Military history




Every day Svetlana Vladimirovna works a long shift at the machining factory beside the smelter at the edge of her city in central Russia. The factory makes the best beds in the Soviet Union, all of them of exceptionally fine steel. But no one in Svetlana’s city, including Svetlana, has a bed. This is an unfortunate but perfectly understandable matter of policy. The comrades who run the factory, and who have designed such magnificent and marvelous beds, better than any beds in America, have decided in the spirit of the revolution and correct socialist principles that they must give beds first to all of the hospitals, and to the army, and to the universities, and to the collective farms, and to many other important institutions necessary for the people and the government in the world’s most rapidly and inevitably advancing socialist society. To do this, the factory must work round the clock. Three shifts a day. And only rarely stopping on holidays. It is understood that the workers need beds. But it is not yet the workers’ turn. Only recently did the cosmonauts receive beds!

And so everyone who works at the bed factory returns home after each shift and sleeps on the floor.

One summer Svetlana’s sister, Natasha, who long ago married a man in Leningrad and moved away, returned for a visit. She was appalled that after ten years Svetlana still had no bed. After all, Svetlana was strong of hand and skilled with tools and one of the best machinists at the bed factory. “My dear sister,” Natasha said. “You have not been thinking correctly. It is very easy to have a bed. Each day you must steal one piece of bed from the parts bins at the factory and smuggle it home. And after a week or two you must assemble the parts. Then you will have a bed. And you will never again sleep on the floor.”

Svetlana listened closely. “My dear sister,” she sighed. “It is you who are not thinking correctly. We have tried this many times. We have stolen the bed parts and carried them home. We have assembled them in the room. And every time, after we finish, we discover that instead of a bed we have an automatic Kalashnikov.”



Stalin’s Contest: The Invention of the AK-47

So young, and he’s already pulling a fast one! He’s a good actor, make no mistake!

—A peasant carpenter in the Altai krai, circa 1925, commenting on young Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, as told by Kalashnikov to a writer who collaborated with him on an autobiography

SENIOR SERGEANT MIKHAIL T. KALASHNIKOV STARED OUT FROM the window of his office, his back turned to the door. He was tense with suspense. It was early 1946, the first winter in Russia since the defeat of Nazi Germany, and there was activity on this day at the Research Proving Grounds for Firearms and Mortars, or NIPSMVO, a Soviet weapons-testing center near the village of Schurovo, about sixty miles southeast of Moscow. The proving ground, or polygon, as the Russians called it, was a secluded military garrison, bustling with officials and frequently shaken by the sounds of small-arms fire and explosions. Officially the polygon was encased in a hush. NIPSMVO was a garrison that did not exist, a secret post with a mix of arms design and technical intelligence responsibilities that the USSR wanted to keep hidden from the West. Nestled into the thick forests that ringed the capital, it had been built early in the 1900s, in czarist times, to be a self-contained military town for testing and evaluating Russian and foreign arms. Over the years, as the nation had militarized under Leon Trotsky’s and then Stalin’s commands, arms development had become a pressing matter of state security. The proving ground had grown. By the 1940s, it had barracks, offices, communal apartments for families, a canteen, a store selling basic goods, a modern metal shop for refining and repairing prototype arms, a ballistics laboratory, and environmental chambers to submit weapons to grueling simulations of Russian and Asian field conditions. The design offices provided workspace for staff for teasing out new ideas, and a hotel hosted visiting officers and specialists, who were ever rotating through.1 Around the main buildings were several small-arms firing ranges, each a kilometer long, that had been cut through stands of trees. An old bus shuttled designers and testers between the ranges and the main post. Sergeant Kalashnikov, a wounded veteran of the war, had worked here intermittently since 1942, after, by dint of what seemed an innate mechanical sense, he had been transferred while on convalescent leave from the Soviet tank forces to an environment where his talents and drive might be harnessed. Already he had been at work on new weapons and had made prototypes of a submachine gun and a self-loading carbine. Both designs had been rejected. Since fall 1945 he had become excited again. He had been consumed by the most significant project he had participated in yet: a submission to a secret Soviet contest to design an automatic rifle.

The war against Nazi Germany had ended in May, but a new arms race had been joined. The workers at NIPSMVO had learned in August that the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sergeant Kalashnikov and his colleagues listened over the polygon’s public address system to the announcement that the Pentagon had developed and used the most terrible weapon yet. Two cities had been left smoldering. In the war against German fascism, the citizens of the Soviet Union had suffered invasion and partial occupation. The Communist Party had feared its own destruction. Now it faced something worse: the prospect of atomic war. The mind-set that had gripped the arms specialists during the war— a mood that combined anger, fear, resolve, and a sense of duty—was invoked once more. The staff at the polygon was driven to conceive of weapons that would ensure the safety of the rodina, the great Russian homeland, and equip fraternal socialist forces in the expanding Kremlin sphere. “Again designers were urged to hurry and implement their projects,” Kalashnikov wrote. “The quality requirements were noticeably tightened.”2

The world had yet to develop a reliable and lightweight automatic rifle, a firearm that could fire at the rate of a Maxim gun out to typical combat ranges and yet be managed by a single man. Throughout fall 1945, Sergeant Kalashnikov and a larger design collective had worked on a submission for the contest’s first phase, which required competitors to submit a packet of technical specifications. The Main Artillery Department wanted a weapon that fired like a submachine gun but out to greater range. It issued the guidelines. The weapon must be compact, lightweight, highly reliable, simple to manufacture, easily operated, and composed of a small number of independent parts. And it must fire a new cartridge, only recently designed by Soviet ammunition experts. Sergeant Kalashnikov’s team made hundreds of sketches, detailing each of the proposed weapon’s main parts, trying to put a practical form to the commission’s request.3

Kalashnikov was not an engineer, armorer, or metallurgist; he had little formal design or technical-drawing training, and had not attended school beyond his midteens. But a group of specialists was assigned to work with him, giving his ideas shape on the drafting table. The sergeant had a reputation for working almost ceaselessly, taking only a few hours for sleep. Often his collective remained at the shop until midnight. Gradually the paperwork began to show the proposed design. A lieutenant colonel, Boris L. Kanel, conducted the barrel-strength analyses. A draftswoman, Yekaterina Viktorovna Moiseyeva, rendered the drawings. Her papers showed a weapon that hinted at what would in time become the AK-47: an automatic rifle in which the excess gas of each shot was vented via a port into a tube above the barrel, and this energy was captured by a piston and then used to eject the spent shell casing and begin the next cycle of fire. The idea of a gas-operated weapon, conceived by Hiram Maxim seventy years before and given shape in the late nineteenth century by John M. Browning and the Colt Model 1895, was being put into a miniaturized form inside the Soviet Union, at least on paper.

Kalashnikov was not the first. Many had tried a similar design elsewhere. And other Soviet designers had been working on similar systems during the late war and postwar period. But this particular Soviet push for a gas-operated automatic rifle was different. The Red Army’s designers were cogs in a much larger machine, working within a government that was hungry for a new weapon, and willing to expend deep human and material resources on finding a satisfactory result. The only hurdle, once a design was worked out, would be the judges’ review.

Sergeant Kalashnikov’s packet had been submitted to the Main Artillery Department by a deadline in late 1945, along with fifteen other entrants from around the Soviet arms-design community.4 The test commission planned to review the competing proposals and select several entrants to proceed to the next phase—constructing their guns for firing trials. The sergeant wanted what all designers wanted: to see his ideas take shape in metal. The Russian winter gripped the test range. He waited.

The sergeant, a small and intent man with pale blue eyes and a face pitted by the faint scars of childhood disease, was worried. Over the course of a week, he had heard that other collectives had been notified that their designs had met approval, and they could proceed to the next stage. For his case, there was only silence. Perhaps he had failed again. He knew well that his path to arms design, and his entry into the inner workings of the Soviet military complex, had been unlikely. He had been born in near penury and raised from peasant stock on the steppe of central Russia, just north of the current border with Kazakhstan. Though he did not talk openly about his past with his army peers, his and his family’s lives had been a tour through many of the characteristic miseries of the early Soviet period. The sergeant worked in secrecy. He kept secrets of his own. He dared not speak of his family’s suffering at the hands of Stalin’s state, including that his father, Timofey A. Kalashnikov, had been declared a kulak, and exiled as an enemy of the people, when the sergeant was an eleven-year-old boy. He spent the rest of his childhood and early teenage years in Siberia, a run of bitter and difficult years. But the Great Patriotic War had reshaped him, just as it reordered much of Stalin’s Russia. He had made his peace with the Communist Party, the institution that had nearly destroyed his family.

Kalashnikov had been conscripted into the Red Army’s tank forces in 1938. In 1941, soon after Hitler betrayed his nonaggression pact with Stalin and launched the invasion of Russia, he had been wounded in battle. Kalashnikov’s wartime experiences, and his newfound access to educated and accomplished people inside the Red Army, had given him the handholds he needed for a social and professional climb. The sergeant had many talents, not the least of which was a twinkling charm. His politics took shape: He became an ardent nationalist and patriot, committed to the Soviet Union and to its survival. In addition to his mechanical abilities, Sergeant Kalashnikov possessed a mind informed by an unerring survival instinct. He repeatedly endeared himself to the officers and party officials who determined his fate. The war against Germany drew him into the system that had brutalized his family, and he had come to align his interests with the interests of the national cause. He knew what was at stake, and how to articulate his place in it. “Nazi enslavement or victory!” he would later write. “The potential for a man worrying about the fate of his homeland in years of trouble is really unlimited!”

Now he was at a critical moment. He had found a place in the army’s armaments-design branch, and had found security as well, as much security as was possible for a young man in Stalin’s Soviet Union. His salary was fifteen hundred rubles a month, several times more than many Soviet workers received, and at least twice the national average.5 Still, he was nervous. The contest was a chance to excel even more and to earn greater security yet. Under the Soviet system, successful konstruktors, as the state arms designers were called, were given status, prizes, awards, and perks. But Sergeant Kalashnikov was only twenty-six years old. He lacked the reputation and sense of protocol of other designers. Moreover, the submission papers had to be completed with bureaucratic Soviet precision, and he was competing against some of the most established names in Soviet arms circles. He expected rejection.

Yekaterina Moiseyeva, the draftswoman, appeared at his door. Kalashnikov knew her as Katya. In their months working together, the pair had fallen in love. Other members of the collective had played endless practical jokes on them, sending them each on contrived errands or with contrived questions so that the two might meet. “May I come in?”6 she asked.

She brought news. “Our bureau has authorized me to congratulate you on your victory in the contest,” she said, and held out her hand.

The sergeant turned his back. He thought it was another of his colleagues’ jokes. She seemed confused, too, and walked away, leaving him to stare at the winter outside. He had failed again.

More members of the team rushed to his door. “Come on, hurry over to the headquarters and then to the shop!” one said. This was Russia; they suggested toasts. Inside the polygon’s headquarters, he was told officially. His proposal for an automatic rifle had been selected for the next phase.

*   *   *

From this moment forward, by his own telling, Mikhail Kalashnikov was on the path of designing the weapon that would be designated by the Soviet military as its new standard infantry arm. The result would become an object familiar to the world’s eyes: a stubby black rifle, with a banana-shaped magazine, a steep front sight post, and a dark wooden stock. After many modifications over many years, from Sergeant Kalashnikov’s initial design would flow the family of assault rifles now universally known as the AK-47—an acronym for Avtomat Kalashnikova-47, the automatic by Kalashnikov designed in 1947. The significance of this secret contest was unknown in the West and not immediately evident even within the circle of officers who made the equipment decisions for Soviet land forces. But of all the many programs pursued in the Soviet arms complex in the years ahead—the ballistic submarines and transport and attack helicopters, the intercontinental missiles and strategic bombers, the armored vehicles and titanium-hulled tanks, and even the atomic bomb itself, which at the same time was the focus of a team of physicists in a project supervised by Lavrenty Beria, the feared leader of the secret police—none would claim as many lives as this seemingly mundane and uncomplicated invention. The man credited with its design would benefit, too. Sergeant Kalashnikov, a low-ranking konstruktor in a sprawling bureaucracy, was destined to receive promotions that in time would elevate him to the honorary rank of lieutenant general. His surname would become an informal global brand. He would receive state prizes, ruble bonuses of enormous value in the parsimonious Soviet Union, an apartment, and eventually a dacha, or summer cottage, on the shores of a wooded lake. His second wife—Katya of NIPSMVO—would wear fur.7 And he would be appointed by the authorities as a deputy in the Supreme Soviet, the rubber-stamp national legislature that seated itself before Stalin and his successors in grand sessions within the Kremlin’s tall red walls. For a peasant once in exile, he was now in a breathtaking climb.

How exactly would all of this come to pass? Rough accounts of the contest, and of the early development of the Kalashnikov series, are known from official and personal versions. The basic outline is familiar. Sergeant Kalashnikov, the story goes, was a gifted young soldier, undeveloped but eager to serve his nation. His intuitive design skills, coupled with a desire to confront the marauding Germans and drive them from Russian soil, was given an outlet and direction by the Red Army and the Communist Party, enabling him to rise from obscurity and invent for his imperiled nation a rifle that was more reliable and effective than any previous design. By this account, everyone is put in a good light. Kalashnikov is the quintessential proletarian hero, a simple and seemingly unassuming man, a commoner, whose natural gifts and loyal dedication helped the Soviet Union arm itself and its friends against the encroaching West. And the Red Army, through the wisdom of its commanders and the timely and prescient intervention of Communist Party officials, channeled his raw talent for the workers’ good. The durable frame of this story has been passed down through government accounts and repeated often enough over the decades to have entered twentieth-century martial lore. But what were the precise circumstances and events that led to the creation of this weapon, now a centerpiece of modern war, and led to this previously unheralded man receiving credit for it?

