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His name was Mikhail Kalshnikov. He was 94 years old. He died this week a hero of Russia, having lent his name and his engineering skill to the most frequently vilified assault rifle design in the world.
Kalashnikov was, according to the BBC, born a peasant on the southern Siberian steppe. He had little formal education, but his innate mechanical abilities led him to design what he called a “weapon of defense” intended to protect his nation. That weapon was the AK-47.
During the Cold War, a “secret competition” was held to develop a new infantry rifle (which was itself inspired by the German Sturmgewehr 44, from which the very term “assault rifle” is derived). Then Sergeant Kalashnikov, who had been injured during battle with the Germans, is credited with leading the design team that produced the AK-47 prototype. The year was 1947; the letters “AK” stand for Avtomat Kalashnikova, or “Automatic by Kalashnikov.” The design was soon improved as the AKM for better manufacturability.
The AK design is significant for a few reasons. For one, it is a relatively short, lightweight weapon, making it handy and versatile. The cartridge it was designed to fire, 7.62 x 39 millimeter, is reasonably powerful, albeit slower and heavier than the 5.56 millimeter round that is NATO standard. It employs as few parts as possible, resulting in a very simple weapon that is easy to manufacture and to maintain. The cocking handle, for example, is part of the bolt, an arrangement that is not terribly ergonomic but which is very robust. That is the theme throughout the design. Ergonomics are sacrificed to function.
Propellant gas from the discharge of the Kalshnikov’s cartridges drive a piston that cycles the weapon’s bolt. This, combined with its simple design and relatively loose tolerances, means the weapon will continue to function even when it is neglected and filthy. This compares favorably to the AR pattern in that the Eugene Stoner-designed AR (which became the M16 of Vietnam fame), makes use of propellant gases that drive directly against the bolt. What this means is that you must keep an M16 much cleaner than an AK47 if you expect it to fire.
In Vietnam, thanks to the changing of an ammunition specification and the widespread misconception that the new M16 rifle did not require frequent cleaning, the AR pattern developed what was perhaps an unfair reputation for jamming, while the AK kept working and working. Its simplicity and reliability have made the AK the preferred weapon of Third-World child soldiers. It’s the one weapon that uneducated children can wield and keep running with a minimum of instruction and maintenance.
Many people hear the term “assault rifle” and immediately picture steaming death machines of unutterable power. Movies and television don’t help this perception, because the assault rifle is frequently portrayed as the pinnacle of killing force. Even the term “assault rifle” has been perverted by the political left and those ignorant of firearms technology. A true “assault rifle” is a military weapon capable of automatic fire. The cartridge it fires is less powerful than those of the rifles that preceded it. The idea, when the concept was developed, was that combat takes place at relatively short ranges. A weapon firing smaller, less powerful bullets is more effective if soldiers can carry more ammunition for it.
Between 70 million and 100 million Kalashnikov variants have been produced, more than any other firearm on Earth. It has been copied outright and used as inspiration in the design of countless other weapons in countries throughout the world. It is as distinctive in appearance as it has been ubiquitous through the years, and this has caused it to become a symbol of war, of revolution, of terror, of conflict. Few scenes of ululating Muslims in the streets of some Third-World hellhole would be complete without the presence of AK-pattern rifles. These are held high overhead whenever Pakistanis celebrate the murder of Jews. They were lying around in the background when Osama bin Laden addressed his minions. They are the preferred weapons of both national armies and fringe murder groups.
Kalashnikov was, through the years, asked if it ever bothered him just how many people his design had killed. While in later years he did express regret that the weapon had fallen into the hands of terrorists and other enemies of his nation, he was always proud of the work he had done to bring it to fruition. His attitude exemplified the attitude we ought to have about technology – even a technology as emotionally loaded, as politically exploited, as the most prolific assault rifle design ever: The technology itself is neither good nor evil. It is the human beings wielding that technology who choose to use it for right or wrong.
No sooner did Mikhail T. Kalashnikov die than people on social media sites started offering their opinions on his death. Many liberals, who hate self-defense and who hate firearms (unless those firearms are in the hands of Obama’s brown shirts), opined that Kalashnikov was a bad man who bore responsibility for the many people killed by his eponymous rifle. But if that is true, then Henry Ford is as bad, if not worse, than Mikhail Kalshnikov. Ford helped bring the automobile to the masses, and that automobile kills thousands of people every year by accident.
Kalashnikov designed a weapon whose purpose is the taking of human life, on the understanding that some people – when they threaten your nation, for example – require killing. A weapon, whether of war or self-defense (and regardless of the distinction) has no morality by itself. If it is used to kill the innocent in the name of Muslim terror, it is a weapon of murder. If it is used to kill a home invader or an invading foreign soldier, it is a weapon that saves lives. In each case, the technology is the same. Only the context of that technology’s use has changed. It’s time we grew up and learned to view this technology objectively, in context and without hysteria.