The world's top gun AK-47: the sturdy, homely rifle -- designed by Russian Sgt. Mikhail Kalashnikov 50 years, with 70 million made.

Sun Journal

March 16, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It is the Timex of the gun world; it is rugged, relatively inexpensive and reliable. It fires under any conditions. If Mikhail Kalashnikov's creation were a car, it would be the the homely and basic Volkswagen Beetle, easy to operate and repair.

The Automatic Kalashnikov 1947 -- AK-47, in the better-known shorthand -- an enduring blend of simple technology and easy-to-purchase terror, has just reached its 50th anniversary, an event marked in Moscow by an exhibition of the dozens of variants of the original design.

Its design dates to the waning days of World War II, when a short and cheery Soviet sergeant turned his thoughts to a rifle that would replace his army's bulky carbine, a weapon that was no match for the Nazis' light, rapid-firing machine pistols.

Kalashnikov's 30-caliber gun is a redesign of the Germans' Machine Pistol-44, the weapon Soviet soldiers grumbled about. "It's just very, very similar," says Jack Atwater, curator of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground, who has dozens of AKs on hand. "When you lay the two next to each other, it's an evolution, not a revolution."

Kalashnikov borrowed the sights and magazine from the German gun and the gas operating system of a Soviet carbine. The AK-47 has five basic pieces, but its heavy construction is what turned it into a workhorse. With the AK's gas piston and other parts made simpler and more rugged, it also was easier to mass-produce than was its well-engineered German relation.

At the exhibition in Moscow, the 77-year-old Kalashnikov beamed like a proud grandfather. He called his invention "my gift to the fatherland."

It has traveled far beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. It went into the hands of freedom fighters, Mafiosi, terrorists, lunatics, hoodlums and standing armies. Its staccato bursts have been heard from Vietnam to Belfast, from the Egyptian desert to Afghanistan. Almost every day you can pick up a newspaper and see a photo of someone from somewhere holding an AK.

"I want weapons to stay in the hands of responsible armed forces," Kalashnikov says. "Not in the hands of criminals.

Russian officials say about some 70 million Kalashnikovs of varying designs have been produced since 1947; they are officially in use in 55 countries. The weapon costs about $130, compared with around $600 for its American counterpart, the M-16.

"It can be said, and rightly said, that it's the world's most widely used gun," says Doug Wicklund, curator of the National Rifle Association's museum in Fairfax, Va. He raises the number of Kalashnikovs to 100 million, because many are manufactured without serial numbers in unknown plants all over the world.

In Vietnam, U.S. troops sometimes turned to the AK-47 when their temperamental M-16s jammed from the constant mixture of mud and rain. The Russian gun's simple construction made it easy to take apart and put back together; with the M-16, continual lubrication was needed to prevent rust.

In the Middle East, Israeli troops found that sand could clog their Belgian-designed guns; the Israeli army modified the AK design and began manufacturing it as the Galil.

Over time, the AK-47 rose above its use as a weapon to become a symbol of defiance and liberation. In the 1980s, Col. Muammar el Kadafi, the Libyan leader, urged each of his countrymen to buy a Kalashnikov as a defense against a possible U.S. attack. In Mozambique, the national flag has fields of yellow, black, red and green and a crest with the silhouette of an AK-47.

"If I were dropped in a jungle with no warning," Wicklund says, "I'd want a Kalashnikov."

"It's a very low-tech, high-impact weapon," says Richard Armitage, a Vietnam combat veteran and former assistant secretary of defense. He has an AK-47 that was presented to him by the Afghan mujahedeen who routed the Soviets at the battle of Kandahar.

"User-friendly," says Ted Bliss, a retired Marine major who saw many AKs in the hands of the Kurds north of Baghdad during patrols in 1991. "I've certainly seen enough of them. Part of the way you prove your manhood over there is the weapon you carry."

An AK can be purchased in many countries for less than the FTC price of a good meal. In the United States, it's difficult to buy one legally. Kalashnikovs and other automatic weapons can be legally sold only if they were first registered before 1986, and only after an FBI background check and a $200 fee to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Most states have additional fees or limitations.

Atwater can testify to the AK's ubiquitous and sturdy nature. "Having been shot with one, I know," he says. As he was patrolling in Vietnam's Que Son mountains in August 1970, an AK round struck his flak jacket. But he was lucky; the bullet spun around his body, nicking a rib and burning across his back.

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