The story becomes trickier at a finer grain of detail. The broad history of the evolution of military arms, deduced through ordnance reports, ballistic and technical studies, sales brochures, transcripts of officer and designer seminars, soldiers’ accounts, medical records, and a host of materials in institutional archives, is crowded with legends, quacks, apocryphal tales, and deliberately deceptive characters. Military secrecy has obscured many chapters; trade secrecy has prevented a full understanding of others. With the history of many weapons, the task is further complicated by the fact that essential sources have often not been fully trustworthy. Richard Gatling hewed in public to a profoundly naïve dream and presented himself as a proper Southern gentleman who pitched up ready for America’s industrial age. In private he plotted with no small amount of cunning—hiding and shifting his company’s debt, paying a uniformed British army officer under the table to promote the weapon at officers’ clubs, and concocting cagey plans to boost government support and sales, even if it meant planting stories in the Washington press. Ultimately, late in life, he admitted that he had offered his weapon for sale before it was ready. Hiram Maxim, an accomplished cad, suspected draft dodger, and accused trigamist, presented multiple and conflicting accounts of the origins of the Maxim gun. His ego was so immeasurably large that much of what he left behind in writing and in the transcripts of his public remarks was a celebration of himself. He was mischievous to boot, a prankster, which lent his memoirs and many of his statements the feel of an inside joke. This has made tracing a complete set of independent and verifiable details of his weapon’s development, at least through what might seem its most important source—Hiram Maxim—a frustrating if not impossible task. The result is that it is often easier to evaluate any given weapon’s impact and significance than it is to determine the exact circumstances of its invention.

But little in any independent inquiry into the evolution of automatic arms can compare in degree of difficulty to an examination of the origins of Kalashnikov’s AK-47. The reasons are manifold. First and foremost, the weapon came into existence inside one of the most secretive and paranoid military systems the world has known. Within this system, the state-directed process was long, fundamentally bureaucratic, scattered across multiple cities and testing sites, and conducted in a cone of near silence by scores, if not hundreds, of participants. The rules muzzled contemporaneous accounts beyond the limited statements made by the authorities, and Soviet authorities were given to lies. Later, when Mikhail Kalashnikov and his namesake weapon entered proletarian lore, the Soviet mythmaking mill produced simplified distillations and outright false official accounts. Inventions, handy fables, and propaganda wormed away at the story for decades, institutionalizing falsehoods and calcifying legends, many of which then became part of the narrative in the West, where further repetition hardened and certified official Soviet accounts. As for Mikhail Kalashnikov himself, he sometimes complained of the false accounts and at other times participated in them, including in his first encounter with a researcher who eventually became a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. At their first contact, by letter in the early 1970s, Kalashnikov recommended a clumsily and transparently falsified official account of his personal biography and the weapon’s history.8 The subterfuge was understandable in its context, part of both a bureaucratic and a diplomatic dance. Kalashnikov consulted with a senior KGB official in the region where he worked before replying to the letter, and his response was passed through the acting Soviet military attaché in Washington. Such conditions left little room for candor. The caution was characteristic of its time. Perhaps it was justified. Though Kalashnikov did not know it, the civilian researcher was quietly collaborating with, and seeking advice from, a senior American technical intelligence official, the very man whose primary responsibility for the United States government was to examine and evaluate Eastern bloc small arms. Whether the researcher’s role was intentional or not, from a Soviet perspective he was acting as an agent.9 Kalashnikov’s deception was expected, to the point of being reflexive. The reflex fit the time.

Years later, toward the end of the Soviet period, Kalashnikov presented, in both his writings and his scores of public interviews, a somewhat more expansive account of the weapon’s development and design. This brought more detail to the discussion. But as Kalashnikov circulated more accounts, he sometimes contradicted himself and thereby made the history even more debatable. Memoirs might be expected to help, as they would presumably be rendered with more deliberation and care than extemporaneous remarks in interviews, and Kalashnikov would be able to consult his own records to check facts and shape revisions. And yet for a man with a reputation for mechanical precision, his memoirs are a sloppy affair. He has written several, or, put another way, several have appeared under his name (two were cowritten with other authors, and at least one of his critics suspects there has been a ghostwriter, too).10 They beg for an editor, and not just because his accounts veer between sentimental, doctrinaire, folksy, and at times scalding. Stylistic shifts are a mere nuisance. Deeper problems lie in the shifting facts. Accounts of key events differ from text to text. Simple errors intrude in some places; in others, he has reclaimed chunks of the official history or other writers’ work and recast it.11 Throughout the memoirs, his recollections and the dates, even the years, for important events change. The dialogue changes as well, often in ways that alter the meaning of events as he recalls them. Even what might seem the most basic details come unmoored. (Was the AK-47 accepted as the winner of the design contest in late 1947 or in early 1948? Kalashnikov’s memoirs have said both. The answer, from other sources, is clear: January 1948. How exactly was Kalashnikov wounded? Again, there are many answers, depending on the memoir.) An independent researcher is left to wonder: Is Kalashnikov simply imprecise? Or is he a serial embellisher and cunning censor? The record indicates that he was, variously and sometimes simultaneously, all three.

Sorting through these varied accounts and small details might be possible with extended and detailed interviews with Kalashnikov, or with unfettered access to primary documents. But Kalashnikov, while he makes himself accessible, is nearing senescence. He spent his life in a system that discouraged openness, encouraged deception, and punished disobedience, and he arrived at old age adept at evasion; in his memoirs, he openly admits to misleading Soviet officials and the public about his past, and in interviews he mixes a proletarian and peasant persona with gentle refusals to answer almost all questions he labels “political.” He often answers questions with stock lines he has repeated for years, or decades. When pushed, he grows dismissive. The Soviet legacy endures in other telling ways, too. In the matter of archives, important collections that would be expected to contain information on the weapon’s development, and the roles of participants, remain closed. Primary documents have not been shared, even with the museum that bears the designer’s name and celebrates his work. And many documents are presumed to have vanished. “Here if something is once classified it will in most cases be classified until destroyed,” said one prominent Russian firearms researcher.12

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which created possibilities for more openness, other factors added to the uncertainty. Freed from silence by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall from power of the Communist Party, two participants in the competition in the 1940s, including a Red Army major who helped evaluate the prototype assault rifles, staked partial claims on the weapon’s parentage. Moreover, further research suggested that the renowned German arms designer Hugo Schmeisser, who was captured by the Red Army after Nazi Germany’s defeat, worked at the same arms-manufacturing complex where the AK-47 was first mass-produced and modified—raising the possibility that the weapon’s production, if not its design, was directly influenced by an expert and innovator who was effectively held as a prisoner. Kalashnikov was also accused in a Moscow newspaper of lifting important components of a competitor’s design and applying them to his final submission, the prototype that became the basis for the AK-47. Two post-Soviet Russian-language accounts using official sources—one by a participant in the contest’s evaluation, and another by an arms museum curator—lend support to counterclaims, though they do not dismiss the central narrative outright.

Mikhail Kalashnikov is a proud, energetic, and sometimes intense man, and as a lingering proletarian hero, whose narrative has served both his interests and the interests of the state, he always rebutted such claims emphatically, often with thinly masked fury. But strong and angry denials serve only as denials; absent full access to the primary documents, sorting through the exact lines of parentage remains impossible, at least without taking leaps of faith, which many of the people who embrace the stock story have been willing to do. These leaps fit patterns. First they were expected as part of the Communist Party’s recasting of history; history, during the bulk of Kalashnikov’s work life, was as the party defined it, and the public was to accept the fabricated and debased versions as presented. Later, accepting the updated but still self-serving versions that emerged in post-Soviet years was a requisite part of access to Kalashnikov, which many writers cherished and did not jeopardize with inconvenient questions. Fighting this tide was not easy. In Russia, the simple story is a minor industry. Its upkeep has been a determined project.

As a result of these processes, the precise circumstances are, at best, historically unsettled. But a middle view is possible within a wider context. It is this: Any distillation that treats the AK-47 as a spontaneous invention, the epiphany of an unassuming but gifted sergeant at his workbench, misses the very nature of its origins as an idiosyncratic Soviet product. The weapon was designed collectively, the culmination of work by many people over many years, and the result of a process in which Senior Sergeant Kalashnikov was near the center in the mid and late 1940s. This process was driven not by entrepreneurship or by quirky Russian innovation and pluck, but by the internal desires and bureaucracy of the socialist state. The motivations that fueled it were particular to a moment in history. The Soviet Union, once a technologically backward society that had been brutalized and organized by Stalin’s police state, had been militarizing throughout its existence, and it had recently been fully transformed into a military-industrial economy by war and its fear and hatred of Hitler. As Hitler exited the stage, this economy’s potential for arms-making was harnessed again, this time to a mix of almost religious revolutionary ideology—socialism was, according to the party’s core teaching, to sweep the world in an irresistible advance—and to a rational suspicion of the United States, with which it was compelled to compete.

Out of these forces, the competition for an automatic rifle was ordered. Unlike the Maxim and Gatling guns, the Soviet result, as near as a close reading of the available accounts can allow, flowed from official directives and widespread collaboration and not from a flash of inspiration. The AK-47 was a product of Stalin’s state, not of a single man; it was the work of a government and the result of the vast resources the government applied to creating it. Kalashnikov himself has hinted at this himself. “When I grew older, I understood that my invention was not only the culmination of the fervent desire of all of our soldiers to have a worthy weapon to defend our Homeland but also what is often described in seemingly trite words—the ‘creative energy of the people,’” he said. “I am sure that the AK-47 has become the embodiment of this energy. And let it be a common monument to us all—people whose names are known and the nameless. Let it be a symbol of the people’s unity in a time of trial for the homeland.”13 Later, in a public presentation in Russia commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the weapon’s design, he expressed the fuller view more clearly. “Today we are celebrating the work of a big collective,” he said. “I was not by myself sitting at a desk. It was a thousand-strong collective working at different factories.”14

Such declarations are, of course, narrow. What makes the origins of the AK-47 interesting are not these easy platitudes, but the larger insights its story provides. The Soviet Union of the late 1940s was at a high point in its history. When it focused on technical tasks, it could excel. And when it focused on creating an automatic weapon that could be carried and managed by almost any man, it was able to quickly make one of the world’s superproducts, and one of the truest symbols of itself. The weapon, which Kalashnikov emphasizes as a defensive tool and a shared monument to the population’s creative energy, was rather a marker of the planned economy under totalitarian rule, a nation that could make weapons aplenty but would not design a good toilet, elevator, or camera, or produce large crops of wheat and potatoes, or provide its citizens with decent toothpaste and bars of soap. This is not to say that the planned economy was completely inefficient, though broadly it was. In the planned economy, when the plan worked, the nation got what its planners ordered. Main battle tanks became sturdy, reliable, and fearsome. Refrigerators barely worked. The AK-47 and its descendants in many ways form an apt emblem of the Soviet legacy, a wood-and-metal symbol of what the socialist experiment came to be about.

*   *   *

Certain aspects of the history are unchallenged.

The project that would change military rifles as combatants understood them began in strict secrecy in the Soviet Union just after the end of the Great Patriotic War. The Workers-Peasants Red Army was seeking a replacement for the infantry rifles, some of them dating to the turn of the century, that had served for decades as a standard arm for Russian and Soviet land forces. The Soviet Union had tried fielding automatic rifles for years, with disappointing results in battle. In the fight against the much more fully equipped German troops many Red Army soldiers found themselves carrying a Mosin-Nagant rifle largely unchanged since 1891.15 A hurried effort during the late war years by a prominent Soviet designer, Sergei G. Simonov, had produced a serviceable but not quite satisfactory carbine that was matched to a new, smaller cartridge than previous Soviet rifles had fired. Simonov’s result, the SKS, Samozaryadny Karabin Sistemy Simonova, the self-loading carbine system by Simonov, was a semiautomatic. It was light, simple, and inches shorter than most infantry rifles of the time, which made it easier to handle in thickets, in urban combat, in armored vehicles, or on parachute duty. But it fired only one round for every pull of the trigger, and was fitted with a fixed ten-round magazine. The Red Army’s Main Artillery Department was interested in an individual soldier’s weapon with more firepower. For more firepower, something else was needed.

The project’s early luck had not been good. Another konstruktor, Aleksei I. Sudayev, had been working on a true automatic rifle for the new cartridge, and soon after the war his project had undergone two cycles of prototypes and tests. Sudayev was a young man, but already a celebrated figure among Soviet designers. Working in Leningrad during its encirclement and long siege, he had designed a submachine gun and helped oversee its production within the city, all in conditions approaching starvation. The weapon was issued to the Red Army soldiers who finally pushed the Germans back.16 His energy seemed boundless, his talents immense. His second prototype for an assault rifle, the AS-44, was submitted in 1945. The evaluators found it promising, but heavy. They directed Sudayev to develop a third prototype of lesser weight. Sudayev fell severely ill in 1945 and died the next summer at the age of thirty-three, stalling the rifle’s development. By then the Main Artillery Department had decided to commit the country’s military infrastructure more fully to the cause. It had issued a new set of instructions. A competition among design collectives throughout the arms complex would be held, and each would offer proposals for an automatic rifle—for the army’s review.

The contest’s timing all but predicted its result: A weapon would be created and it would be mass-produced. The Great Patriotic War had radically altered the Soviet Union. Since the October Revolution, the population of the former Russian empire had suffered civil war, collectivization, purges, and labor camps. The revolutionary promises of socialism had given way to the centralization of a police state and single-party rule. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the NKVD, had grown in size and role, and its secret police had become a principal arm of a government that ruled by violence and fear. By the time of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, show trials had thinned the ranks of the Bolshevik revolutionaries and party luminaries. Much of the senior military leadership had been liquidated. Within schools, factories, and families, people were forced to denounce those near them, producing fresh crops of counter-revolutionary suspects to be arrested, tortured into confession, and sentenced to execution or forced labor in the network of GULAG camps. Stalin’s personality cult had overtaken the land, and the national conversation was smothered by official propaganda and state lies. The nation was being consumed by the general secretary’s whim, and the whims of those who acted under his hand.

The German invasion changed the national mood. The Third Reich’s thrusts onto Russian soil had rallied a terrified people with a sense of shared peril and common purpose, and provided an impetus for militarization and industrialization on a scale not imagined immediately after the Bolshevik coup. Hitler’s armies drove almost effortlessly through the Soviet Union’s outer defenses, upending the Russian belief, central to the party’s propaganda, that the Red Army would stop all enemies at the edge of Soviet soil. “We will never concede an inch of ground” was one popular slogan.17The reality was different. Many divisions along the border were not dug in. Many units had no maps. Many officers were on leave. As the Germans attacked, Stalin issued an order that deepened the confusion. Awakened in the predawn hours and told of the attack by Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the general secretary was in disbelief. “That is provocation,” he said into the phone. “Do not open fire.”18 Russian units were routed.

Ukraine and much of western Russia, the location of a large portion of the Soviet Union’s population and the nation’s industrial base, fell under Nazi occupation, abandoned by the battered Red Army as it retreated. A drive for modernization had preceded the war. Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, coupled to prison labor made available through repression, had rushed the Soviet Union through centralization and development apace, and the military sector had benefited. A huge pool of talent had been directed toward arms production and design. Laboratories, design bureaus, and research centers were dedicated to help.19 As the German Blitzkrieg bore down on Moscow, creating cascades of refugees, the nation was energized more. The Soviet Union tottered. Its defense establishment swelled.

