Military history


Stalin’s Tools of War

Outside an Institute Known by a Codeword, Nadezhda, on the Steppe in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic

The atomic bomb rested on a tower one hundred feet above the ground. Known as RDS-1, it was shaped like a huge metal teardrop with rivets and bolts along its sides. Everything had been prepared. Inside its shell was a uranium and plutonium charge equal to about twenty kilotons of TNT, making it a rough equivalent to the weapon the United States had used to destroy Nagasaki four years before. In the hours after midnight the scientists had departed, and now, shortly before dawn on August 29, 1949, they gathered at their instruments in a control bunker more than six miles away, where they were watched by Lavrenty Beria, chief of Stalin’s secret police. Detonation was set for 6:00 A.M. The Soviet Union was moments from entering the atomic age—ending the American monopoly in atomic arms, securing the Kremlin’s status atop a global superpower, and giving the Cold War its sense of doomsday menace. This was a decade after the purges, two decades after the brutalities of collectivization, and in a postwar period in which German prisoners of war were used as forced labor and captured Soviet soldiers returned from German camps had been interrogated, incarcerated, and, sometimes, put to death. Beria’s methods of pursuing Stalin’s will were well-known. The lead physicist, Igor V. Kurchatov, and his team were anxious. If the bomb did not work, some of these scientists expected to be shot.

The test range, on an arid basin northwest of Semipalatinsk, a frontier city where Russians had been sent to exile since czarist times, was a methodically assembled period piece. Soviet soldiers and laborers had built it at a pace a dictator could muster. The anticipated detonation site had been divided into sectors. Within each, work cadres had erected structures and placed objects in common military and civilian use: a railway bridge, buildings of various dimensions and design, automobiles, concrete bunkers, aircraft, artillery pieces, armored vehicles, tanks. Live animals had been tethered throughout, some unprotected and others within buildings or vehicles, to determine how an atomic explosion’s shock wave, heat, and radiation might affect live tissue at various distances and in various states of exposure and protection. Pigs had been selected because their hides were thought to resemble human skin; rabbits because their eyes were thought to be like those of a man. Horses were used because they could be fitted with gas masks. Looming over the scene were reinforced concrete towers, each nearly forty feet high and anchored on foundations sunk deep into the ground. The towers, containing instruments and cameras, had been lined with lead plates and connected with subterranean cables. Never before had Soviet physicists had such an opportunity. They did not intend to waste it. It was not enough that RDS-1 explode. The Soviet scientists planned to measure its effects on the buildings, equipment, and animals ringed round.1 All of this work had been cloaked in the strictest secrecy that Beria could organize. Kurchatov’s research center, roughly an hour’s bouncing drive away over a dirt road, was on no maps. It had its own postal code, which often changed. One code name was Nadezhda, the Russian word for hope.

And now it was time.

There was an enormous white flash, then an extended bright glow. A sky-splitting roar and blast rushed outward, blowing asunder buildings, twisting the bridge, buckling bunkers as it blew through. In the first instant the soil near the tower had been liquefied, becoming a molten syrup that shot through the air, coating flat surfaces and the ground in a searing, radioactive caramel. As the wave whooshed through the nearest sectors, tank barrels and artillery pieces bent like reeds. Farther out, animals were roasted; then farther, they were singed. Farther still, they were bombarded with radiation that would erupt into burns that would kill them later, as the scientists documented their declines. The blast wave took a half minute to sweep over the steppe to the command bunker, which shuddered. When the rumbling subsided, Beria, Kurchatov, and his team stepped outside and looked at a steep-sided mushroom cloud, sucking up smoke, soil, and debris as it rose.2 Timber and dust spun high overhead. Success.

Inside Factory No. 74 of the Izhevsk Machine, Engineering, and Motor Plant Complex, in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic

As diplomatic cables about the atomic explosion moved from embassies in Moscow to Western capitals, about eleven hundred miles to the west of the test site, in a Russian industrial city in the Ural range, another of Stalin’s secret military projects was gaining momentum. Within the dark brick walls of a set of immense factories, a product was being prepared for mass production. Teams of engineers, armorers, and factory supervisors were fine-tuning its design. Communist Party leaders insisted that these factories were engaged in the manufacture of automobiles. But this product was neither a vehicle nor any of its parts. It was a weapon: a strange-looking rifle, deviating from the classic forms.

At a glance, the new rifle was in many ways peculiar, an oddity, a reason to furrow brows and shake heads. Its components were simple, inelegant, and by Western standards, of seemingly workmanlike craftsmanship. The impression it created was the puzzling embodiment of a firearm compromise, a blend of design choices no existing Western army was willing yet to make. It was midsized in important measures—shorter than the infantry rifles it would displace but longer than the submachine guns that had been in service for thirty years. It fired a medium-powered cartridge, not powerful enough for long-range sniping duty, but with adequate energy to strike lethally and cause terrible wounds within the ranges at which almost all combat occurs. The weapon was not merely a middleweight. It was a breakthrough arm. It could be fired automatically, and at a rate like those of the machine guns that already had changed the way wars were fought. It could be fired on single fire, like a rifle of yore. None of the Soviet Union’s Cold War opponents had managed to conceive of, much less produce, a firearm of such firepower at such compact size. And this new weapon had other useful traits. It had little recoil compared to most rifles of its time. It was so reliable, even when soaked in bog water and coated with sand, that its Soviet testers had trouble making it jam. And its design was a testament to simplicity, so much so that its basic operation might be grasped within minutes, and Soviet teachers would soon learn that it could be disassembled and reassembled by Slavic schoolboys in less than thirty seconds flat. Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields. For the purpose for which it was designed—as a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or undue complications—this was an eminently well-conceived tool.

