AK-47: Weapon Of Mass Destruction
By Larry Kahaner
Sunday, November 26, 2006; B01
In the grand narrative of World War II, the Battle of Bryansk is a minor
conflict, barely deserving of a footnote. But Bryansk has another place in
history. It was there that a then-unknown tank commander named Mikhail
Kalashnikov decided that his Russian comrades would never again be defeated.
In the years following the Great Patriotic War, as Soviet propagandists
dubbed it, he was to conceive and fabricate a weapon so simple, and yet so
revolutionary, that it would change the way wars were fought and won. It was
the AK-47 assault rifle.
The AK-47 has become the world's most prolific and effective combat weapon,
a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for
less than the cost of a live chicken. Depicted on the flag and currency of
several countries, waved by guerrillas and rebels everywhere, the AK is
responsible for about a quarter-million deaths every year. It is the firearm
of choice for at least 50 legitimate standing armies and countless fighting
forces from Africa and the Middle East to Central America and Los Angeles.
It has become a cultural icon, its signature form -- that banana-shaped
magazine -- defining in our consciousness the contours of a deadly weapon.
This week, the U.S. military's presence in Iraq will surpass the length of
time that American forces were engaged in World War II. And the AK-47 will
forever link the two conflicts. The story of the gun itself, from
inspiration in Bryansk to bloody insurgency in Iraq, is also the story of
the transformation of modern warfare. The AK blew away old battlefield
calculations of military superiority, of tactics and strategy, of who could
be a soldier, of whose technology would triumph.
Ironically, the weapon that helped end World War II, the atomic bomb, paved
the way for the rise of the lower-tech but deadlier AK-47. The A-bomb's
guarantee of mass destruction compelled the two Cold War superpowers to wage
proxy wars in poor countries, with ill-trained combatants exchanging fire --
usually with cheap, lightweight and durable AKs.
When one war ended, arms brokers gathered up the AKs and sold them to
fighters in the next hot spot. The weapon's spread helps explain why, since
World War II, so many "small wars" have lingered far beyond the months and
years one might expect. Indeed, for all of the billions of dollars
Washington has spent on space-age weapons and military technology, the AK
still remains the most devastating weapon on the planet, transforming
conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq. With these assault rifles,
well-armed fighters can dominate a country, terrorize citizens, grab the
spoils -- and even keep superpowers at bay.
When German forces employed the lightning war, or blitzkrieg, in World War
II, it was a marked change from how wars had been fought. Instead of static
fighting -- hunkering down in trenches for weeks or months at a time as in
World War I -- the blitzkrieg concentrated forces at one point in an enemy's
defensive line, broke a hole and then thrust deep into enemy territory,
catching opponents off guard and subjecting them to waves of brutally
In late September 1941, the German juggernaut reached the outskirts of
Bryansk, hard against the Desna River southwest of Moscow. In the battle,
the Nazis destroyed about 80 percent of the town and killed more than 80,000
people. Kalashnikov, who was 21, was wounded in his left shoulder when his
tank came under artillery fire. He eventually made it to a hospital on foot
after a harrowing two-day trip. He suffered nightmares about the Germans
slaughtering his comrades.
Kalashnikov became obsessed with creating a submachine gun that would drive
the Germans from his homeland. In his hospital bed, he sketched out the
simplest automatic weapon possible. His obsession would later lead him to a
metal shop, where he developed a prototype submachine gun; later to a
technical school, where he invented a carbine; and finally, to the creation
of the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 (AK-47) , approved for production that
year. It combined the best characteristics of a submachine gun (light weight
and durability) and a machine gun (killing power). By the end of 1949, arms
plants had turned out about 80,000 AKs.
Although the AK came too late to see action in World War II, the Soviets
knew their assault rifle could become the most important weapon of the
modern era, and they worked hard to keep it hidden from the West. Soviet
soldiers carried their AKs in special pouches that disguised their shape;
they picked up spent cartridges to keep the newly sized ammunition a secret.
The 1956 uprising in Hungary compelled Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to
dispatch the Red Army to Budapest. The episode required the first
large-scale public use of the AK, and it performed well in an urban
environment where tanks became bogged down in narrow streets against crowds
wielding Molotov cocktails. The protests were squelched, and as many as
50,000 Hungarians were killed compared with about 7,000 Soviet soldiers.
By the late 1950s, the Soviet Union had begun using the AK to spread
communism. In the early years of the Cold War, both Moscow and Washington
tried to curry favor with uncommitted countries through sales and gifts of
arms. Compared with the United States's offering of the M-1 and later the
M-14, the AK proved vastly superior; its ruggedness was well suited to
severe environmental conditions and the lack of gun repair facilities in
poorer countries. The Soviets also distributed free licenses to produce the
AK-47 to "fraternal countries," including Bulgaria, China, East Germany,
Hungary, North Korea, Poland and Yugoslavia.