By 1944, three years later, the ordeal and the turnabout had both been spectacular. The Soviet Union had lost as many as 20 million of its citizens, including nearly 8 million soldiers—losses that dwarfed those of all other participating nations. But the tide had shifted. Germany’s army, pressed from east and west, was nearing collapse. As the war approached its end in 1945, the Red Army, its ranks swelled by mass conscription, pursued the retreating German forces. The Kremlin gained control or primary influence over an expansive swath of territory extending from the Baltic states through Central and Western Europe and looping back to the banks of the Black Sea and almost into Yugoslavia, where Tito’s resistance had evicted the Germans and a socialist state had taken hold. Stalin’s prewar visions of socialist expansion had come to pass. This belt of nations would fall under Soviet influence and become the front line of the Eastern bloc, the buffer zone.

Stalin knew that large military forces would be necessary to occupy and administer this new socialist frontier, and to face down the West. These forces would need weapons. The timing was ideal for arming them. The Soviet Union had gone through an industrial transformation and remained on a war footing. It now had a labor force skilled in making weapons. Its arms and munitions factories, which had grown in size and number and worked around the clock in the war years, were producing weapons at an extraordinary rate. By one official estimate, in slightly less than four years of war, the Soviet Union managed to manufacture 12 million rifles, more than 6 million submachine guns, and almost a million machine guns—more than 13,000 weapons a day.20 But this was an average over a four-year period during which production in the first years was small. By the end of the war, at least one enterprise, the sprawling gun works at Izhevsk, claimed at peak production to be making 12,000 weapons each day by itself, consuming fifty tons of steel every twenty-four hours.21 This was the state of Stalin’s defense complex as it considered its needs for a new infantry arm, a small automatic rifle that could be issued to every man.

Stalin liked contests. The dictator believed they motivated designers of military equipment, winnowed ideas and accelerated development’s pace. Contests were central to the Red Army’s research efforts across a spectrum of design pursuits, including not just infantry arms but aircraft, too.22He rewarded winning designers and at times summoned them before him—a terrifying prospect, considering that some designers, including the aircraft engineer Andrei N. Tupolev, worked from a sharaga, a secret NKVD research camp, where he was a prisoner living under fear of even worse.

The extremes were Sovietesque. When the Hero of Socialist Labor prize was introduced in 1939, Stalin arranged that the first of the medals be given to him—and only him. The second prize, issued in 1940 by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, was awarded to Vasily Degtyarev, the weapons designer. In 1941, the Soviet Union awarded nine more, all to designers of military equipment and arms. (The prize was meant to recognize achievements in culture, the economy, and the arts; that ten of the first eleven prizes went to arms designers says something about national priorities.) One of the recipients in the third batch was Aleksandr Yakovlev, another aircraft designer, for whom Stalin had a special fondness. After asking Yakovlev directly about the due date for an expected fighter plane, the general secretary said that if the deadline was met, “the drink would be on me.”23Yakovlev was wary of this offer. The system had its perks, but the men who led it were mercurial, fickle, and exceptionally dangerous. Things often were not as they seemed. Another successful designer, Yakov G. Taubin, whose work gave the Red Army a reliable automatic grenade launcher, and who had also been awarded high state honors, was arrested early in the war and accused of being a supporter of Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky, a senior Red Army commander who had been arrested, tried in secret, and executed in 1937. Tukhachevsky’s liquidation had been part of the purge’s effort to remove the dictator’s potential rivals, including figures popular in the public eye. Taubin’s design successes did not save him once he was in the clutches of the state. Nor did the fact that the charges against Tukhachevksy had been contrived, and his supposed network of plotters did not exist. Taubin received no trial. His service to the Soviet Union ended in October 1941. He was summarily shot. The system often wasted men, no matter their potential and their willingness to be of service to the same system that by turns rewarded and persecuted them. Arms designers had better prospects for survival than most Soviet citizens. But even they were not fully spared. No one was immune.

Against this backdrop, the rifle project also fit within a larger pattern by which the Soviet army exploited what it could from Germany as design efforts were intensified. The Soviet Union’s war with the Nazis, its postwar occupation of German arms plants, and its interrogation of German designers and engineers had exposed the army both to its own weaknesses and to the most modern and carefully considered developments in German military designs. Throughout the 1940s, the Soviet Union had upgraded its suite of military equipment, often incorporating concepts from preexisting German systems. By the late 1940s, all of the defense sectors were at work on new weapons. The T-34 tank was being replaced with the T-54 and T-55 main battle tanks (which in time would be replaced by the T-62, the T-72, and the T-80, all of which would themselves be continually upgraded). Soviet submarines were being updated, influenced in part by German design. Aviation bureaus were experimenting with helicopter prototypes, and Stalin had browbeaten the Soviet Union’s fixed-wing aircraft designers and instructed them to hurry jet aircraft into production. The Soviet Army was also in midproduction of its first rocket-propelled grenade, the RPG-2, an antiarmor weapon based on a Nazi-era German pattern. (Further development would lead, in the 1960s, to the RPG-7—a system that, like the Kalashnikov, has lasted for decades.)

At NIPSMVO, one of many centers in the Red Army’s constellation of research institutes, the contest for a new class of automatic arm was to proceed in phases. In the first phase, the design bureaus were ordered to submit technical descriptions of their proposals by a deadline late in 1945. The most promising candidates would then proceed to a second step: making working prototypes for tests. The competition was not only a state secret. It was veiled in anonymity, at least at the start. Each design collective was to work separately from others, and to submit documents under a pseudonym, so the review commission’s members would not know which submission came from which bureau. There was reason for precaution. Among the participating designers were established names, and past experience had shown that favoritism was a risk. Stalin had been rumored to have liked Fedor V. Tokarev, another famous Soviet armorer, and in a previous contest, in the 1930s, the desire by officers on the commission to please the general secretary was said to have led to the selection of a Tokarev rifle design over other submissions, including a better weapon proposed by Simonov.24 Tokarev’s weapon had not been a success, though that was not entirely Tokarev’s fault—all the arms designers, in the Soviet Union and the West alike, who had tried making automatic rifles that fired the heavy rifle ammunition of the time had encountered difficulties. But the new contest drew from the lessons of the old. The use of pseudonyms was meant to prevent the taint of political interference from influencing the commission’s decisions, and to give all participants, even unknowns like Sergeant Kalashnikov, a fair chance, at least at the first cut. Kalashnikov’s team convinced him to submit his packet under the name “Mikhtim,” a shorthand for his first name and patronymic. “I was young then and felt a little awkward about it,” he said. “But my friends told me not to be shy.”25

As the collective worked, the Soviet project differed sharply from the earlier age of rapid-fire arms design, when General Origen Vandenburgh or Richard Gatling or Hiram Maxim labored with small teams in private workshops, puzzling over plans they hoped would find financial backing and a manufacturer to convert them into products for sale. The Soviet contest was wholly different. It was a state-directed pursuit, a process born of Leninist ideology and Stalin’s will, freed from the restraints of Western patents and combined with Red Army administration. It was a secret matter of state security, pursued on a large scale and according to a full set of rules, not the individual entrepreneurship and inventiveness of a Gatling or a Maxim. Moreover, the Soviet state was not merely issuing demands and timelines and serving as the evaluator. It was the primary influence in determining the nature of the weapon to be created. This influence extended beyond the contest’s guidelines. It involved a cardinal decision, without which the AK-47 would be impossible: the selection of the cartridge the rifle would fire. It was a new cartridge, the M1943, unknown in the West, but destined to be the most common rifle cartridge on earth.

The origins of the M1943 preceded the Red Army’s experiences in the war. In the 1930s the German army developed a prototype cartridge of intermediate size, the 7.92 Kurz. Until that time, the ammunition used by the riflemen of major powers was almost universally of high power, both by today’s general-issue rifle standards and for the tasks that they could reasonably be expected to perform. Armies had been bewitched by the ballistic possibilities of high velocity, which could lead to long range, flat trajectory, and, with a heavy bullet, devastating wounds to victims struck. To fire heavy bullets at the great velocities then desired, bullets were seated in long cartridge cases that carried large charges of propellant. The globally used British .303 round, a mainstay from the turn of the century through the 1940s, was 78 millimeters long in all, as was the French MAS round used in World War II. The American round stretched to about 85 millimeters, and the Russian was just more than 77 millimeters long. Shifting away from these big rounds in favor of something smaller had proven difficult in Hitler’s Germany, and impossible elsewhere. Armies remained invested in them, materially and psychologically. Who, after all, would propose undertaking the substantial costs of overhauling ammunition factories to produce a cartridge that, on paper at least, was less lethal?

After World War I, however, groups of ordnance officials and infantry officers had been asking whether such cartridges were necessary, and whether fidelity to ideas of maximum velocity and stopping power was a handicap forced on the ranks by tradition rather than sound analysis. What was the point of a rifle bullet that could strike a man two kilometers away now that soldiers wore camouflage and moved by infiltration? There were few targets at ranges beyond a few hundred yards, and when targets did present themselves out farther, not many marksmen could be expected to hit them. Rifles seemed to have been designed for tasks that did not exist, at least not for the typical foot soldier in the situations he was most likely to face. (Snipers, as specialists at long-range marksmanship, were another matter, but not every conscript needed a rifle capable of fulfilling sniper duty.) To those willing to question the status quo, the drawbacks of traditional rifle cartridges were obvious. To fire effectively out to this excess range, rifles had to be made heavier, which consumed more resources, drove up their costs, and made many models unwieldy. Their ammunition was heavy, too, meaning that it was expensive and soldiers carried fewer rifle cartridges than they otherwise might.

Between the wars, Germany was the first nation to pursue fully the concept of a smaller round, though German officers quarreled, too, about the merits of reducing a cartridge’s power. The Treaty of Versailles officially had idled most of Germany’s arms industry, but officers and their friends in industry actively circumvented the treaty and surreptitiously continued research and manufacturing. As early as 1934 the Wehrmacht’s Army Weapons Office had secretly issued a contract for a smaller round to the GECO firm, which developed the M35, a cartridge that was 55 millimeters in total length. In 1935, once the M35 rounds became available, Heinrich Vollmer, a designer from Biberach, worked out a rifle to fire them. Vollmer’s rifle was almost thirty-eight inches long and weighed a little more than nine-and-a-quarter pounds, making it shorter than a standard rifle but within the typical weight range of rifles of the time. And it had a feature that had eluded everyone who had tried to design a rifle of this size: It could fire automatically, like a machine gun. The smaller cartridge had allowed Vollmer to solve the decades-old problem of miniaturization. In a short time, he had made a rifle that hammered out rounds at a rate as high as one thousand rounds a minute but did not weigh more than its single-shot cousins. Twenty-five of Vollmer’s prototypes were made by hand for testing. The Army Weapons Office liked the weapon. The army itself did not. It was not approved, which may have been due to a pair of concerns regarding production: The M35 round would have required extensive retooling at ordnance plants to be brought into mass production, and the rifle was complex in design and tedious to manufacture, making it less than ideal for soldiers and a military economy alike.26

In 1938, the Weapons Office started again from scratch, issuing a contract to a second ammunition firm, Polte, which began its own tests for an intermediate round. This led to the 7.92 Kurz. Kurz means short. The word summarizes what Polte produced. In making the new cartridge, the firm had taken the 8-millimeter Mauser, the army’s standard high-powered rifle cartridge for its rifles and machine guns, with an overall length of 82 millimeters, and trimmed it, creating a version with a shorter case and shorter bullet length. The result was a similar but lighter bullet but within a cartridge that was 49 millimeters long from end to end. The Kurz offered an industrial advantage over the M35. Because it was based on the 8-millimeter Mauser, producing it would not require as many changes to factory lines to bring it into large-scale use. The result had other favorable qualities. In the most basic sense, a shorter cartridge case meant less propellant would be put into the cartridge to drive the bullet down the barrel and out the muzzle. This reduced the power of the round to roughly midway between pistol and rifle ammunition, though the 7.92 Kurz round leaned more toward a traditional cartridge’s power. It was also lighter in weight, which meant supply chains and individual soldiers could carry a larger number of rounds of ammunition into combat without increasing their load. Manufacturing it required fewer resources and cost less money. And because the cartridge had less energy, it had less excess energy, which meant it would produce less recoil. Any rifle that would fire it, if designed well, would be easier to handle than conventional rifles of the time, and might allow recruits to be trained in marksmanship more swiftly.

On April 18, 1938, even before the Kurz round took final form, Hugo Schmeisser, who had designed the Maschinenpistole 18 on a hurried schedule during World War I, was tasked with working out plans for a new class of rifle at his shop in Suhl. The rifle was to have an effective range of eight hundred meters and be capable of automatic or semiautomatic fire. It was also to be designed for ready mass production. The initial name would be Maschinenkarabiner—or machine carbine—a small rifle that would fill the gap between submachine guns and machine guns, and create new possibilities for infantrymen to mass firepower. Though the Germans were in a hurry, it took Schmeisser two years to make a prototype, during which time Hitler launched World War II. His first effort was machined from solid steel. The Weapons Office wanted a weapon with components fashioned from stamped sheet metal, which would be cheaper and trim manufacturing time. Schmeisser had limited experience in sheet-metal processes, and as the German army was busy fighting in Europe, another firm, Merz in Frankfurt, was assigned to rework his prototype in stamped metal. At last, in summer 1942, the Merz gun works, working with Schmeisser, delivered fifty prototypes of the Maschinenkarabiner 42. By then Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union, too.