The Army of the Soviet Union had given its new firearm a name: the AK-47. While Soviet physicists had been teasing out the secrets of the atom, the army’s Main Artillery Department had selected the AK-47 in a secret competition soon after the end of the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Union called their war against Hitler’s Germany. The acronym abbreviated two Russian words, Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic by Kalashnikov, a nod to Senior Sergeant Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, a twenty-nine-year-old former tank commander to whom the army and the Communist Party formally attributed the weapon’s design. The number was shorthand for 1947, the year a technical bureau in Kovrov, a city east of Moscow with its own hidden arms plants, had finished the prototypes. In the time since, factories in Izhevsk had been tooled up to produce it. Within twenty-five years it would be the most abundant firearm the world had known.

During this time, the American intelligence community would fixate, understandably and properly, on the Soviet Union’s nuclear programs. The activities in Izhevsk would be missed. As the mushroom cloud towered over the Kazakh steppe, no one noticed the arrival of Stalin’s new firearm. No one would pay much mind as these rifle plants, and others across the Eastern bloc and in nations aligned with the Soviet Union or the socialist ideal, would ship off their automatic rifles by the untold millions during the years ahead. And no one would have predicted, as the world worried over nuclear war, that these rifles, with their cartridges of reduced size, would become the most lethal instrument of the Cold War. Unlike the nuclear arsenals and the infrastructure that would rise around them—the warheads, the mobile launchers, the strategic bombers and submarines—an automatic rifle was a weapon that could actually be used. And none of the Cold War’s seemingly infinite and fantastic array of killing tools could more readily slip from state control. In this way, 1949 became the year of a mismatched but fated pair, RDS-1 and the AK-47, whose descendants were to work in consonance and shape the conflicts ahead. The nuclear umbrella froze borders in place and discouraged all-out war between the conventional armies stacked in Europe, helping to create conditions in which the Kalashnikov percolated from continent to continent, nation to nation, group to group, man to man, maturing as its numbers grew and its reputation spread into the age’s dominant tool for violence in conflict zones. At first the distribution was piecemeal and incremental; gradually, it became almost unchecked. By the early 1960s, after the Cuban Missile Crisis had startled its participants and as the war in Vietnam was expanding and quickening, the Kremlin and the White House comprehended that their mutual nuclear arsenals had made total war unwinnable. Small wars and proxies would be the means through which the Cold War would be fought.

The Kalashnikov Era had arrived.

We are living in it still.

This book focuses on the most important series of infantry small arms of our time, and as most commonly encountered in the field: the original AK-47 and its derivates, knockoffs, and companion firearms that have flooded armories and arms bazaars around the world and become a primary weapon of guerrillas, terrorists, and many armed criminal gangs. It examines their origins, design, production, distribution, stockpiling, export, and use as one of the predominant tools of war of the past half-century—a status they are likely to retain for at least a half-century more. But this is not an account solely of a weapon’s ubiquity on the battlefield. Nor is it a treatment of the AK-47 only for the sake of examining the AK-47. That is not to say that the Kalashnikov line by itself is not an expansive and interesting subject; it is. But a richer context is essential. These weapons occupy a place in history beyond the questions of when, where, and how they have been manufactured and used. The significance of the automatic Kalashnikov lies deeper than its origins in Stalin’s Soviet Union, its technical utility as a killing tool, its famed reliability and ease of use, the awesome size of its number or the multiplicity of its meanings—though these themes are all essential.

The richer context is this: The automatic Kalashnikov offers a lens for examining the miniaturization and simplification of rapid-fire firearms, a set of processes that when uncoupled from free markets and linked to mass production in the planned economies of opaque or brittle nations, enabled automatic firepower to reach uncountable hands. It also provides a lens for examining national arming decisions, in the East and the West, and the many practices of arms transfers to other states and groups, often to disastrous effect. The results have shaped war and influenced security and development in large sections of the world. This is the story, then, of how fully automatic rifles, lightweight and often concealable tools that perform their intended tasks with reliability and efficiency, came into existence and widespread use.

