Military history


The Breakout: The Mass Production, Distribution, and Early Use of the AK-47

K. Marx and F. Engels taught that in order to win victory over the class enemies the proletariat had to be armed, organized and disciplined. A resolute rebuff had to be given to any attempt on the part of the bourgeoisie to disarm it.

—Andrei A. Grechko, Soviet minister of defense1

THE AK-47 ARRIVED TO A TIME AND GEOPOLITICAL SITUATION like no other. Through technical intelligence and the dedication of enormous resources, Stalin’s military had developed a firearm with promise to be the standard weapon for legions of socialist workers and peasants. A working prototype of a compact automatic rifle had been made that was well suited for most uses in modern war and could be readily mastered by conventional conscripts and violent revolutionaries alike. Yet the assault rifle’s practical merits do not explain the proliferation that followed. The AK-47 was not to break out globally because it was well conceived and well made, or because it pushed Soviet small-arms development ahead of the West.2 Technical qualities did not drive socialist arms production. It was the other way around. Soviet military policies mixed with Kremlin foreign-policy decisions to propel the output that made the AK-47 and its knock-offs available almost anywhere. Were it not for this more complicated set of circumstances, the AK-47 would have been a less significant weapon, an example of an evolutionary leap in automatic arms that became one nation’s principal infantry rifle. Mikhail Kalashnikov would have remained an obscure figure, a man with a surname—like that of Schmeisser or Garand—recognized by specialists, not as an informal global brand.

In the long history of automatic arms and their roles in war, there were periods when everything changed. In the 1860s, Richard Gatling began selling the first rapid-fire arms that worked well enough for battle. His guns offered small or isolated military detachments a one-sided advantage in colonial actions. In the 1880s, Hiram Maxim contributed an awesomely lethal efficiency when he invented the first truly automatic gun and peddled it in Europe’s officer courts. From 1916 through 1918 machine guns became common to all modern ground forces, at terrible cost to men led by officers whose tactics had not kept pace with the instruments of war. Then came the Soviet Union and the design stimuli resulting from World War II. From 1943 to the early 1960s, and centered on the 1950s, automatic arms reached an evolutionary end state. Everything changed once more. In the 1950s, socialist assault rifles gained international acceptance, and the sprawling infrastructure for their mass production in multiple countries was created and set in motion. The developments were often subtle and seemingly unrelated—a technical decision here by one entity, a political decision there by another. The result, as decisions accumulated, was an improved AK-47 and assembly lines opening in one nation, then another, while these weapons began to show up in battle, first as rarities, then curiosities, and then almost everywhere.

What fueled proliferation? Two larger phenomena drove the AK-47’s spread from the secrecy of Schurovo to near ubiquity in conflict zones. They can be distilled into categories: the Kremlin under Stalin, and the Kremlin under Khrushchev. Viewed through the prism of the Soviet Union’s industrial psychology, Stalin was the AK-47’s creator, the impatient dictator whose engineers conjured to existence weapons of all kinds, and whose arms plants perfected and assembled them at a hurried pace. This phenomenon predated the development of the gun. The same forces that led to the avtomat’s creation predicted a certain degree of its abundance, even—perhaps especially—during a time when Kalashnikov-producing nations lagged in producing consumer goods. The assault rifle was a priority product in the planned economy of Stalin’s police state, which saw itself under threat and was preparing for inevitable war. The emphasis on fielding assault rifles fit neatly into the larger pattern. As the Soviet Union expanded its nuclear arms programs, it overhauled its conventional equipment and engaged in arms races with the West across an array of items: attack aircraft, submarines, radar systems, tanks. Cold War urgency pressed Soviet engineers to improve the AK-47 and its follow-on arms and rush them to mass production. Production was linked to the strength, even the survival, of the state. All the while, as the force of Stalin’s personality and the particulars of his fears gave rise to the Soviet assault-rifle industry, the world was being divided into camps. The AK-47 emerged in time to become the principal firearm of one of them. These historical pressures forged the AK-47 into something more than a mere defense product; it was a national, then an international, requirement. But even Stalin could not last forever. Someone else would send the rifles around the world. Nikita S. Khrushchev, who would replace him, became the Kremlin’s arms dealer, the man whose government passed the weapons out and whose decisions would serve to expand assault-rifle production to outsized levels.

In the mid-1950s, while the Soviet Union staggered out of Stalin’s reign, the Kremlin was in a unique position. It was both the world’s standard bearer for socialism and a nation with the military power to help fraternal nations with their armament desires. Soviet arms became a form of Soviet political currency. Nations queued up, seeking their share, as did revolutionary groups, and, later, terrorist organizations. As the AK-47 gained acceptance and approval in the Soviet army, the Kremlin used it as a readily deliverable tool in the game of East-West influence jockeying, both as a diplomatic chip to secure new friendships and as an item to be distributed to those willing to harass or otherwise occupy the attention of the West. The trends gave energy to each other. As AK-47 production gathered momentum, the Kremlin also began pursuing a more activist foreign policy, and this policy shift encouraged the distribution of more military technology, for reasons practical and political. On the practical side, convincing allies and potential allies to select Soviet equipment expanded standardization. By circulating Soviet patterns across the contested world, Kremlin arms deals made interoperability with Soviet troops easier in the event of future wars and as notions of socialist revolution spread. This was an especially useful pursuit for cartridges and firearms, those most basic tools of war. Standardization also made client states accept that in the event of their own local wars, they would need to be resupplied via the Kremlin. The result was a logistical and psychological arrangement that created dependencies serving Kremlin interests. On the political side, sharing military technology cemented allies and made new friends for the Kremlin, all the while helping to frustrate the West. Clients and customers brought an intangible benefit, too. Foreign acceptance of Russian firearms created the impression that Soviet equipment was preferable to Western military products. For a nation that struggled to manufacture decent elevators and shoes, in a system in which wool shirts were not necessarily wool, approval of a Soviet weapon served as a refreshing endorsement of an industrial base often making shoddy goods.3

For all of these reasons, the period centered on the 1950s marked the most important years for the Kalashnikov line. The weapon had been developed. Now it would be debugged, and the man credited for its invention would be given public stature and material rewards and would be regarded as a proletarian hero—the role he would live for decades. The infrastructure would be built to manufacture the assault rifle across the socialist world, and the Russian assault rifle would see its first combat use—both by conventional forces and by insurgents. The United States military, all the while, would misjudge the meaning and significance of the AK-47’s arrival. Beyond dismissing the value of the socialists’ main firearm with parochial superiority, it would develop weapons for its own forces that would fail when it mattered most, losing one of the most important but least-chronicled arms races of the Cold War.

For the initial step in these processes, the Soviet army had to organize a base of domestic production, first to improve the AK-47’s design and then to equip its combat divisions. The avtomat was a standout compromise firearm, but like all compromises it was not perfect—not at all. The prototypes had flaws, and initial production proved problematic without extensive fine-tuning and a few major changes. In 1948 the army ordered rifles for field trials to be assembled in Izhevsk, one of the country’s rifle-manufacturing centers.4 The accounts of when this occurred vary. By one, Mikhail Kalashnikov said that in January 1948, the day after the announcement of the AK-47’s victory at Schurovo, he and a small team were transferred to the Izhevsk Motor Plant No. 524, which was officially manufacturing motorcycles.5 Izhevsk was an isolated industrial city almost six hundred miles east of Moscow, a community closed to most outsiders, hemmed off by dense forests and Russian suspicions. It had been a center of rifle production since czarist times. During the revolution, the gun works had gone over to Lenin and his party and helped arm Trotsky’s new forces. If socialism promised a grand new order of workers’ rule and higher living standards, it did not happen here. Izhevsk was a dingy factory town, with block upon block of bland apartment buildings surrounding factories belching dark smoke. The Orthodox church at the city’s center had been converted into a movie house. The brick-walled gun works, near the shore of a cold polluted lake, was sealed off by foreboding iron fences. A nearby steel plant kept it fed. Far from Moscow and Leningrad, this drab milieu was to be Kalashnikov’s new home.6

The initial manufacturing efforts posed problems. The AK-47 remained an unfinished idea, a set of integrated firearm design concepts that together made an automatic rifle. It needed substantial refinement. Lingering concerns about the weapon’s accuracy prompted the army to hold more tests, and, at one point, to try reducing the power of the M1943 cartridge.7 Durability was a concern, too, as some parts, including the return spring, were insufficiently sturdy.8 A batch of rifles was assembled and in May 1948 a second plant—Factory No. 74, the Izhevsk Machine Engineering Plant, or Izhmash—was ordered to produce the AK-47 as well.9 Once the first batch was finished, the rifles were sealed in special containers and sent to the army. Two months later, Kalashnikov was summoned to the Main Artillery Department in Moscow, and then rode by train with Nikolai N. Voronov, chief marshal of Soviet artillery, to the location where the field tests were held. Kalashnikov claimed to have already been a favorite of Voronov. The marshal, he said, had helped free up funding for the AK-47 prototypes after a lower-ranking general had refused it.10

Field trials are a normal stage in preparing a rifle for military service. What was revealing about this trial had little to do with the tests themselves, but with Kalashnikov’s behavior around senior officers. On the train back to Moscow, Marshal Voronov called Kalashnikov to a meeting, where Voronov questioned him in front of a group. As Kalashnikov described it, the session was less an interrogation than an ice-breaker, an effort to learn more of a young noncommissioned officer the Soviet Union was to catapult to fame. Voronov’s questions covered Kalashnikov’s family and background—those years before Kalashnikov became a konstruktor. This was a potentially treacherous patch for a kulak’s son. The sergeant, mindful of the dangers, resorted to deception. “I obviously couldn’t relate my real life story to them,” he said. “If I had done so, I would surely not have been allowed to carry on with my career as a designer. God knows what might have happened to me.” Life in Stalin’s Soviet Union had conditioned him. He was familiar with the methods of editing autobiography. “I’d prepared a long time in advance for it,” he added. “I ‘omitted’ certain details.”11 During this meeting, Voronov asked Kalashnikov if he wanted to remain a soldier or would prefer to be demobilized to reserve status and become a civilian designer. Kalashnikov chose civilian life. The process began for his discharge. (The promotions Kalashnikov would receive in future years—lifting him to lieutenant general—were ceremonial, given for political reasons, not because of military service.)

Work continued on the rifle. Some changes in 1948 were significant. The ejector was redesigned, to be similar to that of the SG-43, a medium machine gun. The return spring was thickened, to increase its reliability and longevity. Some changes were nettlesome and demanded time. One engineer eventually worked for four years to improve the structural integrity of the hammer.12 A small change was ergonomic—the operating handle was recast to a crescent shape, like that of the American Garand, which made it easier to manipulate. There were others. No matter the changes, the AK-47’s accuracy could not be significantly improved; when it came to precise shooting, it was a stubbornly mediocre arm.i The army faced a choice: proceed with a less accurate assault rifle, or delay distribution of a weapon with tremendous firepower to every Soviet soldier. The army decided to proceed, opting for less precision to keep production moving forward.13 As a result, the primary socialist battle rifle would never be as accurate as many others, and this relative inaccuracy—a tradeoff for reliability—would be grounds for sustained criticism in future decades.14

After all of these efforts, the AK-47 had other flaws as well. After the final round was fired from a magazine, the bolt of a Kalashnikov rode forward and remained closed, as if another round had been chambered and the rifle were ready to fire again. This made it impossible to tell whether a weapon that had been fired repeatedly was loaded or empty; here was a shortcoming in design. It meant that a combatant, midfight, might not realize his weapon had no cartridges. (The bolts of many other automatic rifles lock in an open position when a magazine is empty. This signals immediately that it is time to reload, and leaves one step fewer in the loading cycle—because the bolt is already open, it need not be pulled back, which might save a second when seconds count.) Another flaw was potentially less serious, but still a sign of poor conception. The rifle’s selector lever, of which Mikhail Kalashnikov was proud, was stiff and noisy when it was manipulated between safe, automatic, and semiautomatic settings. For a soldier trying to be silent—as in the moment before an ambush—this pitfall posed a problem.

As more people contributed, the Soviet assault rifle, already a composite creation designed by multiple contributors, became still more of a people’s gun—a weapon whose shape, functions, and features were determined by the desires of a committee and the efforts of collective work. Dmitri Shirayev, a Soviet and later Russian armorer who said that many of the AK-47’s designers were denied public credit for their contributions, assigned the weapon a telling nickname: The ASS-47, an acronym for Avtomat Sovetskogo Soyuza—the automatic made by the Soviet Union.15(Shirayev coined this title, the ASS-47, in a Russian magazine article after the Soviet Union collapsed. He worked at a government arms-research center at the time. The day after the article appeared, he was fired.)

The improvements to the AK-47’s mass-production models may have been clouded further still, given what is known about the whereabouts of the German designer Hugo Schmeisser, who had been captured by the Red Army and relocated to Izhevsk after the war. Schmeisser was intimately familiar with an assault rifle’s difficult path from drafting table to assembly line and had been through many redesigns with his sturmgewehr. He would have seemed the ideal engineer to assist with overcoming the problems faced in converting the AK-47 from contest winner to factory product. Schmeisser lived in Izhevsk during pivotal years of the rifle’s refinement. Neither the Soviet Union nor Russia has been forthcoming with details of his work. His contributions, if any, remain a historical question mark.16 A pair of rival views predominates. One says that there could be no explanation for Schmeisser’s presence in Izhevsk, of all places in the Soviet space, except to capitalize on his knowledge of assault rifles and the nuances of their mass production. It could not be a coincidence, in other words, that the preeminent German assault-rifle designer happened to be in the city where the Soviet Union sought to replicate his work. The other view holds that Schmeisser, as a foreigner, was not allowed near the early AK-47, the technical details of which in the late 1940s and early 1950s were still classified. His presence in Izhevsk, in this view, was to work on well-established weapons. Shirayev took this position. “The only thing Schmeisser did in Izhevsk was learn to drink vodka,” he said.17

Whoever was behind each design change, the improvements satisfied the army. In summer 1949, the army formally designated the AK-47 the standard rifle for Soviet forces. Then a problem demanded the engineers’ attention. The original weapons had been made with a stamped-metal receiver. The receiver is the part of the rifle that contains the trigger group, holds the magazine, and in which the bolt moves back and forth—the housing containing the rifle’s guts. The original AK-47 design did not lend itself to the available Soviet manufacturing processes, and workers were unable to manufacture the rifles in large quantities without many rejected receivers. This threatened production. A new engineering team, led by Valery Kharkov,18 was assigned to find a fix. Kharkov’s team arrived at a solution—a solid piece of forged steel was machined into shape, grind by grind, to fashion a replacement part. From the perspective of quality, the solution was admirable. The solid-steel receiver was singularly strong.19 From the perspective of the Soviet economy, and of an army eager for its new rifle, the fix had drawbacks. Machining a receiver from a block of steel meant wasting much of that steel. More than four pounds was milled away for every receiver, a considerable loss, considering that a receiver weighed less than a pound and a half. It also consumed time—requiring more than 120 operations by laborers for one part alone. The lost steel and hours increased costs. The available sources differ on when production of the rifles began. One account from Izhevsk said that by late 1949 both AK-47s—the original version and the variant with a solid steel receiver—were put into side-by-side production.20 Another, more thorough account said the engineers did not work out an acceptable version of a milled receiver until late 1950, when the modified weapon was approved by a commission.21 What is uncontested is that Kalashnikov’s original design was phased out. The variant with a solid-steel receiver, its production made possible by a modification designed by others, was to be the predominant form of AK-47 for the next decade. The rifle was distributed in two forms—a wooden-stock model and an otherwise identical model with a collapsible metal stock, which, when folded, reduced the length to less than twenty-six inches overall. The folding-stock rifle was designed for paratroopers and soldiers who needed a shorter firearm, such as tank crews and armored troops. Automatic rifles had assumed a tiny form. At less than two feet two inches long, the collapsible Kalashnikov was now shorter than a regulation tennis racket. It had roughly the weight of an axe. Dr. Gatling’s vision had come to this.

