Gen Kalashnikov Goes to the Great AK Factory in the Sky
Long famous for his simple and effective series of assault rifles, Russian Lieutenant General Mikhail Kalashnikov has died this week at age 94. His life's tale is one of inspiration.
In the Altai Krai region of Siberia, there is the small village of Kurya. Today it is much as it has always been. Located at the crossroads of history, the region is between Mongolia and Western Siberia, and has been populated for nearly 40 centuries. For the past century in Kurya, all through the severe, dry Siberian winters and hot, short summers, has stood a wooden schoolhouse. There, in November 1919 during the darkest days of the Russian Civil War, was born to a peasant family, one Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov.
As a teenager with the soul of a poet (he wrote several books later in his life), he wandered back to Kurya even after his family was deported to another part of Siberia more than 500-miles away under the regime of Josef Stalin. There the young Kalashnikov started work at the local tractor repair shop, finding himself technically able. Although he only had the equivalent of a 7th grade education, when he was drafted into Stalin's Red Army in 1938 being good with his hands led to tank mechanics school.
Seeing the hell that was the Eastern Front from inside a T-34 tank fighting Hitler's vast legions of Panzers, he was wounded in the opening months of World War 2 and spent months recovering in a hospital in the rear. There, after listening to his fellow soldiers complain about their ancient Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifles and unreliable SVT-38/40 battlerifle, he started working on a design for a new and improved gun.
This led to the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947, better known by its abbreviation: AK-47
With his simple hands-on approach to firearms design, combined with his firsthand knowledge of army mechanics and combat, allowed him to bring to the drawing board what many engineers did not and that was practical experience in the field. Admittedly, he was helped by the fact that his wife Ekaterina was an educated engineer and made his early technical drawings, and after 1945 the Soviets had German weapons guru Hugo Schmeisser as a 'guest' in their arms design bureau, both contributed to the overall success of his AK project in 1947, but Kalashnikov was the man who completed the thought process.
His AK-47 and its later AKM, RPK, and AK-74 offspring have been made in greater quantity than any other firearm in human history-- as certified by the "Guinness Book of Records." It is believed that no less than 150-million "Kalashnikovs" have come off the lines in dozens of countries over the past 60+ years. Although its simple stamped steel receiver, 30-round detachable magazine, rotating bolt, and gas-operated action seems standard on select-fire rifles today, it was all innovative at the time. Able to be field stripped by a minimally trained soldier and cleaned in minutes, the loose tolerances of the AK allow it to fire in dirty, muddy conditions that would often leave a better-built rifle jammed tight.
(the AK is renowned for working well even when a little dirty)
This brought fame to the humble inventor who went on to complete more than 150 other firearms designs. He won the Stalin prize and Order of the Red Star in 1949, the Lenin prize in 1964, was made a Lt General in the Soviet (and later Russian) Army, and has received hundreds of other laurels and awards. A drink is named after him (made with vodka of course); the 100+ year old wooden schoolhouse he attended is now a museum, the college he matriculated from in the 1950s has been renamed after him, as has the 200+ year old factory he worked for in Izhevsk. In parts of the world, his last name and versions of it are bestowed on young boys as a simple of pride and manhood.
(The AK is loved to the point of gaining blessings from those who would use them in places as diverse as the now-Holy Russia, above, to the most remote regions of Africa, below.)
The French newspaper, Liberation, has named AK-47 the most important invention of the XX century, with the Russian rifle leaving the atomic bomb and space flight behind.
Although Kalashnikov simply created a firearm to help his fellow soldiers out, many anti-gunners would compare him to the devil for his accomplishments. In reporting on his death this week at age 94, the AP said "Kalashnikov once aspired to design farm equipment, but his most famous invention--the AK-47 assault rifle--sowed havoc instead of crops." Even About.com says of the gun, "They continue to be sought after by terrorist groups and paramilitaries, as well as gangs and drug dealers."
In a 2002 interview, Kalashnikov said of his AK, "I'm proud of my invention, but I'm sad that it is used by terrorists. I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work-for example a lawnmower." Still, the AK was a product of a man and his time.
Military satire site The Duffleblog posted the following about the General's 'interment', "Comrade Kalashnikov will be buried in a pit of mud with full military honors," said General-Major Saiga Molot, a spokesman for the Russian army. "After a week, we will exhume his body, clean it off, and put him back to work. We expect that there shall be no issue with his functions."
While of course it is a joke, we think he would smile at the thought.