In the narrowest sense, these weapons were born of a set of ugly and overpowering political forces of the early to mid-twentieth century. Nazism, Stalinism, and the exigencies of the Cold War combined to give assault rifles their early shape. But their roots reach much further back in time; they are the result of evolutionary processes in firearms and ammunition development and changes in military and economic thinking that accompanied an industrializing and polarizing world. The factors and actors that finally conjured compact automatic rifles into existence were able to do so because of this much longer and richer history. The journey through this history is populated by geniuses and fools, ruthless villains and naïve idealists, self-promoting salesmen and incorrigible profiteers, a pantheon of killers of all stripes and, now and then, people who wanted the killing to stop. Along the way the journey offers a tour of the ignorance and folly of many governments and their colonels and generals, as well as a passage across the grim political landscape of the Soviet Union and many of the most dreadful battlefields of modern times, upon which soldiers found themselves using the wrong tactics or carrying the wrong gear. It is also the story of how the United States, whose industrial revolution in the nineteeth century became the incubator for rapid-fire arms, and which as it became a superpower would stand against the Soviet Union and dictate small-arms choices to fellow NATO member states, repeatedly misread the path of automatic arms development. Ultimately, in the 1960s, American soldiers and Marines found themselves outgunned. Automatic arms had evolved in the Eastern bloc to the Kalashnikov line. The United States was far behind. Such mistakes began in the mid-nineteenth century and continued, at key moments, for more than one hundred years. Last, in the latter half of the Cold War, the chronicle shifts again, to an account of how Kalashnikov-pattern rifles migrated from military possession to guerrillas, thugs, bandits, child soldiers, and a host of other users at odds with the stated, or perhaps supposed, reasons of their design. These weapons began as a means to equip standing armies. But the nations that made them lost custody of them, and then control, and now in much of the world they are everyman’s gun.

In examining the AK-47 in this way, this book attempts to lift the Kalashnikov out of the simplistic and manipulated distillations of its history that have come to define it, inadequately. The carefully packaged history of Soviet times, a cheerful parable for the proletariat, was that the weapon sprang from the mind of a gifted if unlettered sergeant who wanted to present his nation an instrument for its defense. This was a message made in the Communist Party’s propaganda mills. It required redaction and lies. In publishing this account, the Soviet Union resorted to enough invention, some of it cartoonish, that even Mikhail Kalashnikov eventually publicly criticized it, albeit lightly. As a historical account, the official narrative was not only embellished and redacted, but poorly framed. It emphasized the heroic spontaneity of a single mind and intentions for the weapon at odds with the weapon’s most characteristic uses. The AK-47 did not result from an epiphany at the workbench of an intent Russian sergeant. Heroism, in the classic sense, was nonexistent here. Spontaneity, according to a close reading of the available records, played almost no role. The automatic Kalashnikov was the result of state process and collective work, the output not of a man but of committees. And its wide distribution and martial popularity did not occur because the rifle is, as General Kalashnikov often says, “simple, reliable, and easy to use.”3Ultimately, it was its production by the tens of millions by governments that gave them away or lost control of them that made the Kalashnikov the world’s primary firearm. One way to understand the nature of its familiarity is this: Had the AK-47 been created in Luxembourg, few people would likely have ever heard of it. But Luxembourg could not have created this weapon, because it lacked the Soviet bureaucracy and the particular historical pressures that ordered the Kalashnikov to its form within the USSR. This assessment is meant as no insult to Mikhail Kalashnikov; rather, it is meant to show the fuller and more interesting processes that pulled assault rifles into existence and global use, and to draw out the inner workings of the Soviet Union during a time it saw itself as in great peril. The Soviet state is the inventor here—both of the weapon and its fables. Far too many people regard the study of weapons as an illiberal art. The chronicle of automatic firepower, viewed through the AK-47 and its infiltration across the world, suggests otherwise. But first fable must be cast away.

Such an inquiry could begin at many points over a roughly one-hundred-year span. Here, it will start with Dr. Richard J. Gatling, whose invention in 1862 of the Gatling gun provided armies with their first reasonably effective rapid-fire arm—a massive, misunderstood, and often unwanted weapon that became the precursor to the rest. The early Gatling system weighed, more or less, a ton. It had no more mobility than an artillery piece, and required a crew of men to fire and a train of mules or horses to move about the battlefield. In its early forms it was temperamental, prone to jamming, and often despised by traditionalists who did not understand what it pointed to. And yet it was, in the history of conflict, of singular importance: Distinct shapes of modern war and instability can be traced through the miniaturization and proliferation that followed Gatling’s designs. In 1949, the Soviet selection of the AK-47 as its standard military arm marked a decisive moment in this evolution. A superpower had managed the effective miniaturization of a rapid-fire arm that could be wielded by a single man in almost all the typical situations in which a firearm might be useful. Gatling’s ton became, in a fully loaded Kalashnikov, about ten pounds—a weapon compact enough to be worn beneath a coat. To compete with this new weapon, combatants faced a choice. Either use the Kalashnikov, or come up with a rifle that could match it in a fight. War reorganized around Stalin’s gun.

Why does this remain a subject, more than half a century on? One weapon alone has been a consistently lethal presence in modern war: the infantry rifle. Tanks can rout conventional armies. GPS-guided ordnance can scatter combatants. Land mines, suicide bombers, and improvised explosives have attracted more attention in recent years. Yet the rifle remains preeminent. Whenever an idea organizes for battle it gathers around its guns. Few weapons are as accessible or can be as readily learned. No other weapon appears in as many conflict areas year after year. None is as sure to appear in each future war, if only because no other weapon is as well suited for as many missions and tasks. And of all the rifles available for war today, the Kalashnikov line stands apart as the most abundant and widely used rifle ever made. Virtually everyone has seen a Kalashnikov. With its stubby black barrel with a parallel gas tube above, its steep front sight post, and the distinctive banana clip, its unmistakable profile has become a constant presence in the news. It is the world’s most widely recognized weapon, one of the world’s most recognizable objects.

