had no surplus. His assault rifle was not patented until 1999, by which time the world was awash with copies.
He hated to see the uses his gun was put to: not least, in the hands of the mujahideen, to drive Soviet soldiers out of Afghanistan. But it was not his fault if politicians decided to resort to violence. So, despite everything, he slept well. He hoped to be remembered for his poetry, not his weapons. And, after a hearty meal of his own fish stew, well dosed with his own brand-name vodka, he would raise a glass with his favourite toast: “May our children live in peace.”
Mikhail Kalashnikov: The Father of 100 Million Rifles
Field & Stream. Article by C.J. Chivers. Uploaded on December 24, 2013
Editor's Note: Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the gunsmith credited with creating the AK-47, died on Monday in the Russian city of Izhevk. He was 94. In 2006, Field & Stream contributor C.J. Chivers wrote an extensive profile on the general. We have republished that story here.
The designer of the most successful rifle ever made sat at a table in a quiet corner of the Kremlin. He was nearly 86 years old, but he retained the upright posture of the general he is. His pale blue gaze was firm and clear.
Virtually everyone in the world has seen the firearm that bears his name, the AK-47. AK stands for "the automatic by Kalashnikov," the one-time Red Army sergeant who created its prototype at the opening of the Cold War. The number signifies 1947, the year the Soviet army accepted the prototype for mass production. With its short barrel, stock stained a brownish orange, and distinctive banana clip, the AK-47 and its derivatives long ago transcended their medium. They are not merely the world's most widely recognized firearms. They are among the world's most widely recognized things.
Now nearly 60 years and perhaps 100 million rifles later, Mikhail Kalashnikov is both a general in semiretirement and Moscow's unofficial firearms ambassador to the world. He agreed to share with Field & Stream his observations as a designer and as a lifelong student of firearms, and to discuss his experiences as a hunter and shooter.
On this day a limited-edition series of decorative daggers had been released for public sale, each bearing Kalashnikov's signature and the unmistakable silhouette of the rifles he designed. The daggers, each of which would be offered for prices running into the thousands of dollars, seemed to have been created as much to boost profits for the Russian firm that makes them as to salute the general. And so when a craftsman presented him with the first dagger in the series, Gen. Kalashnikov seemed to recognize the incongruity of it all. He abruptly reached into the decorative box, withdrew the diamond-studded weapon, and thrust and swung it a few times through the air. It was a reminder of just what a dagger does.
The gesture was playful, but its message was implicit: Tools are supposed to be used. Things are only as good as they work.
Of the many things that the name Kalashnikov has come to symbolize, for better or for worse, one is undeniable: functionality. Kalashnikov's series of rifles, now ubiquitous,achieved global circulation in part because of two reasons central to their design. They are simple to use. And they almost never fail. In an industry often enamored with the new, his rifles remain riffs on simplicity. They have under gone only modest modifications in more than five decades.
Things are only as good as they work. This is Kalashnikov, man and gun. "Some people think a simple weapon means that it is a slapdash job," he says. "They are wrong. To make something simple is a thousand times more difficult than to make something complex."
I have met with the general several times in the last two years, visiting him at his dacha and in Izhevsk, a formerly secret city tucked deep in the forests of the Ural range where Kalashnikov rifles are made, and now here at the Kremlin. He is a small and spry man, with an often beguiling mix of Russian hospitality and military formality.
He is also a mass of paradoxes. He mixes nostalgia for the Soviet Union with an appreciation that his once-closed world has been opened. He is gentle and unfailingly polite but also impassioned and eager to refute his critics. He seems to wear the world lightly, but after spending years helping to arm the Soviet army and having seen his firearms end up in the hands of terrorists, he admits to pondering questions of the soul.
His mind is largely decided. He designed firearms, he said, to defend the mother land. When he set out to fulfill that task, parts of his homeland were under Nazi occupation. He does not rue his choices. "I am a gunsmith," he wrote in his 1997 memoir. "That explains everything."
A Gun Born of Necessity
Born in 1919, two years after the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Communists to power, he lived his early years in poverty on the Altai steppe, one of 19 children his mother bore in a peasant home. The privations of Russian rural life in the early 20th century were such that of those 19 children only eight would survive. And the hardships of the steppe were soon exacerbated by the state-ordered miseries to come. Stalin sought to bring the peasants under the socialist yoke, seizing their land, crops, and livestock and forcing them onto collectivized farms.
