How did the AK-47 become the most abundant weapon on earth?

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It's the most abundant gun on earth, used by national armies, guerrillas and gangsters. How did this simple firearm, created by committee in Soviet Russia, come to monopolise violence? Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter CJ Chivers dismantles the myth and symbolism of the AK-47

The atomic bomb rested on a tower 100 feet above the ground. Known as RDS-1, it was shaped like a huge metal teardrop with rivets and bolts along its sides. Everything had been prepared. Inside its shell was a uranium and plutonium charge equal to about 20 kilotons of TNT, making it a rough equivalent to the weapon the United States had used to destroy Nagasaki four years before. It was 1949, and the Soviet Union was moments from entering the atomic age – ending the American monopoly in atomic arms, securing the Kremlin's status atop a global superpower, and giving the Cold War its sense of doomsday menace.

As diplomatic cables about the atomic explosion moved from embassies in Moscow to Western capitals, about 1,100 miles to the west of the test site, in a Russian industrial city in the Ural range, another of Stalin's secret military projects was gaining momentum. Within the dark brick walls of a set of immense factories, a product was being prepared for mass production. Teams of engineers, armourers, and factory supervisors were fine-tuning its design.

Communist Party leaders insisted that these factories were engaged in the manufacture of automobiles. But this product was neither a vehicle nor any of its parts. It was a weapon: a strange-looking rifle, deviating from the classic forms. At a glance, the new rifle was in many ways peculiar, an oddity, a reason to furrow brows and shake heads. Its components were simple, inelegant, and by Western standards, of seemingly workmanlike craftsmanship. The AK-47 was born. Within 25 years it would be the most abundant firearm the world had known.

The acronym abbreviated two Russian words, Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic by Kalashnikov, a nod to Senior Sergeant Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, a 29-year-old former tank commander to whom the army and the Communist Party formally attributed the weapon's design. The number was shorthand for 1947, the year a technical bureau in Kovrov, a city east of Moscow, had finished the prototypes. It seemed a puzzling embodiment of a firearm compromise, a blend of design choices no existing Western army was willing yet to make. It was shorter than the infantry rifles it would displace, but longer than the submachine guns that had been in service for 30 years. It fired a medium-powered cartridge, not powerful enough for long-range sniping duty, but with adequate energy to strike lethally and cause terrible wounds within the ranges at which almost all combat occurs. It could be fired automatically, and at a rate like those of the machine guns that already had changed the way wars were fought. It could be fired on single fire, like a rifle of yore.

None of the Soviet Union's Cold War opponents had managed to conceive of, much less produce, a firearm of such firepower at such compact size. And this new weapon had other useful traits. It had little recoil compared to most rifles of its time. It was so reliable, even when soaked in bog water and coated with sand, that its Soviet testers had trouble making it jam. And its design was a testament to simplicity, so much so that its basic operation might be grasped within minutes, and Soviet teachers would soon learn that it could be disassembled and reassembled by Slavic schoolboys in less than 30 seconds flat.

Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dim-witted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields. For the purpose for which it was designed – as a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or undue complications – this was an eminently well-conceived tool.

The carefully packaged history of Soviet times, a cheerful parable for the proletariat, was that the AK-47 sprang from the mind of a gifted if unlettered sergeant who wanted to present his nation an instrument for its defence. This was a message made in the Communist Party's propaganda mills. It required redaction and lies. In publishing this account, the Soviet Union resorted to enough invention, some of it cartoonish, that even Mikhail Kalashnikov eventually publicly criticised it, albeit lightly. The AK-47 did not result from an epiphany at the workbench of an intent Russian sergeant. Heroism, in the classic sense, was nonexistent here. Spontaneity, according to a close reading of the available records, played almost no role. The automatic Kalashnikov was the result of state process and collective work, the output not of a man but of committees. And its wide distribution and martial popularity did not occur because the rifle is, as General Kalashnikov often said, "simple, reliable, and easy to use".

Ultimately, it was its production by the tens of millions by governments that gave them away or lost control of them that made the Kalashnikov the world's primary firearm. One way to understand the nature of its familiarity is this: had the AK-47 been created in Luxembourg, few people would likely have ever heard of it. But Luxembourg could not have created this weapon, because it lacked the Soviet bureaucracy and the particular historical pressures that ordered the Kalashnikov to its form within the USSR. The Soviet state is the inventor here – both of the weapon and its fables.

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. To compete with this new weapon, combatants faced a choice. Either use the Kalashnikov, or come up with a rifle that could match it in a fight.