Schmeisser’s automatic rifle was the world’s first intermediate-power automatic rifle to be approved for mass production and general issue to the infantry—a medium-range weapon firing at rates that rivaled machine guns and could be managed by a single soldier. The rifle was compact and had modest recoil and limited muzzle rise. And it was versatile. It could be fired one shot at a time or on automatic, as each soldier and situation required. A concept with scintillating military promise had been given shape. Schmeisser had won a race; another firm, Carl Walther, also tried to offer a prototype, but it did not produce as many by the deadline. Schmeisser’s model went into action. Most of the prototypes were sent to the Russian Front for combat trials, and several were used against the Red Army in early 1943 by a battle group under the command of Major General Theodor Scherer. The group survived a months-long encirclement after Russian ski troops severed its supply lines in Cholm. One account credited the new weapon’s firepower with helping the Germans to keep the Russians back. “It was this circumstance that made it possible for them to hold out,” the account read, “until they were relieved.”27 Germany tooled up for production, though critics in the military complained about integrating a new class of ammunition and the risk of complicating supply. The next version of the gun mixed subterfuge with refinement. Hitler had discovered that the army was experimenting with an intermediate weapon and was firmly opposed to it. As a veteran of World War I, including the Battle of the Somme, he retained a commitment to powerful cartridges. To avoid the Führer’s scrutiny, the weapon’s proponents relabeled the modified arm as a Maschinenpistole, and dubbed it the MP-43. This version merged elements of the Schmeisser and Walther prototypes, and slowly went into production under its misleading label. By early 1944 production had reached 5,000 pieces a month, and 9,000 of the rifles were made in April. The Wehrmacht was clearly satisfied. Production was projected to reach 80,000 rifles a month by 1945—a pace nearing a million a year—signaling that the Wehrmacht planned to distribute its invention widely.28 By then Hitler had swung round and become a strong supporter. He renamed Schmeisser’s automatic yet again: the sturmgewehr, or storm rifle, which in translation became assault rifle, the designation that stuck. A new class of firearm had been named.

Schmeisser’s weapon was short-lived in battle; Germany’s defeat ensured that. But in the long competition among nations for perfected infantry arms, it marked a critical moment: the arrival of the reduced-power automatic rifle. The sturmgewehr was only an inch beyond three feet. Like a submachine gun, it cycled out blistering automatic fire, not with short-range pistol ammunition, but with bullets that traveled at more than twenty-two hundred feet per second and had the power to incapacitate a man beyond the ranges ordinary to modern combat. It was not a full machine gun; it had no large-capacity feeding device, no tripod or sled or traversing equipment that would enable it to be firmly emplaced and used for fixed fire—the sort of accurate, long-range menace that allowed the Maxim gun and its descendants to rule the open ground of Omdurman and the Somme. But it was an exceptionally versatile firearm, well suited for all single-shot shooting at a rifleman’s typical combat ranges, and its automatic fire made it ferocious for close combat and effective for suppression fire to cover an infantry unit’s movement. As German units fell back late in the war, the sturmgewehr was picked up by Soviet troops. The Red Army grasped the significance of the weapon falling from its enemies’ hands. A shift in rifle capabilities had occurred. The Red Army set out to replicate it, but with a more fully considered gun.

The first Soviet step was not to make an assault rifle. It was to make a cartridge comparable to the Kurz. Exactly when the Red Army began to work on its own intermediate bullet remains an open historical question,29 though its interest predated the sturmgewehr. In czarist times, an armorer and inventor, Vladimir G. Fedorov, understood that overcoming the design problems inherent in automatic rifles would require developing a smaller cartridge. His experiments demonstrated the difficulties of using high-powered cartridges in smaller weapons. Little came of his ideas. His work stalled. In Soviet times, when denouncing imperial figures was welcome and safe, he blamed the lack of enthusiasm for his work on Czar Nicholas II. The czar, Fedorov said, had spoken openly against an automatic rifle at a lecture at an artillery school in 1912, and worried aloud about the amount of ammunition it would consume. The czar’s opinion, Fedorov said, was influential, and became “widespread at the time amongst the high-ranking military commanders. That was why armourers, myself included, could not obtain noteworthy assistance in work on the automatic rifle.”30The truth was more complicated. Soviet authorities did not offer much initial support either. In the 1920s, the Red Army discontinued production of Fedorov’s rifle and stopped purchases of the slightly smaller Japanese cartridges it fired. For two more decades the Soviet military committed itself to its own traditional rifle cartridge, the 7.62x54R—the same high-powered round that had been in service since the early 1890s.i

But at roughly the same time that the sturmgewehr was appearing in battle, opinions were shifting, and the Red Army was developing an intermediate cartridge of its own. Soviet officials claimed that Russian designers had begun working in earnest on this cartridge in 1939, and the project had been suspended after Germany invaded Poland that year, which was followed by the Soviet invasion of Finland and the start of the Winter War. The demands of wartime production, by this account, pushed the pursuit of an intermediate cartridge aside.31 Interest intensified on July 15, 1943, when at a conference of Beria’s intelligence service, the NKVD, analysts presented two smaller cartridges used by other armies in the war—the German 7.92 Kurz and the American .30 Carbine, which was fired by a small, semiautomatic rifle issued to support troops.32 That year, two Soviet cartridge experts, Nikolai Elizarov and Boris Semin, were at work refining the idea, and soon the pair had made a cartridge satisfactory to the Main Artillery Department: the M1943, a .30-caliber round with an overall length of 56 millimeters. The cartridge looked like little else in mainstream circulation. It was more than a full inch shorter than the standard .30-06 Springfield cartridge used in American rifles. But it was not entirely new—it closely resembled the M35 round developed by the GECO firm in Nazi Germany and used in Vollmer’s rifle. The similarities between the M35 and M1943 raise the possibility that Soviet spies obtained them even before the sturmgewehr was fielded, or that German technicians had shared details of the round or samples during trade agreements between Germany and the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1941, when, with Hitler’s permission, Soviet military delegations extensively toured German munitions plants.33 Whatever its genesis, the M1943 fulfilled for the Red Army the niche that the 7.92 Kurz had filled for the Wehrmacht. Like the Kurz, the M1943 round flew from the muzzle at velocities closer to two thousand feet per second than the nearly three thousand feet per second traveled by the American round. In the eyes of ballisticians who favored high-velocity cartridges, such numbers marked the M1943 as a bantamweight, a round with limited range and knockdown power. To Soviet arms designers, these numbers were academic. Results were more important. Tests had shown that at six hundred meters, the new cartridge penetrated three pine boards each 2.25 centimeters thick, nearly three inches of wood in all.34 Soviet ballisticians thought this was more than enough power and penetration to wound or kill a man at that considerable distance, which was beyond the range at which most fire from rifles found a mark. Experience had also shown that the sturmgewehr was not a weapon infantrymen wanted to face, at least not when armed with bolt-action arms with which to fire back. The M1943 had economic advantages, too. The army’s engineers noted that for every million rounds manufactured, the M1943 saved four tons of the alloys used for cartridge cases, a ton and a half of propellant, and more than a ton of lead. By March 1944, the M1943 was in production.35 Now weapons would have to be made to fire it.

Soviet willingness to experiment with an intermediate cartridge, and the urge to field a new class of weapons around it, marked another instance of Russian ordnance officials recognizing the value of nascent military technology before many competing nations. Both imperial Russia and the Soviet system that replaced it had proven adept at this sort of intelligent mimicry. The Kremlin’s armies had not been early leaders in machine-gun design, but they had been smart borrowers of technologies and ideas from elsewhere. The results had been impressive. In the nineteenth century, czarist military officers had been among the first to see the value of Gatling and Maxim guns, and had integrated them into Russian formations and put them to effective combat use ahead of almost all the world’s other armies. Soon after the turn of the century, Russia started the work that in time put it at the vanguard of the shift to automatic rifles. Vladimir Fedorov had understood the utility of machine guns in the Russo-Japanese War, and had been intrigued with the idea of a small automatic rifle. From 1909 through 1913 he led a research program to design a suitable weapon. Working with the slightly smaller Japanese cartridges, he made a nine-and-a-half-pound automatic rifle that saw limited service in World War I. His rifle never saw mass production. Thirty-two hundred were made over roughly ten years,36 and production was cancelled after the October Revolution. But Fedorov’s program bridged the Bolshevik coup. He survived the revolution and offered his services to the new socialist state. In 1918 he was sent to Kovrov, a center of arms production to Moscow’s east, to help open new gun works there. He supervised much of the factory’s early development, recruiting designers and workers and helping to make the plant a principal producer of machine guns and submachine guns used in the Great Patriotic War.37 During his decades as a prominent armorer, he published widely on military and ordnance topics and became a giant in the insular clique of Soviet firearms designers. Through his outsized influence, an appreciation for automatic arms became entrenched among the Red Army design teams, and informed Soviet arms development.

This institutional affinity for automatic arms took another shape in the Great Patriotic War, when the Red Army embraced submachine guns. The Soviet Union had few submachine guns at the war’s outset. As German armor and artillery neared Moscow, Stalin discovered that the Red Army had almost none of the weapons to issue to troops tasked with the city’s defense. “The enemy was threatening the capital, and we had to look for two hundred submachine guns needed for those going behind the enemy’s lines,” he said later. “We did not let anyone sleep then.”38 The shortage was in no small part his own fault—the dictator’s purges of the Red Army’s senior officer corps had sent many experts and proponents of automatic arms to their deaths.39 But the Soviet Union found that its submachine guns were easy to manufacture. State arms factories and small “victory workshops,” many of them under siege in Moscow or Leningrad, produced huge quantities of the PPSh, a stubby eight-pound weapon with a distinctive circular magazine and a vented cooling shroud. The PPSh, which fired pistol ammunition, had completed its design and trial phase only in 1940. It was compact, simple to operate, and inexpensive to manufacture, and gave Soviet infantrymen firepower at close range. Its ease of manufacture was related to its design, which envisioned its being produced in part with electric welding and cold stamping, techniques considered beneath firearms by many Western manufacturers. The Soviet choice made sense. “The technology of manufacture of the PPSh ensured a considerable saving of metal, reduced the production cycle, and did not require complicated specialized tools and equipment,” one Soviet officer noted.40 This also meant that highly skilled workers were not needed for its production, and were available for other work.

As weapons go, the PPSh was neither handsome nor refined. It was a triumph of pragmatism, expediency, and unpretentious Soviet ideals. One reviewer said it fit a pattern: “The Russians excel in calculated crudity. In these burp guns, the plumbers have all but eliminated the gunsmiths.”41Aesthetics matter to many gunsmiths. They mattered not at all to a nation that risked falling under Nazi control. Known among Soviet conscripts as the pe-pe-sha, the dumpy submachine gun was popular with Red Army troops and was regarded well enough that when German soldiers captured them, as they often did, they carried them, too. This is the highest vote of confidence an infantry arm can achieve, and this submachine gun, rushed into production to save the nation, became a familiar prop in Soviet symbols of the Great Patriotic War, appearing endlessly in murals and statuary. But the effect of the PPSh, and of other Soviet submachine guns that appeared later in the war, was deeper than its tactical or symbolic power. It helped cement in the Red Army an appreciation for automatic arms that could be wielded by a single man.

For all of these reasons, in 1945, the Soviet military was well positioned, intellectually and industrially, to pursue a concept that had little traction in the West: a rifle of reduced power. By the time of the Nazis’ collapse, the Red Army had experienced decades of satisfactory service from the Mosin-Nagant rifle line, with roots in czarist times, which had followed the traditions of the era and fired a powerful round down a long barrel and achieved velocities in excess of twenty-eight hundred feet per second. And the Red Army had been similarly satisfied with its line of submachine guns. The idea of a weapon roughly midway between the two was not radical. It was evolutionary, and a matter of common sense.

The Red Army knew this, and as the Cold War began it leaped ahead of the Pentagon. The United States, the heavyweight among Western military powers, whose arming decisions would eventually determine which weapons NATO militaries would carry, retained its commitment to powerful cartridges. Inside Stalin’s Soviet Union, the approach to arms design was more flexible, more informed, more interested in what other nations had tried. The intensity of the police state also played a role. The internal risks and frantic subcurrents, along with the preeminence of the intelligence service as an instrument of bureaucratic power, kept the system and its participants alert. Pride in the intellectual pilferage of the enemy’s weapon designs made Soviet design processes less convention-bound. By early 1946, the Red Army had chosen its candidates to give a new class of weapon a Soviet form. Senior Sergeant Kalashnikov had made the first cut. He was an unlikely contender, given his history and credentials. But he was in the race.

Mikhail Kalashnikov was born in the remote village of Kurya, in the Altai region of south central Russia, in 1919, two years after Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks he led had toppled imperial Russia and begun to force upon the Russian peasantry their vision of the proletarian state. Kurya rests just north of the Kazakh steppe and west of the Russian and Mongolian highlands. It is a flat, dry, windswept place bisected by the winding and turgid Loktevka River, a lonely agricultural zone far from the capital that claimed it. Kalashnikov’s illiterate mother and semiliterate father were religious Cossacks, and had moved from the Kuban region of the North Caucasus and settled on the steppe after Czar Nicholas II had granted land to peasants willing to relocate.42 Mikhail was the eighth of his mother’s eighteen children, and suffered the privations of his time. Frontier hardships were shared. The family lived in a dank log cottage lit by kerosene lamps; the structure shook and groaned in storms. Some of the rooms had dirt floors. Only eight of the family’s children would survive childhood. His mother, Alexandra Frolovna, buried so many of her children that she recycled names, giving two of her deceased sons’ first names—Ivan and Nikolai—to boys she delivered later.43

Kalashnikov was weak himself, small and prone to illness. He contracted smallpox at age five and carried the disease’s scars for life. He was sick enough at age six that his parents had a casket assembled for him, though he recovered to outlive everyone who watched over him. The coffin maker spat with anger. “Such a snotty little one,” he said, and added, “pretended he was dead.”44 (In another account, Kalashnikov said the carpenter offered a different insult: “So young, and he’s already pulling a fast one! He’s a good actor, make no mistake!”)45 As he grew, Kalashnikov saw himself as a weakling, and was eager to be a muzhik, a real Russian man. Work served as an early outlet and a means to develop a sense of self. From age seven to nine he guided a horse and plow in the fields around the village and took pride in the labor, using his stature as a plowman to tease the boys not assigned to the fields. “I know the price of bread,” he would think. “And you are small fry.”46 Kalashnikov enjoyed working with his hands and using tools. He attended school, learned to read and write, and took a liking to poetry, including writing simple verses. He understood that he was being raised in a traditional, elemental way: a Russian from hearty Russian bloodlines, eager for work, capable, steeped in vital folk values.

In 1928, after Lenin had succumbed to dementia and strokes, and Joseph Stalin had succeeded him as general secretary, Stalin and the party turned their attention to private agriculture. Stalin was dissatisfied. The agricultural sector, much of it in the hands of small landowners, was a nettlesome anticommunist symbol. As the nation industrialized, and more food was needed in the cities, he was angered by grain prices and production levels. The party tried requisition. Threats of expropriation of food drove production further down. Stalin decided to bring the peasants to heel, and to reverse the czar’s redistribution of land by bringing food production under state control. By 1929 the solution was selected. Peasants’ land would be seized, and peasants forced to work on collective farms. Agriculture was to be a state enterprise.