With his namesake rifle undergoing refinement, Mikhail Kalashnikov experienced his first tastes of material comfort and fame. In 1949 the Soviet Union awarded him the State Stalin Prize, one of the highest honors the government gave to its citizens. The prize, in recognition of the AK-47’s selection for general service, included a bonus of 150,000 rubles— a breathtaking sum for a laborer in the years after the Great Patriotic War. The bonus equaled almost thirteen years’ worth of salary for the more fortunate workers in Izhevsk.22 Kalashnikov had lived across a spectrum of Soviet economic circumstances. Life on the Altai steppe had been grinding. In exile he had fared better than only the hungry and thinly clothed prisoners of the GULAG. The Red Army had provided him an economically stable lifestyle, though conditions for enlisted men were decidedly spartan. Once Kalashnikov became an arms designer he enjoyed comforts unavailable to many Soviet citizens, particularly during the war. His salary of fifteen hundred rubles in 1945 was several times that of a typical laborer. For seven years, during the war and in the lean period after, he had been adequately provided for. The Stalin Prize was life-changing. It vaulted Kalashnikov to a rarefied place in the Soviet social and economic hierarchy. Instantly, he could afford things most of his fellow citizens could not. His family, by one account, was the first in Izhevsk to own a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, and an automobile.23 “At the time in Moscow shops there appeared Pobeda cars manufactured at the Volga car factory,” he said. “The price tag was 16,000 rubles. Myself, a senior sergeant at that time, I bought a car.”24 Pobeda is Russian for victory. The automobile bearing this name was a popular postwar sedan, but very hard to obtain. Ownership of a Pobeda often marked a man with connections. Only 235,000 were made in nearly thirteen years, a tiny figure in a nation of roughly 200 million people. Kalashnikov was among the fortunate few to acquire one. Photographs from the time show Katya, his wife, in a glistening knee-length fur coat. He was twenty-nine years old in a parsimonious nation suffering shortages. He had managed a vertical social climb, to considerable reward.ii

The news that a Stalin Prize had been awarded to a sergeant was published in Soviet newspapers, pushing Kalashnikov into mainstream Soviet conversation. He was a person of note now, a model citizen. The story of the unlettered enlisted man from a tank regiment, wounded in battle, who conceived of new tools to defend the Motherland, was the type of proletarian parable the Soviet Union wished to project. Stalin had killed off many of the party’s leading figures. The purges had thinned the ranks of promising citizens across society. New heroes were necessary, especially those who would be unquestionably subordinate to Stalin, and thus pose no threat. Kalashnikov was one of them. It was a role for which he would prove eager and well tempered, though it required lying. As his story circulated, it again was an edited biography. His time as an exile, his father’s death, his flight to the Kazakh rail yard—these things were not told. Kalashnikov had relocated to Izhevsk, where the assault rifle was soon to be manufactured by the millions. He was married to Katya, who had borne him a daughter. His life had assumed its shape: soldier-konstruktor, heroic genius, representative proletarian man. The years of wandering and wondering were over. Kalashnikov had obliterated his past and found the Soviet version of the good life. Neither he nor the party would endanger this by raising unwanted facts. “Could I have brought to light this part of my life in those straightforward times?” he said. “Of course it would have told upon my relations with the authorities. They would have found many things in my revelations which, from their highly ideological point of view, would not have let me become what I am now. Who would have allowed me to work in such a secret domain as weapons?”iv25

In 1950, the Communist Party extended Kalashnikov’s favored status further. That year, at age thirty, he was chosen to be a deputy in the Supreme Soviet—Stalin’s compliant legislature. Kalashnikov described his reaction, when told of his candidacy, as “flabbergasted.” Soviet elections were ostensibly free but entirely rigged. He knew his election was a matter of form. He also understood that he had at best a passing familiarity with Udmurtia, the region he was to represent. He had relocated there two years before. “Apart from my factory colleagues, I knew nobody and nobody knew me,” he said.26 Ignorance of local affairs was not an obstacle to holding office. The job was ornamental, and seats were filled by archetypical socialist citizens. The legislators’ grand gatherings in the Kremlin brought together a selectively assembled body of cosmonauts, musicians, gold medalists from international athletic competitions, decorated laborers, and the like. They were not expected to deliberate or to provide checks and balances to Stalin’s power. They were expected to vote as they were told. Kalashnikov was assigned to the budget commission, though he had no training in economics or financial matters. The job had its material rewards, however, including regular travel to Moscow to stay in the Soviet Union’s finest hotels. As a deputy, Kalashnikov also exercised his connections to Dmitri Ustinov, who had been Stalin’s commissar of armaments during the war, to secure a four-wheel-drive car—a well-chosen entitlement for life in Udmurtia, with its heavy snowfalls and unpaved roads. In spite of the privileges, the first session Kalashnikov attended, in 1950, was grounds for dread. When he arrived at Spassky Gate, the Kremlin’s entrance, he worried he would be discovered as a former exile. He didn’t need to shudder. His past was not known. No guard would stop him. Once inside, he looked upon Stalin for the first time. The general secretary inspired fear like no other, the dictator atop his personality cult and the leader whose policies had cast Kalashnikov’s family into the wilderness. Kalashnikov had become his devotee. He was enthralled.

I was filled with awe. I remember with perfect clarity the way he came into the great hall in which we had gathered. Stalin was wearing his eternal semi-military suit. He sat in his place, the same one as ever, in the midst of a total silence. And then there was [a] thunderous outbreak of applause that lasted an eternity, since nobody wanted to be the first to stop! After several minutes, Stalin gestured with his hand, asking for quiet in the assembly. All at once, you could have heard a pin drop.27

And then the dictator died. The reign of terror closed with a whimper. After a dinner with party officials and Lavrenty Beria, Stalin was found on the floor of one of his residences on March 1, 1953, incapacitated by what seemed a stroke.vii He died on March 5. Kalashnikov was devastated. He had separated Stalin’s predation on the Soviet Union’s people from the despot himself. When party newspapers had written of enemies of the state, of saboteurs and lurking assassins, Kalashnikov accepted the propaganda. He wanted the traitors—many of whose plots were fabricated by the dictator himself—put to death. Stalin’s infiltration into Kalashnikov’s mind had eclipsed the most basic human relationships. “He was almost closer to us than our own parents,” he wrote. “When Stalin was buried, the whole population wept. We felt that life couldn’t go on without him. Fear of the future gripped our hearts.”28 Kalashnikov was not naïve. He knew the terror. But he accepted the sinister side of the system that had chosen him for rewards. He had joined the Communist Party. He had become a party man.

The shifts were tectonic. Beria became a deputy prime minister and set out upon what seemed a program of domestic reforms, officially banning torture, a jarring idea given the violent excesses of the chekists he had led. Beria was not to last. A plot to remove him was organized by Nikita Khrushchev and other party figures. He was arrested on June 26. His reversal of fortune was total. He had been untouchable, the man who sat beside Stalin and supervised the incarceration and killing of uncountable Soviet citizens, the architect of a great sorrow. Now he was exposed and alone. Shorn of his wire-rimmed spectacles, he groveled in a letter from his cell, offering to work as a laborer anywhere.

Dear comrades, you should understand that I am a faithful soldier of our Motherland, a loyal son of the party of Lenin and Stalin and your loyal friend and comrade. Send me wherever you wish, to any kind of work, [even] a most insignificant one. See me out, I will be able to work ten more years and I will work with all my soul and with complete energy. I am saying this from the bottom of my heart, it is not true that since I have held a big post I would not be able to perform in a small position. This can easily be proven in any region or area, in a Soviet farm, in a collective farm, on a construction site of our glorious Motherland. And you will see that in 2 to 3 years I will improve my behavior strongly and will be still of some use for you. I am to my last breath faithful to our beloved party and our Soviet government.

Beria’s last breath was not far off. He was tried in the fashion he would recognize: in secret, on largely fabricated charges, before a court that offered no appeal. After the verdict on December 23 he was blindfolded, gagged, and shot.29

The events of 1953 allowed the Kremlin to reconsider its role at the international socialist vanguard. The changes—first in personnel, then policies—were integral to the assault rifle’s spread. Khrushchev became general secretary in the autumn, inheriting both the foreign-policy portfolio and the military-industrial complex. He grasped ways the two could be linked.

One early challenge was in institutionalizing security arrangements in the European buffer zone. In World War II, the Soviet military had moved onto foreign territory previously under German occupation and become the region’s premier military power. During the war the Red Army equipped and trained fighting units in Eastern Europe that became foundations for new national armies, all subordinate to Soviet command. For the Cold War’s opening years, such relationships were sufficient for the Kremlin. But in 1949, Western powers had formed NATO and sponsored the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Kremlin replied by founding the German Democratic Republic on the portion of Germany under Soviet occupation. Moves and countermoves continued. In 1955, West Germany joined NATO. The Kremlin’s parallel step would stoke assault-rifle proliferation in ways that persist: It bound its satellites together into a mutual-defense agreement of its own, the Warsaw Pact. The treaty was signed by eight nations—the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania—in May 1955. Its initial significance was retaliatory and symbolic, a tit-for-tat escalation. In the event of armed attack on any one member, the others agreed to come to the attacked nation’s aid. The parties also declared, in a bit of doublespeak boilerplate, that they would strive for “effective measures for universal reduction of armaments.” The armaments buildup was actually just about to begin, spurred by the treaty’s fifth article, in which the members accepted a unified command.30 In fall 1955, when the details of the command were circulated via a top-secret memorandum from Moscow, the commander’s deputies were instructed that they would be responsible for supplying “military items, in accordance with accepted systems of armaments.”31 The language referred to Soviet-pattern weapons, including the most common weapons of all—cartridges and firearms. The instructions formalized the idea of standardizing equipment in the Eastern bloc, a concept that became a Warsaw Pact cornerstone. The goal became:

. . . constant modernization of weapons and combat equipment and the development of new and more sophisticated prototypes of weaponry. The Soviet Union plays a leading role here. Possessing a powerful military-economic potential and scientific-technological base, it gives the necessary assistance to fraternal countries in strengthening their defensive might. Not only direct deliveries of new types of weapons and combat equipment are made, but also licenses and technical documentation are transferred for their production. Joint scientific research and test-design work is conducted, and scientific-technological consultations are widely employed.

The Soviet state plays a large role in the creation and development of the defense industry in the fraternal countries. One of the important ways for coordinating military-technical policy is to standardize weapons and combat equipment of the allied armies, which simplifies their materialtechnical support in case of military operations.32

In this way, most Eastern bloc soldiers would carry the same weapons,33 which fired the same ammunition, thereby streamlining production and training while reducing the expenditure of research-and-design energy for weapons that had already met the state’s standards. This made military sense, albeit for a war that never came. Looked upon years later, a different result is obvious: The political and industrial groundwork for overcapacity in assault-rifle production had been laid. Plants producing AK-47s, their derivatives, and the ammunition they fired were sponsored and subsidized in Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. These countries not only would arm their military and security services with them, but would become assault-rifle exporters. Dangerous rules applied. The assault rifle was a socialist military product. Its production, sale, and distribution were not controlled by market forces. They were connected to centralized decisions and national goals. The fine print of the Warsaw Pact had put the Kalashnikov assault rifle at the center of a socialist arms franchise, an example of the law of unintended consequences viewed through the prism of the Cold War. Production would surge under the the unified command’s directives. And the bloc’s members would provide arms for conflicts long after their alliance was no more, extending the treaty’s influence beyond the region in indelible ways.

Under Khrushchev, the Kremlin also distributed arms and arms technology beyond its European vassals. There were two principal types of arrangements: first, direct transfers of finished goods, and later the transfer of licenses and technical specifications to produce them. In September 1955, within months of the Warsaw Pact’s signing ceremony, Khrushchev had discovered the political practicality of the arms industry and the new alliance, too. Using Czechoslovakia as a cover, the Kremlin organized a huge arms sale to Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.34 The deal included tanks, airplanes, artillery, and Czech small arms, and equipped Egyptian forces for war with the young Israeli state. It also thrust the Kremlin into Middle Eastern brinksmanship, putting it into competition with the West and presaging arms deals with Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere.

As Khrushchev’s agents closed his deal with Nasser, the Soviet army was arranging for the first arms plant outside Russia to manufacture AK-47s. The plant, an urgent project for China, had origins reaching to a secret collaboration between Stalin and Mao. In late May 1951, Xu Xiangqian, chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, had led a delegation to Moscow. Mao’s victory over the Kuomintang, the party of Chiang Kai-shek, and the founding of the People’s Republic of China had reinforced Stalin’s almost religious conviction of the allure of socialism and global revolution. The Chinese wanted to update their arms industry. The Soviet Union was the natural source. There was precedent. Soviet arms technicians had surreptitiously helped Mao’s arms production since at least 1949, even while the Kremlin maintained diplomatic ties with the Kuomintang. In the summer of 1949, a senior Chinese revolutionary, Liu Shaoqi, who later became China’s head of state, secretly traveled to Russia, where he met Stalin and appealed for help in arming the People’s Liberation Army. The Soviet Union sent two hundred technicians to assist the effort, including eighty who rode back to Manchuria on the same train with the Chinese delegation. This was part of a slyly hedged Kremlin bet to put the Soviet Union in the winner’s camp. In November 1950, as the Korean War was accelerating, Mao asked Stalin for a long list of weapons for the war, including more than 140,000 rifles, 9,000 machine guns, and 1,000 pistols for pilots. Within two days, Stalin personally approved a list. In August 1951, Mao sought more aid, enough to arm as many as sixty divisions. The Soviet army agreed to provide specifications for eight weapons, including Mosin-Nagant rifles, 82-millimeter mortars, machine guns, pistols, and an antiaircraft gun. Documents were transferred and a Russian delegation traveled to China for at least four months, to outfit plants and train workers. By 1953, production had begun, and cooperation expanded to include artillery and tanks. The AK-47 was still in its earliest production runs; the Soviet army did not initially share the specifications.

