A Brief History
On July 6, 1947, the aptly named AK-47 assault rifle went into production. After undergoing military trials in the Soviet Union, it was accepted for general use by the Red Army in 1949. Today, the AK-47 is still in production in many nations, and about 1 out of every 5 firearms in the world is an AK-47 or a closely related weapon. Production is 75 million rifles and counting, with AK family of related weapons accounting for another 25 million rifles, carbines, pistols and machine guns, including semi-automatic civilian models.
To put the enormous impact of this iconic rifle into perspective, the most-produced bolt-action rifle of all time, the M91 Mosin-Nagant and its variants, amounted to only 35 million, less than half the number of AK-47s. The venerable G98/M98/K98 Mauser variants numbered only around 20 million (although many countries based their own rifles on that design as well, notably the American M1903 Springfield).
Although suspected of having taken design cues from the German StG 44 assault rifle of World War II, the inventor of the AK-47, Mikhail Kalashnikov, and Soviet officials have always denied that; however, like the StG 44, the AK-47 was designed to use an intermediate round of ammunition, which was less powerful than the average front line rifle ammunition of the time but still substantially more powerful than the pistol-based ammunition used in submachine guns and the weak .30 caliber US M1 Carbine round. Furthermore, like the StG 44 (which went by several other designations as well), the AK-47 was designed to have a detachable box magazine (30-round capacity) and to fire in either semi-automatic (1 round at a time) or full-automatic (like a machine gun) mode. The 7.62mm ammunition has the same diameter as the US 30-06 (.30 caliber) ammo used by the M1 Garand and the 7.62 x 51mm ammo used by the US M-14, but the shell case is only 39mm long, and with the reduced powder capacity, the muzzle velocity is only around 2,350 feet per second, about 500 fps slower than the round used by the Mosin-Nagant that it replaced or the US M1 Garand, and it is somewhat lighter (122 or 123 grains) than the usual “full size“ .30 caliber rounds (147 to 174 grains typically).
Still, the lethality of the AK-47 and its “intermediate” ammunition has never really been questioned as its real-life performance has been as deadly as that of its predecessors and contemporaries. The rifle and its ammo do fall behind competitors in long-range accuracy, but studies indicate that riflemen (other than snipers) rarely engage targets over 300 meters away, fully within the capability of the AK-47.
Weighing 7.7 pounds, the AK-47 evolved into a simple-to-manufacture weapon with stamped steel parts replacing machined pieces, and its wooden stock was often replaced by a folding rear stock and later by synthetic materials.
In 1974, the Soviet Army switched to the AK-74 which used a smaller, faster bullet, a 5.45 x 39mm round, similar to the size and velocity of the US M-16/AR-15/M-4 family of weapons. This new rifle was even nearly a pound lighter, something much appreciated by the soldiers.
Question for students (and subscribers): Is the AK-47 and its kin better than the M-16 and its kin? Only some 8+ million M-16s have been made (still going strong, though), which pales in comparison to the massive numbers of AKs. (The civilian version of the M-16/M-4 military rifle, known as the AR-15, is incredibly popular in the United States civilian gun owners community, with something around 12 million or more already in American civilian hands! In fact, American civilians own many types of semi-automatic “assault weapon” lookalike firearms, perhaps as many as 20 million, yet these weapons are only incredibly rarely used in crimes.) The AK line is supposedly more robust, simpler, easier to use, and more dirt and crud resistant, whereas the M-16 is claimed to be better built, more accurate, and a little lighter. Which would you pick: the AK-47 or the M-16? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see:
Rottman, Gordon L., Johnny Shumate, et al. The AK-47: Kalashnikov-series assault rifles (Weapon). Osprey Publishing, 2011.
The featured image in this article, a 2014 Russian stamp depicting Mikhail Kalashnikov, is not an object of copyright according to article 1259 of Book IV of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation No. 230-FZ of December 18, 2006.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.