More than six decades after its design and initial distribution, more than fifty national armies carry the automatic Kalashnikov, as do an array of police, intelligence, and security agencies. But its fuller terrain lies outside the sphere of conventional force. The Kalashnikov marks the guerrilla, the terrorist, the child soldier, the dictator, and the thug—all of whom have found it to be a ready equalizer against morally or materially superior foes. A roster of its handlers holds a history of modern strife. Celebrated by Soviet propagandists as a tool for self-defense and liberation, its first lethal uses were for repression—crushing uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956, and for shooting fleeing civilians trying to cross the Iron Curtain’s borders. Once it grew beyond border and crackdown duty in Eastern Europe, and became an automatic weapon for global combat service, it was instantly a groundbreaking firearm, a weapon that rearranged the rules. In the 1960s, when American Marines encountered AK-47s in urban warfare, at Hue City in Vietnam, they discovered that a single guerrilla with a Kalashnikov could slow a company’s advance; they used cannon to rubble buildings in which AK-toting Viet Cong marksmen hid.4 Its power, today a battlefield norm, was at first of an almost unseen sort, at least among the weapons that could be wielded by one man. Interest in it was immediate. Engineers in Finland and Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia secured early versions of the weapon and developed unlicensed knockoffs straightaway. After leading the revolution that put him atop Cuba, Fidel Castro amassed stores of Soviet assault rifles and distributed engraved Kalashnikovs as gifts. Idi Amin armed his Ugandan forces with Kalashnikovs and appointed himself president for life. Yasir Arafat procured them for the PLO and the many terrorist groups that spread from Fatah. Since it first entered the martial consciousness, no matter the year or theater, the Kalashnikov has appeared. Its followers cross all lines. The Egyptian army outfitted itself with Kalashnikovs. Islamic Jihad used a Kalashnikov to assassinate the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. Its durability and availability have made it more popular with the passing of time; the great numbers of its manufacture and the multiple sellers offering it ultimately ensured that it would be turned against the army that created it, as was the case in the Soviet-Afghan War and then again in Chechnya.

By the 1980s, with several sources simultaneously arming both sides of the Afghan conflict, the country filled with AK-47s and their derivatives. A durable assault rifle can have many lives over the decades of its existence, and in Afghanistan the weapons were recycled repeatedly, passed from fighter to fighter by many means. In the Panjshir Valley, a chasm in the mountains north of Kabul, the rifle sometimes became a family heirloom. The valley had been the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the early years of the war; its canyons became backdrops for mujahideen legend. Several times the Soviet army thrust armored columns up the valley, sometimes enveloping the guerrillas by using helicopters to land troops on mountain passes to cut off withdrawing mujahideen. Each time the Soviet forces controlled territory briefly before being subjected to persistent attacks. The valley was never conquered, and its villages were never co-opted or tamed. First among the Soviet army’s foes was Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ethnic Tajik commander whose charisma and tactical adroitness became part of Afghan lore. Massoud’s fighters were fit and skilled. But they too suffered. After one Soviet incursion, Massoud attended the funeral of a dead guerrilla. He lifted the man’s Kalashnikov and carried it to the deceased man’s younger brother, Ashrat Khan. The commander’s mastery of quiet ceremony, like his sense for tactics, had reached a high state of polish.

“Do you want to be a mujahid?” Massoud asked.

Ashrat Khan extended his hands. He accepted the rifle.

“Yes, I am going to take my brother’s weapon,” he said. “I am going to be with you.”5

At moments such as these, the Kalashnikov’s infiltration of the martial world was nearing completion. Afghans were using it for the same purpose that Mikhail Kalashnikov insisted had motivated him—to defend their native land. Ashrat Khan became a fighter. He eventually lost his brother’s Kalashnikov in combat, but he obtained another and survived the war.

The rifle assumed uses that were at once soldierly and ceremonial, and over the decades it reached far beyond conflicts in which the Kremlin played a primary role. When Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, was mourned in 2004 by his followers in Gaza, his casket was guarded by masked men at the ready with folding-stock AKs. The scene was a throwback. Six years earlier along the Cambodian-Thai border the body of Pol Pot was attended by teenage gunmen carrying an Asian version of the same gun.

Mastering a Kalashnikov is one of the surest ways to become an underground fighter in our time. In Belfast both sides of the Irish question used them in clashes and political art. In Afghanistan and Pakistan student notebooks from al Qaeda camps showed that the opening class in jihad curricula was a lesson on Kalashnikov’s avtomat. Along with the rocket-propelled grenade, the portable mortar tube, and the makeshift bomb, the automatic Kalashnikov completes the quartet of weapons for the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq, where insurgents rely on the local version, the Tabuk, which was churned out in the 1970s and 1980s in a state-owned Iraqi factory with Yugoslav technical help, then cached throughout the country before American tanks rolled in from Kuwait. No pariah seems far from his personal inventory of this dated Russian design. In his first taped message after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden held a microphone near his beard and told the world that “the winds of faith and change have blown.” It was his movie, he could put in it anything he wanted. Beside him was a Kalashnikov leaning against a rock.