War reorganised around Stalin's gun. Nations queued up, seeking their share, as did revolutionary groups, and, later, terrorist organisations. 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. On the practical side, convincing allies and potential allies to select Soviet equipment expanded standardisation. It 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. 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.

For all of these reasons, the period centred on the 1950s marked the most important years for the Kalashnikov line. The weapon had been developed. The man credited for its invention would be given public stature and material rewards and would be regarded as a proletarian hero. 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. The Kalashnikov Era had arrived. We are living in it still.

Tanks can rout conventional armies. GPS-guided ordnance can scatter combatants. Land mines, suicide bombers, and improvised explosives have attracted more attention in recent years. Yet the rifle remains pre-eminent. Whenever an idea organises for battle it gathers around its guns. Few weapons are as accessible or can be as readily learnt. No other weapon appears in as many conflict areas year after year. None is as sure to appear in each future war, if only because no other weapon is as well suited for as many missions and tasks. And of all the rifles available for war today, the Kalashnikov line stands apart as the most abundant and widely used rifle ever made.

Virtually everyone has seen a Kalashnikov. With its stubby black barrel with a parallel gas tube above, its steep front sight post, and the distinctive banana clip, its unmistakable profile has become a constant presence in the news. It is the world's most widely recognised weapon, one of the world's most recognisable objects.

More than six decades after its design and initial distribution, more than 50 national armies carry the automatic Kalashnikov, as do an array of police, intelligence, and security agencies. But its fuller terrain lies outside the sphere of conventional force. The Kalashnikov marks the guerrilla, the terrorist, the child soldier, the dictator, and the thug – all of whom have found it to be a ready equaliser against morally or materially superior foes. Celebrated by Soviet propagandists as a tool for self-defence and liberation, its first lethal uses were for repression – crushing uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956, and for shooting fleeing civilians trying to cross the Iron Curtain's borders.

Once it grew beyond border and crackdown duty in Eastern Europe and became an automatic weapon for global combat service, it was instantly a groundbreaking firearm, a weapon that rearranged the rules. In the 1960s, when American Marines encountered AK-47s in urban warfare, at Hue City in Vietnam, they discovered that a single guerrilla with a Kalashnikov could slow a company's advance; they used cannon to rubble buildings in which AK-toting Viet Cong marksmen hid.

Its power, today a battlefield norm, was at first of an almost unseen sort, at least among the weapons that could be wielded by one man. Engineers in Finland and Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia secured early versions of the weapon and developed unlicensed knock-offs straightaway. After leading the revolution that put him atop Cuba, Fidel Castro amassed stores of Soviet assault rifles and distributed engraved Kalashnikovs as gifts. Idi Amin armed his Ugandan forces with Kalashnikovs and appointed himself president for life. Yasser Arafat procured them for the PLO and the many terrorist groups that spread from Fatah.

Its followers cross all lines. The Egyptian army outfitted itself with Kalashnikovs. Islamic Jihad used a Kalashnikov to assassinate the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. The great numbers of its manufacture and the multiple sellers offering it ultimately ensured that it would be turned against the army that created it, as was the case in the Soviet-Afghan war and then again in Chechnya.

By the 1980s, with several sources simultaneously arming both sides of the Afghan conflict, the country filled with AK-47s and their derivatives. A durable assault rifle can have many lives over the decades of its existence, and in Afghanistan the weapons were recycled repeatedly, passed from fighter to fighter by many means.

In the Panjshir Valley, a chasm in the mountains north of Kabul, the rifle sometimes became a family heirloom. The valley had been the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the early years of the war; its canyons became backdrops for mujahideen legend. Several times the Soviet army thrust armoured columns up the valley, sometimes enveloping the guerrillas by using helicopters to land troops on mountain passes to cut off withdrawing mujahideen. Each time the Soviet forces controlled territory briefly before being subjected to persistent attacks. The valley was never conquered, and its villages were never co-opted or tamed.

First among the Soviet army's foes was Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ethnic Tajik commander whose charisma and tactical adroitness became part of Afghan lore. After one Soviet incursion, Massoud attended the funeral of a dead guerrilla. He lifted the man's Kalashnikov and carried it to the deceased man's younger brother, Ashrat Khan. The commander's mastery of quiet ceremony, like his sense for tactics, had reached a high state of polish.

"Do you want to be a mujahid?" Massoud asked. Ashrat Khan extended his hands. He accepted the rifle. "Yes, I am going to take my brother's weapon," he said. "I am going to be with you." At moments such as these, the Kalashnikov's infiltration of the martial world was nearing completion. Afghans were using it for the same purpose that Mikhail Kalashnikov insisted had motivated him – to defend their native land.