The Kalashnikov family would not be spared. Before Kalashnikov was a teenager, his family was blacklisted and shipped to Siberia, where his father died trying to scratch out a living in a new land. The young Mikhail eventually fled exile and took up an illegal life in Kazakhstan—a daring move and a secret he would hide for decades.
By the time Kalashnikov reached conscription age and entered the Red Army, the Soviet police state had reduced his country to near paralytic terror. But the rise of Adolf Hitler and the threat of German invasion served as a unifying force for a nation that had turned on itself. With war approaching, Kalashnikov thrived in the army, finding in this social leveler a sense of purpose and an outlet for his energies. It was at this point that he showed the first hints of his design sense. The fugitive farm boy, with little formal training, invented a successful tachometer that could be installed in his unit's tanks.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Kalashnikov, by then a sergeant, was injured within months when a shell stopped his T-34 tank and sent shrapnel through his shoulder. As Soviet history tells it, while Sgt. Kalashnikov recuperated, he began tinkering with infantry weapons, eventually setting his mind on designing a lightweight automatic assault rifle that would expel the better-armed Nazis from Russian soil.
Soviet infantry fought World War II with two basic small arms: one was the badly outdated Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 bolt-action rifle. The other was the PPSh series of submachine guns, reliable arms that were effective but only at short range.Something better was needed, and that something was in the hands of the Nazi Wehrmacht.
It was called the MP44 Sturmgewehr (assault rifle), and it could fire in full or semiautomatic mode. Chambered for a revolutionary new cartridge, a short 7.92mm round that was less powerful than a full-size rifle cartridge, yet far more powerful than the pistol cartridges for which submachine guns were chambered, the Sturmgewehr made a deep impression on the Soviets who faced it.
"I worked for our soldiers," Kalashnikov said. "I knew that our soldiers did not study in academies. What they needed had to be simple and reliable."
His first rifle,made in a Kazakh rail yard while he was on convalescent leave, was flawed. But the fact that he had made it without advanced training or specialized tools,and on his own initiative, so impressed the Soviet officers who examined it that Kalashnikov was transferred to a military design bureau.
As Kalashnikov worked, the Wehrmacht crested, withdrew, and collapsed. When the war ended, theRed Army sponsored a contest among firearms designers to create a new line of rifles that would fire the 7.62x39, a "short rifle" round that was similar to the German cartridge. Kalashnikov was credited with developing the rifle that won, the AK-47, which became the standard infantry rifle for theSoviet army.
What Kalashnikov's design team did was not only to invent but to borrow and improve, often brilliantly. As is common in firearms evolution, the automatic Kalashnikov bears distinct traces of previous infantry weapons. From the Sturmgewehr MP44,the AK-47 assumed its silhouette: pistol grip; short barrel; high front sight;and long, slightly curved magazine. Also as with the MP44, the weapon's gas tube, which operates the action, is located above the barrel. This helps keep recoil in a straight line and reduces the rifle's climb during automatic fire.
Its bore and chamber were chrome-lined (as had been done with the Japanese Arisaka rifle). This reduces corrosion when the rifle is not cleaned. The action and trigger mechanism owe much to the American M1 Garand rifle. One element that made there combination so successful was the spareness with which it was done. There were few parts in this weapon, and very few moving parts. And they were all simple, strong, and relatively easy to assemble.
Kalashnikov alsobuilt considerable "slop" into the gun. Its tolerances, by American design standards, were huge. As Kalashnikov explains:
"Mr. Tokarev [Fedor V. Tokarev, a noted Soviet arms designer] used to say that all parts should be put together as tightly as possible, so that not a fleck of dust could get in between. I, on the contrary, was always saying that it must be designed so that even a handful of sand wouldn't stop the mechanism working."
And it won't. Nor will mud, dust, rust, ice, powder fouling, and neglect—it makes no difference.The AK almost always keeps on firing.
Soviet designers never bought into the concept of precision fire for the average infantryman,and so the AK-47 is inaccurate by our standards, and the low velocity of its cartridge (2300 fps) limits its effective range to 300 yards or less. But within those limits, it is remarkably effective. As it happens, almost all combat occurs within these ranges, making the Kalashnikov a tool that is actually matched to its task and not to chalkboard standards that rarely exist in use.
