Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the most famous assault rifle in the world, has died at the age of 94.
The weapon he designed became a symbol of revolutionary struggle, a favourite prop in photographs for guerrilla leaders and presidents, a key part of the armoury of many states and was even included in some national flags.
The former tank mechanic, who had been suffering from heart problems in the last few years, died in the town of Izevsk, the same place where the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 (AK-47) was first produced. He is expected to be given an official funeral with dignitaries from the Kremlin attending.
Mr Kalashnikov had led a quiet and unassuming life, making little effort to take advantage of his fame, or making much money from it. Asked whether he regretted producing a weapon which may have been responsible more deaths than any other in the last half century, he replied: “I invented it for the protection of the Motherland. I have no regrets and bear no responsibility for how politicians have used it.”
However, the former tank mechanic, who came from a peasant family, never finishing high-school, had also reflected “I am sad that it is used by terrorists. I would prefer to have invented a machine that people like farmers could use, like a lawnmower.”
Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were among those pictured holding a Kalashnikov, it has been used by child soldiers and members of secret police forces. But the assault rifle has also been of immense value in wars of liberation against colonial powers and an equalising effect for guerrillas fighting first world powers from Vietnam to Palestine.
Cheap to produce, it can be assembled by someone with no military training, looked after without a cleaning kit, does not normally jam, partly because of the simplicity of the moving parts, or stop functioning however severe the weather conditions.
Mr Kalashnikov from the village of Kjurya, Altai territory, was one of 18 children, of whom only six survived. He was called up by the Red Army in 1938 and it was while he was injured after the tank he commanded was struck by a German shell, that he began to work on the firearm which was to become so famous. A fellow soldier asked him why the Russians were so regularly getting outgunned in the battles, “So I started to design a machine-gun for a soldier, something which we can reply with” he recalled.
There were teething problems with early prototypes, but the rifle was ready for production in 1947 and adopted by the Soviet Army in 1949. Senior Sergeant Mikhail Timofeevitch Kalashnikov was awarded the Stalin Prize First Class which was to be followed by three Orders of Lenin and the Hero of Socialist Labour.
Meanwhile the legend of the Kalashnikov lives on. Around a 100 million have been produced over the years along with imitations in many countries. The Russian army has just announced that it will bring into service a new assault rifle next year – bearing the name Kalashnikov
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