Four years later, under Khrushchev, the impetus for Chinese production of Kalashnikov-pattern rifles began, by one account, with a minor diplomatic jolt. In June 1955 a Chinese delegation toured the arms plant in Tula, where China’s second machinery minister, General Zhao Erlu, saw Slavic laborers producing the SKS. The minister was furious. The only data for rifles provided in 1951, by this account, had been for the M-44 Mosin-Nagant rifle, a weapon based on designs that were decades old. China wanted newer guns. Negotiations resumed. The Soviet army promptly agreed to share the technology behind the M1943 cartridge and both rifles that fired it—the SKS and the AK-47.35 (Another Chinese account described a less dramatic transfer of SKS and AK-47 technology. In this version, as part of Khrushchev’s courting of China early in his tenure as general secretary, the Soviet military offered the technical specifications for the two rifles, beginning with an exchange of letters in early 1955. The AK-47, by this account, was offered as a replacement to the PPSh, which the Chinese had been manufacturing with Soviet approval for several years.) This much is clear: Production of the Type 56, the first Chinese version of the AK-47, began in a blandly named arms plant, Factory 626, in Beian.

Khrushchev had moved quickly. At the time of Stalin’s funeral, the AK-47 had been made only in Izhevsk. Three years later, with the beginning of Chinese production, the world’s two largest military forces had parallel assembly lines. By 1958, the Kremlin would share AK-47 technology with North Korea. The Soviet Union’s escalating military aid to Egypt would then expand to tool a Kalashnikov plant there. Between these deals and the rolling openings of assault-rifle assembly lines in the Warsaw Pactiii the Kremlin had ensured production of the Kalashnikov at a scale no other firearm had ever seen. The next questions were not industrial or political. They were tactical. How would the assault rifle be used?

The armored column growled through the streets of Budapest and came to a stop in Boráros Square, idling near the eastern embankment of the Danube River. Leading the formation were six Soviet tanks, including three T-54s, the most powerful tank the Soviet Union had yet made. Behind them were armored personnel carriers, bitterly known as “open coffins,” in which Hungarian soldiers had been crowded against the better judgment of their commanders, who worried for their lives. These vehicles were followed by more tanks still.36 This was an assault group staging to attack. Their objective would not be easy. Several blocks away, behind dense rows of buildings and warrens of narrow streets, stood the Corvin Theater, an insurgent stronghold. It was the morning of October 28, 1956. The armed popular uprising in Hungary was entering its sixth day.

The Hungarian fighters waiting to meet the column’s advance hid in four- and five-story buildings, watching from windows to the streets below, waiting for whatever came next.37 Circumstances had transformed them into impromptu urban fighters. They had seen enough of Hungarian state terror and Soviet occupation to turn out spontaneously, an unanticipated force that had leaped onto the world’s stage. Some were not yet old enough to shave. Others were veterans who had been Soviet prisoners of war. The adults came largely from the workers’ ranks.38 Together they formed a hard-nosed group: clean-cut, lean, rugged, intent. The weather was chilly by day in Budapest in midfall; the nights cold. Rebels wandered their turf in trench coats, lending them a sartorially proper air. One worker fought with a bowler on his head. He had found it in the rubble. After he brushed off the brick dust, it became a whimsically unforgettable highlight to his rebel dress.39 Though many insurgents were spread throughout Budapest, the Corvinists, as they were called, were among the most daring and determined of the lot. Their stubbornness made them a priority. Soviet generals and Hungarian hard-liners wanted to crush them as a lesson for the rest. But how? The area was an urban trap. Most of the neighborhood’s buildings were constructed of thick stone and highly defendable. Within them the Hungarians had selected shooting positions from which they could pour out interlocking cones of fire. The Kilián Barracks—a fortress—stood nearby, and rebels took positions here as well, expanding their zone of control. Details had been tended to. To give warning of approaching threats, the rebels had posted spotters on rooftops. They had organized medical care and a field kitchen. They had made a jail for captured troops. They had assembled obstacles and barricades on the streets, so that fighting vehicles would have to slow down and pick their way through tight passages, exposing them to attack.40 They placed cooking pans on the pavement to resemble mines, a trick to frustrate the tanks more. At the theater’s doorway, the Corvinists had an artillery piece.41

For the fight against the massing troops, the Corvinists had gathered arms. Some carried a Mosin-Nagant rifle or a PPSh submachine gun taken from government stocks. Others brandished pistols. This was not an especially impressive suite of small arms for an army in 1956. For a guerrilla force in existence for less than a week, it was a feat. And the insurgents were blessed by convenience: A gas station was located near the theater, providing fuel for Molotov cocktails19—bottles filled with gasoline and adorned with a wick to be lit before being thrown. When the glass shattered, the wick ignited the gasoline in a whooshing blaze. In the Corvinists’ kill zones, charred vehicles littered the streets. Dozens of soldiers had died. Now they waited for the next thrust. Soviet generals had ordered an advance in two prongs, ending with tanks blasting at the theater as the infantry stormed forward, finishing the insurrection at last.

In the story of the assault rifle, the mid-1950s brought milestones: the AK-47’s combat debuts. The first known use of the AK-47 outside of tests and exercises was in East Germany in 1953, when Soviet divisions put down a smaller and less-organized uprising in Berlin. But in 1953 the assault rifle had yet to be issued to Soviet forces in large quantities. It was not abundant. Three years on, as insurgents in Budapest gathered their bottled gas and looted guns, thousands of the Soviet Union’s frontline soldiers carried AK-47s into Hungarian neighborhoods. The newsreel footage of soldiers flowing into the capital, new rifles in hand, framed events to be repeated by centralized regimes for decades. They were a myth-buster. One point at the center of Soviet and Russian statements about the assault rifle and the immense industrial capacity behind it, and fundamental to Mikhail Kalashnikov’s descriptions of his life’s purpose and work, was that the AK-47 was made for national defense and distributed later as a liberation tool. These are the oft-repeated lines. Against this fable, the weapons’ premieres in Berlin and Budapest served as more than chronological markers. They informed a fuller understanding of the AK-47 and the political system that circulated it. The AK-47 was christened with blood not as a tool for liberation or to defend the Soviet Union from invaders. It made its debut smashing freedom movements. It was repression’s chosen gun, the rifle of the occupier and the police state.

The beginning established a pattern. The Kalashnikov was rarely a Soviet weapon of defense. It was to be the weapon of East German border guards who shot unarmed civilians fleeing for the West, and the firearm used in the state-directed violence against demonstrations and uprisings before the Soviet Union finally tottered and fell. It would be used in Prague, in Alma-Ata, in Baku, in Riga, and in Moscow. It would see crackdown service repeatedly in other strong-arm states—at Tiananmen Square in China, in Andijon in Uzbekistan, and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan—almost any place where a government resorted to shooting citizens to try to keep citizens in check. It would be used by Baathists to execute Kurds in the holes that served as their mass graves. It would shoot the Bosnian men and boys who were herded to execution in Srebrenica in 1995. But this was all so obvious that it barely deserves elaboration, save as a corrective to the authorities’ distortions. The fight for Hungary had another value. The Kremlin’s image tenders could influence the conversation about their nation’s actions and the supposed purposes of its arms. They could not control the ways that war and violence actually worked. There would be too many Kalashnikovs for their uses to be determined, much less fully obscured, by the centralized states that made them. Once Soviet soldiers drove into Budapest the omen appeared, the hint of what was in store. No sooner had the AK-47 been carried into combat than it became the rebels’ arm, too.

Like the way power and personalities had changed in Moscow, the violence in Budapest in 1956 said much about the Soviet system. The Kremlin had a clear-eyed view of the hardships in Hungary. Since 1953, the leadership of the Communist Party had discussed in detail the ways its policies had failed the Hungarians, and how the national government it backed had alienated the nation. The Kremlin chose to crush the popular uprising nonetheless, worrying less about Hungary than about the prospect of losing a nation in the socialist camp, or appearing weak.

Hungary had been under Soviet occupation since the end of World War II. The country was ruled through much of the period by a dictator, Mátyás Rákosi, who was propped up by the Kremlin and applied the tools of state terror wholesale. Repression, Rákosi-style, took pages from Stalin’s book: a sadistic secret police force, labor camps, kulak lists, show trials, executions. Religion was suppressed. Single-party rule was established. The dictator was unchallenged. Stalin and Rákosi forced Hungary through a program of industrialization, collectivization, and militarization. Sovietization deepened popular resentment and shifted part of the hatred for Rákosi toward Moscow. Three months after Stalin’s death, the party summoned Rákosi to the Kremlin and spelled out Hungary’s wretchedness with exactitude. Beria denounced Rákosi to his face while referring to him in a chilling third person. “It is not right that Comrade Rákosi gives directions regarding who must be arrested; he says who should be beaten,” he said. (Beria himself was to be arrested within two weeks, on orders of the comrades in the room.)42 Vyacheslav Molotov, the foreign minister, extended the line, describing a nation paralyzed. He questioned, if only rhetorically, whether socialism in this form was better than what it had replaced.

They initiated a persecution against 1,500,000 people in a population with 4.5 million adults in three and a half years. There were 1,500,000 violations in this time. They punish for everything, and punish insignificant acts arbitrarily… they resort to all kinds of manipulations to ensure a forced industrial development. For instance there was [only] 57% wool in a particular fabric. They left the name and price of the material, but they took the wool out of it. They significantly worsened the quality of milk. This resembles fraud. They have lost contact with the population, they do not express the interest of the population in many questions. Is this why we chased the bourgeoisie away, so that afterward the situation would be like this?43

Khrushchev stepped in. “Comrade Rákosi is primarily responsible for the mistakes,” he said.44 Rákosi was a thick-necked, confident man; a bull. He had bragged in the past of killing rivals, saying their liquidation was “like cutting off slices of salami.”45 But he was cornered. He did not resist. “Regarding hubris, that’s an illness that one cannot detect, just like one cannot smell one’s own odor,” he said. “If the comrades say this is the case, I accept it.”46 He was promptly deposed. Imre Nagy, a reformer, was appointed prime minister. Nagy eased the repression at home and began a program he called the New Course. There was only so much he could do. The economy was moribund. Consumer products were in limited supply. Agricultural production was low. Years of terror had exhausted the population. And while Khrushchev spoke of a fresh direction, Hungary’s arrangements with Moscow still broke in Moscow’s favor. No end seemed in sight. Rákosi returned to power in 1955 and Nagy was sidelined. The political turbulence sent mixed signals. Rákosi was removed from office once more in summer 1956. It was too late. Tensions erupted in a public demonstration on October 23, when tens of thousands of people turned out to protest the national government and Soviet interference. Stalin’s statue was pulled down, nationalist flags appeared, a crowd massed outside Parliament. Students marched to the radio station, intending to broadcast sixteen demands. The list included the withdrawal of Soviet troops, an election of party officers by secret ballot, the dissolution of the government, public inquiry into the crimes of Rákosi, a reassessment of Soviet-Hungarian relations, and an examination of the merits and practices of the planned economy. The confrontation with the authorities was at hand.

The radio station was under guard of the Hungarian State Security Police, or ÁVH, the loathed secret police. The students never made it into the broadcast booth. The crowd milled outside. The ÁVH fired warning shots. The students held their place. Then someone—who it was remains in dispute, though blame typically falls on the ÁVH—shot into the crowd, killing several demonstrators. Rioting began. Groups of fighters formed in many of Budapest’s districts, overwhelming the police. The crowds emptied jails and looted arsenals. Fighting broke out in one neighborhood, then another, later in rural areas and towns. Some police units sympathized with the insurrection and gave weapons to the people. Others did nothing to stop their activities.

The Soviet Union and its proxies had previously weathered challenges from Europe’s captive populations. In June 1953 in Berlin and in June 1956 in Pozna´n, Poland, the authorities had shot into crowds. An official understanding had taken hold: State violence was an acceptable tool to push the people into line. For order, blood was a fair price. But the Kremlin had never faced a general national uprising, or the prospect that a satellite’s government would join the opposition as it grew. Notes from the Presidium meeting that day in Moscow show that the Kremlin considered intervening militarily from the first moments. Khrushchev raised the idea, though he seemed not quite ready.47 An interim solution was found: Soviet troops stationed in the republic would assist Hungarian forces. Before dawn on October 24, an army corps garrisoned outside Budapest moved for the capital, hoping a display of force might bring calm.48 In some places, the Soviet troops were met by unarmed crowds. In others they met resistance. In areas like the Corvin Passage, the resistance was organized and intense, and Soviet soldiers were cut down. This was not a riot. Many civilians had resolved to fight.

One corps was not enough. Its units entered Budapest tentatively, without a full reconnaissance, unsure of their mission and what to expect. They could depend on the loyalty of neither the Hungarian army nor the regular police. Their armor lacked adequate infantry support, which rendered many patrols blind and vulnerable to ambush. Often Soviet soldiers located insurgents only by drawing their fire—the 1956 version of a perilous form of combat patrol, known among soldiers as the movement-to-contact. The circumstances gave the rebels unusual advantages for a force of their experience, and limited the Soviet soldiers’ ability to apply their superior equipment and firepower. In such conditions, the newly issued AK-47s could make little difference. But they did make an impression. In one of the few available Soviet accounts of the fighting, emissaries from the Kremlin sent an encrypted cable back to Moscow describing lopsided shooting. The emissaries, Anastas Mikoyan and Mikhail Suslov, told of skirmishes “between single provocateurs or small groups of provocateurs on the one side and our own machine gunners and automatic riflemen. Our own troops were firing more, responding with volleys to single shots.” Another translation of the cable, unearthed after the Cold War, summarized how Soviet firepower allowed a new generation of soldiers to fight. “Our men did more of the shooting. To solitary shots we replied with salvos.”49

On October 24, the government fell. Nagy returned to office. He tried to balance conflicting pulls, working with the Kremlin while feeling the revolution’s ineluctable draw. The Kremlin escalated. On October 25, Soviet divisions from outside Hungary crossed the border. Hungary, a member of the Warsaw Pact, was being invaded by its fraternal mentor, which had pledged to protect it from invasion. The Soviet military had decided that it must destroy the Corvinists. A conventional idea was settled upon: A Hungarian army unit, working with Soviet armor, would storm the theater. Hungarian commanders protested, sensing there would be too much bloodshed for the troops navigating the narrow streets, and too much danger for civilians who lived in apartments lining the route. During the final briefing by a Soviet division commander, as the armor idled on Boráros Square, it emerged that the tanks were not equipped with compatible two-way radios. There would be no ready way for government forces to communicate. Hungarian officers refused to participate. The Soviet officers were stuck.