U.S. weapons experts did not embrace the superiority of the AK, clinging
instead to old notions of warfare embodied in the M-1. The rifle had
performed flawlessly during World War II, prompting Gen. George S. Patton to
call it "the greatest battle implement ever devised." But it was heavy,
clunky and held only eight rounds in its magazine, and was not an automatic
weapon. Warfare was changing, and the M-1 was falling behind.
It was not until the Vietnam War -- the first major proxy battle against the
Soviets -- that U.S. troops faced the AK-47 in action. They would pay dearly
for their government's failure to recognize the power of Kalashnikov's
One key problem the United States faced in Vietnam involved basic weaponry:
For all their military might, U.S. forces did not have an infantry weapon
that could stand up to the AK in the pattern of warfare that was emerging.
Confrontations often consisted of jungle patrols from both sides finding
themselves unexpectedly face to face, and the side that could pump out the
most rounds the fastest won.
After many years of bureaucratic wrangling, the U.S. military had finally
introduced its own assault rifle, the sleek and sophisticated M-16. More
than 100,000 of them were ordered by the summer of 1966 and shipped to the
Asian war zone. By October, however, some unexpected reports were coming in.
M-16s were jamming in combat.
U.S. troops were found dead with their rifles in mid-breakdown, trying to
undo the cause of the misfire while under attack. Morale plunged as they
thought they could not trust their weapon. And as the Viet Cong learned of
these problems, they became emboldened: The sight of the "black rifle," as
they called it, was now less threatening. Although the Army tried to
minimize the public relations fallout, reports reached Congress through the
parents of servicemen as well as from soldiers who felt betrayed. A
congressional subcommittee investigating the issue heard testimony about
American troops routinely removing AKs from enemy dead and using them
instead of their own M-16s.
The culprit, it turns out, wasn't the gun, but the ammunition. M-16s jammed
because authorities had insisted on changing the cartridge propellant, and
residue clogged the mechanism after repeated firing. But even after problems
were addressed, it was too late. The AK came to be perceived widely as the
world's top infantry weapon, and one that could beat the West's best
offering. It was low-tech Soviet style vs. high-tech American style, and the
communists won the war of perception.
If the Vietnam War gave the AK its credibility, it was the Soviet war in
Afghanistan and the subsequent demise of the Soviet empire that accelerated
the weapon's dissemination, placing it in the hands of insurgents and
terrorists who embraced it as an icon of anti-imperialism.
Strategically, the initial Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seemed successful:
Fewer than 70 Soviet troops died, most of them from non-combat-related
accidents. Soviet planners anticipated a stay of no more than three years --
a timetable that seemed realistic considering that the Afghan fighters were
short of modern weapons.
But that changed when the CIA began funneling extensive aid to the guerrilla
fighters via Pakistan, including hundreds of thousands of AKs (mainly from
China, where production of the Soviet weapon was booming). The CIA favored
AKs because of their reliability, low cost and availability. In addition,
Soviet weapons in the hands of the mujaheddin would not be easily traced to
the United States, thus offering Washington official deniability. Years
later in congressional testimony, CIA officials estimated that by 1984, $200
million had been sent to the Afghan mujaheddin, and that by 1988 the sum had
reached $2 billion through CIA channels alone.
Graft and corruption notwithstanding, the CIA-led arms pipeline helped keep
the rebels well stocked. By the mid-1980s, the war was stalemating, despite
at least 100,000 Soviet troops on the ground, and the public back home was
increasingly unhappy with what seemed like a no-win conflict.
When the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989, the vast arms
infrastructure did not disappear. Operating for a decade, it had become
ingrained in the economy and culture of Afghanistan and neighboring
countries. Even before the Soviet withdrawal, Western newspapers took note
of the huge supply of AKs in the region, and the notion of a "Kalashnikov
culture" entered the lexicon. In Pakistan, for example, a substantial part
of the country's economy -- including gangs who robbed and kidnapped, drug
kingpins who followed established arms routes, and the small village arms
makers who bought, sold, repaired and produced their homemade versions --
depended on the ubiquitous AK.
The AK's international reach expanded further as the USSR collapsed and
former Soviet bloc countries auctioned off their arms stockpiles. AKs began
selling for bargain-basement prices throughout Africa, where countries were
fragmented into tribal groups with long-standing ethnic resentments. In
Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and elsewhere, AKs prolonged small
conflicts that previously would have petered out. The weapon became so much
a part of daily life in some areas that it was dubbed the "African credit
card" -- you could not leave home without it.
