The 7,6 mm Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 (Russian: 7,62 мм автомат Калашникова образца 1947), known in English as the AK-47, is a gas-operated assault rifle chambered for the 7.62 x 39 mm cartridge. It was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1940s by the small-arms designer Mikhail Kalshnikov and is named after him.
The AK-47 was the first in what we today know as the Kalashnikov (or “AK”) family of rifles. Despite following a design that is over 75 years old, the AK-47 remains one of the most widely used rifles around the world, including both military, para-military, insurgent, and civilian use.
The AK47, often referred to simply as Kalashnikov in English, is famous for being not only comparatively easy to use, but also for being extremely reliable even under really difficult field conditions. Compared to most other similar weapons, it is inexpensive to produce, which has also helped it maintain its popularity worldwide. It is, and has been, manufactured in numerous countries.
“Of all the weapons in the vast Soviet arsenal nothing was more profitable than Avtomat Kalashnikova model of 1947, more commonly known as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. It’s the world’s most popular assault rifle, a weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple nine pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood, it doesn’t break, jam, or overheat. It will shoot whether it’s covered in mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy even a child can use it, and they do. The Soviets put the gun on a coin, Mozambique put it on their flag. Since the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov has become the Russian people’s greatest export.” – Yuri Orlov in the 2005 film Lord of War
The number 47 refers to the year (1947) when the rifle was finished and presented for official military trials.
- Design work on the AK-47 began in 1945.
- The AK-47 was presented for official military trials in 1947.
- In 1948, the fixed-stock version of the AK-47 was introduced into active service in the Soviet Army, for selected units.
- In 1949, the AK-47 was officially accepted by the Soviet Armed Forces and introduced to a majority of the Warsaw Pact member states.
The first really successful assault rifle was the German-made Sturmgewehr 44, based on the Maschinenkaribiner 42(H). It was used heavily on the Eastern Front during World War II and made a huge impression on the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union. It had the firepower of a submachine gun, but with the range and accuracy of a rifle.
In July 1943, an earlier model of the Sturmgewehr was demonstrated before the People´s Commissariat of Arms of the USSR, and the USSR authorities immediately ordered the development of an intermediate calibre fully automatic rifle for the Soviet Army. The aim was to develop a weapon that could replace both the PPSh-41 submachine guns and the Moson-Nagant bolt-action rifles.
An important stepping-stone along the way to the AK-47 was the development of the 7.62 x 39 mm M43 cartridge.
During his childhood, Mikhail Kalashnikov was interested in machinery, but also wrote poetry. (He would continue to write poetry all his life, and was the author of six books.) After the family was deported to the country in Tomsk Oblast, they had to rely on a combination of hunting and farming to survive. Therefore, the teenage Mikhail Kalashnikov frequently used his fathers rifle. (He continued hunting as an adult, and kept hunting into his 90s.)
After completing the 7th grade at school, Mikhail Kalashnikov found a job at a tractor factory in Kurya, where he did mechanical work. A party organizer noticed his skill, and this resulted in Kalashnikov being sent to a nearby weapons design bureau to work as a tester of fitted stocks in rifles.
Kalashnikov was conscripted into the Red Army in 1938. Due to his mechanical experience, and also him being smaller than the average soldier, he was positioned as a tank mechanic. While still in training, he began inventing improvements for tanks and small weapons.
In October 1941, he was wounded in combat in the Battle of Bryansk, and hospitalised until April the following year. At the hospital, he listed to fellow injured soldiers bemoaning the low reliability of the standard infantry rifles, which were prone to jamming.
When he was discharged from hospital, he began working on the development of a more reliable rifle.
Kalashnikov´s first submachine gun design was not accepted into service, but the Armed Forces noticed his talent. In 1942, he was assigned to the Central Scientific-developmental Firing Range for Rifle Firearms of the Chief Artillery Directorate of the Red Army.
Kalashnikov worked on light machine gun design in 1943, and was given some some 7.62×39mm M43 cartridges in early 1944. Later in 1944, his new 7.62×39mm, semi-automatic, gas-operated, long stroke piston carbine was entered into a design competition. (This carbine was inspired by the United States M1 Garand.) Kalashnikov´s carbine lost the competition to a Simonov design, but after the end of World War II, a new design competition was launched and Kalashnikov decided to submit a new entry.
Creating the AK-47
Kalashnikov created a gas-operated rifle that he fitted with a short-stroke gas piston above the barrel, a breech-block mechanism similar to his 1944 carbine, and a curved 30-round magazine.
He first made two prototypes: AK-1 (milled receiver) and AK-2 (stamped receiver). Both were accepted to the second round of the contest, and so was the later AK-46 with a two-part receiver.
As the rifles were being tested, Kalashnikov´s assistant Aleksandr Zaitsev suggested a major redesign that would improve reliability. Initially, Kalashnikov was not in favour of this, as their rifles had already done better than the competitors during testing, but he eventually relented.
The new prototypes (AK-47s) wear ready in November 1947. They were characterized by:
- Long-stroke gas piston above the barrel
- Upper and lower receivers were combined into a single receiver
- Selector and safety were combined into a single control-lever/dust-cover
- Bolt-handle was attached to the bolt-carrier
The first trial series commenced in early 1948, and the Kalashnikovs proved to be reliable under a wide range of difficult conditions. They were also praised for being easy to handle.
The AK-47 was heavily inspired by existing rifle technology, as Kalashnikov wanted to create a rifle that included the best features of the United States M1 and the German StG44, instead of trying to “reinvent the wheel”.
“A lot of Russian Army soldiers ask me how one can become a constructor, and how new weaponry is designed. These are very difficult questions. Each designer seems to have his own paths, his own successes and failures. But one thing is clear: before attempting to create something new, it is vital to have a good appreciation of everything that already exists in this field. I myself have had many experiences confirming this to be so.” – Mikhail Kalashnikov
Acceptance into the Soviet Army
The fixed-stock version of the AK-47 was introduced to selected units of the Soviet Army in 1948. The following year, the AK-47 was officially accepted as the standard issue assault-rifle of the Soviet Army, and introduced to a majority of the Warsaw Pact member states.
It would however take until the mid-1950s before enough AK-47 rifles were produced to distribute really large numbers of the new riffle to the Soviet soldiers. During this transition period, the older SKS rifle was in production and widespread use.
During the early stages of production of the AK-47, several issues were encountered and the AK-47 was improved in various ways to make the process more efficient under the prevailing circumstances.
In 1959, a modernized version called Автомат Калашникова Модернизированный (Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy) was launched. It had a stamped sheet metal receiver, and had been fitted with a slanted muzzle break on the end of the barrel to compensate for muzzle rise under recoil. To prevent the rifle from firing without the bolt being fully closed, a hammer retarder had been added. As an added bonus, the modernized AK-47 was one-third lighter than the previous model.