The bungling grew. The column’s lead tanks—three Soviet T-34s, the same class that Kalashnikov commanded during the war—departed alone for a reconnaissance.50 Because they had no radios, no one could call them back, and no one knew what they faced once they clanked out of sight. Ninety minutes passed. Three T-54s—the Kremlin’s newest tanks—were sent to look for the wayward soldiers. An hour later, two T-54s returned. One was damaged. All the other tanks had been destroyed. The operation was a failure in every sense. The remainder of the column waited at the square into evening and the troops were told they would attack the next day. But by then the two sides had agreed to a cease-fire. The curfew was lifted that night. By October 30 the fighting died down. Elation swept the Corvinists. Soviet units were withdrawing. Nagy announced the end of one-party rule, and the new government pledged free elections. The rebels, by all signs, had prevailed.

In the quiet of a city exhaling, a quintessential sight of the past half-century appeared for the first time. Outside the shattered facades of the buildings, rebels roamed the streets, posing for news photographers. A few of them carried AK-47s. Which Hungarian rebel first captured an AK-47 and turned it against the army that created it cannot be said. Thousands of men fought in Budapest, and Soviet soldiers were repelled and forced to abandon equipment in many places, just as they left behind some of their dead. But the streets around the Corvin Theater were where the rebels’ images were made. The names of most of these men were not recorded. At least one had his back to the camera; his identity is anybody’s guess. But one man’s name was remembered: József Tibor Fejes, twenty-two years old, fresh-faced, sharp-eyed, purposeful, and seemingly unafraid.

On at least one day, Fejes dressed in a dark suit. On others, he was less formal. One picture showed him wearing trousers with their left knee torn. One item in his wardrobe was consistent: he wore a bowler, tilted to one side. Fejes was the worker who had been seen during the fighting wearing his hat. Keménykalapos, his colleagues called him; the man in the bowler hat.51 Fejes’s roguish confidence made him a darling of the photographers, including Michael Rougier of Life, who snapped a crisply focused frame of the rebel facing the lens. In it, Fejes stood with other insurgents, an AK-47 slung beside his left arm. The AK-47 was destined to become a symbol of resistance fighters almost everywhere, a weapon with innumerable spokesmen. Fejes had nonchalantly assumed the requisite pose and begun to flesh out this historical role. He did so before Fidel Castro, before Yasir Arafat, before Idi Amin. He was years ahead of the flag of Zimbabwe, which would expropriate the AK-47 as a symbol. He was ahead of Shamil Basayev and Osama bin Laden, who would convert the product of an atheist state into a sign of unsparing jihad. József Tibor Fejes was the first of the world’s Kalashnikov-toting characters, a member of a pantheon’s inaugural class. He presents a complicated profile. On one level, his activities offered a fine example of the assault rifle’s almost instantaneous insinuation into modern ground war. On another, he provided an instructive case of how an untrained man with a fearsome weapon can blur right into wrong.

Who was he? Fejes came from a broken working-class family and had known hardship in many forms. He had been born in 1934 in Budapest, and his parents divorced when he was a toddler. He was raised in an orphanage before moving in during 1942 with a farmer’s family for seven years in Romania. He attended school through the fifth grade. Farming life did not suit him. He fled the countryside and was put into a juvenile correctional facility in 1949. Later, he became a metalworker and locksmith, landed a job as an apprentice, and grew into a fit young man, a survivor of Hungary’s leanest years. In 1956, Fejes returned to Budapest and found his mother. He lived with her only three days and then moved in with his father. He worked briefly at a shipyard, then at another business. He had survived abandonment, war, and incarceration and brought himself through to adulthood with scant help. He had a job. He might have had a chance, until the revolution changed his path.

Fejes turned out with the demonstrators as the protests began. He was present, by some accounts, for the toppling of the Stalin statue. By others he left work at noon on October 24 and attended demonstrations at the Yugoslav and American embassies, and chanted anti-Soviet slogans, including “Russkies Go Home!”52 Rumors moved through the crowds. Fejes heard one: that students had been arrested and taken to a police precinct. He joined a group to free them. At one precinct, they found no students. They changed plans. They demanded weapons at another police building, on Vig Street, where they “broke into the building and occupied it, seized all arms and weapons found there.”53 Soon Fejes and the group rode a truck of guns to the Corvin Theater, where they joined the insurgency in its earliest hours. He and several other men entered a food store and retrieved, depending on who is to be believed, cheese, coffee, meat, biscuits, and three boxes of sugar, or roughly a half pound of meat and a bottle of beer, which he drank. Fejes was present throughout the fighting, often in a theater window but later beside the artillery piece at one of the theater’s doors. On the night of October 26, he said, he obtained his AK-47 when another fighter presented it to him in the alley. “My fellows explained to me how it worked,” he added.54 The next day, during the fighting, he stole a Russian Pobeda wristwatch from the corpse of a civilian.55

After the cease-fire, Fejes stayed active. He directed traffic. He guarded a Red Cross warehouse. At one point he argued with the police, who wanted to confiscate his weapon. He refused to give it up, saying he had captured it in the fighting. It was too much of a war prize, and in the context of the times, had been legitimately earned. The rules were loose. Lines of authority were unclear. Fejes obviously saw himself as legitimate. After the cease-fire agreement was reached, he and his father filed a request for a permit to own the weapon legally. He volunteered for the National Guard, as the Nagy government’s quickly deputized formation of paramilitary fighters was called. These actions suggested Fejes wanted to work within the law. But he was young and untutored in the rules and ways of war, and either his personality or his revolutionary certitude carried him too far. Judgment and caution deserted him.

On October 30, armed rebels were searching people on Rákóczi Square. They were emotional and intent, looking for members of the secret police. Several of them stopped a lean young man with flowing hair, a fine mustache, and a good chin. Their detainee was smartly dressed, with a sweater over his shirt and a neatly knotted tie. He had just stepped from his flat, which he shared with his wife. A search turned up a weapon and an identification card showing him to be an officer of the ÁVH. The rebels encircled him, cutting off escape. He was Lieutenant János Balassa, and he was trapped. What happened in the next seconds would be disputed. But at least two men pointed their weapons and opened fire. Witnesses said one was Fejes, who leveled his AK-47 and shot into the defenseless officer’s guts.56 This was not combat. It was a curbside execution. In an instant, Lieutenant Balassa was dead, the AK-47 had been implicated in what would become a characteristic use, and the fate of József Tibor Fejes was sealed.

The murder at Rákóczi Square, largely forgotten, was a signature moment in the evolution of automatic arms.

In the first decades of production of rapid-fire arms, several obstacles restricted who could own and use them. Armies, navies, state militias, territorial prisons, and the like could acquire them, but not the common man. More than the behavior of salesmen kept machine-gun circulation within the authorities’ hands. There were factors rooted in the weapons’ characteristics. Machine guns were expensive. They were technically complex. They were cumbersome. Many men had to be trained and pressed into service to operate and maintain them. Over time the guns would shrink. But machine guns, their associated equipment, and their ammunition were still heavy, and their operation was not intuitive. They remained almost exclusively instruments of the state.

The Soviet Union was changing all this. It had created the circumstances for the crossover arm, the weapon that would let automatic-rifle fire jump from institutional control. The AK-47 was small. No mule was required here. While not a precision rifle, it was accurate enough for most shots a man might be expected to take. Its ammunition was lightweight. Almost anyone of teenage years or beyond could carry a few hundred rounds. Its variant with a wooden stock could be hidden beneath a blanket. The variant with a folding stock could be slung inside a coat. It provided flexibility, allowing whoever carried it to fire a single shot with each trigger squeeze or to hold the trigger back and blast out bursts. The evolution of automatic arms had reached its most successful form. Gatling’s dream—firepower “for men of ordinary intelligence”—was now available for a man of ordinary intelligence, for the individual, whether he was in uniform or not, trained or not, legal or not, supervised or not. It could be handled by a child. And this highly functional distillation of firearms technology had become the output of planned economies, which could manufacture them in numbers beyond what anyone, outside the minds that organized socialist police states, would need or want. Industrial and political currents in the Soviet Union had lined up in ways that were converting the AK-47 into the world’s gun, the automatic rifle for everyman, a tool designed for military use that would elevate the danger to people not directly engaged in war.

There had been, in an instructive way, a precedent: the Thompson submachine gun, whose arrival to markets also predicted what was to come. Something about submachine guns caused alarm. They emerged in World War I and provided an excellent solution for many types of close combat, though they had all the expected limits related to short-range pistol ammunition. Worries over their use had been great enough that in 1919 the Treaty of Versailles banned the MP-18, Germany’s first submachine gun, from its postwar army.57 History would have it that it was not armies with MP-18s that would give submachine guns their reputation. That role fell to civilians once they wrapped their hands around the Thompson gun.

The Thompson gun was less than thirty-four inches long, weighed ten and a half pounds, and fired fat .45-caliber pistol rounds. It was the brainchild of retired brigadier general John T. Thompson, a former Army ordnance officer and longtime advocate of automatic arms. In the 1890s, as a captain, Thompson had helped Second Lieutenant John H. Parker obtain Gatling guns for the Spanish-American War; his place in machine-gun history was secure before he founded a gun firm. Thompson was more like Richard Gatling than Mikhail Kalashnikov. Upon retiring from the army, he pursued his weapon’s development as a business, with a private design team, wealthy backing, and an eye on profits. No state committee was involved, though one root of his design tapped his prior government work. Thompson chambered the Tommy Gun, as it was nicknamed, for the pistol round that he had championed, based on his military-funded studies, as ideal for killing men.

How Thompson came to this decision was a bizarre journey through the world of small-arms development and military science. In October 1903, the secretary of war asked Thompson and an army surgeon to test the available pistol cartridges and determine which possessed “the stopping power and shock effect at short ranges necessary for a pistol for the military service.”58 This was subjective work, and the officers were allowed to choose the methodology they thought best. Thompson’s partner on the project, Major Louis A. La Garde, had served as a surgeon in the Spanish-American War and been fascinated with questions of ballistics throughout his long career. Experiments suited him. La Garde had tested cartridges tipped with biological agents and established that the flash of high temperatures and pressure involved in blasting a bullet out of a barrel did not kill bacteria, as some men assumed. “We fired bullets from different kinds of hand weapons which were previously contaminated with anthrax germs into susceptible animals at varying distances up to 500 yards and the animals died of anthrax in the majority of cases,” he wrote in one of his many studies.59

Some of La Garde’s work spoke of an eccentric’s whim; other projects had practical value. By firing into cadavers in the 1890s, he traced the ways that wounds from bullets changed as bullet technology changed. In that study, the ambition had been to examine the effects of rifle fire on what the army called “the human frame.” La Garde conducted his tests in 1893 at the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. His methods were clinical to the point of being mechanical. He used tackle to position cadavers so bullets could strike the targeted areas of the body squarely. He set up barrels of sawdust to catch the bullets after they passed through, allowing their recovery and examination. The arsenal did not have the ranges required for shooting at long distance, and long-range shots would naturally introduce imprecision. So to reproduce the impact of bullets fired from far away, La Garde shot cadavers with cartridges with less powder from a distance of twenty-eight feet. Lighter charges propelled bullets at reduced speed, thereby simulating bullet strikes from farther out. La Garde was driven by curiosity. He wanted to divine the effects of bullets on various body parts. Shot by shot, he methodically shattered the cadavers in his care. He fired into one upper arm, then the other, one femur, then the other. He shot ankles, hips, and knees, and then shoulders and elbows. He shot skulls, sending bullets through heads at various angles and orientations. He shot feet. He shot a pelvis. He collected the bullets after each shot. Upon examining them and assessing their degree and type of deformation, La Garde tried to determine how they had caused the damage they had caused. Gunshot injuries were common, in peace and in war. Much about them was misunderstood. He was trying to peer forensically into the split-second mechanisms of wounding deep inside the human body. Throughout it all he kept notes and compared them with observations of the torn tissue and broken bones. Based on this work, La Garde concluded that the newer, faster-moving and smaller-caliber bullets caused less tissue destruction, and were therefore more humane, than the heavier lead bullets used in most war to that time. He predicted that wounds from the newer rounds would be such that surgeons would be required to amputate limbs less often than in wars past.60 La Garde worked in the presecrecy era, before much of the military’s work and deliberations were routinely classified and withheld from public review. He was a different breed. He published accounts of his work openly, and when it attracted controversy he defended his methods with vigor. After a few years, when the gunshot injuries of the Spanish-American War had been treated and examined, conclusions from this study were proven right.

The pistol tests were another matter. It was one thing to document how different bullets smash different bones. It was altogether another to measure concepts as ill-defined as “stopping power” and “shock effect.” But this was the order, and Thompson and La Garde tried. The officers agreed to an imaginative set of trials. The field of firearms ballistics, like many applied sciences, is populated by scrupulous practitioners and passionate quacks. At times it can be difficult to tell the types apart. This was to be the case here. La Garde’s rigor departed him entirely.

First the pair decided they needed cadavers and made the necessary arrangements at the Philadelphia Polyclinic Hospital and New York University’s medical school. On the grounds of these institutions, they suspended cadavers by their heads so that their feet hung clear of the floor. Barrels of sawdust provided a backstop. Thompson and La Garde produced their tools: a collection of common pistols of the timeiv and assorted cartridges, some with full-metal jackets, others with lead points, and one with a cupped front end that its salesmen dubbed “the Man-stopper.” The shooting began. Eventually the officers would examine each wound, recording effects on flesh, organs, and bones. First they did something novel. In the instant each bullet smacked each cadaver, they estimated the degree of oscillation—in a word, the swing—of the struck limbs. “The force of impact was noticed to throw the limb back in the direction of the flight of the bullet, and in regaining its normally suspended position, the member was apt to sway back forth several times,”61 the officers wrote to the War Department. Their observations led to a numerical rating that no serious scientist would regard as valid—a number between 1 and 100, assigned by assessing the movement with the naked eye. (The .45 round was rated an 80 or an 85, depending on the type of bullet fired.)