The Universal Rifle
No one knows for certain how many Kalashnikovs exist, but one point is beyond dispute: They are the most abundant firearms on earth. Since the Red Army accepted the AK-47 prototype, licensed variants of that design have been made in at least 19countries, including Poland, Cuba, North Korea, East Germany, Bulgaria, Egypt,China, Russia, Romania, and Iraq. Knockoff versions, or weapons incorporating main elements of the Kalashnikov operating systems, were developed in Finland,South Africa, Israel, and Sweden. A single comparison provides a sense of the scope of the Kalashnikov's spread. The second most abundant rifle on earth is the American M16; roughly 8 or 10 million have been made. Serious estimates put the number of Kalashnikovs and its derivatives as high as 100 million.
This vast circulation has given rise to one of the enduring myths about the general—that he has not enjoyed any material reward for the product made in his name. It's true that he did not become a wealthy man, but he himself rejects wealth as the only measure:
"I am told sometimes, 'If you had lived in the West, you would have been a millionaire long ago.' Well, they value everything in that green stuff. But there are other values. Why don't they see these values?"
He went on to list some of them: two museums built in his honor, 30 years in the Supreme Soviet, a huge bronze bust in the hometown from which his family was once exiled. Most of all he seems to value his reputation for selfless labor, a Soviet ideal he still holds dear.
A Kalash in Your Future?
These days the path of the Russian firearms industry that is entwined with his name is less clear. With the Soviet Union long past and the remnants of its firearms industry struggling, Izhmash, the factory in Izhevsk where Gen. Kalashnikov worked, is now partially privatized. Although it seems likely to continue providing rifles domestically, its future as an international heavyweight is uncertain, in part because it must compete with its previous success.
In recent years, Izhmash has tried a new approach to complement its past: manufacturing and marketing sporting firearms based on the Kalashnikov design system, including shotguns that it markets to upland bird and waterfowl hunters. It also makes bolt-action rifles for hunters and biathletes, all with solid wooden stocks replacing the laminated plywood furniture of the familiar military line. These sporting arms—including the Saiga semiautomatic shotgun and the Saiga semiautomatic rifles—have found a market in Russia and have started to turn up in the United States.
The general expects that they will succeed, although it is too early to tell. "I think with time American hunters shall hunt with guns designed by the man sitting in front of you," he told me. Such a notion would have been unimaginable not so many years ago. And the guns may not take.
But when the general speaks, he does so with the knowledge that for half a century, everywhere Kalashnikovs have gone, they have found their followers and made their mark.
'I sleep sound,' AK-47 inventor says as rifle turns 60
CBC News Posted: Jul 06, 2007
Cradling the latest model of his "creative genius" in Moscow on Friday, the inventor of the AK-47 told reporters at the 60th anniversary of the world's most famous assault rifle that his conscience is clear.
"People ask, 'How can you sleep? Your weapon has killed so many people,'" 87-year-old Mikhail Kalashnikov said. "And I say, 'I sleep sound. It's the politicians who are to blame that they can't agree peacefully and resolve their problems without using arms.'"
Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the aging weapons designer as an icon of Russian ingenuity.
"The Kalashnikov rifle is a symbol of the creative genius of our people," Putin said in a statement read to Kalashnikov at the ceremony in the Central Russian Army Museum.
Since its creation, the AK-47 — an acronym describing "Avtomat Kalashnikova," or "Kalashnikov's automatic weapon" — has been embraced as a weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents, gangsters and troops around the world. The "47" refers to 1947, when the first models went into productionand were used to equipSoviet soldiers.
According to AK-47 lore, Kalashnikov conceived of the design while lying wounded in a hospital ward near the end of the Second World War. He drafted plans in a child's notebook to make a lightweight gun that was also powerful and simple to fire.
Kalashnikov acknowledged that seeing his creation in the hands of criminals and gangsters around the world saddens him, but he said he originally concocted the AK-47 to support a worthy cause.
"I always worked to defend my fatherland from foreigners. Let all my rifles and machine guns only serve the defence of the fatherland," he said Friday.
Aside from the accolades he received in Russia for his invention, Kalashnikov received little else for the rifle. He reportedly lives on a pension in the town of Izkevsk, where the AK-47s are manufactured.
Mikhail Kalashnikov Says His Rifle Is Better
AK47, Guns, M16, US Military, War on Terror, Weapons Systems
neveryetmelted.com / 18 Apr 2006
86-year-old Mikhail Kalashnikov has read some of the reports coming out of Iraq, and he’s delighted. Reuters reports that the old rascal was goating over the superiority of his own assault rifle at a recent news conference in Moscow:
“Even after lying in a swamp you can pick up this rifle [the AK47], aim it and shoot. That’s the best job description there is for a gun. Real soldiers know that and understand it,” the 86-year-old gunmaker told a weekend news conference in Moscow.
