The AK-47: Why the Past Might be the Future

By David Tong

Mikhail Kalashnikov’s seminal design of 1947 became the single most produced small arm in world history and the reasons for it are as unique as its designer. The experience of the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War (known elsewhere as World War Two) gleaned several important lessons. These included the notion that a family of selective fire, intermediate power carbines could replace both the standard infantry rifle and submachine gun for modern firepower tactics. By standardizing the cartridge and gun design into a “family,” training in one could become training for all, reducing logistical considerations in time of war.

The mass conscript Red Army was never trained in the belief that the individual rifleman could hold much sway on the battlefield, but that millions of similarly armed men racing across the Fulda Gap in West Germany during the Cold War out of their BMP's could win objectives through sheer force of numbers. To this end, the AK design was inexpensive to produce, operated on simple principles, had large, robust and FEW parts, was easy to maintain by uneducated troops and worked.

A hard-hitting weapon of medium caliber with a 300 meter effective range was deemed adequate and the 7.62X39mm caliber was ideal for the purpose. Not nearly as daunting to fire sustained as the old Moisin-Nagant bolt action of Czarist times, because of that cartridge’s recoil, but still possessing adequate “stopping power,” it was and is an excellent compromise. Even though the Soviets themselves transitioned away from the 7.62x39 in the 1970's with the adoption of the 5.45X39mm AK-74, the vast majority of the AK’s found around the world are in the original caliber.

The rifle’s design itself represents an evolutionary half-step between the older barrel over gas piston designs, such as the M1 Garand, and the direct impingement system of the M16, which dispenses (to its detriment, one might argue) with the piston in favor of a gas venting arrangement injecting gas into the inner workings of the bolt. Mounting the piston and cylinder over the barrel meant that the barrel is situated lower along the axis of the arm, which offers some improvement in operator’s recoil control in full auto fire, at the cost of a higher line of sight.

Also noteworthy was the use of hard chromium plating for the piston and the barrel’s chamber and bore. This serves to lengthen service life on full auto, as well as reduce damaging bore erosion due to the Soviet use of corrosive cartridge priming.

Ergonomically, the AK is a mixed bag by Western standards, in that the stock is too short, with too much drop at comb and heel, the magazine required a rock-in motion to seat and the sights were of the open tangent style most familiarly seen on WWI bolt action rifles. None of these issues prevented the Soviets from building, by informed estimates, over 100 million AK’s. Moreover, it didn’t require two weeks of indoctrination to make it run and keep it running. While any weapon can be stopped by pouring enough sand into it during testing, under normal battlefield circumstances in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Arctic and the jungles of SE Asia, the AK is a paragon of reliability. Despite the AK's drawbacks mentioned above, as well as sub-standard ammunition that lacks long range performance, higher weight, its inability to incorporate aiming devices and other accessories, the Russians have continued to develop the arm. For their purposes, nothing better has come along that serves the purpose as well.

The writers on this website have made issue of the lack of stopping power, general fragility, complexity and the need for obsessive maintenance of the M16 in the field. Most recent developments to enhance or replace the M16/M4 revolve around designs that have a gas piston powered system located above the barrel, in a caliber larger than .22 centerfire. This author finds it both amusing and a tad embarrassing to see manufacturers, such as Robinson Arms of Utah and forthcoming SiG-Sauer AK variant, produce civilian versions of the rifle everyone knows works.

What is needed is a bit of “Westernizing,” in order to capitalize on this reliability. Provide the rifle with an ammunition suite that gives it multiple role capabilities. Use modern materials to lighten the shooter’s load; provide a high quality barrel to ensure both reliability and accuracy; allow the fitment of lights, lasers and other accoutrements that are now part of a digitized battlefield to the platform one wag has called “The Lord of Death.”

Perhaps the intelligent thing to do is admit that someone else has built a better mousetrap and do our best to level the playing field to our advantage. Militaries around the world resist “not invented here” but this is one time where it might be best not to reinvent an already well-working wheel.

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Copyright 2011 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.