It was not enough to plumb how bullets tore through the dead or made hanging corpses sway. To gauge shock effect, the captain and major decided that they also needed to observe the varied ways and rates at which living creatures might die after suffering different types of pistol fire. So, after satisfying themselves that they had learned what could be learned from the cadaver shoots, the officers proceeded to the Union Stock Yards in Chicago, where they obtained livestock for the next stage. The first stockyard test posed a simple question: How does a pistol bullet affect a steer or cow when fired at close range? Animals were tied by turns to posts. The officers lifted their pistols, stepped near, took aim from roughly thirty-six inches away, and fired into each animal’s rib cage. Then they backed up to watch. Observations recorded of the first animal, a bull weighing about thirteen hundred pounds, were typical.

Two shots through both lungs from left to right; second shot four inches in front of the first. Animal dropped at the end of four minutes. Was apparently not much disturbed by the first shot, only throwing head slightly, but he was shocked by the second shot. Blood flowing from nostrils immediately after the first shot, showing that the lung was probably perforated. He was in a death struggle at the end of four and a half minutes; dead at the end of five.

The experiment on the fourth animal, a bull of the same size, might have suggested that cattle were not the best surrogates for studying the effects of bullets on men.

First shot: Bullet entered from left to right; animal was shocked by the report. The bullet was intended to traverse the intestinal area as much as possible. At the end of the forty-five seconds the animal was breathing somewhat rapidly.

Second shot: Two minutes from first shot. Bullet struck to the right and below where the first entered. Animal was again shocked by the report of the revolver and, of course, by the force of the blow.

Third shot: Three minutes and ten seconds from first shot. Animal very much shocked by the loudness of the report; his breathing became faster, but he soon quieted down.

As it became evident that the animal would not die immediately from the wounds already inflicted, he was shot in the head at the end of six minutes and thirty seconds from the time of the first shot, with no apparent effect.

Sixth shot: At the end of seven minutes and fifteen seconds, the animal, still standing, was shot in the ear, with no apparent effect.21

Seventh shot: At the end of eight minutes and fifteen seconds, the animal still standing, was shot behind the ear. The animal continued to stand, the shots having failed to reach a vital spot, it was determined to kill him in accordance with the method practiced at the slaughter house. At the fourth blow on the head with a hammer he fell to the ground and expired.

Captain Thompson and Major La Garde shot eight cows and steers before shifting to what they called “quick-firing” tests, the object being “to fire a sufficient number of shots in rapid succession to cause the animal to fall to the floor.” The first cow withstood six bullets and sagged to the ground. The second cow absorbed ten, though “owing to a hitch in the working of the pistol, there was an interval of one minute between the third and fourth shots.” The third animal was still standing after twelve bullets. The officers decided to dispatch it with a hammer. And so on.62

The work was of dubious value. The data sample was small, the method of observation crude. By today’s standards it would be considered unethical and inhumane. It was influential nonetheless.63 The officers concluded that the caliber of a pistol bullet was the most important factor in lethality. Bullets with larger diameters, they deduced, caused wounds with larger diameters, which brought about incapacitation and death more quickly than narrower, faster rounds. A wealth of other studies in wound ballistics would later show wounding to be more complicated than this. But based in part on these conclusions, the United States adopted the .45 as its standard pistol round. Thompson’s affinity for the .45 round outlasted his military service. The lessons he thought he learned from watching swinging corpses and death throes in the stockyard led him to design the Thompson gun as a .45-caliber weapon. The thinking was linear. When fired rapidly through a pistol, the .45 round had brought a standing cow to the floor more quickly than any other pistol round: Six shots and a 950-pound brute was on her side. If it could do that job, imagine what it might do if fired at a rate of more than six hundred rounds a minute into a 160-pound man? This, on paper at least, was what the Thompson gun offered to all buyers.

Thompson’s intentions were patriotic as well as commercial. He conceived of his submachine gun during World War I—a “trench broom,” he called it, for cleaning German soldiers from fighting holes. But he did not get his prototype developed before the war’s end. When he had it ready for sale, the timing was terrible. The American military budget was in a postwar contraction. Procurements were hard to find. Thompson hawked his gun with zeal from his Auto-Ordnance Corporation offices on Broadway in Manhattan. Calling it a trench broom hardly served his interests. Germany had surrendered. The prospects for another trench war were uncertain. Government markets were picky and fickle; armies did not know what to prepare for next. The American military acknowledged the mechanical soundness of Thompson’s gun, but still favored traditional rifles. Thompson presented the weapon to police departments. Police officials had misgivings, too. A submachine gun had a place in certain types of battle. But proposing automatic arms for use against criminals seemed to many police chiefs to be a risky inclination toward overkill, considering the danger to bystanders. Yet all was not lost. Unlike Gatling’s massive weapon, Thompson’s gun had characteristics that commended it to customers outside government. And its legal path was clear. Until this point, automatic arms had been military arms. No one had conceived of a law to regulate their sale to private parties, because private citizens had not seemed to be a potential market for the weapons that had appeared before. The Auto-Ordnance Corporation turned its sales attention to civilians. The United States had a love affair with firearms. Why not offer a firearm with extra pop? The corporation appealed to both the nation’s folklore and its cinematic sense of self. One Thompson gun advertisement showed a cowboy firing from his right hip at armed horsemen charging his porch. In the ad copy, four of the marauders’ horses have been relieved of riders by the bullets of the Tommy Gun. One rider is falling backward from his saddle, rifle high, having just been shot. Two more horsemen, one of whom is galloping away, appear to have had second thoughts. This was Madison Avenue merged with righteous carnage, step right up and buy your own. “The Thompson Submachine Gun. The Most Effective Portable Fire Arms in Existence,” the advertisement read. “The ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc.” Thompson’s most thorough historian summed up the Auto-Ordnance pitch, and the predicament that accompanied it.

A company that could fancy a cowboy mowing down bandits, or envision a householder pouring machine gun fire into his darkened dining room in defense of the family silver, might well have misjudged its markets. But the submachine gun was legally available to anyone, and lack of police and military interest made it, by default, a civilian weapon. And so it came to pass that the Thompson—manufactured in peacetime, sold on the commercial market—was, in a sense, a machine gun for the home.64

A natural problem flowed from this sales ambition. The portion of the civilian population interested in purchasing submachine guns could have been expected to include more than the trespassed-upon homeowners suggested by the pitch. Unfortunately for the brigadier, this was the case. The Tommy Gun became a weapon of choice for mobsters, bank robbers, rum runners, and other members of the villainous classes of the 1920s and 1930s, all of whom gave submachine guns a bad name fast. The military’s objection to the Thompson—that submachine guns were not effective across the distances at which the infantry often fights—was irrelevant in the underworld. Criminals did not worry about fighting off the massed rifles of well-drilled line platoons. They worried about each other, and they worried about the police. When their disputes turned violent, they settled them by pistol and shotgun fire, across distances at which people could hear each other curse. For these purposes and at these ranges, the Tommy Gun, with bullets that earned their respectability by knocking over cows, was a most useful tool.

Once civilians started filling orders, scandal was not far behind. In 1921, a shipment of Thompsons bound for the Irish Republican Army was discovered on a vessel soon to depart Hoboken for Dublin, which nearly caused a major diplomatic row between Washington and London.65 The company’s officers dodged indictment, though suspicions lingered that some of them knew more about the Irish deal than they let on. In 1923 the Saturday Evening Post questioned the merits of the gun’s existence, and worried aloud over the uses to which it might be put.

Except as an arm for trench warfare or semimilitary police forces having to deal with armed risings, it is difficult to see what honest need they can meet; yet we are faced with the fact that they exist and are on the open market for anyone who wants to buy them. Here, one would say, is an arm that is useless for sport, cumbrous for self-defense and could not serve any honest purpose, but which in the hands of political fanatics might provoke disaster.66

The Thompson was not particularly cumbersome for self-defense, and arguments still rage about the best definitions for legal sport and honest purposes in nations fortunate enough to have the stability and the forums to quarrel over such things. But the Post summarized well enough some of the risks that followed when small automatic arms designed for the most intimately violent of military tasks were made available to anyone. A few years later, the prediction proved at least partly right. In the mid-1920s, the weapon began to turn up in the hands of Chicago gangsters as they descended into a bootlegging turf war. Thompson’s solution for overcoming the tactical horrors of the Western Front reached firearms notoriety by 1929, when hit men in police uniforms ordered seven men against a garage wall in Chicago’s North Side and killed them all with Tommy Guns. Thompson was distressed. His public-relations troubles did not improve in the Depression. Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, and John Dillinger led a list of headline-generating outlaws who came to be associated with the Thompson and the menace of illicit firepower—good for bandits convincing bank tellers to open vaults and for shooting out of encirclement when trapped by the police. Not so good for everyone else.

The Thompson had a spectacular run, but its long-term effects as a public danger were less than what might appear. The Auto-Ordnance Corporation was one small company. Its production was not especially large. The gun entered outlaw lore aided by a rambunctious press. It managed to point to the future perils of assault-rifle proliferation. Yet it was an isolated case. This was because its breakout period occurred in a stable Western nation with functioning police, courts, and legislatures and a durable public compact. There was also the important matter of scale. Perhaps a few hundred Thompsons reached criminal hands in the United States. They caused minor havoc and national uproar, but the United States took steps for the public’s safety before popular ownership of submachine guns became widespread. It began to make law. In 1934, Congress passed the National Firearms Act, part of a series of state and federal laws that restrict the sale, ownership, or use of automatic arms in the United States. Ultimately, after a brief and noisy heyday, Thompson’s trench broom served to illustrate how stable nations with responsive governments can adjust to shifts in weapons technology. These were not the sort of nations where the AK-47 would leave its longest-lasting marks.

The AK-47 existed on a different order of magnitude, and was controlled by a different political culture. It was being assembled in enormous quantities by governments that, while they lasted, would show small concern for where the weapons went, or to whom. And after these governments fell, many of their automatic arms cascaded out of their possession. The arms flow began with a trickle. It began with József Tibor Fejes.

Fejes had carried his captured AK-47 with straight-backed rebel confidence. His cause seemed to have prevailed.

Soon after the cease-fire, the Kremlin adopted a conciliatory tone. It published in Pravda a declaration of respect, equality, and noninterference in the domestic affairs of its European satellites. By all appearances, the insurgents had won. They had forced Khrushchev to accept a new point of view about Soviet relations in the buffer zone. The revolution shifted from violent to political, at least on the surface. On November 1, 1955, Prime Minister Nagy delivered a radio address declaring Hungary’s departure from the Warsaw Pact, and proclaiming its new unaligned status. Hungary was leaving the Soviet orbit. For Hungarians the proclamation was a moment of national self-determination. For the Kremlin, the radio address challenged Soviet authority over the nations in its grip and threatened to unravel a carefully choreographed alliance. For Nagy, the address was a reactive step; he had received reports of new Soviet military activities. The conciliatory declaration in Pravda had been a trick. On October 31, Khrushchev had decided to invade Hungary again, and with a much larger force. For a few days, as it massed troops, the Kremlin maintained the ruse. The Soviet leadership negotiated with Nagy’s government over details for withdrawing Soviet forces. Almost everyone took the bait. On November 1 in Washington, Allen Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, addressed the National Security Council after digesting the news. He marveled at the insurgents’ success:

In a sense, what had occurred there was a miracle. Events had belied all our past views that a popular revolt in the face of modern weapons was an utter impossibility. Nevertheless, the impossible had happened, and because of the power of public opinion, armed force could not effectively be used.67

Public opinion was not so powerful after all. That night, Soviet troops started a reconnaissance of the capital. On November 3, the Soviet and Hungarian delegations met for negotiations. The meeting ended when General Ivan Serov, director of the KGB and Dulles’s Soviet counterpart, placed the Hungarian delegation under arrest. The remaining plans were already in motion. The commander in chief of Soviet armed forces had given his orders, reminding the soldiers that Hungary had sided with the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet invasion, he said, was justified under the Warsaw Pact, which bound the troops to the task of “carrying out their allied obligations.”68 Shortly after 4:00 A.M. on November 4, the nature of Soviet allied obligations was made known. The full attack began.69

The Soviet army called the crackdown Operation Whirlwind and launched it with the codeword grom, Russian for thunder. Armored divisions rolled into Budapest from multiple directions, this time with an ample complement of infantry. Nagy managed a radio broadcast to say the Hungarian government was at its post and Hungarian troops were fighting. Then he fled to the Yugoslav embassy. János Kádár, a rival politician who had secretly betrayed Nagy and received Kremlin backing, announced that a new government had been formed. The attack was overpowering. Soviet units quickly encircled the Hungarian Ministry of Defense and army buildings and barracks, neutralizing any chance of an organized conventional defense. In Moscow, Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet minister of defense, told the Central Committee that Soviet troops had seized communication centers, military depots, Parliament, the central committee of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, and three bridges. The rebel government was in hiding, Zhukov said, and searches had begun. Then came the problem of Fejes and his colleagues at the rebels’ stronghold. “One large hotbed of resistance of the insurgents remains in Budapest around the Corvin Theater,” Zhukov said. “The insurgents defending this stubborn point were presented with an ultimatum to capitulate. In connection with the refusal of the resisters to surrender, the troops began an assault.”70

The attack surprised the Corvinists. As many as two thousand fighters were near the theater, part of the new National Guard. But they were not as alert as before, and this time the Soviet military did not probe piecemeal or hesitate. It drove in heavy and hard. A tank regiment and a mechanized guard regiment rolled forward after artillery had prepared their path. Many rebels fought, but there was small hope of stopping such a force, and gradually most slipped away, yielding ground. The Soviet soldiers used flamethrowers and explosives against the holdouts. “By sunset,” said Yevgeny I. Malashenko, acting chief of staff for the Soviet corps that resided in Hungary, “we had broken the resistance in the whole area.”71 The revolution was crushed, although at tremendous cost. The Soviet military suffered as many as 722 dead and 1,500 wounded. The bulk of their casualties came in the first week of fighting, before the cease-fire. Another 67 soldiers disappeared outright, likely to a mix of battle and defection to the West. The Hungarians suffered up to 20,000 people wounded. Depending on the source, 2,000 to 3,000 Hungarians were said to have been killed.72

József Tibor Fejes survived. What he did during the final Soviet invasion was not evident from the fading court records left behind; sources vary on whether he participated in the battle for the theater. But he had returned to his father’s flat by November 5. By then the rebels’ situation was desperate. Many tried to escape, some fleeing on foot toward Austria. Fejes opted to try to resume his former life. He reported back to work, where, in a sign of the depth of popular support for the revolution but also that Fejes’s employer knew something of his armed activities, his salary was doubled. He settled back into the routines of labor and collecting wages, his AK-47 slung from his shoulder no more. The choice was fraught with risk. With the uprising extinguished, the Soviet Union and the ÁVH set out to destroy its participants and symbols. The immediate problem was Nagy, who had been granted sanctuary at the Yugoslav embassy. The Kremlin resorted once more to lies. The new Moscow-backed prime minister, János Kádár, signed a document for the Yugoslavs guaranteeing the former premier’s safety. Assured of their security, Nagy, his circle, and their families left the embassy on November 22, expecting to be escorted home. Like the Soviet declaration in Pravda, and the faked negotiations to withdraw from Hungarian soil, the promise was a trap. Soviet intelligence officers stopped the bus and placed Nagy and his entourage under arrest. (After a secret trial, Nagy would be hanged.)