“In Vietnam, American soldiers threw away their M-16 rifles and used [Kalashnikov] AK-47s from dead Vietnamese soldiers, with bullets they captured. That was because the climate is different to America, where M-16s may work properly,” he said.
The old fellow is getting perhaps a little too carried away, but there is clearly some basis for a claim to superiority for his rifle in field conditons. A letter from a Marine serving in Iraq, published here last November 10th, observed:
The M-16 rifle. Thumbs down. Chronic jamming problems with the talcum powder like sand over there. The sand is everywhere. Jordan says you feel filthy 2 minutes after coming out of the shower. The M-4 carbine version is more popular because it’s lighter and shorter, but it has jamming problems also. They like the ability to mount the various optical gunsights and weapons lights on the Picatinny rails, but the weapon itself is not great in a desert environment. They all hate the 5.56mm (.223) round. Poor penetration on the cinderblock structure common over there and even torso hits cant be reliably counted on to put the enemy down. Fun fact: Random autopsies on dead insurgents shows a high level of opiate use.
AK47’s. The entire country is an arsenal. Works better in the desert than the M16 and the .308 Russian round kills reliably… Luckily, the enemy mostly shoots like shit. Undisciplined “spray and pray” type fire. However, they are seeing more and more precision weapons, especially sniper rifles. (Iran, again) Fun fact: Captured enemy have apparently marveled at the marksmanship of our guys and how hard they fight. They are apparently told in Jihad school that the Americans rely solely on technology, and can be easily beaten in close quarters combat for their lack of toughness. Let’s just say they know better now.
Mikhail Kalashnikov obituary
Russian designer of the world-famous AK-47 assault rifle that bears his name
Paul Cornish, The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013 18.33 GMT
Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, who has died aged 94, was the Russian designer of the world-famous firearm to which he gave his name. The Kalashnikov rifle, and derivatives of it, have seen service with both regular and irregular forces all over the world. In the hands of the latter, it has become so ubiquitous as to achieve symbolic status. The rifle was ahead of its time when it first appeared in 1947, and continued modifications and redesigns have maintained its potency to the present day.
The weapon is most notable for its reliability in even the most extreme conditions, and its supreme ease of maintenance in the field. These attributes made it equally suitable for the vast conscript army of the USSR and for guerrilla forces of all types and political persuasions. Until relatively recent times little was known of the man who designed this remarkable weapon, but that changed with the era of glasnost.
Kalashnikov was twice made a Hero of Socialist Labour and in many ways he was the very apotheosis of this breed. Self-taught, he produced designs that may be considered the very best of their type. With little formal training he rose to a position of unrivalled pre-eminence in his field – a notable feat given that Soviet weapons development was based on fierce competition among rival designers.
One of a large peasant family, Kalashnikov was born in Kuriya, in the Altai Krai district of southern Siberia. In later life he maintained that, even during his earliest childhood, he felt that he was destined to become a designer. While still a youth, he was forced to flee to avoid questioning by the police over the illegal possession of a pistol. He took work as a railway clerk at Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan.
Kalashnikov's first venture as a designer happened after he had commenced his military service in 1938. He invented a simple device for measuring the performance of tank engines, which proved so successful that it was put into production. His embryonic career was interrupted by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when he was recalled to his unit to serve as a tank commander. During the battle of Bryansk, in the autumn of that year, Kalashnikov was wounded in the shoulder and chest. While in hospital he conceived the idea of designing a submachine-gun as a means of alleviating the shortage of small arms that he had witnessed at the front.
Showing remarkable strength of purpose, with his arm still in a sling, he set about producing a prototype, using the facilities in railway workshops: first in his home village, later in Alma-Ata. The finished article initially led to him being arrested by the nervous local authorities, but eventually it was sent for official appraisal. Though the model was considered too complicated for adoption, the exercise ensured Kalashnikov's recognition as a natural talent worthy of proper technical education. Nor was his next design, for a light machine-gun, taken up, but evidently formed part of a valuable learning process.
In 1943 Soviet designers developed a shortened version of the standard 7.62mm rifle cartridge – the bullet and its casing. This was in response to the introduction by the Germans of a similar "intermediate" round. The advantage of such cartridges was that, in contrast to the pistol cartridges fired by submachine-guns, they were effective at all normal combat ranges. Conversely, unlike the powerful standard rifle cartridges of the era, they permitted controllable automatic and semi-automatic fire by relatively light weapons. The theory behind such cartridges had been current in both Germany and Russia for many years, but it took the second world war to give impetus to their actual introduction, thereby commencing a period of fundamental change in rifle design.
