At the dawn of the Cold War, former Soviet soldier Mikhail Kalashnikov, 26, led a team in the design of a lightweight assault rifle, the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947. Now, 65 years later, some 100 million AK-47s have been produced—10 times the number of U.S. Army M16s. The original weighed roughly 10 pounds and married the best features of a submachine gun and a long-range rifle. “The AK-47 is often said to be poorly made, but many of its features were well-matched to the conditions of war,” says C.J. Chivers, The New York Times war correspondent and author of The Gun, a history of the AK-47. The rifle is effective, if unoriginal. “Think Mr. Potato Head. This gun is a bunch of pre-existing systems combined into a new whole,” he says. A revised AK-47, the AKM, entered production in 1959; the most prevalent AK, its knockoffs are manufactured all over the world (the gun below has Chinese origins). Chivers gives a guided tour.
AVTOMAT KALASHNIKOVA MODERNIZED
1959 / Length: 35 inches / Weight: 8 pounds
Designers replaced the AK-47’s solid-wood stock and handgrip with less expensive and sturdier plywood in the AKM. (This model, however, has solid wood.) Guns with folding metal stocks, better for tight spaces, were made for airborne and armored-vehicle troops.
The AK-47’s trigger group borrows from the designs of American infantry rifle maker John C. Garand, who created the M1, and German gun maker Hugo Schmeisser, a Soviet prisoner at the time the original AK-47 was devised.
The rifle’s receiver anchors the integrated gas piston and the trigger group. In the 1940s, workers created the receiver by machining a 4-pound block of steel into the 1.5-pound component. “It took 150 different machine motions to make it, so there was a huge manpower loss there,” Chivers says. The AKM’s stamped sheet-metal receiver simplified production and reduced the rifle’s weight to about 8 pounds. The integrated gas piston and bolt carrier’s parts were designed to fit loosely in the receiver, making the mechanism less susceptible to the effects of carbon buildup, rust and dirt—and thus less prone to jamming. Kalashnikov claimed credit for these ideas, but they were actually adopted from other Soviet designs of the time, including Alexey Sudayev’s AS-44. After Sudayev died in 1946, his “loose fit” concept was used by other designers.
4 Selector Switch
The AKM has three modes of firing regulated by the selector switch: safe, when it cannot fire; semiautomatic, for the squeezing off of single shots; and automatic, to spit lead at a rate of 700 rounds per minute.
5 Gas Piston
The AK-47’s combined bolt carrier and gas piston design—taken from a competitor—gives the gun’s operating system more energy. As each round is fired, gas rushes into a chamber via a port in the top of the barrel, driving back a piston that withdraws the bolt from the chamber and ejects the spent cartridge. The spring-loaded magazine forces the next cartridge into place; a return spring thrusts the piston and bolt assembly forward, chambering the cartridge and preparing the rifle to fire again. The system’s stroke is 50 percent longer than necessary, so the weapon often functions even when impeded by fouling, foreign substances or lack of lubrication.
The banana-shaped cartridge holder is a borrowed design, in keeping with the AK-47’s cobbled-together makeup. “The curved, detachable magazine had been used on weapons of Soviet provenance, including the AS-44, an early Red Army attempt to knock off the [German] Sturmgewehr,” Chivers says. But the Soviet Union found that this design was less likely to jam, in part because its shape fit the 7.62 x 39–mm round, which was tapered and stubby—unlike many types of earlier ammo, which were longer and less tapered.
7 Protective Coating
Like its intentionally loose design, the rifle’s rust-resistant phosphate coating increased its reliability. In addition, the barrel and chamber were chromed on the inside, another rust retardant. Anti-corrosive features are literally life-saving; in Vietnam, the U.S. military’s inadequately protected M16s often jammed because of pitting and corrosion, leaving the soldiers vulnerable to their Kalashnikov-equipped adversaries. “The U.S. Army thought they had a kind of steel that wasn’t susceptible to corrosion,” Chivers says. “They were wrong. After the U.S. coated the rifle and chromed the inside, the M16 did pretty well.”