Next came reprisals against the revolution’s rank and file. Between the end of the revolution and mid-1961, 341 people were executed and 22,000 sentenced to other punishments, mostly prison terms. Tens of thousands of others lost homes or jobs. More than 100,000 people were punished. Familiar Soviet slurs were recycled; the accused found themselves labeled kulaks or fascists. The reprisals took time to gain momentum. The caseload was large. At first Fejes faded back into his laborer’s life. He hid in plain sight. His luck could not hold. He had been visible on the streets with his AK-47 throughout the cease-fire, and his employer appeared to know of his insurgent past. Beyond participating in the fighting, he and his AK-47 had been present at the killing of Lieutenant Balassa. This was the last sort of crime the government was not likely to overlook, the more so because Balassa was a legacy—his mother worked in the ÁVH. She could push for his case from within. All this, and Michael Rougier’s photograph of Fejes had been published in Life. He was the revolutionary poster boy, the young fighter with a captured assault rifle, wearing an eye-catching hat. Such high-profile evidence could bring a man maintaining a low profile no good. A clipping with the photograph went into the government’s file. The authorities zeroed in. Fejes was arrested on April 30, 1957.73 In a closed trial in early 1959, prosecutors described his supposed actions after Lieutenant Balassa, broken by bullets, fell to the street. Balassa had been struck in the neck, chest, lung, and elsewhere. Witnesses said Fejes stood over the body, removed Balassa’s documents, and waved them for all to see. “He was an officer of the secret police,” his accusers said Fejes shouted. “I killed this officer!” After the killing, prosecutors said, Fejes accused another man of being a member of the ÁVH, too. He released him after examining the man’s palms and deciding that their rough condition indicated hard physical work; this, the prosecutor said, showed that Fejes was the leader of an operative revolutionary unit tasked with killing members of the police.

Fejes said this was all a lie. He said he had been posted to guard a corner with another young man, nicknamed the Mute. But Fejes said he had argued with the other guards and was told to go away. As he walked off, leaving the Mute behind, he said, he heard gunshots, and turned around, frightened, to see Lieutenant Balassa falling. He joined the crowd only after Balassa was dead.

I saw that person who shot the alleged ÁVH member. That person was short, bulky and was wearing a brown short coat, army trousers, boots and a winter hat. He had a Soviet type submachine gun, with which he shot his victim dead. The murderer afterwards left the site for the direction of Baross Street, but he returned shortly afterwards to get the victims ÁVH I.D., then he left again. I was afterward assigned by the armed persons the task to guard the tank at the corner of Rákóczi Square, which I guarded for over one hour and a half. During that time came civilians and diplomats to take photos. They took pictures of me, too, because I was standing next to the tank. That is how I got into the pictures.74

The crowd around Balassa was dispersed, he said, when a Hungarian soldier shot his weapon in the air. In all, Fejes said, he was at the scene of the murder, looking at Lieutenant Balassa’s corpse, for ten or eleven minutes. Then he took his position guarding the tank. The trial was before a stern and famously progovernment judge. As the judge questioned him, Fejes tried to stay alive.

“I never tried my automatic gun,” he said. “I did not even shoot any shots with it, but it must have been very good, I guess.” He added later, “I had nothing on my mind, no particular reason when I joined the freedom fighters, I was not even familiar with the situation here.”

The prosecutors’ case was not ironclad. Elements of the evidence were suspect. The case relied in part on a written statement from an anonymous witness—a police-state tactic that could allow evidentiary invention to convict innocent men. The prosecutors presented a coroner’s report of Balassa’s exhumed remains that claimed he had been shot in the skull. In the photograph of Balassa dead on the curb, his head was intact. Fejes’s defense attorney pointed to inconsistencies in the testimony, and to a witness who said that Fejes did not fire his AK-47 during the shooting. But Fejes’s AK-47 did not help him. Rougier’s photograph imbued the young man in the courtroom with the air of a tough and accomplished fighter; certainly a man could not have acquired such a weapon by easy means. A prosecutor called him “Defendant Fejes, the bowler hat hero, an iconic figure of the counter-revolution,” who “carried out homicide, robbery and looting.” Fejes had the right to speak last. He adopted the language and essential points of view of his accusers and begged for his life.

I plea for a merciful verdict. I did not participate in the counterrevolution intentionally, it was curiosity that drove me into it. I am not at fault in the Balassa incident. I was sent away from Rákóczi Square for I was conducting the checks in an improper way and only when I began to walk away did I turn around because I thought they were shooting at me, but that was when they in fact shot at Balassa. I plea to receive a light verdict because I am a common child of a worker, when Balassa got shot I even felt disgust towards the freedom fighters and I left them.

It was no use. Fejes was convicted of participating in events aimed to overthrow the people’s republic, of unlawfully seizing state property, of theft, and of the murder of an officer of the law. The sentence was death. His appeal was rejected. At 7:18 A.M. on April 9, 1959, József Tibor Fejes was hanged. He was suspended on the gallows for thirty minutes, and then pronounced dead, the end of the journey of the first known revolutionary to carry what would become known as the revolutionary’s gun.

Within the Soviet Union’s design bureaus the family of arms built around the AK-47 was being finished. A new suite of Soviet firearms was emerging, pushing the Soviet army and its allies ahead of the West in efforts to field a basic set of infantry arms for the Cold War. The AK-47 was established and accepted, though problems in its original design had not been resolved. Throughout the mid and late 1950s, a team led by Mikhail Miller, an engineer in Izhevsk, worked to improve the early production models, experimenting on the gas system, the weapon’s rate of automatic fire, the wooden stock, and more. The team also sought an acceptable stamped-metal replacement for the solid-steel receiver. Miller’s group made multiple test rifles, and in 1959 Izhevsk launched production of an updated Kalashnikov, the AKM, the Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanny,or Modernized. The new Kalashnikov featured a stock made of laminated wood, which was determined to be stronger than solid wooden stocks. It had a new trigger group that included a device to slow the rate of automatic fire. Engineers hoped this would make the weapon easier to control. And the AKM had a sheet-metal receiver, which reduced the rifle’s weight from the nearly nine and a half pounds of the previous version to less than seven pounds. With the AKM’s arrival, the AK-47 was phased out.75 The AKM became the basis for the most commonly encountered versions of the Kalashnikov line.

Mikhail Kalashnikov’s status as exemplar for the working masses solidified. In 1958, as weapons bearing his name circulated throughout Soviet military, intelligence, and police units, and were passed to the Warsaw Pact, the Politburo designated Kalashnikov a Hero of Socialist Labor. The certificate accompanying his elevation praised his role in “reinforcing the power of the state.”76 This was curious language for an award issued for contributions to economy and culture, and especially so after the manner in which the state’s power had been brought to bear in Hungary. It said more about the Soviet view of its assault rifle than most of its other declarations ever would. The award generated more coverage, and in 1959, Kalashnikov received more publicity still, including a profile of his life and work in Voyenniye Znaniya, a military magazine. The secret man was hardly a secret at all. He was a well-packaged public entity. Later, he said, “the avalanche of letters began after I had received the first state prize and has continued ever since. As if a floodgate had been opened.”77

Simultaneously with the completion of the AKM, the Main Artillery Department oversaw the development of complements. The first system, the RPK, or Ruchnoi Pulemyot Kalashnikova, the handheld machine gun by Kalashnikov, was the smallest step forward. It was in the simplest sense a heavyweight AK-47, with a longer, heavier barrel and a bipod near the muzzle. These features gave the weapon greater range and accuracy than the assault rifle, and made it more suitable for sustained fire. Many of its parts were interchangeable with the AKM, including the magazines, and it was issued side by side with the AKM, although to fewer soldiers. Mikhail Kalashnikov was pleased. He sensed where the Soviet Union was headed—mass standardization based on the AK-47’s basic design. “I cannot get rid of the thought,” he said, “that Izhmash was predestined to become the father of domestic and actually world weapons unification.”78

Next was the PK, or Pulemyot Kalashnikova, the machine gun by Kalashnikov. This filled the medium-machine-gun role for infantry companies, with greater range, accuracy, and stopping power than the RPK. It was meant to become the general-purpose machine gun for Soviet forces. In the initial effort to develop such an arm, a machine gun by Grigory I. Nikitin and Yury M. Sokolov was the front-runner. Ultimately, a design team in Izhevsk, with Kalashnikov as its titular head, presented its submission. The army had been satisfied enough with the AK-47, AKM, and RPK that it thought that the machine gun under the same name might enjoy similar popularity and success. It selected the submission from Izhevsk for service in 1961.79 The PK weighed nearly twenty pounds unloaded and fired the larger 7.62x54R cartridge; it was to be a successful weapon and found in service alongside Kalashnikov rifles almost anywhere they are used. The basics of the Kalashnikov line were now complete. Future arms in the series would all be modifications of these underlying designs.80 (The remaining element of the Eastern bloc’s primary suite of small arms—a semiautomatic sniper rifle known as the SVD, or Snaiperskaya Vintovka Dragunova—was also in its research and development phase. It would be fielded in the early 1960s.)81

For Kalashnikov, this period should have been a time of professional and personal satisfaction. Instead it brought troubles. Kalashnikov’s fame had fueled resentment, and as his stature grew he faced a species of social persecution that inhabited the post-Stalin Soviet Union. In 1956, Khrushchev issued a speech to a party congress, “On the Personality Cult and Its Consequences,” in which he denounced Stalin’s brutal excesses and the fealty and adoration that surrounded him. The speech, given in secret, was quickly leaked for public consumption. Its transcript was a powerful document. Once the population understood that the party leadership was questioning party symbols and behavior, it had a line of attack to settle scores against those who had benefited during the Stalin years. Kalashnikov’s turn came while he was testing the PK in Samarkand. At a meeting of his collective in Izhevsk, a worker denounced Kalashnikov as arrogant and accused him of ignoring the suggestions and ideas of laborers in the plant. The diatribe fit the times. The Soviet Union’s decorated designer was being cast as a man whose ego was outsized.82 Kalashnikov was not present to defend himself. The troubles grew. An article about the meeting appeared in the factory newspaper under the headline “On Overcoming the Personality Cult and Its Consequences,” a play on the title of Khrushchev’s speech. The text detailed the worker’s grievances and provided examples of Kalashnikov’s supposed transgressions. Upon returning, Kalashnikov noticed his friends’ discomfort around him. He was dejected. “I had always believed that I had been working for the Motherland to strengthen its defenses,” he said. “But it appeared that people had misunderstood me.”

Kalashnikov described the complaints as petty. Workplace jealousies, it seemed, had found an outlet in the bizarre atmosphere of that time. But workers’ newspapers could scarcely be published, particularly in a factory under as close party supervision as an arms plant, without approval of factory bosses and their party liaisons. And published denunciations carried risks. The repression had subsided. Khrushchev’s Soviet Union was incomparably less violent than Stalin’s, notwithstanding the treatment of Beria. But apparatchiks could have their standing downgraded over accusations related to a personality cult. Kalashnikov’s fidelity to Stalin was unbending. His fears were likely considerable. He hinted at this. “I could not defend myself before each employee of our giant plant,” he said. The stresses of the period affected him physically, he said, and he developed cardiac arrhythmia. But Mikhail Kalashnikov was ever the survivor of the Soviet Union’s ugly undercurrents. He sought help from what he vaguely called “our major client” and continued to work. His instincts and connections served him well. At a collective meeting some months later the secretary of the factory’s party committee raised the accusations. This time he defended Kalashnikov. His standing was preserved, even as his role in arms design became less important.83

By the early 1960s Mikhail Kalashnikov was no longer especially significant to socialist arms production, beyond his status as a public figure. The weapons carrying his name had been created. They were bound for proliferation independent of what he said or did. Their rates and locales of production, their distribution, their many uses—these were out of his hands. He was a front man now: the story and its face. And across the Eastern European satellites the production of the Kalashnikov line had gathered momentum.

Poland was the first European nation to produce the rifles, beginning work on their arms in 1956. Bulgaria, East Germany, Romania, and Hungary followed. As new assembly lines opened, they would receive state subsidies and be given priority in the delivery of the resources required for production—metals, labor, tools, fuel, and when required, security. The German experience offers a view of the process, albeit with a special set of deceptions required by the Kremlin’s public stance that Germany would not be allowed to militarize again. This posed problems. Officially, the German Democratic Republic was a peaceful nation that had forsworn armament production. It was not to be engaged in the gun trade. To hide the work, assault-rifle production was classified and compartmentalized. Rifle parts were made in sites scattered around the countryside, sometimes in small family shops, and brought to a secluded plant. There, the many secret components came together, like pieces in a puzzle, in the form of a gun. Then the rifles were shipped to their destinations, either for East German security forces or foreign customers.