The rifle assumed uses that were at once soldierly and ceremonial, and over the decades it reached far beyond conflicts in which the Kremlin played a primary role. When Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, was mourned in 2004 by his followers in Gaza, his casket was guarded by masked men at the ready with folding-stock AKs. The scene was a throwback. Six years earlier along the Cambodian-Thai border, the body of Pol Pot was attended by teenage gunmen carrying an Asian version of the same gun.

Mastering a Kalashnikov is one of the surest ways to become an underground fighter in our time. In Belfast, both sides used them in clashes and political art. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, student notebooks from Al-Qa'ida camps showed that the opening class in jihad curricula was a lesson on Kalashnikov's avtomat. Along with the rocket-propelled grenade, the portable mortar tube, and the makeshift bomb, the automatic Kalashnikov completes the quartet of weapons for the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq, where insurgents rely on the local version, the Tabuk.

In his first taped message after the attacks of 11 September 2001, Osama bin Laden held a microphone near his beard and told the world that "the winds of faith and change have blown". It was his movie, he could put in it anything he wanted. Beside him was a Kalashnikov leaning against a rock. Bin Laden understood the symbolic potency of his choice.

Others keep their Kalashnikovs near for more practical tasks. By the time Saddam Hussein was pulled from a hole in Ad Dawr, in late 2003, the fugitive president had distilled his possessions to a modern outlaw's basic needs: two AK-47s and a crate of American cash. (He also had a pistol, a nine-millimetre Glock.) Kalashnikovs are not just tools for the battlefield. They guard South American cocoa plantations and cocaine-processing labs. In Los Angeles they have served bank robbers and urban gangs; in the northwestern United States, survivalists squirrel them away in anticipation of the worst. African poachers use them to thin wildlife populations and defend their illegal trade against anti-poaching patrols, which carry Kalashnikovs, too.

In the western Pacific, the aboriginal Chukti people fire Kalashnikovs at migrating grey whales. Given that the automatic Kalashnikov was conceived with the intention of shooting 160-pound capitalists, its use against 30-ton marine mammals would seem ill-advised. But Kalashnikovs are regularly at hand.

No one can say for certain how many of the weapons exist today. Their production in secrecy, often in some of the planet's harshest dictatorships, has made precise accounting impossible. One point is beyond dispute. They are the most abundant firearms on earth. Since the Soviet army chose the AK-47 for distribution to Soviet ranks, they have been made in Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, China, East Germany, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, Yugoslavia (now Serbia) and the United States.

Knock-off versions, incorporating the main elements of Kalashnikov's operating system, were developed in Croatia, Finland, India, Pakistan, South Africa and Israel. More are made every year. Venezuela plans to build a new plant, which could be used to arm groups throughout the region in a new round of opaque handouts. Serious estimates put the number of Kalashnikovs and its derivatives as high as 100 million. There could be one for every 70 people alive.

During decades of influence jockeying, the Cold War saw the shipment of enormous quantities of Kalashnikovs to proxy forces, from the Viet Cong to militias in Beirut. Lists resemble tour guides to troubled lands: Russian, Chinese, and North Korean guns were carried by the North Vietnamese Army; Polish Kalashnikovs were shipped to the Contras; East German Kalashnikovs went to Yemen; Romanian AKs armed the Kurds; Russian and Bulgarian AK-47s supplied Rwanda; the United States directed Chinese and Egyptian Kalashnikovs to Afghanistan's anti-Soviet mujahideen. Chinese Kalashnikovs are abundant in Uganda and Sudan.

For people who study the universe of disorder, the AK-47 serves as a reasonably reliable unit of measure. Arms-control specialists and students of conflict look to the price of these assault rifles in a nation's open-market arms bazaar to determine both the degree to which destabilised lands are awash in small arms and the state of risk. When prices rise, public anxiety is considered high. When they sink, the decline can indicate a conflict is ebbing.

Because there is no surer sign that a country has gone sour than the appearance of Kalashnikovs in the public's grip, they can also function as an informal social indicator. Anywhere large numbers of young men in civilian clothes or mismatched uniforms carry AK-47s is a very good place not to go; when the guns turn up in the hands of mobs, it is time to leave. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the overabundance of the weapon has remained a persistent factor in terrorism, crime, ethnic cleansing, and local and regional destabilisation.

In 2001, the United Nations convened a conference by noting that small arms were principal weapons in 46 of the 49 major conflicts in the 1990s, in which four million people died. In 2004, Human Rights Watch identified 18 nations where child soldiers are still used. For most of these wars and most of these young conscripts, AK-47s are the primary arm. The available American casualty data from Iraq show that bullets fired from the Eastern bloc's family of firearms remain, injury by injury, the most lethal wounding agent on the battlefield.

