The Gun That Made the Nineties Roar

The story of the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle can stand in for the history of the Soviet Union more generally.  First, there is the story of its designer.  Timofey Kalashnikov was a “kulak” (one of the well-off peasants who had profited from the pre-revolutionary regime’s “wager on the sober and the strong”).  In 1919 Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born.  His parents nurtured him through the Russian Civil War.  In 1921 the Bolshevik Revolution ran up against the resistance to “common ownership of the means of production” by the peasant-proprietors like Timofey Kalashnikov.  The Bolsheviks settled for control of the “commanding heights” of the economy, while allowing peasants and shopkeepers to retain possession of their property.  They didn’t like doing this, but they recognized reality.  Then Stalin came to power.  In 1928 he launched the transition to real Communism.  He ordered the “collectivization” of agriculture, by seizing the lands of the kulaks, and by plowing resources into building industry.  The Kalashnikov family had their farm seized, then were deported to Siberia.  Old Pa Kalashnikov soon died.  An older brother mouthed off and got slammed into the Gulag.  So Mikhail Kalashnikov grew up in fear and hardship.  In 1938 Kalashnikov got drafted and learned to drive a tank; in June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union; in October 1941 Kalashnikov was badly wounded.  While in hospital he became interested in weapons design and managed to get transferred to a design unit for the rest of the war.  No Stalingrad for him.  At the end of the war the Allies captured a bunch of German designers.  The US got the great rocket scientist Werner von Braun; the Russkies got the great arms designer Hugo Schmeisser.  Taken to Russia, Schmeisser “helped” design the AK-47, which—oddly—bears a marked resemblance to his own earlier design for the Wehrmacht’s “Sturmgewehr” assault rifle.  So, what did Mikhail Kalashnikov add?

That question brings us to our second theme, the Soviet system of industrial production.  There was a Soviet-era joke that ran: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”  Even the best-rewarded Soviet workers weren’t always delighted with their situations.  A lot of people did sloppy, crude work, chipping at the vodka bottle during the work day.  As a result, the AK-47 is garbage by Western engineering standards.  It isn’t very accurate: it has an effective range of only 200-300 yards.  It is crudely made, rather than engineered so that the pieces fit tightly together.  Perversely, herein lies one of its virtues.  You can get it dirty; you can forget to oil it; and you can blaze away at something without cleaning out the carbon build-up: it still fires.  Then, it is stubby, especially with the butt-stock folded forward, and light, only about ten pounds.  Herein lies a second virtue.  Short and light made it the weapon-of-choice for both child-soldiers and terrorists.  Short, light, and reliable made untrained, even moronic, soldiers a deadly enemy.  In sum, it is a weapon perfectly adapted for war in the Third World.

Third, there is the story of the Communism versus Capitalism.  Colt only manufactured as many M-16s as the market demanded.  The Soviets manufactured stuff to keep their workers employed, without any regard for what the market wanted.  As a result, there are 10 million M-16s, but there may be 100 million AK-47s.  The Soviets gave the surplus arms away to “movements of national liberation” all around the globe during the Cold War.  Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are awash in these things.

As for Kalashnikov, he had all the rewards and special privileges reserved for a “Hero of the Soviet Union” heaped upon him: he was rich enough to buy a vacuum cleaner, a refrigerator, and even a car.  All were built on the same lines as the AK-47.  No wonder the place folded up.

See: C.J. Chivers, The Gun (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).

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