Kalashnikov immediately set about designing a semi-automatic carbine for the new cartridge, only to see a version by the established designer Sergei Simonov adopted instead. However, at that point the army decided to commission the development of an assault rifle (or avtomat) capable of both semi- and fully-automatic fire.
In 1946, Kalashnikov, aided by a small team, began work on such a weapon. He employed a modification of the system used in his unsuccessful carbine, wherein gas produced by the firing of the cartridge actuated a piston, which unlocked the bolt by rotating it. The concept was by no means new, but Kalashnikov's engineering genius raised it to a peak of mechanical efficiency.
When it appeared in its finished form, this rifle convincingly outperformed the weapons of rival designers. Kalashnikov later recalled that even before testing had been completed, the respected designer Vasily Degtyarev said: "Take my model to the museum! The Sergeant [Kalashnikov] has won."
The rifle was subsequently adopted for service as the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947, or AK47. Undoubtedly the finest military rifle of its day, the AK has undergone various modifications since its adoption, the most notable being a redesign in the 1970s to accept a new 5.45mm cartridge, as the AK74.
Variants were manufactured in virtually all the countries of the Warsaw pact, along with China, North Korea, Egypt and Yugoslavia. Finland, Israel, South Africa and India all employ indigenous designs based on the Kalashnikov system. It is impossible to say how many have been produced, but a reliable estimate puts the figure at more than 90m.
Kalashnikov and his design team, based in Izhevsk, in Udmurtia, continued their work into the 1990s, producing squad automatic versions of the Avtomat, and adapting the Kalashnikov system for use in the highly successful PK series of machine-guns. The system was also applied to sporting rifles and shotguns. Their most recent success was the Saiga semi-automatic shotgun, popular among the private security firms that have proliferated in the former Soviet Union.
In recent years Kalashnikov travelled widely outside Russia, generally accompanied by his daughter Elena. As well as being lionised by western firearms specialists, he generated good publicity for the Izhevsk factory, which was now eager to earn foreign currency.
He was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and a British television documentary. He also continued to be feted in his own country. On his 75th birthday he was promoted to the rank of general and became the first person appointed to the newly re-established Order of St Andrew. At no time did any of this attention appear to affect his level-headed outlook on life, and he continued, when not travelling, to live in the quiet backwater of Izhevsk, amusing himself by putting his hunting rifles to practical use.
The first western historian to make contact with Kalashnikov was Ed Ezell, of the Smithsonian Institution. In conversation with him in 1989, the great designer confided what he considered to be the secret of his success. He said that designers should have the flexibility to discard their own concepts when necessary; too many of them became attached to their ideas "like a spinster to her cats". Constant reassessment of the validity of one's own ideas allowed the development of reliable weapons. Kalashnikov summed this up in the maxim: "There is no limit to improvement." He maintained that his motivation had been the defence of his country and regretted the subsequent misuse of his weapons round the world.
His wife, Ekaterina, died in 1977, and a daughter, Natalia, in 1983. He is survived by Elena, his daughter Nelli and a son, Viktor.
• Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, firearms designer, born 10 November 1919; died 23 December 2013
Mikhail Kalashnikov, Whose AK-47 Fuels War Worldwide, Dies at 94
By Laurence Arnold and Henry Meyer Dec 23, 2013
Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the world’s most popular assault rifle, the AK-47, a simple and durable weapon of war used by tens of millions in about 100 countries, has died. He was 94.
He died today after a long illness, Elena Filatova, a spokeswoman at Kalashnikov Concern, the plant named after the inventor, said in an interview. He lived in Izhevsk in the Ural Mountains, the town that produces his rifles.
The Automatic Kalashnikov -- Avtomat Kalashnikova, or AK-47, for the year its design was finalized -- became prized by governments and rebels alike for its low cost, ease of use, light weight and resistance to corrosion and jamming. The Soviet Army made the weapon standard issue in 1949, as did most Warsaw Pact countries and dozens of liberation armies in Africa, Asia and Latin America during the Cold War.
The AK-47 was used in at least 40 of 60 large armed conflicts since 1945, Alexander Uzhanov, an associate fellow at the Academy of Military Science in Moscow, wrote in a 2009 biography of Kalashnikov. More than 100 million AK-47s have been sold worldwide, half of them counterfeit, according to Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms exporter.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden posed next to the rifle in videos he released to the public before he was killed in 2011. Mozambique, an African nation that endured a long civil war after gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, includes an image of the AK-47 on its flag.