In the pogroms to subdue farmers and to pursue the party’s plans, Kalashnikov’s village was not spared. Government commissioners appeared and surveyed homes, livestock, and food stores; meetings with the villagers were held, sometimes overnight. The commissioners confiscated property and grain. Their plans assumed shape. Agriculture was to be centralized to stamp out a Soviet invention—the parasitic and counterrevolutionary kulaks—and to increase food production for the nation. The farmers were to be forced together to work on kolkhozy, the collective farms. Those deemed unsuited for communal work were to be exiled, so as not to disrupt the party’s plans.

The effects were immediately evident. Tensions simmered in Kurya, pitting families against one another and dividing households. Even classrooms were not immune; children were listed as rich or poor. Those fortunate enough to be classified as poor enjoyed newfound social leverage, which some officially poor children used as license to taunt classmates labeled rich. True wealth was scarce. In 1930 the commissioners returned. The Kalashnikov family was blacklisted, too. As part of collectivization, the state had taken to seizing the grain and slaughtering the livestock of suspect farmers. Kurya suffered a social frenzy. The small jealousies of the less-well-off families were given an outlet in the denunciation and public hounding of more successful families. The means of identifying kulaks were crude. Large families often kept more livestock to feed the larger number of mouths in the home. And a family that possessed more livestock than its neighbors could attract the commissioners’ attention. The Kalashnikov family was large. Mikhail Kalashnikov was confused. “It was not that easy to understand who was who,” he said.47 In 1929, at the age of ten, Kalashnikov experienced his first heartbreak in a manner peculiar to the police state. His childhood crush, Zina, a dark-eyed girl he knew from school, stopped attending class. Zina’s parents had been denounced and blacklisted, and her entire family was deported in the night. Kalashnikov heard of her fate the morning after she had been shipped away. “I passed her house several times a day, hoping for a miracle,” he said. “What if I saw her tender face again, what if she smiled at me again? But that was not destined to happen.”48

A group of men drove farm animals seized from several kulak families into their yard and hacked the animals to death with axes. The yard filled with terrified, bellowing animals, and then with carcasses as the blood flowed. The family was gripped with fear. It was divided as well. Mikhail had two older sisters. One, Nyura, had married a poor peasant. Her household was spared attention. The other, Gasha, had married Kurya’s most ardent party man. She severed ties with her parents and siblings ahead of their deportation; her siblings pretended not to know her. A few days after the slaughter in the yard, government sleighs arrived. The Kalashnikovs were taken away in the cold, except for Viktor, one of Mikhail’s brothers, who hid in a neighbor’s home. He was turned in by another villager and arrested. He served several years of forced labor, including time spent digging the White Sea Canal. (Kalashnikov has given different accounts of his brother’s sentence. By one, Viktor was sentenced to seven years of labor, but when his sentence ended two more years were added because he dared ask the camp chief why he had been convicted. In another, Viktor was sentenced three years, but had three years added because he tried to escape three times. In this version, he asked why he was sentenced and received an immediate sentence of another year. Kalashnikov’s memoirs are crowded with such jarringly inconsistent recollections.)49

After travel northward by sled and railway livestock car, the Kalashnikov family was relocated to western Siberia and assigned by a party superintendent to a run-down hut in Nizhnaya Mokhovaya, a village in the marshy taiga near Tomsk. They were classified as “special deportees” and forbidden to use the word tovarisch, or comrade, which was above them. They were told they were mere citizens, nothing more. The family was not under guard. The Kalashnikovs had not committed grave political crimes, and the area was too remote and inhospitable for it to be necessary to post guards over deported farmers. The authorities required Timofey Kalashnikov to report periodically to the local administration. The administration did not need to worry. A family had nowhere to run. Restarting an agricultural life in an unfamiliar climate, without seeds or the usual tools, the family found life worse than what it had known. In the spring Timofey Kalashnikov and his five remaining children—all sons—worked to clear an area for cultivating food, fighting off swarms of insects as they dug and tilled. Within a year Mikhail’s exhausted father fell sick. He succumbed in the winter, and the family was not able to bury him during a Siberian blizzard. Kalashnikov recalled watching over his father’s body, expecting the man to rise and speak.

A snow storm was raging while Dad lay dying, and after he died it got even worse. One could not leave the house in such weather. So Dad’s body was kept in a cold room in our house for a week. We had been so happy in such weather when we lived in Kurya. The wood in the stove would be burning, Mom would be combing yarn, my sisters knitting, my brothers making something, one of us would be reading verses from a book, and then Dad would begin to sing all of a sudden… Shivering from the cold I went up to the door of the cold room in which Dad’s body was lying and listened for a long time. It seemed to me that I was just about to hear him say something softly in his confident deep voice. . . . But no, he did not sing of the “sacred Baikal,” the tramp was not running down a narrow path and the Cossack was not galloping across a valley, across the faraway “Caucasian land.” There was only the vicious snowstorm raging around our hut.50

The next year, Mikhail attended a school in which the teachers were deportees, too. The school, which was to prepare exiled children for adulthood and the modernity the Soviet Union craved, had no paper. Kalashnikov’s mother remarried to a Ukrainian exile with three children of his own, and their combined household endured. They subsisted in poverty, but wood outside could be used for heat, and with it they built a new log home. Mikhail Kalashnikov resisted settling into an exile’s life. As a young teenager, he was homesick and decided to return to Kurya. There he found the ashes where his family home had stood. It had been razed. He returned to Nizhnaya Mokhovaya, but soon, hoping to begin again in a place where he was not known as an exile, he fled with a friend to the small outpost of Matai, in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, near the border with China. The pair moved in with his friend’s relatives, and Kalashnikov began working as a clerk at a rail yard of the Turkestan-Siberian Railway. Within a few months, he was recruited into the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. He had taken steps that would change his life. Kalashnikov remained in Matai for two years. During this time, a period of surreptitious rehabilitation, he became a tovarisch again, though he lived with the worry of discovery. “I was haunted by the fear that someone might learn about my past as a deportee,” he said.51

In late 1938, Kalashnikov was drafted into the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army and assigned to duty in western Ukraine, near Poland. As a small-statured man, he was well suited for the tight confines of tank service, and was sent to a school for tank mechanics and drivers. His small size also meant that he was bullied in indoctrination camp, and he struggled to develop military bearing. But the Red Army was a social leveler, and in time Kalashnikov found a place in its ranks, though he was not impressed with all aspects of his service, particularly in matters of readying for war. Hitler’s attack was to catch the Red Army in a Stalin-enforced slumber. This was the army—out of touch with its responsibilities—that had conscripted Kalashnikov. It did little to ready him for the tasks ahead. “We weren’t at all prepared,” he said. “The soldiers hadn’t been given the necessary training. We’d hardly learned how to shoot.”52

Tanks require continual maintenance and frequent repair, and Kalashnikov’s assignment to a tank unit put modern tools in his hands. The workshops became his new outlet, as the horse and plow had been years before. He soon designed a device that measured the hours on a tank’s engine and submitted it to a competition sponsored by the Red Army in 1939. The army was struggling to determine the actual number of engine hours on its fleets of tanks, due to the behavior of Soviet tank crews.

Why? Because when you work in a tank you get dirty very quickly. They would put all their clothes into petrol and then hang them out to dry. They would then write down all the petrol they used and fake the petrol receipts. That is why the fuel was used in such huge amounts. After a certain number of hours a tank is supposed to be repaired. Since they did not start the tank but instead wrote down the hours of work, the equipment was repaired but without needing it. Therefore we needed a device that would count the real numbers of hours that the tank was used.53

The tank was a central instrument of the Soviet army. Kalashnikov said his interest in such a machine and its well-being earned him both a commendation and a meeting with Georgy K. Zhukov, the general commanding the military district that covered Ukraine. The general transferred Kalashnikov to a tank plant in Leningrad in 1941, to work on the device.ii Kalashnikov’s conversion was nearly complete. With war threatening, the Red Army was a repository of national pride and a sense of communal commitment. Kalashnikov had limited contact with his scattered family. The party and the army were becoming surrogates, anchoring him in the complex and formerly hostile Soviet world. Young Kalashnikov, a son of an enemy of the people, whose brother had just finished a long term of hard labor, was being drawn into the system that had set upon his family. He was finding purpose, community, respect—and perks.

Then came the war, in June 1941, which would turn Kalashnikov finally and completely into a right-thinking Soviet man. The Wehrmacht’s opening actions surprised Stalin and his generals. While German planes and artillery attacked their targets, the Blitzkrieg rolled over the borders and smashed an army that had not armed itself adequately and was not on alert. The Germans pushed on. As they overpowered Soviet defenses, front-line Soviet commanders either were in disbelief or dismissed the sounds of battle as noise from maneuvers.54 The Kremlin seemed paralyzed; Stalin did not make a public statement for almost two weeks. Propaganda filled the air. The German columns advanced across Russian soil.

The Red Army and the party leadership sank into confusion and recrimination. In Leningrad, Kalashnikov was ordered from the tank factory back to his regiment, promoted to the rank of senior sergeant, and sent to fight as the commander of a newly issued T-34 tank.55 The T-34 was one of the more successful pieces of military equipment in Soviet history, a durable, quick machine, and a technical match for the German Panzers. It was a welcome replacement for the aging T-26s that Kalashnikov’s regiment had driven before. But the Red Army units remained inadequately trained and poorly led, and the soldiers were mismatched against the German Blitzkrieg.

Not too many years later, after Kalashnikov became an approved symbol of the proletariat, a biography was necessary for him. This manufactured biography required whitewashing entire chapters of his life and inventing approved substitutes to bring him to this moment: the transformative experience of combat against the Germans. Such were the demands of saccharine Soviet mythmaking, part of the propagandists’ norm for framing the population’s understanding of their nation and figures the party chose to make historic. (Marshal Zhukov’s memoirs were to become a classic case).56 In one moment in the tale built around Kalashnikov, he was at a bunker on the front lines reading a letter from his mother, who had written, “How are you whipping the enemy there?” She then described the secure condition of the Kalashnikov home in the Altai steppe, in lovely Kurya, where the family had recently repaired the roof. Sergeant Kalashnikov closed his eyes and dreamed of the home he had left behind. Everything was about progress.

How many beautiful hours he had spent as a child there! There was a tower from which it seemed one could see a whole miraculous world which lay beyond the Altai steppe; filled with shavings from the shop in which they were born, everything like now, tractors or machinery thundering so that in tens of courtyards chickens flew up into the sheds from fright.57

The story was Soviet invention, a fabricated homespun yarn. It was also striking in the audacity of its deception, which Kalashnikov tolerated and participated in for years. Sergeant Kalashnikov’s mother tended to no home in the Altai. The home had been seized during collectivization when she and her family had been exiled. And there was not much need for fixing a roof on a home that party arsonists had burned to the ground. As for fond memories of the family’s life at the edge of “the miraculous world,” Kalashnikov later said he returned to the ruins of his childhood house once. The collective farmers complained of his visit. “Misha was looking for something on the site of your house,” one of them said to his sister. “Must have been after gold.”58 There was no such letter from Kalashnikov’s mother. And the Germans were not being whipped. Rather, by October, German Panzers were overrunning Bryansk, a city in western Russia along the route between Kiev and Moscow. Kalashnikov’s regiment, newly equipped and reorganized, was fighting them in the rolling countryside to the city’s south. And his experience of the war was much different from the predetermined struggle described in the party’s propaganda organs.

What really happened in Kalashnikov’s tank company has been lost in the multiple retellings. But he and the legends alike say he was wounded, apparently by an exploding shell during a skirmish. In one account, Kalashnikov said a group of Soviet tanks had become separated from the main unit, and he opened his turret hatch to look around. At that instant, he said, a shell exploded nearby, blasting shrapnel through his chest and back.59 In another account, a shell slammed into his tank. “A big boom echoed in my ears and an amazingly bright light blinded my eyes for an instant,” he said. He was knocked out. In the explosion a piece of the tank’s armor struck him. “I do not know for how long I remained unconscious. Perhaps, I was out for a considerable time. . . . Somebody was trying to undo my overalls. I felt as if my left shoulder and arm were someone else’s. . . . A fragment of the tank armor had passed through my left shoulder after a direct hit.”60 The official Soviet account, formerly embraced by Kalashnikov, was the most dramatic of all. In this version, Kalashnikov’s platoon commander, his head bandaged and bloodied, fought off a German assault on his regiment’s right flank. The officer managed to maneuver his platoon of T-34 tanks behind a group of Panzers, scattering the German infantry with machine-gun fire. The commander’s tank was immolated in an explosion, and Senior Sergeant Kalashnikov—shouting, “The dirty swine, they set fire to our commander!”—rushed his own T-34 forward to help. Kalashnikov’s tank was struck. A bright light flashed. He passed out. The account continues: “How long this went on, Kalashnikov didn’t know. When he opened his eyes, he saw Kuchum. ‘Mish, Mish, are you alive?’” In this version, Kalashnikov was wounded only in the shoulder; there is no mention of chest or back wounds.61

The account followed the mores of the Soviet hero tale. Soon Kalashnikov regained consciousness and was able to walk. Soaked in blood, he rode outside his damaged tank, exposed on the vehicle’s armor, to help his company pick a withdrawal route. He then refused medical treatment and left his unit only when his company commander ordered him to a hospital. In later accounts, Kalashnikov has said that in fact when he regained consciousness he found his tank company had vanished. By one of these later accounts, his wounds were serious enough that he could not fight, and after hiding for two days in a bunker he was ordered by a doctor to travel to a hospital on a truck. In another account, he said his battalion commander ordered him to the hospital. The various versions Kalashnikov has circulated all converged briefly at the same point, a moment in which Kalashnikov was transported by truck with a group of wounded fellow soldiers.