Bin Laden understood the symbolic potency of his choice. Others keep their Kalashnikovs near for more practical tasks. By the time Saddam Hussein was pulled from a hole in Ad Dawr, in late 2003, the fugitive president had distilled his possessions to a modern outlaw’s basic needs: two AK-47s and a crate of American cash. (He also had a pistol, a 9-millimeter Glock.) Kalashnikovs are not just tools for the battlefield. They guard South American coca plantations and cocaine-processing labs. In Los Angeles they have served bank robbers and urban gangs; in the northwestern United States survivalists squirrel them away in anticipation of the worst. African poachers use them to thin wildlife populations and defend their illegal trade against antipoaching patrols, which carry Kalashnikovs, too. In the western Pacific, the aboriginal Chukti people fire Kalashnikovs at migrating gray whales, the post-Soviet manifestation of an ancient hunt the Chukti call traditional, even as they slap magazines into place and click their infantry arms off safe. Given that the automatic Kalashnikov was conceived with the intention of shooting 160-pound capitalists, its use against 30-ton marine mammals would seem ill-advised. But the rifle at hand is the rifle that gets used. Kalashnikovs are regularly at hand.

No one can say for certain how many Kalashnikovs exist today. Their production in secrecy, often in some of the planet’s harshest dictatorships, has made precise accounting impossible. One point is beyond dispute. They are the most abundant firearms on earth. Since the Soviet army chose the AK-47 for distribution to Soviet ranks, automatic Kalashnikovs have been made in Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, China, East Germany, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), and the United States. Knock-off versions, incorporating the main elements of Kalashnikov’s operating system, were developed in Croatia, Finland, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and Israel. (The Israel Defense Forces were so impressed, and concerned, by the performance of Egyptian Kalashnikovs in the Six Day War in 1967 that Yisrael Galili and Yaacov Lior borrowed the AK-47’s main features to create a series of weapons at Ramat HaSharon.) More Kalashnikovs are made every year (though at a lesser pace than in decades past). Venezuela plans to build a new plant, which could be used to arm groups throughout the region in a new round of opaque handouts. A single comparison provides a sense of the automatic Kalashnikov’s spread. The second-most-abundant family of rifles is the American M-16 family; fewer than 10 million have been made.6*i Serious estimates put the number of Kalashnikovs and its derivatives as high as 100 million. There could be one Kalashnikov for every seventy people alive.

Where did all these rifles go? Huge numbers filled state arsenals, issued to Eurasian communist armies and stockpiled around the Cold War’s anticipated fronts. Untold millions were sold, others simply given to those thought to need them by the KGB and the Soviet army or their cousins in other communist states. During decades of influence jockeying, the Cold War saw the shipment of enormous quantities of Kalashnikovs to proxy forces, from the Viet Cong to militias in Beirut. Lists resemble tour guides to troubled lands: Russian, Chinese, and North Korean Kalashnikovs were carried by the North Vietnamese Army; Polish Kalashnikovs were shipped to the Contras; East German Kalashnikovs went to Yemen; Romanian AKs armed the Kurds; Russian and Bulgarian AK-47s supplied Rwanda; the United States directed Chinese and Egyptian Kalashnikovs to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet mujahideen. Chinese Kalashnikovs are abundant in Uganda and Sudan. By the time the Iron Curtain fell, it had become difficult to travel outside Western democracies without seeing Kalashnikovs in some form. There are more Kalashnikovs circulating now than then; when state socialism collapsed, arsenals were looted and weapons locked within were trucked away for sale. For people who study the universe of disorder, automatic Kalashnikovs serve as reasonably reliable units of measure. Arms-control specialists and students of conflict look to the price of Kalashnikov assault rifles in a nation’s open-market arms bazaars to determine both the degree to which destabilized lands are awash in small arms and the state of risk. When prices rise, public anxiety is considered high. When they sink, the decline can indicate a conflict is ebbing. Because there is no surer sign that a country has gone sour than the appearance of Kalashnikovs in the public’s grip, they can also function as an informal social indicator, providing another sort of graduated scale. Anywhere large numbers of young men in civilian clothes or mismatched uniforms are carrying Kalashnikovs is a very good place not to go; when Kalashnikovs turn up in the hands of mobs, it is time to leave.

In the aftermath of the Cold War the overabundance of automatic Kalashnikovs has remained a persistent factor in terrorism, crime, ethnic cleansing, and local and regional destabilization. Their widespread presence empowers unflagged and undisciplined forces to commit human rights abuses on a grander scale, raises the costs and exacerbates the dangers of peacekeeping missions, emboldens criminals of many sorts, stalls economic development, and increases the social burdens of caring for the wounded, the orphaned, and the displaced. Having been shipped to regions rife with the tensions of poverty, poor governance, and high ethnic, religious, or nationalist sentiment, the avtomat has helped to instigate and expand conflicts. And the prevalence of the Kalashnikov has helped the modern underground fighter to transform himself into today’s protean, shadowy enemy, giving shape to the Pentagon’s term for the conflicts in which the American military is almost irretrievably enmeshed—asymmetric war.