The final assembly point was in Wiesa, a village in the Erz mountains away from main cities and roads. To produce rifles this way, the communists imitated the Wehrmacht, which had experience circumventing restrictions. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles had mandated a sharp reduction in German armed forces. It also imposed limits on the types and numbers of weapons Germany could garrison. Article 180 allowed for 84,000 rifles and 18,000 carbines (it even mandated the type, down to the style of bayonet), 1,926 machine guns, 252 mortars, and 288 heavy guns. Only one factory, the Simson works in Suhl, was approved to manufacture rifles. Other arms plants were ordered to disassemble their production lines, and, in an early swords-to-plowshares clause, expected to manufacture civilian products, including precision tools. The treaty was impressive on paper. On the ground it did not work. German officers and gun manufacturers used many forms of subterfuge to dodge compliance. In 1922, the former Royal Rifle and Ammunition Factory in Erfurt, which had been shuttered under the treaty, opened a new gun works, ERMA, and surreptitiously resumed production. By 1932, the plant had one thousand employees. Another firm, Rheinmetall-Borsig, spirited away more than two thousand tons of arms-making machinery and hid them in warehouses in Holland under false declarations. Using a front company, it bought stock in a Swiss firm near Bern and began manufacturing machine guns that would have been forbidden at home. In 1926, a group of officers founded the Statistical Corporation, or Stage, which entered the arms-manufacturing business, too. And so on.84

The gun works at Wiesa followed this pattern, but added Soviet touches. One step required finding a site for a final assembly line. The army selected a formerly private textile plant that had been nationalized and declared a people’s company in 1949. The plant had been owned by the family of Kurt Schreiber, a local businessman. During World War I, its main building served as a POW camp; captured French and Russian officers were held there. After the war, it became a factory again. It was a bucolic setting, a stately building on a hillside with neatly kept fields abutting its fences. After World War II, the party seized the plant. By 1950, several Schreiber family members who had faced charges upon protesting their loss (their descendants call the basis for the seizure “a legal farce”) had fled to West Germany. This cleared title for the site’s next use. In 1956, East Germany’s military received sample AK-47s and technical specifications from the Soviet Union. In February 1957, the commandeered plant reopened as a secret arms factory. That year the government seized adjacent property, taking some of the best farmland on the slope.85 It extended fences, hired police officers, installed security lighting along the perimeter, and built a guard shack at the gate. Watchdogs appeared. They slept by day in a pen in the compound’s interior and roamed the fences at night. Their presence was a sure indication of something important within. Construction changed the place, updating it along bland Soviet lines. Dull concrete buildings and a warehouse sprouted. Rail service was extended to reach within the fences. Beneath one of the main buildings, secured behind heavy iron grates, a firing range was opened for testing the weapons before packaging and shipment.

Across the region, skilled workers were hired and trained, and a bus line was created to carry them back and forth to work. There was no bus service for anyone else. The arms-plant jobs, which paid more than what was generally available elsewhere and came with access to a workers’ cafeteria that served hearty meals, were coveted and hard to land. Each applicant had to pass a background check. Those from families with a history of private business ownership or who had relatives in the West were turned away. Those offered positions were required by the Staasi, the secret police, to sign an oath pledging never to reveal what took place in the plant. “You were not allowed to tell your own wife what you did,” said one former employee. Such measures were nonsensical, he added. Like most everyone else, “she already knew.”86 The plant was given a cover: It manufactured tools and home appliances. Over time the villagers coined a knowing joke. That strange plant on the hill, they said, makes a wonderful coffee filter.87

By 1958, rifle production had begun. A bustling gun works grew. Under police escort on the country roads, truck drivers brought in components that had been forged and machined elsewhere.88 The barrels came from Suhl, from a plant said to manufacture bicycles.89 Smaller gun works contributed other parts. A few were machined within the Wiesa compound. The first result was the Maschinen Pistole Kalashnikov, or MPiK, a copy of the original design. Soon more than one thousand people were employed by the works, and the plant became the engine of the local economy in a time when German citizens were still suffering postwar shortages of everything from fresh fruit to building supplies to schnapps. Some townspeople were pleased, and welcomed the good fortune of having a large employer near their homes. Others were afraid. They thought that by choosing Wiesa for a rifle plant, the party had made their village a target. “We always knew, and we were told,” one local man said, “that in case of war Wiesa would be one of the first places to disappear from the planet.”90

Production was slow in the first years. But output rose under harsh quality-control measures, and enough rifles were made to equip the Nationale Volksarmee, the Staasi, and a list of foreign customers, including Iraq, Algiers, Yemen, India, and the Republic of Congo. Rail cars would arrive. They departed filled with green wooden crates containing ten assault rifles each. If the estimates of production levels are accurate, as many as three hundred thousand crates left the grounds. Many were trucked to Dresden. Others went to Rostock, a port on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, on their way to export. The secrecy of the gun works in Wiesa was short-lived. Virtually everyone in Wiesa knew. Much of East Germany did, too. The covers—the bicycle plant in Suhl, the appliance plant in Wiesa, the idea that East Germany did not manufacture rifles—grew to be absurd. Assault rifles peddled by East German front companies in Berlin turned up in wars in Africa and the Middle East. And yet over the years, day by day, the unstated rules of totalitarianism demanded that the people of Wiesa feign indifference, even ignorance, as the muffled crack of gunfire rose from the basement firing range each night. “I decided that up to the edge of the fence was mine,” said one of the plant’s neighbors. “After that it was a foreign country, and I couldn’t care about it.”91

Others did care. Little attracts more attention among armies than word that another military force has a new weapon and is investing heavily in its production. Whispers about new weapons can be an emotionally and intellectually powerful variety of intelligence; they inspire curiosity and often worry. Such was the case in many foreign capitals when the AK-47 began to be seen. As the Kremlin hardened its foreign policy, outside interest in the weapon grew. Foreign intelligence services and arms technicians collected specimen rifles. One of the earliest collections was made in 1956 by Erkki Maristo, of the Finnish military’s ordnance department, who was at the center of a minor Cold War intelligence caper. In the mid-1950s, the Finnish Defense Forces were exploring available options for a new service rifle and wanted to test existing designs. Intelligence sources had brought news of the M1943 cartridge and the AK-47. In May 1956, Lieutenant General Sakari Simelius, chairman of the Finnish Small Arms Committee, saw the AK-47 on a visit to the Soviet Union. Like the Soviet army, the Finns had experience with submachine guns and had no bias against lighter-powered automatic arms. They had studied the sturmgewehr closely and battle experience had taught them that weapons built around traditional European rifle cartridges were not necessarily the best choice for defending their thickly forested nation, where many engagements were fought at close range. The Soviet weapon might fit Finnish needs. How to obtain a sample? Direct sale from Moscow seemed impossible. No defector had carried an AK-47 across the Soviet-Finnish border. The defense forces found another means—a businessman with connections in Poland who agreed to arrange a clandestine purchase. As part of Warsaw Pact standardization efforts, Poland was beginning to manufacture its version of the AK-47. After the businessman’s inquiries, an early rifle was offered for sale. In fall 1956, Maristo sailed by ferry across the Baltic Sea as a private citizen and landed in Poland. In Warsaw, he was shown one of Poland’s prototype Kalashnikovs. He purchased it for an undisclosed price. The rifle was disassembled and the parts smuggled home on a Polish commercial vessel sailing from Gdansk to the Finnish port of Kotka, where it was picked up by the Ministry of Defense and reassembled for analysis.92

The Finns were enthused. They wanted more samples. On March 15, 1957, working through a company called Ankertex OY, the defense forces purchased one hundred more Polish Kalashnikovs, making Poland an early commercial exporter of assault rifles and equipping the Finns with the samples they needed for reverse engineering.93 In the 1960s the Finns began production of an exceptionally well-made Kalashnikov knock-off, the RK-60, which was updated in 1962 and became the Finnish Defense Forces’ standard arm. (The Finns’ selection raised questions of which nation had pulled off a masterful bit of small-arms intrigue. Was Maristo’s collection trip to Warsaw a Finnish intelligence coup? Or had the Finns been lured into a well-orchestrated KGB double game? The Finns’ decision to adopt the 7.62x39 round and a Soviet-pattern could be seen as serving Soviet interests. Finland and Russia shared a long northern border, and as an unaligned state Finland was not a NATO member. There is ample evidence that the Soviet Union gladly aided the Finns’ choice. In 1960, it sold 20,000 AK-47s to the Finnish Defense Force, and in 1962 sold another, smaller quantity. The weapons were to expedite assault-rifle training. Once the RK-62 was adopted in Finnish small-arms munitions stores were incompatible with NATO’s weapons, but compatible with the Soviet Union’s. The Finnish decision gave the Soviet military a logistical edge along its northwestern frontier.)

As the Finns tested their Polish guns, AK-47s kept reaching foreign hands. A confidential 1958 report to the Netherlands General Staff, prepared by intelligence officials and the Dutch inspector of armaments, detailed the exploitation of a folding-stock Kalashnikov that had been manufactured in 1952. The Dutch intelligence service sensed the weapon’s production momentum and deduced part of the Soviet army’s intentions. It noted that the AK-47s seen in intelligence photographs through 1956 had been assigned to the infantry, whereas more recent images showed them with artillery, signals, and antiaircraft soldiers. The analysts ventured that “it is very likely that this weapon will become the only Soviet shoulder weapon.”94 The report was both prescient and understated; the weapon was moving well beyond Soviet possession.

Arms specialists in Yugoslavia also pursued Kalashnikov technology. Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s prime minister, headed a socialist nation that might have been a candidate for early standardization, had relations with the Kremlin not been strained.95 When the Soviet army transferred technical specifications elsewhere, Yugoslavia was left out. It obtained neither sample rifles nor the aid needed to manufacture them. Engineers at the Zastava arms plant in Kragujevac, however, had been experimenting with automatic-rifle designs since 1952, working with captured specimens of the sturmgewehr. In 1959, they got their break. First, two AK-47s came into their possession, apparently after a pair of Albanian border guards passed them off upon defecting to Yugoslav soil.96 Engineers at Zastava made metal castings from the rifles but did not glean enough data to copy them. Tito then came through personally. On a foreign visit to a nation that had received Soviet military aid, he retrieved more AK-47s. These were passed to the engineers to finish their work. (During this time, Tito traveled to Egypt, Indonesia, and India, any one of which might have provided him the sample arms; which country did so has remained a state secret.)97 By the end of 1959, the Zastava plant was developing an AK-47 variant.98 The work was done by industry. Unlike the Finns, the Yugolav military was not interested in issuing the AK-47, fearing its soldiers would consume too much ammunition.99 The factory pushed on alone. Its assault rifles would in time become widely exported, and would be present in many wars.100

One nation alone had the most puzzling reaction to the AK-47 and its creeping movement across the globe: the United States. Throughout the crucial period of the AK-47’s design, development, and mass distribution, American military officers did not foresee or understand the significance of what was happening at its enemy’s test ranges and arms plants. The American intelligence and arms-design failures were almost total. On the level of anticipating security threats, the Pentagon did not recognize the risks to its forces or its allies from the AK-47’s capabilities and global production. And as for designing infantry firearms, it remained obstinately committed to high-powered cartridges and rifles that fired them. Part of the bedrock belief was tradition. As with the European affection for bayonet and cavalry charges at the turn of the century, America was the victim of romance—with old-fashioned rifles and the sharpshooting riflemen who carried them. These were integral to national frontier legend. An unshakable devotion to these legends, and to technical and tactical choices that adhered to them, showed itself repeatedly. At the late date of 1916, after legions of men had died miserably in Europe, wasted in the trenches before the machine guns and artillery of the industrial age, the United States Army continued to operate a School of Musketry at Fort Sill. Names matter. This name spoke to a mentality that handicapped American ground officers through the twentieth century’s first six decades, and left the services unprepared for shifts in technology that were putting lightweight automatic rifles into its enemies’ hands.

Time and again, senior officers upheld tradition and missed signs. The American army watched events in Europe as its involvement in World War I drew near. When it entered the war in 1917, in spite of the nation’s industrial might and its role as the incubator of machine guns, the army contributed little to the rapidly expanding tactical field. It had more than fifty years of association with machine guns. But it had not yet developed a sound machine-gun doctrine. The record spoke of indifference and neglect. In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, an American military attaché reported observing a Russian machine-gun battery fire 6,000 rounds in a minute and a half, and 26,000 rounds in two days of battle. When the army experimented with machine-gun platoons in 1907, it issued each platoon 1,000 rounds to fire—for an entire year.101 An allotment of that size provided small chance to develop marksmanship, and smaller chance still to experiment thoughtfully with tactics. It also made everything lucidly clear. No matter Omdurman, never mind the army’s own experience outside Santiago and in the Philippines, forget the horrifying effectiveness of machine guns in the battle for Port Arthur. Machine guns and machine gunnery were not a prominent part of army thought. By 1909, the army had 282 Maxims for its entire force. Then it replaced them—after minimal testing—with the Benet-Marcie, a French design that, soldiers discovered after procurement, broke down under heavy use.

Louis La Garde, the army surgeon who had organized the cadaver and livestock firing tests, summarized a persistent ideal, which was common to American infantry thinking before the United States plunged into the war. “With a high muzzle velocity and a flat trajectory, little remains to be desired in the present rifle,” he wrote in 1916. The present rifle, in 1916, was the M1903 Springfield—a high-powered, bolt-action rifle almost forty-five inches long. La Garde saw value only in making the round more powerful, so a bullet fired over level ground would fly so flat and so far that as it traveled across more than a half-dozen football fields, it would neither rise above nor fall below the height of a standing man. This was the weirdly disconnected domain of ballistics theory. A round that flies in this fashion would remain a hazard for a man standing upright on perfectly flat ground from any point from the rifle’s muzzle out to more than a third of a mile. Such theories appeared sensible on chalkboards, as long as one looked past certain facts. First among them was that in combat such terrain does not exist. The second fact was every bit as important: People under fire tend not to remain exposed and standing up. La Garde had a busy mind. He liked to think about bullets. He examined gunshot injuries like no other officer of his time. But he was no tactician. The most positive development he could foretell would be fielding a bullet-and-rifle combination such that “the continuous danger space for a height of 68 inches extended from the present range of 730 yards to a range of 1,000 yards.”102

After the war, the army studied the possibility of a semiautomatic rifle. Tests showed the value of a lower-pressure round—the .276 Pederson—as a replacement for the .30-06 cartridge fired by the M1903. The .276 might have pushed the United States ahead of everyone else in developing semiautomatic and automatic shoulder arms. But the opportunity was lost. General Douglas MacArthur, the army chief of staff, rejected the study after being told that it was still feasible to design a semiautomatic rifle that fired the heavier, faster round. It was in fact feasible. A better question might have been whether it was preferable. The old round remained the standard; the lighter round was shelved. Because no other nation fielded an intermediate round quickly, and the German sturmgewehr was not distributed in the quantities necessary to influence the fighting against American soldiers in late World War II, the United States did not suffer directly from MacArthur’s decision, at least not immediately. In the short term the opposite occurred. The army developed a semiautomatic rifle, the M1 Garand, which fired its big cartridge. The Garand was powerful and reliable, if somewhat unwieldy in the old-school ways. But American soldiers fought World War II with one of the most successful semiautomatic rifles ever made. Over the longer term MacArthur’s decision had an insidious effect. The Garand was a perfect dinosaur—a highly developed and successful weapon of a type that was soon to die. Its success hardened the bias against smaller rounds.