Setting aside the diverging particulars of Kalashnikov’s final battle and his medical case, the larger situation was certain: The Red Army was being routed as the wounded sergeant was driven off in search of a hospital. From the strategic confusion sowing fear in the Kremlin down to the tactical disarray of the units scattered around Bryansk, disaster was near. The German units were about to capture the city, which they would occupy until 1943. Panzer columns and light motorized patrols roamed the countryside. The truck with the wounded Red Army soldiers stopped at a village that seemed deserted, and Kalashnikov, the driver, and a lieutenant with burned hands reconnoitered the town. They were spotted by a German patrol, came under fire, and escaped. But as they returned to their friends, they discovered that the Germans had found the truck. Next came an incident that appears in all his memoirs: The Germans, Kalashnikov said, executed the wounded Soviet soldiers with close-range automatic fire. After the Germans drove away, the three surviving Soviet soldiers emerged from hiding and gathered at the truck to look in horror upon the dead and dying men, whom they had left only a few minutes before. “Our lieutenant was already vomiting and suddenly I doubled over, too, and threw up,” Kalashnikov wrote.62

The official Soviet account is again much more dramatic. In it, as the truck moved through the countryside, Kalashnikov and the other wounded soldiers talked at length and in detail about the need for a new automatic weapon in the Red Army. When they reached the deserted village, Kalashnikov volunteered in spite of his injury to reconnoiter the town and set off with another soldier. They were fired upon by a German patrol but escaped and returned to a place near the truck and saw that the Germans had surrounded it. As they watched, the doctor protested about a Nazi soldier touching a wounded Russian, and a German hit him with a rifle butt. One of the Red Army soldiers on the truck—Kuchum, who in this version had tended to Kalashnikov after he was wounded—wrestled a gun from the Germans and killed a German officer, but was shot dead in the struggle. The Germans then leveled their submachine guns and opened fire. “Barbarians!” the Red Army doctor shouted as he died. Kalashnikov opened fire with a pistol, but it was no use. He was chased away by the Germans’ superior firepower. Like much in the Soviet version, it is an engaging, powerful, and fully unverifiable tale.

By Kalashnikov’s later telling, the three survivors wandered the countryside and were taken in and hidden and fed by a peasant, who happened to be a doctor. The man cleaned the soldiers’ wounds and dressed them with new bandages. The soldiers hid in a pile of hay for two or three days, and at last, after more days of walking, reached Red Army lines near the village of Trubchevsk. “We gave ourselves up as prisoners of our own army, since we’d crossed German lines and weren’t carrying any papers,” Kalashnikov wrote. “Every Russian soldier’s worst nightmare was to fall into German hands: We’d avoided the worst, and were safe. After a short interrogation, the lieutenant and I were sent to hospital, while Kolya reassumed his job as an army driver.”

Sergeant Kalashnikov’s first sustained treatment for his injuries was at Evacuation Hospital 1133 in Yelets, a city about four hundred miles south of Moscow.63 There he stayed into early 1942, among wounded soldiers in a crowded ward. In Yelets, he said, his interest in arms design took serious shape. “My roommates included tankers, infantrymen, artillerymen and sappers. We often argued about the advantages and shortcomings of various kinds of weapons. I did not take active part in those debates, yet they made an impression on me. I listened with particular interest to those who had themselves attacked the enemy with a submachine gun or checked enemy attacks on their trenches. Their description of how the automatic weapon worked in close combat was most convincing.”64 In Yelets, Kalashnikov said, he was racked with nightmares of the execution of the wounded soldiers in the truck, and of being underequipped against German troops. “I woke up, my heart beating fast, only to hear the moans of my neighbors. They were having nightmares, too, and woke up one by one: a wonderful silence fell on the room, but not because everybody was asleep—on the contrary. I, too, lay in the dark with my eyes open and thought: How come? We had been told before the war that we would not incur heavy casualties and that we would fight with up-to-date weapons. But now, whoever I asked said that he had to share a rifle with another soldier when fighting. . . . Where were our automatic arms?”65

Kalashnikov said he began reading Encyclopedia of Arms, by General Fedorov, the czarist and Soviet armorer, which he found in the hospital library. As his understanding of arms grew he started to sketch possible designs. “That helped me forget those nightmares,” he said. “And the constant pain would seemingly go away for a while.” A wounded lieutenant from a paratrooper regiment befriended him, he said, and encouraged him to work. (In the official Soviet account, Kalashnikov was urged on by a Moscow storekeeper who had become an army scout.)66 The collection of wounded soldiers, by Kalashnikov’s telling, together knew the history of most Soviet and German weapons on the battlefield. Kalashnikov absorbed their words, he said, kept at his sketches, and imagined ways to equip the beleaguered Soviet troops.

In early 1942 he was granted a convalescent leave and boarded a train intending to return to Kurya. His two sisters still lived there. En route, however, Kalashnikov said he changed his mind, choosing to head to Matai, where the railway depot might provide a workshop. He wanted to try to convert his sketches to a submachine gun. According to Kalashnikov’s memoirs, the chief of the locomotive department granted his request and assigned several people to assist him, including a welder, a fitter, and a machinist. A group of women at the depot’s technical bureau helped with the drawings. After three months, he said, his ad hoc design team had its prototype—a “black lacquered submachine gun number one,” he called it, which fired 7.62x25 Tokarev pistol cartridges.67 (How long Kalashnikov worked on the first prototype is a subject of confusion. His memoirs say three months. In an interview, he said he worked “about half a year.”)68 Once the crude prototype was ready, the team held firing tests, first to ensure that it functioned and then to examine its accuracy. The official Soviet version is again more colorful. According to Kalashnikov’s party chronicler, the depot chief was not interested in helping the sergeant, but a Communist Party organizer saw the error in this, intervened, and convinced him to allow Kalashnikov to work on the depot’s grounds. Often in the official version, party officials appear to provide well-timed pushes.69

Sergeant Kalashnikov settled into Matai, taking up residence in a single-story wooden home and fathering a son, Viktor Mikhailovich, who was born late in 1942.70 By then Kalashnikov had moved again, away from the child and the child’s mother.71 Once the weapon was finished, a local official decided to send the weapon and the sergeant to the military registration and enlistment headquarters in Alma-Ata, the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Kalashnikov made the train trip, drinking vodka along the way with fellow travelers. He arrived in the capital, presented himself to a lieutenant serving as the commissar’s adjutant, and announced that he, a tank sergeant on convalescent leave, had made a new weapon. He said he would like to show it to the commissar. He was arrested. “This was war time and everybody was very much on guard,” Kalashnikov said. “The question was, where did this staff sergeant get the means to develop a machine pistol?”72

Relieved of his weapon and of his belt, Sergeant Kalashnikov spent four days locked in a guardhouse, asking each of his cell mates, as they were released, to contact people on his behalf. On the fourth day the adjutant appeared and arranged his release. (Unsurprisingly, the official version makes no mention of an arrest.) A car waited outside, to bring the sergeant to the republic’s Central Committee. Kalashnikov, it seemed, had enlisted the help of local party contacts he had made in Matai during the late 1930s as a member of the Komsomol. The official who met him affected the mannerisms and dress of Stalin, as many officials did at the time. He had no expertise in small arms, but, by Kalashnikov’s telling, he was impressed that the weapon had been created in a railroad workshop by a sergeant with no special training. He arranged for Kalashnikov to continue his work at an institute in the city under the mentorship of a specialist in aircraft weapons. Hundreds of Soviet design institutes and manufacturing enterprises had relocated to the east, out of reach of German columns and aircraft. Working from a small adobe building, Kalashnikov refined his weapon at the Moscow Aviation Institute, which had moved to Alma-Ata.

Later, he was sent to the Dzerzhinsky Artillery Academy, which had relocated from western Russia to Samarkand, in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. There, early in the summer of 1942,iii Kalashnikov met Major General Anatoly A. Blagonravov, a Soviet academician who worked during the war on automatic arms. The general examined Kalashnikov’s prototype. It had technical problems and was not better than submachine guns already in Soviet use, including the PPSh. Kalashnikov has offered different versions of this meeting. In 1968 he said General Blagonravov reassigned him to the academy. “What did you do then?” an interviewer asked him. He answered: “What I was advised to do. I had to remain at the Academy and study.”73 In later accounts, and in the official tale, Kalashnikov said the general intervened quickly on his behalf, having understood that whatever was wrong with Kalashnikov’s submachine gun, the fact of its creation demonstrated the sergeant’s commitment and talent. He recommended that Kalashnikov be transferred to a setting where he could pursue his design ideas full-time. In one memoir, Kalashnikov quoted from the recommendation he said the general made.

Despite a negative judgment on the submachine gun as a whole, I note the large and laborious work done by Comrade Kalashnikov with great love and persistence under extremely unfavorable local conditions. In this work Comrade Kalashnikov displayed indisputable talent in designing the submachine gun, especially if one takes into consideration his insufficient technical education and a total lack of experience in gunsmithery. I consider it advisable to send Comrade Kalashnikov to study at a technical school, at least to short-term courses for military technicians in accordance with his wish, as the first step possible for him in wartime.74

In Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, General Blagonravov’s letter was presented to Lieutenant General Pavel S. Kurbatkin, an officer who had helped defeat the basmachi Islamic uprising in the region twenty years before, and who commanded the Central Asian Military District. The general ordered Kalashnikov to Moscow, to the Main Artillery Department. His journey to Schurovo began. On the train, he rode with Sergei G. Simonov, an established designer. The two discussed the sergeant’s prospects. General Blagonravov had told Kalashnikov to read widely and to study all existing firearms. “Without knowing the old you will not make the new well,” he had said.75 Simonov offered similar advice.

Suddenly Simonov squinted and smiled;

“Now tell me: Do you like to dismantle things?”

“You bet!” I exclaimed. “And I put something back together and then take it apart again to see every projection, every groove, every depression, every washer and every screw in order to understand exactly how everything works.”

“Well, then, when we get to the testing range, the first thing you should do is dismantle and assemble every gun. Feel the metal structures with your hands and eyes—and you will understand everything better, and it will be easier for you to perfect your gun.”

“I’ll do that, Sergei Gavrilovich,” I assured Simonov.

I thought I saw him glance at my tanker’s insignia.

“We all must do our jobs! Otherwise one could end up firing a pistol from a tank.”76

Upon arriving at Schurovo, Kalashnikov frequented the polygon’s museum, which had an extensive collection of Russian and foreign weapons. “The specimens of arms displayed gave a graphic picture of the evolution of arms,” he said. “I took rifles, carbines, pistols, submachine guns and machine guns in my hands and thought about how unique various designing solutions were, how unpredictable the flight of creative thought could be, and how similar Russian and foreign arms sometimes were.” He added: “Sometimes I noticed that originality did not always go well with expediency.”77 Kalashnikov was also drawn to another collection: prototypes of Russian and Soviet firearms that had not been selected for production. All of these weapons had flaws, but many had an unusual component or represented a novel approach. Kalashnikov tried to determine what about each weapon had made it a failure and inspected weapons from this scrap heap to see if any had a valuable feature, unrelated to its disqualification, that might be applied in a future design.

For much of the next two years, Kalashnikov shuttled between Schurovo and institutes in Tashkent and Alma-Ata. He tried to perfect his submachine gun, but the Red Army’s evaluators rejected it, saying that it still did not improve on existing models and was too complicated. (By the account of one of his supervisors at Schurovo, Kalashnikov’s work was of little promise: “Those samples were not even tested, since they were very primitive. . . . I can state with responsibility that during his work in Kazakhstan he did not create anything useable.”)78 In late 1943, he participated in a contest for a light machine gun and was selected as a finalist. Again his submission did not win approval. “The failure wounded my pride,” he said, and claimed that after these disappointments, he considered leaving the armorer profession and returning to the front. Instead, he said, he was encouraged to remain at his job by the chief of the polygon’s Inventions Department. In October 1944 he tried to work out a semiautomatic carbine matched to the new M1943 intermediate cartridge. His project was discontinued when Simonov’s entrant became the front runner. Every gun he had tried to design had failed. “I suffered probably a hundred times more failures,” he said, “than other designers.”79

Early in 1946, three and a half years after leaving Central Asia for his new career, Sergeant Kalashnikov had his break: selection to continue in the trials to design an avtomat for the M1943 cartridge.

After being chosen for the second phase, he was transferred from Schurovo to Kovrov, an industrial center. Roughly two hundred miles east and north of Moscow, Kovrov was officially a city whose workers manufactured excavators. In accordance with the Soviet cover assigned to it, the plant where Kalashnikov was assigned was engaged in the manufacture of motorcycles. In fact it was dedicated to the production of automatic arms, including many of the machine guns and submachine guns that had driven the Nazis off, among them the PPSh. When Sergeant Kalashnikov arrived, the plant had recently been awarded the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s highest award, for its successes arming the Red Army. During the war, the Communist Youth, working with factory workers who logged eleven-hour days on the assembly lines, constructed a new shop and production center for the Goryunov machine gun.80 Nationalist fervor in Kovrov ran strong, at least among the officials. “A special exultant atmosphere reigned there,” Kalashnikov wrote.81

The assignment came at a difficult time for Kalashnikov. Repression and war had scattered the Kalashnikov family, and now that the war was over, news of his family’s grief was reaching him. Two of his older brothers—Ivan and Andrei—had been killed. The husband of his sister Gasha, who had been the dedicated party man in Kurya, had been lost in the war, too. The direct family tally meant that of the seven male members in Timofey Kalashnikov’s peasant household in 1930, only two survived the next fifteen years unharmed—Timofey died in exile, Viktor had been sentenced to a labor gang, Ivan and Andrei were killed in action, Mikhail had been wounded. This sort of suffering distilled the sorrow of the Stalin years. The war losses also gave meaning to the nation’s pride in its role and sacrifices in defeating Hitler’s Germany—the Soviet Union’s greatest accomplishment and a subject used to distract attention from the system’s cruelty and failures. Kalashnikov was too busy to return home and comfort his bereaved relatives. The avtomat project demanded his attention. His life was also changing. Though he had a young son and wife in Matai, on the Kazakh steppe, he had fallen in love with Katya, the draftswoman at the NIPSMVO design bureau. He was filled with longing as he left for Kovrov. Katya had to remain behind.

For a young arms designer on an important project, Kovrov held professional promise. Revered names in Russian armaments circles had worked at the plant, including Fedorov and Vasily A. Degtyarev, a Fedorov protégé and Stalin favorite who had been promoted to general-grade rank and given a black ZIS, the imitation Packard limousine manufactured by hand for the party’s elite. When the arms plant received the Order of Lenin, General Degtyarev had been granted the Order of Suvorov, a decoration typically given to leaders who excelled in combat. Such was the general’s stature. He had achieved the rarefied place of rewards and fame that Stalin’s machine doled out to its favored sons. Kovrov was a place for arms-design greatness. And with the push for an avtomat, there was fresh urgency and opportunity. A cadre of draftsmen, engineers, machinists, and other specialists were pressed into service. Kalashnikov was soon paired with his new bureau.