Studies of military small arms have documented their role in a stubborn toll of instability, injury, and death. The United Nations convened a conference in 2001 by noting that small arms were principal weapons in forty-six of the forty-nine major conflicts in the 1990s, in which 4 million people died. In 2004 Human Rights Watch identified eighteen nations where child soldiers are still used. For most of these wars and most of these young conscripts, Kalashnikovs are the primary arm. The available American casualty data from Iraq show that bullets fired from the Eastern bloc’s family of firearms remain, injury by injury, the most lethal wounding agent on the battlefield. (In Afghanistan and Iraq, bombs have killed more soldiers. But of all the ways a soldier could be wounded there, bullets have been more likely to kill than any other. Put another way, soldiers wounded in bomb blasts have a statistically greater likelihood of survival than those who have been shot.) Moreover, Kalashnikovs outlive strife; bandits find them as useful as soldiers ever did. Even a single Kalashnikov can set a nation in motion. In 1989, after the drifter Patrick Purdy opened fire with a Kalashnikov on a schoolyard in Stockton, California, striking thirty-four children and a teacher, Congress began work on the assault weapon ban. Purdy did not use a true automatic Kalashnikov. His rifle was not an automatic. It had been modified to shoot a single bullet with each trigger pull, making it no more dangerous (and arguably less, considering the medium-powered cartridges it fired) than the rifles in many a deer camp. The facts hardly mattered. The mere appearance of a Kalashnikov in a schoolyard crowded with children, its look, was enough to put Congress in a lawmaking mood.

Look is important to Kalashnikovs. In their march from secrecy to ubiquity Kalashnikovs have become more than weapons. They have become symbols—first of the industrial success of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the socialist way, later of popular insurrection, armed liberation, and gangland stature, more recently of jihad. A Kalashnikov can be appropriated for most any cause. An AK-47 with bayonet attached appears on the flag of Mozambique; it shares that flag with a hoe and a book, as if it were one of a young nation’s foundational tools. Another Kalashnikov-like rifle, held aloft by a defiant fist, adorns the emblem of Hezbollah. Here its meaning is different. The flag is not about victory, not yet. It’s about the fight. In Hollywood the Kalashnikov suggests the bad guy, the lunatic, the connoisseur tough. “AK-47—the very best there is,” the actor Samuel L. Jackson said in one of his well-known roles. “When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room.”

These mixed meanings make a potent brew. The Kalashnikov stirs feelings, for and against, and the savvy have learned to tap its many meanings for their own purposes. In Missouri in mid-2009, when Mark Muller, the owner of a car dealership, wanted to generate interest and lift flagging sales, he offered a voucher for an AK-47 with the purchase of every pickup truck. The offer was a gimmick. True AK-47s cannot be legally owned by most people in the United States, and the dealership offered a coupon worth only half the price of the semiautomatic version sold in American gun shops. Once again, as is often the case in conversations related to the Kalashnikov, facts did not matter. Nonsense prevailed. Muller’s sales promotion generated international attention: A broadcast team from Al Jazeera turned up, as did another from Russian state television news. The coverage triggered old arguments. What does this weapon mean? Is it the sinister product of sinister forms of government, set loose on the world via dark processes that were, and often remain, all but unchecked? Or does its reliability and simplicity make it a symbol of the virtue of our best tools, a companion to the utility of a well-performing pickup truck? Muller was pleased. He appeared before the cameras brandishing a Kalashnikov in its semiautomatic form, enjoying free publicity while spurring business and tweaking the anti-gun crowd at the same time. Like many a man who has used a Kalashnikov, he held up his rifle for the cameras and grinned—the rascal’s pose. The Kalashnikov was put to yet another use.

Several declarations are necessary.

First, a matter of classification: For the purposes of this book, the Kalashnikov series includes the original forms and common descendants of the AK-47, including the AKM, the AKS, the Chinese Type 56 and North Korean Type 58, the Type 68, the East German MPiK, the Hungarian AMD, the Polish PMKM, the Egyptian Misr and Iraqi Tabuk, the Yugoslav M70, the AK-74, and a host of other derivatives and copycats. These rifles are commonly—although incorrectly—lumped together and referred to as the AK-47 by many commentators. To be precise, the actual AK-47 was an early model in the line and is not nearly as widespread as the varieties that followed. But the name has become, in public discourse, a shorthand for an entire family of arms. This work also examines, to a much lesser degree, the original and follow-on forms of the RPK (a light machine gun that closely resembles the AK and is often mistaken for it), the PK (a general-purpose machine gun also designed by a team working under Mikhail Kalashnikov’s name), and the SVD (a semiautomatic sniper rifle designed by Evgeny Fedorovich Dragunov and approved by the Soviet Army in 1963; Dragunov worked in the same factory as Kalashnikov and his SVD incorporated several design features of the Kalashnikov system). Why cover these arms together? Because this group forms a system of arms created from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s to equip the Eastern bloc. They are an interrelated bunch, often made in the same factories by the same people, and designed to be distributed and used together. They share essential characteristics—ruggedness, reliability, simplicity, and profligate mass production. And because they use only three basic cartridges, made in factories that have been tooled globally to feed these now widely distributed weapons, as a group they provide a means to examine the methods and consequences of military small-arms proliferation around the world.

