The AK-47

An Iraqi Security Forces soldier fires his assigned AK-47 weapon at a range complex.

The Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947, popularly known as the AK-47, is an assault rifle originally developed for the Soviet Union by the famous arms designer and Russian general Mikhail Kalashnikov. Avtomat Kalashnikova translates to “automatic Kalashnikov,” named after its designer who developed the accepted version of it in 1947.

The AK-47 and its variants are the most popular and widely adopted rifles globally, owing to their relatively low production cost, ease of use, and reliability under harsh conditions. You can find it in service with organized armed forces as well as militias and insurgencies across virtually every geographic region. It’s said that approximately 20% of worldwide firearms belong to the Kalashnikov family, three-quarters of which are AK-47s.

Mikhail Kalashnikov poses with his famous creation. He died in 2013 aged 94.

Mikhail Kalashnikov was conscripted to serve in the Soviet Army at 19 years old in 1938. In service, he was assigned as a tank mechanic owing in part to his engineering skills. He got injured in combat in 1941 and while hospitalized began working on what would become the AK-47. He started with a submachine gun design in 1942 and a light machine gun design a year later.

In 1946, the Soviet Union held a new design competition to develop a new rifle, and Kalashnikov submitted an entry; a gas-operated rifle similar to a design he had worked on before. His prototypes worked well and fared better than competitors. Still, Kalashnikov instituted a major redesign to improve reliability, and in November 1947, completed new prototypes designated as the AK-47. In 1949, the Soviet Army adopted it in combat.

In his career, Kalashnikov designed over 150 other models of small weapons, including the AK-74 assault rifle pictured here.

The simplicity of the AK-47 means it can be operated by regular armies and, unfortunately, also child soldiers in an African desert. It’s also a weapon of choice for guerrilla combatants, insurgents, and terrorists. The strengths of the AK-47 are its ease of operation, endurance to mistreatment, and insignificant failure rate. It trades these features for weaknesses including less accuracy, less safety, and a smaller range than similar weapons.

Many other factors contributed to the AK-47’s enormous popularity. It was a Soviet intervention and, hence, not subject to patent and could be freely copied by other manufacturers. Likewise, AK-47s were distributed in droves to regimes and rebels aligned with the Soviet Union, giving it an upper hand in the post-World War II market for small arms.

Due to its low cost compared to similar rifles, you’re more likely to find an AK-47 in service in regions with lower economic output. Prices for a new AK-47 vary across the globe, from $600 in Afghanistan to $1,200 in Mexico (on the black market). It’s also possible to find locally produced versions for as low as $150. The AK-47 is at the center of the global illegal arms trade.

A Ukrainian infantryman prepares to fire his AK-47 rifle.

The ArmaLite AR-15 is a comparable rifle to the AK-47 conceived by a celebrated American firearms designer named Eugene Stoner in the 1950s. AR-15 rifles are lighter and have a higher rate of accuracy than the AK-47. It also has a longer range, but the AK-47 is considerably cheaper and more reliable.

In 1959, Armalite sold its rights to the AR-15 to another firearms manufacturer named Colt, which continues to use the trademark for its line of semi-automatic rifles. The AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America, according to the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Eugene Stoner and Mikhail Kalashnikov exchange their famous creations for a pose.

Fun Facts about the AK-47

  • Nearly 90,000 AK-47 rifles procured for the Nigerian police were flagged missing in 2022.
  • The AK-47 is said to be responsible for far more deaths than any other weapon produced in the 20th century.
  • The AK-47 is included on the flag of Mozambique as a symbol of the war for its independence granted in 1975.

In 2012, Mikhail Kalashnikov penned a letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church expressing concern over the extensive damage caused by his creations. Excerpts from the letter (written in Russian and translated to English) include;

  • “I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?”
  • “The longer I live, the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression.”