Over the course of a year,82 the collective made a batch of prototype rifles. The outline of what would become the AK-47 was only faintly evident:83 the weapon’s overall length, the steeply raised front sight post, the distinctly curved magazine, and the characteristic gas tube above the barrel. But many Soviet efforts at automatics looked like this; these were not unusual traits. The resemblance to the eventual design was superficial. Internal components were still to be reworked. Kalashnikov and his collective nonetheless were proud. They had a gun. “At last the time came,” he said, “when we could actually touch the whole thing, glistening with lacquer and lubricant.”84

Sergeant Kalashnikov worked alongside Aleksandr Zaitsev, an engineer who had recently left the army. One design feature was essential. They chose to make their prototypes’ parts loose-fitting, rather than snug, thinking that this might make the weapons less likely to jam when dirty, inadequately lubricated, or clogged with carbon from heavy firing. This was a counterintuitive choice to many Western designers, who had experience with the precision tools that allowed assembly lines to work within tight tolerances and mill parts to an exacting fit. Some Russian designers favored that approach, too. “Tokarev had adopted one principle which determined the overall shape of his weapons: all the elements were stuck to one another so that not even dust could get in,” Kalashnikov wrote. “My approach is different: all the elements are spaced out, as if they were hanging in air.”85 The approach was not original. It had been used by Simonov for the SKS and by Sudayev in the AS-44—the weapon that had been the front runner until Sudayev fell sick.86 It appeared to reach to the stamped-metal Soviet submachine guns, which were made with a looser fit to accommodate the anticipated shrinking and stretching associated with stamping and pressing metal sheets. It was becoming a trait in general-issue Soviet small arms and would distinguish them from their Western counterparts. To those who did not recognize the reasons behind the choice, the AK-47 could seem crude. Anyone who removed the return spring from a Kalashnikov, for example, would find that many parts, when not held by its tension, would slide and rattle. This was not crudity. This was exactly as the AK-47 was designed, and contributed to the weapon’s ability to withstand field use.

In 1947 the teams gathered with their prototypes back at Schurovo for the field trials, to be held from June 30 to August 12.87 The new weapons would compete against one another, while three others—the AS-44 prototype made by Sudayev, a captured German sturmgewehr, and a PPSh—would be used as controls. Kalashnikov was of two minds. In Schurovo he was reunited with Katya, and the pair was married at the garrison. “The testing range became our registry office,” he said.88 His personal life had taken a shape that would last for decades. His professional confidence was strained. He was anxious about the tests and wished that if he was to be eliminated, the elimination would be quick. His weapon, listed as the AK-46, was heavy, weighing more than nine and a half pounds.89 He doubted its design. “My situation was not enviable as I was becoming increasingly critical of my imperfect creation,” he said.90 He worried and fretted, listening to the rifles being fired, and was able to distinguish the sound of his from the others. Once, as the AK-46 was being put through a course that included ten shots, the shooting ceased after a few rounds. The silence tormented him. Had his weapon jammed? The tester who answered the phone laughed. “A moose crossed the firing line so we had to stop shooting,”91 he told him.

Ultimately none of the submissions were accepted outright in the second phase; all had defects. Several weapons were eliminated, and three92—those submitted by Aleksei A. Bulkin, Aleksandr A. Dementyev, and Kalashnikov—were ordered to be reworked and brought back for a second round. Their konstruktors were issued detailed instructions for improving their arms and sent to their workshops.

The AK-46 test rifles that Kalashnikov brought to the firing trials were much different from the rifles he would return with a short while later. An overhaul was to occur, which would give generations of assault rifles their distinctive qualities. At this point, the available record, already obscured by propaganda and conflicting statements, becomes cloudy once more. Many years later, Kalashnikov, by then a lieutenant general and a Soviet hero in the mold of General Degtyarev, would describe his thinking as he prepared. “In order to achieve the best results in this ‘run-off’ contest, I had to make a breakthrough in the design, not just improve it,”93 he said. By this account, at Kalashnikov’s insistence, he and Aleksandr Zaitsev made a series of changes that fundamentally altered the prototype and assured its selection.

The pair had already borrowed features from Allied and Axis weapons and others from his own previous work. In a hurried fashion in late 1947 at the design bureau in Kovrov, a new weapon emerged. Kalashnikov and Zaitsev shortened the AK-46’s barrel by 80 millimeters. They altered its main operating system, combining the bolt carrier and the gas piston into one component, a modification that closely resembled the previous prototype by Bulkin. The alteration proved invaluable. By reducing the number of parts, it made the rifle easier to disassemble and clean. A second result was more important. The combined bolt carrier and gas piston were now massive, and by giving these parts heft, the designers provided the AK-47’s operating system an abundance of excess energy every time a shot was fired. Each time the piston and bolt were pushed backward by the gas vented from the barrel into the expansion chamber, this energy was available to push through any dirt or accumulated carbon inside the weapon. The massive operating system, combined with the looser fit from the earlier prototype, would later give the rifle much of its legendary reputation.

The team was at work on other components, too. The trigger mechanism was also overhauled—a project that seems to have been led by Vladimir S. Deikin, a Soviet army12 major and test official assigned to work with Kalashnikov.94 The bureau also changed the safety catch, removing the AK-46’s small selector lever and replacing it with a large sheet-metal switch. As a result of this revision, when the weapon was on safe this lever served as a protective cover over the bolt and the area around the chamber and blocked sand, dust, and dirt.95 They also designed a large, one-piece receiver cover. The modifications completed much of what would become the AK-47 and made the already simple prototype more simple still. Time was tight. The field tests had ended in August. Revised prototypes were due back at NIPSMVO in mid-December. Zaitsev said that by working day and night, the group managed to finish the documents for the new design in a month, and a month and a half later had made the first of the new models in wood and steel. By November they had made three models. “We felt that we were on an uphill path,” he said.96

Exactly who was responsible for all of these final modifications is unclear. General Kalashnikov would describe a near epiphany, a eureka moment. “I came up with several new ideas that turned my life upside down. I completely altered the general structure. As the rules of the competition didn’t allow me to change its overall design, I had to pretend I was working on a mere improvement. Sasha Zaitsev, my faithful right-hand man from the start of the competition, was at this time the only person aware of my real plan.”97 He added, “Our design represented a real leap forward in the history of automatic weapons construction. We broke all the stereotypes that had dominated the field.”98 He also claimed the changes were related to an inherent flexibility in his design style.

Often times designers become affixed to a certain idea and hesitate to discard it. They are so attached to their original concept, you could say, like a spinster to her cats! I am just the opposite. Today this idea seems good, tomorrow I might just toss it. The day after I might do the same until such a point, when I can feel the design is completed. When you work with somebody who is afraid to discard an idea that has outlived its usefulness, you notice that they find it difficult to part with it. They think their accomplishments should last for all times. I am referring here to the need for a certain flexibility (of mind), i.e., the ability to test as many ideas as possible and not get too attached to any one in particular. This enables one to develop models of high reliability. . . . There is no limit to improvement!99

That was Kalashnikov’s version. Zaitsev remembered events differently. He said that in fact he had conceived of the changes. Kalashnikov, he said, opposed them. His recommendations were made at Kovrov after Kalashnikov returned from NIPSMVO with the judges’ recommendations. “I suggested the Kalashnikov assault rifle be entirely redesigned,” Zaitsev wrote. Kalashnikov resisted, Zaitsev said, because he thought there was not enough time to overhaul the design before the final trials. “I managed to convince him I was right.”100 D. N. Bolotin, a Soviet arms writer who was friendly with many designers, thought enough of Zaitsev’s account to include it without challenge in his published work.101 Aleksandr Malimon, an officer who worked as a test officer at the polygon, also chronicled Zaitsev’s contributions as matters of fact.102 These accounts present a credible challenge to Kalashnikov’s accounts, which blended the official Soviet biography with post-perestroika inserts and edits.

Further challenges to the rifle’s parentage have also suggested that Kalashnikov had not been forthcoming about the origins of the AK-47. Central to these claims were two allegations that flowed from forces both historical and personal. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, many legends were questioned by a population weary of propaganda and state lies; this larger re-examination led to a revisiting of the official story of the AK-47. Kalashnikov appeared to have drawn some of the attention on himself. Several colleagues thought the designer, who had basked in state glory and enjoyed benefits and favored treatment for decades, had assigned in his writing and public remarks too much credit to himself. They came forward with a fuller story.103 Their counterclaims, largely ignored in the West, have proven long-lasting within arms circles in Russia.

One allegation asserted that Kalashnikov’s final prototype included a primary design feature—the integrated bolt carrier and gas piston—lifted from Bulkin’s earlier submission. Bulkin led a design bureau from Tula, a city south of Moscow that was another center of Soviet arms production. Unlike Kalashnikov, who was adept at endearing himself to his army and party superiors, Bulkin had a quarrelsome personality. He was not well liked by the judges.

The other allegation asserted that Kalashnikov had inside help from a testing officer at the range, Major Vasily Fyodorovich Lyuty, who provided Kalashnikov many ideas he applied to his prototype. Lyuty, who worked at Schurovo, claimed that he shepherded the early Kalashnikov design through a disappointing first showing and overruled a stern report from U. I. Pchelintsev, a testing engineer, which concluded: “The system is incomplete and cannot be further developed.” In all, Lyuty claimed, he recommended eighteen changes to the first prototype, which Kalashnikov accepted. Pchelintsev’s rejection letter was then rewritten.

I felt the test frustration deeply with Mikhail, because we were friends. This is why when he asked me, as the chief of the testing unit, to have a look at the gun and Pchelintsev’s account to outline the improvement program, I agreed of course. In fact, I took up all the subsequent business in my hands, thank God I had the knowledge and experience needed for it. Having studied the test report scrupulously I came to the conclusion that the design had to be redone almost anew, since according to my calculations 18 improvements of different complexity had to be made. I told Mikhail about it and explained what, and most important, how, this can be done to the avtomat. With the account of my remarks, I changed Pchelintsev’s conclusion and recommended the gun for further improvement.104

Major Lyuty added that after the first round of tests, he and Kalashnikov worked side by side, along with Colonel Deikin, and the trio made the prototype that became a finalist. Major Lyuty later fell into official disfavor. He was arrested in April 1951 and taken to Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Soviet intelligence service, where he was beaten and accused of preparing a terrorist act against party leaders, of circulating anti-Soviet propaganda, and of participation in a counterrevolutionary group. He feared he would be executed. After torture and with coaching from another inmate, he agreed to confess to involvement in anti-Soviet propaganda. He was sentenced to ten years. Lyuty served four years in a labor camp, cutting wood near Kansk, and then was transferred to a sharaga near Moscow, where scientists and designers served their sentences. In 1954, after Stalin died, he was rehabilitated and returned to work, but not before Kalashnikov had become a proletarian legend and model of socialist virtue. Kalashnikov’s public standing precluded serious challenge to his record in Soviet times.

On one level, claims that the Kalashnikov design bureau, by appropriating elements of Bulkin’s design or accepting help from a test officer, tainted the contest do not account for the nature of the Soviet army’s pursuit of new arms. The Soviet Union did not operate by Western rules. Notions of intellectual property were incompletely formed. Officials encouraged designers to copy features of any weapon that could be usefully applied to their prototypes, even weapons in development by competitors.105 Kalashnikov’s final design did not copy Bulkin’s test model in full; it incorporated a central idea but changed details, including the location of the cams. Kalashnikov never denied that he was an aggressive borrower. Collecting good ideas from existing firearms was, to him, fundamental to sound design. One of his reflections was resonant on this point. Sometimes originality does not go with expediency, he said. The first avtomat that his bureau produced for the M1943 cartridge, the AK-46, borrowed from John C. Garand, the designer of the standard infantry rifle for the United States, and his bureau tinkered with variations on Schmeisser’s trigger assembly, obtained by studying captured German arms. More broadly, as tests for an automatic weapon proceeded from Sudayev’s AS-44 to Kalashnikov’s final prototype, many submissions by different designers came to resemble one another in significant ways. Design convergence seemed to have been a welcome byproduct, even an aim, of holding competitions.

Kalashnikov always rebutted his accusers. He berated a Russian newspaper for publishing a story arguing that he had copied Bulkin’s work in an untoward way. “Certain people would like to cast doubt on the paternity of the AK-47,” he wrote. “I’m 83 years old, but fortunately I’m still here to reply to those mendacious accusations!” The questions persisted. The changes in his prototypes just before the final phase were so striking, and a central change bore enough physical and conceptual resemblance to Bulkin’s earlier design, that they pointed to the broader nature of the AK-47’s creation, which had been cocooned in a simplistic narrative for decades. They suggested that the weapon came into existence via expansive collaboration rather than springing from the mind of one man.

Whatever the exact origins of the final changes and whoever deserved the credit—Kalashnikov, Zaitsev, Bulkin, Lyuty, Deikin, and others—the AK-47 had taken its recognizable form. And many of its mechanical merits were evident. Kalashnikov described an encounter with Vasily Degtyarev, the general who had designed some of Russia’s most successful arms. The meeting, if the account is to believed, said much about the redesigned weapon’s potential. It occurred as the last prototype neared completion. The general and Kalashnikov met at Kovrov. Someone in the group proposed that they show each other their work. “Cards on the table,” he said.

The graying sixty-six-year-old general and the twenty-eight-year-old sergeant presented their weapons. Kalashnikov had disassembled his, so the general could examine each part. These two men were not the sort who would be expected to meet like this. The general had been predestined to be an armorer. Born into a family of czarist gunsmiths in Tula in 1880, he began working in the city’s arms factory at age eleven. Like Fedorov, he endeared himself to the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution and began working on automatics. As Leon Trotsky was building a socialist army, he worked at the gun works at Kovrov, which became his home. Fedorov was aging. Degtyarev was heir apparent to be the Soviet Union’s konstruktor emeritus. His chest was adorned with state prizes and medals; his party contacts were extensive. With his short gray hair, parted to the side, he vaguely resembled Nikita Khrushchev, though he had a restrained and dignified air. He looked at the AK-47, the work of unknowns. As Kalashnikov tells it, he was impressed.

All of a sudden, General Degtyarev made this staggering declaration: “The way Sergeant Kalashnikov has put the components of his model together is much more ingenious than mine. His model has more of a future—of that I’m certain. I no longer wish to participate in the final phase of the competition.”

He’d said all of that loud enough for everyone to hear. I can remember the moment perfectly well. The general was in uniform, decorated with his medal, the star of a Hero of Socialist Labour. I think that it was very brave of him to think in this way. It was an act of great honesty, and indeed nobility—especially in view of the fact that he was one of the “favourites” of the regime.106

This story also shifted in its multiple tellings. Kalashnikov told a curator of the Smithsonian Institution, whom he befriended, that General Degtyarev made his declaration during the final testing.107 In another memoir, he recalled the moment differently. In this version, soon before the final tests, officials from the Main Artillery Department visited Kovrov.