In Latin America, AKs ended up in the hands of drug cartels and
anti-government rebels. Just as the CIA shipped AKs to Afghanistan, it did
the same in Nicaragua in the early 1980s, sending arms to the contras in
their fight against the Soviet-backed Sandinistas. AKs fueled civil war in
El Salvador as well as political and drug-related violence in Colombia.
Venezuelan President Hugo Ch�vez recently announced the purchase of 100,000
AKs from Russian stockpiles. He also announced plans to produce AKs in his
own factory -- the first time the weapon will be made in the Western
Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had been considered a moderate
Islamic country, but the war emboldened a more virulent strain of Islam, one
fueled by accessible weapons and a devastated economy. In the mountainous
border area near Pakistan, Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden grew more
radical in his views on a holy war -- first against the Soviet invaders, and
later against the United States and the West.
Just before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks, bin Laden distributed the first of several videotapes warning
the West about reprisals. In these tapes, the al-Qaeda leader is seen with
an AK either next to him or propped up in the background. The typical stock
footage shows a white-robed bin Laden firing an AK, a symbol to the world
that he is a true anti-imperialist fighter.
In their battles against U.S. forces, many al-Qaeda fighters and tribal
groups still carry the same AKs that the CIA had purchased more than a
decade earlier. The first U.S. soldier to die by hostile fire in Afghanistan
-- Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman of San Antonio -- was killed by a
teenager shooting an AK.
The AK is also the weapon of choice in the latest "small war" that a
superpower believed would be brief and painless: Iraq.
Although coalition bombing in 1991 destroyed much of Iraq's air force, Scud
missiles and tanks, Saddam Hussein's regime retained its small weapons,
including AKs. By March 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Iraqi
arsenals included seven to eight million small arms. These weapons -- which
U.S. planners did not consider a major threat when the invasion began --
would prove deadly for American troops once major hostilities ended. During
the chaos that followed the swift victory, millions of small weapons (mainly
AKs) were looted from Hussein's armories. They landed in the hands of
nervous law-abiding citizens, but also in the hands of Baathist loyalists
and other opponents of the U.S. occupation who used them to start a
protracted urban war.
In Iraq, the AK had taken on symbolic power, too. Hussein had been so
enamored with the weapon that he had built a Baghdad mosque sporting
minarets in the unique shape of AK barrels. His son Uday commissioned
gold-plated AKs. And when Hussein was captured, two AKs were found in his
Even the newly forming Iraqi army -- trained by the U.S. military and
civilian contractors -- refused American-made M-16s and M-4s. When the
Coalition Provisional Authority was planning to outfit Iraqi forces, they
were surprised to find that the Iraqis insisted on AKs.
"For better or worse, the AK-47 is the weapon of choice in that part of the
world," said Walter Slocombe, senior adviser to the CPA. "It turns out that
every Iraqi male above the age of 12 can take them apart and put them
together blindfolded and is a pretty good shot."
Now 85, tiny, feeble, nearly deaf, his right hand losing control because of
tremors, Kalashnikov is often haunted by the killing machine he has bestowed
upon the world. "I wish I had invented a lawnmower," he told the Guardian in
In Iraq, Sierra Leone, Sudan and elsewhere, today's wars are hot conflicts
in urban areas, with guerrillas holding their own against better trained
troops. Sophisticated, expensive arms seem no match for AK-wielding rebels
who need little training and know the local terrain better. Some call this
the new reality of small conflicts.
This sentiment was expressed by Maj. Gen. William J. Livsey Jr. the
commandant of Fort Benning, Ga., in the early 1980s, when the military was
first integrating computer chips into smart weapons. "Despite all the
sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with," he warned, "you still
have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of
land. It's the damn hardest thing in the world to do."
The AK has pierced through popular culture, too. In 2004, Playboy magazine
dubbed it one of the "50 Products That Changed the World," ranking it behind
the Apple Macintosh desktop, the birth-control pill and the Sony Betamax
video machine. Rappers Ice Cube and Eminem mention AKs in their lyrics. And
in the movie "Jackie Brown," actor Samuel L. Jackson captures the weapon's
global cachet: "AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely,
positively got to kill every [expletive] in the room."
Yet, for all of his weapon's influence, Kalashnikov receives no royalties
for his invention. Recently, he began selling his own name brand of vodka,
which has been a hit in Europe and the Middle East and is slated to reach
the United States next year.
At times, he remains defiant and aloof, blaming others for the AK's misuse.
"I invented it for protection of the motherland," Kalashnikov told an
interviewer. "I have no regrets and bear no responsibility for how
politicians have used it."
Larry Kahaner is the author of "AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of
RESTORE THE REPUBLIC!
R.W. "D1ck" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952- (Plt #437PISC)-'72
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