Second, this book, though covering a wide expanse of time and geography, attempts a comprehensive account, not a complete account, of these weapons and their place in a larger history. There are two reasons. The first is obvious. The Kalashnikov series is a sprawling subject. No single treatment can address all of its uses. An effort of such scale would require volumes and cover much of the history of more than a half-century of ground war. To cover every weapon and step in the evolution would require more time and space than one book allows. But there were milestones along the way, and consequences that fit categories. Many of these central processes and moments can be readily described. The second reason is less obvious but an even more limiting factor. On the subject of the assault rifles made by the former and current socialist worlds, impregnable obstacles block full illumination. Important matters will remain unknown until archives are open and independent researchers are allowed to assemble honest accounts of arms plants and arming decisions in Russia, North Korea, China, and many other nations. The weapon was principally a product of secretive governments, and unpleasant facts surrounding its distribution have left governments and exporters with little incentive to share their roles openly. Further, Russia, where the Avtomat Kalashnikova originated in Soviet times, has expressed itself on the subject mostly through propaganda, which over time and through repetition has hardened into national fable. The fuller versions remain officially suppressed, lost to the combined and corrosive effects of the censors and the near chanting of half-truths and lies. Myths have risen around the weapon, as have honest understandings. Separating the two is a challenge for any researcher, particularly in a period when important state archives remain sealed and when many institutions and groups, ranging from Kalashnikov’s family to the manufacturers of the weapons that bear his name, are invested in self-serving versions that cannot be fully verified and do not appear sturdy enough to withstand scrutiny. The story of the Kalashnikov is further complicated by accounts of soldiers, activists, and journalists, Eastern and Western, pro-gun and anti-gun, whose statements often flow from legend, fancy, or, in the case of the ideologues, ulterior motives. Such distillations have been repeated so often that they can appear to the casual observer to be fact. Last, elements of the weapon’s story are difficult to assemble because of the weapon’s frequent involvement in crimes. The criminals who have used them left no archives. Many have had a marked unwillingness to discuss their work. And yet for all of these obstacles, the weapons exist in such huge quantities and in so many visible fashions that a rich history can be assembled with rigor. And the questions whose answers are unknown or unresolved, the blank spots—like those of a redacted Soviet text—can be pointed out and encircled with analysis and the available facts.

Third, this book does not attempt to address the core arguments over the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. There are several reasons for this. The book is principally concerned with events and activities outside the United States, and with roles that automatic weapons play in conflict zones and regions of instability. Their effects upon stable, developed, Western democracies are of an entirely different order, and so of limited interest in this treatment. Where this book does examine events within the United States, these events are mostly matters of nineteenth-century conflict, arms development and sales, military policy, and the evolution of tactical choices in officers’ circles. The Second Amendment, and the many questions of individual rights and public policy that surround it, is another subject. This is especially so because throughout the period of their existence, the Kalashnikovs discussed here, which in the United States are classified under federal law as weapons covered by the 1934 National Firearms Act—essentially, as machine guns—have not been available to most American citizens. As such, they are largely removed from the main disputes over how to define and legislate the right to bear arms in the present day. Moreover, the Kalashnikov rifles that are in circulation in the United States are almost all semiautomatic arms, and fire a single shot for each trigger pull. For this reason—the fact that they are not fully automatic weapons—they are not Kalashnikovs as the rest of the world understands them.

Fourth, on the subject of sources: To explore the more challenging periods or characters, especially within the Soviet Union and the nations of the Warsaw Pact, the middle portion of this book brings together conflicting sources and positions them against each other. Many sources are sound. Some are not verifiable, but have enough merit to be included with attribution and explanation. Some are suspicious or outright false and are declared to be so in the text. The value of the dubious sources is that they demonstrate both a portion of the lies that have been circulated and the reasons why. The Soviet Union deployed falsehoods for practical purposes, and its propaganda—pernicious and sustained for decades—has indelibly informed the public understanding of the Kalashnikov line. It is worthwhile, then, for a reader, when examining Soviet military history from official and contemporaneous Soviet sources, to remember the words of General Aleksei Yepishev, chief political commissar of the Soviet armed forces. In a helpfully apt summary of much of what was published in Soviet times, Yepishev dismissed the complaints of Georgy K. Zhukov, marshal of the Soviet Union, whose memoirs were being “edited” by a Communist Party rewrite team in ways that removed criticism of Stalin, made them more celebratory and platitudinous, and included cameo appearances by senior communist officials who demanded that they appear in the text, no matter their relevance to the story. (Leonid Brezhnev, who never saw Zhukov in the war years, was among those who insisted on being named.) To Zhukov’s objections, Yepishev said: “Who needs your truth if it stands in our way?”7 This is part of the nature of official Soviet history, and it frames one of the challenges to objective researchers of the period. And for exactly this reason, Soviet sources are useful, even necessary, when clearly shown for what they are. They go to the very character and motivations of actors involved, and provide readers with a basis for a healthy skepticism of official stories in the national stock.