Degtyarev gave a tired smile, as if under the pressure of an invisible weight. His movements seemed sluggish to me and he shuffled noticeably. However, he quickly became animated when he saw our prototype. “Well, let’s see what the young are up to now.” Degtyarev started to examine each part, each component of the prototype which I was taking apart right on his table. “Yes, it’s a clever piece of work,” said Degtyarev as he took the bolt carrier and the receiver cover in his hands. “Your solution to the fire selector problem is certainly original.” Speaking aloud, Degtyarev did not conceal his opinion. At the same time, we were inspecting his assault rifle. It seemed rather heavy to us and more improvements could have been made as regards component interaction. But Degtyarev, after scrutinizing our prototype again, this time as an assembled unit, suddenly concluded: “I do not think there is much sense in sending our prototypes to the tests. The design of the sergeant’s prototype is better and more promising. You can see it with the naked eye. So, comrades,” he said addressing the officials, “perhaps we will have to send our prototypes to a museum.”… Degtyarev, a man of high morals, was most exacting and honest in everything.108

The varying accounts of a meeting that obviously held high significance to Kalashnikov are important for another reason: They diverge not only from each other but from the official Soviet version. The jumble hints yet again at the unreliability of the long-standing narrative of the AK-47’s invention and of many of its sources. In his memoirs, Kalashnikov said he had never met Degtyarev until this moment. In interviews with the curator,109 and in the Soviet account, Degtyarev was a presence earlier. Kalashnikov, in the Smithsonian interview, said he met Degtyarev in a competition for an automatic rifle for the 7.62x54R cartridge; this would have been at least two years before. The Soviet biography both contradicted Kalashnikov’s chronology and produced a sentimental vignette that propagandists spun around the designer for decades. In it, Degtyarev had a cameo, serving as a wizened Soviet hero offering advice to an armorer-to-be at a firing range on a summer day. The sound of grasshoppers rose from the fields. Kalashnikov was nearly overcome with excitement, but dared to ask a question.

“Comrade general,” the senior sergeant said suddenly, “What qualities in your opinion are necessary for a designer-gunsmith?”

Degtyarev turned toward him. “A gunsmith? Ah then, have you been chosen as a gunsmith, Kalashnikov?”

Surikoviv pricked up his ears. So this was Kalashnikov! And it seemed that Degtyarev remembered his name. He looked first at Degtyarev then at the questioner, trying not to miss a word. The question was interesting.

“Gunsmiths are made of the same clay as everyone else. So let’s simply say: what qualities does a gunsmith need. I think that first of all it’s a love of work and persistence. I have spoken more than once of creative fiber. I’ll say this to you now: this fiber is a love of invention which gives a man no rest. Even in your sleep you see your machine as it would be if it were manufactured real . . .” Degtyarev paused and looked up toward the top of the pine trees. “I don’t know if you can develop this creative fiber. I have felt it since my very earliest years. But as to persistence it is possible and necessary to cultivate it. I discipline myself constantly.”

He was silent. No one wanted to break the silence.110

This was the sort of narrative that informed the West’s understanding of the AK-47’s origins. To a large extent, it still does.

In many ways, it is easier to describe what the first AK-47 was, than to describe its origins. To understand how this automatic rifle worked, it is necessary first to grasp the operation of a more simple firearm. The process begins with a cartridge, which provides both the bullet that will fly out of the muzzle and the energy that will propel it. The bullet is at one end, crimped watertight to a metallic case. Inside the case is a granular propellant, known, in layman’s terms, as gunpowder, though modern smokeless propellants are much different from the true gunpowder of the nineteenth century and before. The propellant stores latent energy. Once a cartridge is seated snugly in a weapon’s steel chamber, the rifle is fired when its firing pin strikes a small primer at the bottom of the cartridge case. In a flash, the primer ignites the propellant, which is converted at nearly explosive speeds to gases. The release of energy liberates the bullet from the crimp in a manner reminiscent of the way a champagne cork flies from a bottle. The bullet has nowhere to go but down the length of the barrel, so it accelerates through the open path toward the muzzle, pushed by expanding gases. As the bullet moves it picks up spin imparted by grooves in the barrel, known as rifling, that force the bullet to rotate on its central axis. The spin will stabilize the bullet in flight, reducing drift and allowing it to travel truer to the shooter’s aim. As the bullet leaves the barrel the excess energy that put it to flight is manifested in several ways—recoil, muzzle flash, noise, and a rush of gas venting into the air.

To make a rifle that will fire automatically using energy from the cartridge, designers must capture some of that excess energy and convert it to the work of clearing the spent shell casing from the chamber, reloading, and firing the next round. In the design chosen by the Kalashnikov team, the rifle bleeds a portion of gas via a diversion. This is done through a small port in the top of the barrel, about 5.5 inches from the muzzle, that slopes backward at a forty-five-degree angle. Each time a bullet passes the port, pushed by the expanding gases, excess gas rushes through the port into a tube seated above the barrel that serves as an expansion chamber. Within the chamber is a piston. The gas forces the piston backward, toward the shoulder of the shooter, in the split second before the bullet leaves the muzzle. The piston is integrated with a bolt carrier, and as this entire assembly moves backward it unlocks and withdraws the bolt from the chamber and extracts the empty cartridge case. As the bolt continues backward and clear of the chamber, the spring-loaded magazine, mounted at the bottom of the weapon, forces the next cartridge up and into place. The piston and bolt’s journey is meanwhile arrested by a return spring, which now, fully compressed, pushes the piston forward and seats the fresh cartridge snug in the chamber, where it is struck by the firing pin, restarting the cycle. The system is theoretically simple. In the AK-47, it was mechanically simple, too. To describe it today is to describe a well-known technology, like that of a lightbulb, a water pump, or the carburetor on a 1965 Ford. In late fall 1947, a weapon that could do these things reliably at this size was more than new. It was a product that fit the aspirations and carefully cultivated image of the Communist Party, and the army that served it, and the needs of soldiers in war.

*   *   *

The Kalashnikov prototype would still undergo fine-tuning, but it was now the clear front runner. It was both imperfect and special at once. What made it special? Later, after extensive testing and considerable refinement, its simplicity and its reliability would become known. But even before those results were understood, both as a mechanical device and as a combat firearm, it marked a profoundly smart compromise. Whenever an army sets out to choose a rifle, it faces choices, and many of the choices inherent in rifle design are difficult. It is easy to draw up specifications, a wish list of what a rifle might do. The ideal rifle for a nation’s combat forces would be a weapon with a long range, a high degree of accuracy, and knock-down power against any man the shooter could see. It would be eminently reliable in a variety of climates and field conditions, light in weight, and small in size, with an intuitive, ergonomic design that would make it easy to master and comfortable in the hand. Soldiers would be able to move quickly with it through confined spaces, as when entering and exiting an armored vehicle, running though a doorway, climbing through a window, or rushing through underbrush. It would also be able to be fired semiautomatically (one round at a time) for shooting precisely at distinct targets, or automatically (in bursts) for overpowering close-in targets and for delivering a high volume of bullets to suppress an area or enemy force. When fired, this rifle’s recoil (or “kick”) would be light. Its muzzle rise would be minimal, so that when fired automatically its bullets could be fired level to one another, and not move gradually upward, first over the target, and with subsequent rounds, even higher, into air. Moreover, the ideal rifle would be easy to take apart, simple to clean, and a cinch to reassemble—so well considered that a user could put it back together intuitively. Not only would it have few moving parts, it would have no small or fragile parts that might be lost or broken when servicing a rifle at night, or in the woods, or in combat. It would resist rust inside and out, and would not tend to seize up or become sluggish when dirty, blackened with carbon, or coated in sand or mud. All of these traits would make it an ideal device for the infantry, or for arming civilians for civil defense. But it would not be enough for a rifle to be perfect in field use. The nation would have preferences, too. The treasurer would want the weapon to be inexpensive and long-lasting, so as not to be replaced for many years. And the generals would ask that it be easy to manufacture, so that it could be available now and mass-produced quickly in the event of war.

Such a rifle does not exist. It probably never will. There are many reasons for this, but they all come down to compromises. In choosing one feature, designers eliminate other traits. Take muzzle velocity, which is an element of effective range. The instant a bullet departs a rifle’s muzzle, gravity and the environment work on it, and it begins to decelerate and to drop. To achieve the high velocities required for long range, barrels must be long enough for a bullet to build up speed. In this manner, they depart the muzzle at such velocity, say twenty-five hundred or more feet per second, that they do not drop significantly over the course of two hundred or three hundred yards. But as barrel length increases, more steel is used, and the rifle becomes heavier, more cumbersome, and more expensive. Want a rifle that has long range and loads itself between shots? Adding such features adds complexity. A manually loaded bolt-action rifle can be as straightforward in construction as in use. Self-loading abilities require new components, and choices of gas tubes, springs, pistons, and rods. Add automatic fire, and the rifle needs some sort of selector switch that lets the shooter choose between settings: safe, semi, and automatic. And adding automatic fire means that the rifle will be subjected to more strain and much more heat. This requires a stronger, heavier design to withstand these burdens and remain reliable and safe. This will drive up weight and costs, too.

Until World War II, when rifles were designed, they were designed to have some, but not all, of these traits. Then came the breakthrough couples—the 7.92 Kurz and the sturmgewehr, followed by the M1943 cartridge and the Kalashnikov design bureau’s final prototype. As compromises go, these cartridges and rifles represented a pair of design feats. And after the German models fell out of production, their Soviet offspring appeared. Like the 7.92 Kurz, the M1943 claimed the largely uncharted ballistic territory between pistol and rifle rounds. But it cheated a little toward the rifle. And the AK-47 prototype took its place between the submachine gun and the traditional infantry rifle. But it cheated toward the submachine gun in size and weight. The result was a weapon that had the necessary firepower within the ranges at which most combat occurred, and yet was, at last, light enough to be carried by one man, along with a robust load of ammunition. The numbers made it clear. Rifles often were too big for the full range of uses. The Russian semiautomatic rifles in the Great Patriotic War, designed by Tokarev, exceeded four feet in length and weighed nearly nine pounds unloaded. The M1 Garand, the standard American infantry arm in World War II, exceeded forty-three inches and weighed almost ten pounds. Submachine guns were of a welcome size, but lacked range. The PPSh was thirty-three inches long and weighed eight pounds. The early American Thompson gun was almost a yard long and weighed nearly eleven pounds; a later form shed almost two inches but still came in heavy, at ten pounds and nine ounces. The Kovrov design bureau’s final prototype was just over thirty-four inches long and weighed slightly more than eight pounds—it was, at a glance, a weapon the size of a submachine gun that had much of a rifle’s power.

More than four years after the introduction of the M1943 cartridge, at last came time for the final field trials for an automatic weapon that would fire it. Tests began in NIPSMVO in mid-December 1947. Evaluating a proposed infantry rifle is an intensive process, typically involving engineering examinations, a series of firing tests for durability, accuracy, and reliability, and troop trials examining ergonomics and ease of use. The ballistics of the rifle and cartridge combination are also studied, including the so-called terminal ballistics—the effects the rounds have on objects they strike, from a wooden board to a car windshield to various parts of the human body, which can be determined, to a degree, by shooting large live mammals (adult pigs are a favorite; goats have often been used) or human cadavers.111 Rifles are subjected to extreme cold and heat, and subjected to firing courses at various ranges and rates of fire. Some weapons face lengthy firing drills while slicked with excessive lubricant, others with no lubricant at all.112 Testers try to break prototypes, and submit others to such extended firing, without rest or time to cool, that barrels can melt and wooden stocks can smolder, even burst into flames.113 Kalashnikov has provided few details over the years of the engineering testing of the weapon, and scant other details have been made public, though Western technical intelligence officials would conduct engineering tests on Kalashnikov rifles in the 1950s and early 1960s after defecting Soviet soldiers were dispossessed of their arms as they slipped through the Iron Curtain.114 Parts of the environmental testing have been shared.

At NIPSMVO, the loaded rifles were submerged for long periods in swamp water, then expected to fire. Then came the “sand bath,” with each rifle dragged through ash, broken bricks, and fine sand—first by the barrel, then by the stock—until the rifles were filthy and every opening in the weapon was clogged. “After that, without any sort of cleaning… they were fired,” Kalashnikov said.115 Again uncertainties stalked the designer. “Despite myself, I began to doubt that further shooting would proceed without failures,” he wrote. Zaitsev consoled him. The prototype fired almost flawlessly. “Look, look,” Zaitsev said, during one course of fire. “The sand is flying in all directions, like a dog shaking off water—look.”116 This was the result of two design choices: loose fit and massive operating parts.

The weapons were subjected to extreme cold in a special chamber. Kalashnikov said the weapons were also exposed to salt water to determine how they would withstand its corrosive effects. The AK-47 proved more reliable than the others, though accuracy remained a Soviet army concern. “The advantages of my modification were blindingly obvious,” he said. “I was jubilant.”117 Next the weapon was dropped from heights onto a concrete floor so it would land on its barrel, then its stock. The weapon survived and functioned normally afterward. For assessing terminal ballistics, Kalashnikov said, the rifles were fired at dead animals. The soldiers requested vodka for this duty, Kalashnikov added; this was considered an unpleasant task.

Tests continued until January 11, 1948.118 The results were presented to a thirteen-member technical and scientific commission, which decided Kalashnikov’s avtomat most closely fulfilled the requirements of the 1945 order. Mikhail Kalashnikov’s submission had won. It was not without flaws, and needed much follow-on work, which would be assigned to other engineers. But it was an acceptable descendant of the sturmgewehr. As the news was released, an assistant rushed to Kalashnikov. “Today you must dance, Mikhail Timofeyovich,” he said. “The Avtomat Kalashnikovahas been accepted as the standard weapon.”119 The AK-47, a rifle that had existed only for weeks, was heading for production.

i The 7.62x54R cartridge remains in use today. PK machine guns and SVD sniper rifles, andtheir many derivatives, are chambered for this round.

ii Zhukov’s memoirs are silent on this meeting. Though they were heavily edited by the party officials who watched over the Soviet armed forces, they make no mention of Kalashnikov whatsoever. See The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971).

iii In one memoir, Kalashnikov dates the meeting as July 2. In another, he gives the date as July 8. In an interview in 2003 Kalashnikov suggested that the meeting was in June (from the typewritten notes of an interview provided to the author by Nick Paton Walsh, correspondent for the Guardian, who interviewed Kalashnikov in Izhevsk).

iv Surikov, a colonel, worked for the Main Artillery Department; in this account he has been assigned to nurture Sergeant Kalashnikov’s development, and ventured to a firing range to find him and to convince him to enter the contest for an avtomat (author’s note).

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