Even a single gun can set a nation in motion. In 1989, after the drifter Patrick Purdy opened fire with a Kalashnikov on a schoolyard in Stockton, California, Congress began work on the assault weapon ban. Purdy did not use a true automatic Kalashnikov. But the mere appearance of a Kalashnikov in a schoolyard crowded with children – its look – was enough to put Congress in a law-making mood.

And look is important to Kalashnikovs. In their march from secrecy to ubiquity, Kalashnikovs have become more than weapons. They have become symbols—first of the industrial success of Stalin's Soviet Union and the socialist way, later of popular insurrection, armed liberation, and gangland stature, more recently of jihad.

A Kalashnikov can be appropriated for most any cause. An AK-47 with bayonet attached appears on the flag of Mozambique; it shares that flag with a hoe and a book, as if it were one of a young nation's foundational tools. Another Kalashnikov-like rifle, held aloft by a defiant fist, adorns the emblem of Hezbollah. Here its meaning is different. The flag is not about victory, not yet. It's about the fight.

In Hollywood, the Kalashnikov suggests the bad guy, the lunatic, the connoisseur tough. "AK-47 – the very best there is," the actor Samuel L Jackson said in one of his well-known roles. "When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room."

These mixed meanings make a potent brew. The Kalashnikov stirs feelings, for and against, and the savvy have learnt to tap these meanings for their own purposes. In Missouri in mid-2009, Mark Muller, the owner of a car dealership, offered a voucher for an AK-47 with the purchase of every pick-up truck. The offer was a gimmick – true AK-47s cannot be legally owned by most people in the United States, and the dealership offered a coupon worth only half the price of the semiautomatic version sold in American gun shops. Once again, though, facts did not matter. A team from Al Jazeera turned up, as did another from Russian state TV news. The coverage triggered old arguments. What does this weapon mean? Muller appeared before the cameras brandishing a Kalashnikov, enjoying the free publicity. He held up his rifle for the cameras and grinned – the rascal's pose. The Kalashnikov was put to yet another use.

This is an edited extract from 'The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War', by CJ Chivers, published by Allen Lane, £25; cjchivers.com

'AK-47 is the tool': The gun in pop culture

* Ice Cube appears to have quite a fondness for the AK-47, frequently name-checking it in his lyrics. He raps on NWA's "Straight Outta Compton":

"Here's a murder rap to keep yo dancing/ With a crime record like Charles Manson/ AK-47 is the tool/ Don't make me act the motherfuckin' fool". On "It Was a Good Day", though, he reveals that: "Today I didn't even have to use my AK/ I got to say it was a good day".

* Eminem put an AK-47 into George W Bush's hands in an animated video for his protest song "Mosh". Cartoons of the gun-toting president were accompanied by the lyrics: "Let the president answer a higher anarchy/ Strap him with an AK-47, let him go, fight his own war/ Let him impress daddy that way/ No more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own soil".

* Philippe Starck painted an 18-carat, gold-plate finish on a cast of an AK-47, topping it off with a lampshade. The 'Kalashnikov AK-47 Table Light' could be yours for just £1,360.

* In 2004, Playboy placed the AK-47 fourth on their list of 'Fifty Products that Changed the World', deeming it less important than the Apple Mac desktop computer, the Pill, and the Sony Betamax video machine, but more influential than breast implants (at number six), crack cocaine (11) or the Big Mac (29).

* The iPod only made it to number 12 on Playboy's list – but luckily someone has since combined the two inventions. You can buy AK-magazine-shaped MP3 players, that attach to the rifle, and can hold up to 9,000 songs to blast your ears instead of your enemy. The Russian ex-rock star, Andrey Koltakov, who is part of the team behind the MP3 player, describes it as "our bit for world peace ... hopefully, from now on ... terrorists will use their AK-47s to listen to music and audio books".

* Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor who never received any royalties for his creation, has instead cashed in with another Russian export – vodka. Kalashnikov describes the 41 per cent proof drink as "military strength", and the bottles come stamped with his name and face.

As well as endorsements from Samuel L Jackson's character in the film, Jackie Brown, the AK-47 is also declared the "real weapon of mass destruction" by Ethan Hawke's character in the 2005 arms-dealer movie, Lords of War.

* An AK-47-alike toy has made it into this year's Christmas wish list. The Nerf N-Strike Stampede ECS, a plastic machine gun capable of firing off a round of 18 soft bullets, made it into the 'Dream Dozen' Christmas toys for 2010, according to the Toy Retailers Association.

HOLLY WILLIAMS

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