The nature of available sources drove choices in structure. The book is arranged to present three periods of a history: the origins of rapid-fire arms, the development and mass distribution of Eastern bloc assault rifles, and the effects these weapons have had on security and war. The middle section in places offers differing accounts and allows for triangulation. This approach has utility in presenting contradictory statements by Soviet propagandists and by Mikhail Kalashnikov about the invention and development of this weapon, and about the designer’s personal history. Again, it provides a foundation for skepticism. The clarity with which Soviet and Russian falsehoods are visible should not be taken as an indication that Western sources on Western arms told the truth. Sometimes they did; other times they did not. Arms designers and military officers in the West, and one now-defunct firm with a prominent place in this book—Colt’s Firearms Division of Colt Industries—engaged in untrustworthy behaviors. But there is a difference between Western sources and sources with a Soviet influence. In the West, the availability of materials in archives, and laws that allow at least a modicum of public access to once-classified reports, allow the Western portion of this history to emerge in a crispness of detail that is not yet possible in much of the old Soviet space, where legends, though challenged and under strain from post-Soviet disclosures, manage to live on.

Fifth, a note to the collector, enthusiast, industrial historian, or forensic investigator: This book does not attempt to provide a full field guide to Kalashnikov-style weapons, the ammunition they fire, and the factories that produced them. Such a reference would be, without question, a valuable resource, including as a tool for helping soldiers and law enforcement officers to trace collected weapons to their sources. It would also be a different book. But the field-guide notion is worth addressing here. A small number of firearms references have attempted this, at least in part, and the United States military has quietly built an arms database, known as CHUCKWAGON, that provides this service to its users. The Pentagon’s database includes data not just on weapon types by style and serial numbers and their sources of production but also on intermediate handlers, including governments and units that have possessed distinctly identifiable weapons at certain times. But for private citizens, none of the publicly available tools are complete, and all of them have errors. Most of them also repeat legends and common mistakes.8 An effort to provide that service here would no doubt include errors as well, partly owing to the secrecy and deception of many Kalashnikov producers, and partly because the official database, which might be used to refine such a record for the public, is closed to unofficial users.

Sixth, for those interested or invested in the continuing disputes about what cartridge and rifle combination would be best for conventional military duty in 2010 and beyond, this book does not recommend one cartridge or weapon over others. It deals bluntly with problems that surrounded the American military’s introduction in the 1960s of the M-16 rifle and the 5.56-millimeter cartridges it fired—a reaction to Kalashnikov proliferation that, in its early years, resulted in a weapon not ready for war. But the most pressing problems of that era were addressed well more than a generation ago, and much of the historical discussion is not relevant to comparisons between rifles offered for government service today. Moreover, the highly charged rifle-selection disputes that persist—between advocates of the SCAR, the M-4, the XM8, and many others, including new variants of the Kalashnikov line—are not treated here. That could be another book. The experiences of soldiers and Marines described in this book do have bearing on that conversation. They suggest that those who choose new rifles for military organizations should be wary of hype, and of salesmen pushing new products. The best tests of an automatic rifle occur in the body of experience accumulated during its service in combat over time. Many of the choices offered today have not been widely used by many hands, or have been used by secretive forces whose operations are not transparent and whose experiences are not sufficiently known and available for considered reflection and review. It is not the ambition of this book to champion one rifle over others. Based on what is publicly known, the limits of any endorsement are too great.

Similarly, this book avoids a celebration of the Kalashnikov’s technical merits. The AK-47 was, in hindsight, a predictable assimilation of converging ideas of military small-arms design. It came into existence via smart borrowing of others’ work and emerged as a compromise between established classes of firearms. Like all compromises, it was imperfect. Its descendants do have remarkable traits. Mostly they have been well made. But they are not engineering miracles or monuments to perfection, as often portrayed. Limitations and weaknesses inhabit the Kalashnikov design. These emerge starkly, for example, when the distances between a shooter and potential targets stretch out. For this reason, the Kalashnikov line has showed itself in Afghanistan and Iraq to be more than adequate for insurgents seeking to undermine weak governments or to prey on the unarmed, but less useful against a well-trained conventional foe possessing rifles and machine guns with longer effective ranges. Eastern bloc assault rifles were exceptionally well matched to fighting in Vietnam, where humid conditions and short ranges were common and these rifles gained early fame. For conventional desert fighting, the Kalashnikov is not ideal.

Last, this book also avoids making sweeping public-policy proposals. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It documents a portion of a history and delineates a set of problems. It does propose, unequivocally and without qualification, that like the atomic bomb and the weapons of mass destruction that followed it, the Kalashnikov is a Cold War weapon with a legacy as yet unresolved, a legacy that continues to threaten people and security across much of the world. It further proposes that because governments have focused elsewhere, these weapons and the people who have put them to ill use have killed and maimed more people, and dragged many regions deeper into disarray, than they might have otherwise. Still further, it proposes that the Kalashnikov, while a special case, is representative of a larger group of weapons. This book does review certain means of ameliorating the effects of widespread assault-rifle proliferation, but it deliberately leaves questions of the best means of relief and abatement—methods that might bring a degree of peace and stability to many troubled lands—to other hands. This is in part because as an effort at assessing the Kalashnikov’s history, and it effects, this book is not aligned with any interest group or side.



JULY 2010

i Other older and more traditional rifles would displace the M-16 from second place if they were still in widespread service, but they fell from common use with the spread of assault rifles. The British Lee-Enfield line, for example, was manufactured in greater numbers than the M-16 during its many decades in use across the old British Empire.



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