And yet there was still a chance for the United States to move in the direction that rifle technology was headed, and to get there years before the Soviet Union won the race. In 1941, the army recognized that in spite of its commitment to big rifles for its infantry, it needed a lighter and shorter weapon for entire categories of soldiers—those who carried and fired mortars, or were members of machine-gun crews, or drove tanks and trucks, or tended to wounded soldiers, or carried radio gear. There were any number of people on the battlefield for whom a large rifle was a burden and a pistol was too inaccurate to be of much value. For these soldiers, the army fielded a semiautomatic rifle with an intermediate round—the M1 carbine. The M1 carbine weighed slightly more than five pounds and measured less than a yard. It fired a short .30-caliber cartridge that propelled bullets from its muzzle at less than two thousand feet per second. It had a box magazine, and could hold up to thirty rounds. The rifle was popular with many soldiers and Marines. Several million were made. Like many new calibers and new weapons, the M1 carbine-cartridge combination had problems. Many veterans worried that the step down from the .30-06 cartridge had been too steep, and that the carbine’s round lacked range and knockdown power. The carbine was known to jam, especially in cold weather. But with this combination, the United States had a format in hand to improve upon in the natural step toward a general-issue lightweight automatic. The chance was lost. After World War II, when the search began for an automatic to replace the Garand, the army remained devoted to traditional cartridges. It selected the Garand format.

Allegiance to tradition informed more than the weapons the Pentagon chose to pursue. It colored how the Pentagon perceived the arrival of the assault-rifle era. When the equipment and lessons of World War II were analyzed, the Soviets recognized the value of the sturmgewehr. The Americans did not. Forgetting even the biases informed by convention, the oversight merits consideration. Immense collections of German war records were captured and read by the Allies, allowing deep insight into the Wehrmacht’s war machine. Designers involved were interrogated. The sturmgewehrrepresented a groundbreaking change in infantry arms, and the United States Army held the thinking behind it. It possessed captured samples. It occupied many of Germany’s arms factories. It held the German plans and the German machine tools. It had access to the workers. But the significance of the Nazis’ development was lost on the officers and technicians responsible for American weapons design. The United States understood what Hugo Schmeisser’s automatic rifle did; it did not understand what it meant.

Looked back on, the adherence to old thinking appeared startling, given the information available in the 1950s to the army and its general staff. Shortly after World War II, the army contracted with private researchers, detached from its customs and bureaucracy, who made pointed recommendations for new training and equipment. The group, called the Operations Research Office, combed classified data and literature in offices at Johns Hopkins University and secretly reached conclusions that challenged two preeminent American chestnuts: the value of the long-range rifle and the belief in the shooting skills of marksmen. Available data showed that whatever the abilities of soldiers on rifle ranges, under the stress and visibility conditions of actual war, the preponderance of combat shooting was more pedestrian than legend suggested. Casualty studies showed that most bullet hits in World War II were random, like shrapnel wounds, and most happened at short range.103 There were good reasons for this. It was not simply that riflemen were bum shots. Tactics had a hand. The United States had been late to machine gunnery, but by the end of World War I, and throughout its military operations thereafter, it usually used machine guns well. And one common element of modern infantry fighting involved a reliance not on the precision aimed fire of the individual, but on the massed area fire of the group. The means and style of conventional ground warfare had changed. Concentrated firepower was often used to pin down an enemy as much as to kill him, while friendly troops moved in close. This suppressive fire, studies showed, was frequently applied without soldiers’ putting their weapons’ sights to their eyes, unless a distinct target presented itself, which was often not the case. In firefights like this, what was the purpose of such a rifle as La Garde had championed, which could strike a standing man seven hundred yards away? Soldiers often were relying on volume of fire more than on precise plinking at great range, and creating volume of fire required carrying hundreds of bullets, which was not easy to do if those bullets were heavy and large.

These were the kinds of questions and conversations in play overseas, questions that the Red Army had settled to its own satisfaction in 1943.

The data, and the studies, were not enough for the Pentagon of the 1950s. Not even the Americans’ closest allies could dissuade the generals from their antiquated point of view. Like their Soviet counterparts, British technicians analyzed the German 7.92 Kurz round and recognized its many qualities. They developed the .280 round as a prospective replacement for the long-standing British .303, a large cartridge that had been used all the way back to the slaughter at Omdurman. The British insights were smart but ill timed. Just as it grasped the direction that military rifle design was headed, Britain was not in a position to head there itself. A young but already stultifying bureaucracy inhibited its choices: NATO. Having experienced the maddeningly complicated logistics of World War II and the problems of multiple allies using multiple cartridges for weapons that performed the same tasks, Western powers wanted standardization. No one ally could select its own cartridge, because all the allies wanted to have the same round. A consensus was needed. A bureaucratic fight ensued, the result being that the Pentagon could not be convinced to switch to a significantly smaller round. NATO had no choice but to follow the United States’ lead. In 1953, the 7.62x51-millimeter round—a traditional cartridge closely resembling the cartridge that American weapons had used for decades—became NATO’s pick. Like the .276 Pederson twenty years before, the British .280 was dropped. The choice presented familiar problems. The United States Army went to work nonetheless on a heavy automatic rifle to fire its selection. It produced the M-14, which would become, for a few years, the standard battle rifle for GIs. To handle the heat and energy of the heavy cartridge, the M-14 had to be big. And it was big in every sense: Its version that could fire automatically weighed almost twelve pounds and stretched almost four feet long. Certainly it was powerful. Lethality tests would show that it produced an awesomely destructive effect on human skulls and legs.104 But with this power came costs—not just the weight and length penalty, but punishing recoil and determined muzzle rise. Only the strongest soldiers could expect to control it on automatic, and then only briefly.

The decision had been made that bound the United States to an unwieldy automatic rifle for the next war, and bound NATO members to big rifles, too. The alternative choices made by the Soviet army were disregarded or ignored. Five years after the AK-47 became the Soviet standard infantry arm, American military manuals were silent on the weapons’ existence, even though it was a weapon American soldiers would inevitably face. The Ordnance Corps’ 1954 manual, Soviet Rifles and Carbines, Identification and Operation, made no mention of the rifle whatsoever, while noting that “the information presented herein is based upon the latest and best material available.”105 The declaration verged on the inexplicable, considering that the Soviet Union had publicly acknowledged the AK-47’s existence in 1949. By the summer of 1955, the U.S. Ordnance Technical Intelligence Service, working from the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a testing center in Maryland similar to the Soviet center in Schurovo, began to catch up. It completed translation of the 121-page Soviet technical manual for the AK-47. The manual, published in Moscow in 1952 and stamped SEKRETNO, Russian for secret, had recently come into American possession.106 The United States acquired at least one new Soviet assault rifle shortly thereafter.107 In June 1956, the U.S. Army’s Technical Intelligence Office issued a classified report detailing the results of exploitation tests of an AK-47, which it labeled, incorrectly, a submachine gun. The army followed up seven months later with another classified report on what it called the SMG (submachine gun) Kalashnikov. The Americans were swift in one respect. They had obtained an AK-47 ahead of the Dutch, the Finns, and the Yugoslavs, and less than a year behind the Chinese. Those responsible for intelligence collection had done well. The analysts and ordnance officers were another story. The American army spent much of the next decade dismissing the AK-47 as a weapon of limited value—a submachine gun that was fine for bungling socialist conscripts, but beneath the far-shooting American infantry. The term submachine gun, repeated in military reports and official correspondence for years, was pejorative, as if the AK-47 did not deserve to be discussed in the same conversation with hard-hitting American battle rifles. Snickering was an accepted norm.

Then the army’s ordnance branch was shown up. On its September 1956 cover, GUNS magazine leaped ahead of official sources with a profile of the M1943 round. The article included a drawing of an AK-47, though the caption mislabeled it as the “Avtomat 54” and the “PPK-1954.” Notwithstanding these small errors, the writer, William B. Edwards, a well-known firearms correspondent of his time, understood his facts. He declared the intermediate cartridge “a bold step toward uniform ordnance supply.” He recognized the weapon’s lineage and noted its resemblance to the sturmgewehr. And he had a scoop within his scoop—he had fired the avtomat. Little was yet known in civilian circles about this weapon, but Edwards had managed to wrap his hands around one, and a selection of M1943 cartridges, too.108 He proved a good judge of the AK-47’s merits. He liked how the weapon felt and predicted its eventual trajectory, calling it “a remarkable weapon for general issue.”109 Edwards also noted that it was much easier to handle than the automatic rifles that NATO was wrestling with to fire the Pentagon’s larger round.

Firing full-auto, the gun handled very well. The straight stock and light charge produced little kick. The former Russian accent on muzzle brakes seems to have been corrected by using the new cartridge and while the gun jumped around, counter-recoil of the bolt and gas piston parts partly resisted the cumulative kick of full-auto weapons. The contrast between the Russian full-auto carbine and the FNv experimental rifle also tested by the U.S. for possible N.A.T.O. adoption was marked. . . . The light-cartridge machine carbines like the Avtomat 54 are more easily controlled.110

No matter. In 1956 it was already too late. Insularity reigned. The Pentagon and its ordnance officers had arrived at their decisions, and the United States military and NATO would proceed with bulky firearms based on old ideas. The American army continued to see itself as an outfit that ruled the battlefield with big rifles—big, powerful, flat-shooting rifles—with the knockdown power to flatten enemy soldiers beyond the limits at which enemy soldiers could be seen by the naked eye. It all made perfect sense, at least to anyone impervious to the evolving arts and sciences of tactics and rifle and cartridge design.

Infantrymen tend to know things that senior officers do not, and a clearer view of what soldiers wanted, once they saw their choices, emerged when Western units encountered the AK-47 in the field. By the early 1960s, had the American officers responsible for arming the troops been watching closely as war evolved, they might have noticed the reaction of Dutch soldiers on colonial duty in Asia. In 1961, in preparation for the escalating dispute between Indonesia and the Netherlands over the Dutch holdings in Western New Guinea, Abdul Haris Nasution, Indonesia’s defense minister, traveled to Moscow and purchased AK-47s for the army’s parachute commandos. Later that year, Indonesia invaded Western New Guinea, beginning a brief jungle war. On April 26, 1962, an Indonesian Special Forces team jumped into Dutch-administered territory, carrying the new rifles. In late July or early August, while in a patrol base near Kampung Wermera, the Indonesian team was discovered by B Company of the Forty-first Infantry, a Dutch unit led by First Lieutenant A. W. van der Steur. Caught off guard, the Indonesian commandos withdrew with such haste that some of them left their assault rifles behind. Lieutenant van der Steur’s soldiers took them, becoming perhaps the first Western forces to confiscate Kalashnikov rifles on the battlefield. The Dutch soldiers liked their captured arms. Until that day, B Company carried a mix of American M1 carbines, British Sten submachine guns, and Bren light machine guns, along with 9-millimeter pistols. They immediately recognized the Kalashnikov for what it was—a well-adapted hybrid, a weapon that blended the qualities of the weapons they already had and fulfilled many roles very well. They carried their AK-47s for the remainder of the campaign, during which they noticed something else: Even in the jungle, the weapon resisted rust.111

These observations were all to be resonant very soon. The United States was returning to Asia for another war. Backed by the world’s premier economy and fortified by the belief that its sense of innovation was unrivaled throughout the world, the Pentagon had allowed the Soviet Union better than a fifteen-year head start on designing and organizing the production of a nation’s most basic fighting tool. The Pentagon faced a gun gap. Its unlucky soldiers and Marines would soon pay for it in blood.

i Just how mediocre? Two decades later, the U.S. Army would hold long-range firing tests with Kalashnikov variants, including three Soviet, two Chinese, and a Romanian model. At 300 meters, expert shooters at prone or bench rest positions had difficulty putting ten consecutive rounds on target. The testers then had the weapons fired from a cradle by a machine, which removed human error. At 300 meters, the ten-rounds group fired in this manner had a minimum dispersion of 17.5 inches, compared to the 12.6 inches with an M-16, the American assault rifle fielded in Vietnam as a reaction to the Kalashnikov’s spread. From Long-Range Dispersion Firing Test of the AK-47 Assault Rifle, U.S. Army Foreign Science and Technology Center, August 1969.

ii Nelly Kalashnikova, Mikhail Kalasnikov’s stepdaughter, strongly objected to portrayals of her family as poor, and of Kalashnikov as a pauper or victim of a threadbare system. On Mikhail Kalashnikov’s eighty-fifth birthday in 2004, she was quoted in Tribuna, a Russian newspaper: “Do not tell everybody that my father was very poor. Compared to other people we were well off. . . . Our mother was an extremely beautiful woman and used to buy the best hats and expensive fur coats. Father loved to buy coats for her and he could afford it.”

iii All the Warsaw Pact nations except Czechoslovakia would adopt the Kalashnikov system as their standard rifles, and often as police weapons, too; and would subsidize plants producing large numbers of Kalashnikov knockoffs. Albania, however, would not receive its technical aid for production from the Soviet Union. China would provide that assistance.

iv A Colt .38-caliber revolver, a Luger 9-millimeter, a Colt .45-caliber revolver, and more.

v Fabrique-Nationale de Herstal, a Belgian firearms manufacturer.

vi Kalashnikov’s comments about secrecy, a staple in his writing and remarks in later years, do not square with either the story of the AK-47 or the trajectory of his own considerable public life. In one memoir, he wrote, “I, Kalashnikov, was surrounded with an impenetrable veil of secrecy.” The veil has been a canard, a post-Soviet line that Kalashnikov and his handlers have repeatedly used, perhaps to increase his Cold War cachet. The record does not support this characterization. Kalashnikov and his work were not only acknowledged by Soviet authorities; they were celebrated and publicized. The attention fit an established tradition for prominent Soviet small-arms designers, who were the opposite of secrets. Konstruktors were often pushed into view and praised as model patriots, men whose labors secured the homeland. This reflected the pragmatic side of propaganda. What was the point of trying to keep a secret that could not be kept? A rifle was unlike ballistic missiles or the submarines that carried them, items that were used by small numbers of people and did not change hands. Once a rifle entered mass production and went into general issue, no matter the amount of secrecy that had enveloped its development, it was a secret no more. It was a basic tool, carried by millions of pairs of hands. With the AK-47, publicity was more than an option for the Communist Party. It was an opportunity, and Soviet propagandists acted immediately. In late 1949, after the avtomat was selected as the army’s standard rifle, Kalashnikov was featured on the cover of Sovetsky Voin, a magazine in general circulation within the military. A range of publications continued to cover him from then forward.

vii How Stalin died is a matter of historical dispute. Beria, according to Vyacheslav Molotov, a member of the inner circle, boasted of dispatching the dictator with rat poison.

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