Kalashnikov said he came up with the AK-47’s design while recuperating from wounds suffered when invading Germans shelled the tank he was driving during the Battle of Bryansk in 1941. He long insisted that his goal had been to design a rifle to help the Soviet Union fend off a German invasion -- not to arm extremists or criminals.
“I didn’t put it in the hands of bandits and terrorists, and it’s not my fault that it has mushroomed uncontrollably across the globe,” he said, according to a 2006 Associated Press story. “Can I be blamed that they consider it the most reliable weapon?”
Sturdy and dependable, the AK-47 can fire 600 bullets a minute and is so easy to handle that Soviet schoolchildren were taught to assemble it with their eyes closed and child soldiers in African conflict zones are seen carrying them.
The Soviet Union awarded AK-47 licenses to 18 countries during the Cold War, including China, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany and Egypt. Many of them continued to make the weapon illegally after their permits expired, then-Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in 2008 in calling for a crackdown on black-market production. Other countries produced copies of the weapon without any license.
In the U.S., officially licensed civilian versions of the AK-47 are sold under the brand name Saiga. AK-47s were used in two mass shootings in 1989, in a Stockton, California, schoolyard and a Louisville, Kentucky, printing plant, according to AP.
U.S. lawmakers outlawed the AK-47 and all other AK models in the assault-weapons ban signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The law expired in 2004.
Congress and President Barack Obama are again considering new limits on weapons such as the AK-47, in the wake of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. The weapon used by the killer in that case, Adam Lanza, was a Bushmaster AR-15, another type of semiautomatic, or self-loading, rifle.
While Kalashnikov said he never made money from his namesake weapon, he did gain a degree of celebrity.
“What you’ve done has made Russian weapons one of our best national brands,” Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, said during a 2009 meeting with Kalashnikov in the Kremlin to mark his 90th birthday. “Kalashnikov is one of the most famous Russian words.”
The Soviet Union’s official account of Kalashnikov and his firearm was heavy in patriotic appeal, at the expense of accuracy, according to C.J. Chivers’s 2010 book, “The Gun.”
“The carefully packaged history of Soviet times, a cheerful parable for the proletariat, was that the weapon sprang from the mind of a gifted if unlettered sergeant who wanted to present his nation an instrument for its defense,” Chivers wrote. “This was a message made in the Communist Party’s propaganda mills. It required redaction and lies.”
In fact, the AK-47 “was the result of state process and collective work, the output not of a man but of committees,” he wrote.
Kalashnikov fought back when challenged on his role in designing the famous firearm.
“Certain people would like to cast doubt on the paternity of the AK-47,” Kalashnikov wrote in “The Gun That Changed the World” (2006), originally published in France in 2003. Citing one newspaper article that had accused him of copying the work of competitors, he wrote, “I’m 83 years old, but unfortunately I’m still here to reply to those mendacious accusations!”
Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born on Nov. 10, 1919, in Kurya, a village in the Altai region of south-central Russia. He was the eighth of 18 children of the former Alexandra Frolovna, a religious Cossack, like her husband, Timofey, Chivers wrote in his book. Mikhail, one of only eight of the children to survive childhood, was weak, small and prone to illness, according to Chivers. Poetry was an early interest, and remained so throughout his life.
The Kalashnikov family, repressed as “kulaks,” or relatively affluent peasants, was relocated to western Siberia when Kalashnikov was 10, following Josef Stalin’s decree that turned private farms into collectivized state enterprises.
Kalashnikov was drafted into the Red Army and during World War II was wounded while commanding a tank struck by a German shell.
During his recovery, he studied firearms and tried his hand at new designs. Though his early ideas were rejected by the Red Army, he won assignments to military institutes, a weapons-testing facility and an arms-design center, where, in 1947, he and his chief deputy, Sasha Zaitsev, refined his design into what became the AK-47.
In subsequent decades, Kalashnikov designed more than 150 modifications of the rifle, and other guns.
In recent years he still worked four days a week at Izhmash, the company that produces the AK-47, according to an interview he gave in 2009 to Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the government’s newspaper of record.
Izhmash is a subsidiary of Russian Technologies Corp., the Russian weapons and technology company formed by the government in 2007 and recently renamed Rostec.
With his wife, Ekaterina, who died in 1977, Kalashnikov had four children -- a son, Viktor, who has promoted his father’s creation at international arms fairs, and daughters Nelli, Elena and Natalia, who died in 1983.