Now, the manufacture of weaponry is intertwined with the course of economic history. Among other game-changers you can count the Gatling gun and the atomic bomb. But, it was a rifle whose gestation process began during WWII which has arguably had a far greater effect on democratizing (or proletarianizing depending on your ideological persuasion) the tools of violence and giving haughty Yanks their comeuppance on several occasions: General Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK-47. While improvements in its design have been made over the years--the AK-47 will never be the last word in accuracy--its brief has remained that of an easy to produce, low-cost weapon.
From the arsenal of a onetime superpower to being the weapon of choice of guerrillas, revolutionaries and terrorists the world over, everyone knows what you refer to when you mention the "AK-47." Hence, upon its impending retirement as a frontline rifle in the Russian military, Charles Glass (the journalist, not the bodybuilder) has penned a very interesting article on its long, murderous postwar history. Moreover, it's likely that thousands more will meet their maker being at the wrong end of an AK-47 given its continuing ubiquity:
Estimates of the number of Kalashnikov rifles in circulation run as high as 100 million, making it what the Russian president, Dimitri Medvedev, called "a national brand which evokes pride in each citizen". "It is the [Nazi] Germans who are responsible for the fact that I became a fabricator of arms," Mikhail Kalashnikov later said. "If not for them, I would have constructed agricultural machines."Alike other innovations, it too diffused in its own way:
Mikhail Kalashnikov's assault rifle equalised the battle between modern western armies and third world liberation movements. It was to independence fighters what the Winchester repeater, the "gun that won the West", was to American frontiersmen. Only later did the Kalashnikov fall into the hands of drug traffickers, slave traders and terrorists. Modern criminals adopted it the way Prohibition-era gangsters had the famed Thompson or "Tommy gun", previously the weapon of the FBI and other G-men who were pursuing them.It was here in Southeast Asia where the robust AK-47 proved its mettle against the far more finicky M-16. Would the Vietnam War have ended the way it did had the US armed its soldiers with something easier to handle?
It is very important because a soldier doesn't have university degrees," Lt Gen Kalashnikov said. "He needs a simple and reliable weapon ... There's simply no time to figure how to operate a complicated weapon and press many buttons when the enemy is advancing on you."
In Vietnam, the American soldier's M-16 may have been more sophisticated and powerful, but the AK-47 worked without jamming through mud and monsoon. Peasants from Southeast Asia to South America made it their weapon of choice, and its distinctive form ended up on flags from Mozambique's to Hizbollah's. The "Kalashin", as it is called in Arabic, also defined an era in the Middle East. Arab armies deployed it, as did Yemeni tribesmen, Kurdish guerrillas, Lebanese militias and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. A Palestinian friend of mine said of the Israeli siege of West Beirut in the summer of 1982: "All the real fighting is done with Kalashnikovs. The rest is just sound effects."And so the characteristic ringing sound of 7.62×39mm round has resonated--the true shot heard around the world:
I cannot recall covering a war since my first, the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973, in which the Kalashnikov was not a salient feature. Zimbabwe African People's Union and Zimbabwe African National Union fighters carried them in Rhodesia, and the Eritreans fought with them against Ethiopia for more than 30 years. Hizbollah used far more AKs than suicide bombers against the Israeli army in south Lebanon, eventually driving it back into Israel. In Lebanon's civil war, nearly everyone used them.And its history is still unfolding:
As with one person's terrorist being another's freedom fighter, a weapon symbolises freedom to one side and terror to another. To Vietnamese, Palestinians, Angolans and Guatemalans, the AK-47 was a tool for achieving justice...Kahaner has written a book and an earlier WaPo op-ed on the weapon. The AK-47's bloody if game-changing legacy will probably long survive the conversion of one superpower to a BRIC and another being flushed down the toilet of history via its current infatuation with economolesters.
"The AK-47 has become the world's most prolific and effective combat weapon," Larry Kahaner wrote, "a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for less than the cost of a chicken." Kahaner estimates that the weapon kills about a quarter of a million people annually. Its victims are buried in the ghetto of south central Los Angeles, the forests of eastern Congo and the mountains of Colombia.
UPDATE: No, I am not turning this blog into Guns & Ammo, but do read an insightful comparison between Eugene Stoner (inventor of the M-16) and Mikhail Kalashnikov on the occasion of the former passing away. At 91, Kalashnikov is still going strong.