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Russia: Inventor Of Kalashnikov Marks Rifle's 50 Years

By Simon Saradzhyan and Don Hill

Moscow, 25 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen guerrillas accept it as just another home appliance.

Mozambique honors it as a symbol of state.

Hollywood's action heroes ignore it.

What is it? It is the Kalashnikov automatic rifle. And it turned 50 this month.

Back in 1941, a soldier's wound led to the creation of a piece of military industrial history. German troops advancing on Moscow shot Russian tanker Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov. In recuperation, Kalishnikov contemplated the superiority of German small arms over the bolt-action rifles with which Soviet soldiers were armed. He set to work to design a better personal weapon for his comrades.

Six years later, in February 1947, the rifle he designed won the approval of Josef Stalin and was ordered into mass production.

Last week, the Russian Armed Forces Museum feted Kalashnikov and his invention. Dressed in a general's uniform, his chest colorful with a fruit salad of awards, he was greeted by goose-stepping guards, a military band, and cadets bearing flowers. A Russian Orthodox priest presented him with an icon.

For much of his life, Kalashnikov served in obscurity while the weapon he designed went on to fame and fortune. Russian officials say that 70 million Kalshnikovs, known worldwide as AK47s (for "Avtomat Kalashnikova, '47"), have been produced and are officially in use in 55 countries. Unofficially, over the years, an assortment of guerrillas, terrorists and thugs also have celebrated the weapon's efficiency.

The Kalashnikov became one of the most successful products in Russian industrial history. Extremely simple -- with only nine basic moving parts and weighing only 4.5 kg -- it is cheap and easy to manufacture.

At the museum ceremony, Kalashnikov told an audience that included high Russian military officials of a frustrating early struggle to get his design accepted. Rank-conscious Soviet generals at first were skeptical that a mere sergeant with no special training could produce a weapon to counter Nazi Germany's wartime technology. For his first attempts, the ever-suspicious Stalinist authorities ordered him arrested. Even after World War II ended and his work had won the acceptance of military engineers, the sergeant received little credit.

A chance feature article in a U.S. magazine in the 1960s named the still-obscure Sergeant Kalashnikov as the "K" in AK47. And suddenly, Soviet authorities pulled him from a post in far Siberia and promoted him to colonel.

The inventor said last week that he was enjoying his late-blooming acclaim. "Before, I used to have to say 'we' designed it. It's nice now to be able to say 'I'."

None of the reports from Russia on the anniversary have put a figure to the vast fortune in rubles that must have been generated by the sales, domestic and international, of 70 million Kalashnikovs over 50 years. The inventor himself never received a kopeck in royalties. But Rosvooruzheniye, the state arms export agency, reports that it is claiming an increasingly profitable slice of the world arms market. A company official told our correspondent in Moscow that its AK47s will lead in their field at least until 2025. The company has retained the inventor as a consultant and plans to feature him in coming military trade exhibitions.

In the early days of AK47 production, the Soviet military guarded the secret of the Kalashnikov so closely that soldiers were issued sacks to conceal the weapons when they were not actually in use. Men were court-martialled for sending home snapshots of themselves brandishing their Kalashnikovs.

That changed. The Soviets eventually licensed Kalashnikov production to numerous of its allies. Hundreds of modifications have been introduced. Royal guards in Saudi Arabia carry gold-plated Kalashnikovs.

Recalling the struggle against Portuguese rule, the flag of Mozambique displays a Kalashnikov "avtomat" rifle along with with a hoe and a book. The Mozambique Embassy in Moscow, for reasons it didn't express, declined to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration. Mozambique did provide a national flag for the military museum to display.