Few people would recognize the face of Mikhail Kalashnikov, but few people aren’t familiar with his name — or at least his initial embedded in the AK-47 he designed.
As many as 100 million copies of these iconic military rifles have been manufactured, making them the most popular firearm ever. In the hands of soldiers, revolutionaries and terrorists, they’ve killed more people than any other firearm.
A lifespan’s worth of hellish conflicts can be seen through the sights of this one weapon. Some of those conflicts happen on American streets. Civilian replicas of the A-47 — not machine guns, like the original — are sometimes used by killers in the United States. It’s not as suited to most crimes as a common handgun or shotgun, but some people apparently can’t resist the mystique.
The gun’s real history, though, lies abroad.
Kalashnikov — who died Monday — has sometimes been vilified for developing such an efficient killing machine. History won’t hold it against him. He conceived of the weapon in World War II as a soldier of the Red Army, then trying to push Hitler’s legions from the Soviet Union.
The Eastern Front was the biggest bloodbath of all time; it left more than 20 million Russians dead — many at the hands of their own government. Early in the war, Russian soldiers were often pathetically armed. Some were ordered into battle without rifles and told to grab one from the cold, dead hands of a fallen comrade.
Kalashnikov simply wanted to give his besieged country a more effective infantry weapon. The gun — which wasn’t produced until after the war — was perfectly suited for uneducated, poorly trained and poorly supplied troops operating under extremely harsh conditions.
It was almost primitive, with only eight moving parts, and was deliberately designed with loose clearances that impaired its accuracy. But it could be taken apart and reassembled in less than a minute, and could quickly be cleared and fired after being immersed in mud, sand or water.
The AK-47 reflects the world it came from. So do the M16 variants carried by opposing American and NATO troops — more expensive, sophisticated and accurate weapons that also require more care and better educated soldiers.
The AK-47’s primitive qualities made it ideal for Third World revolutionaries. Guerrillas and militias could make the rifles in small machine shops if they had to. The gun went viral. Terrorists around the world fell in love with it. Osama bin Laden posed for photos with his. He had it nearby when he was shot by American commandos armed — naturally — with M16 derivatives.
Kalashnikov never regretted arming communist forces, but he was appalled that terrorists and criminals found the AK-47 so appealing. Maybe he found some solace watching Middle Eastern street celebrations — where some ordinary folks have taken to carousing while popping off AK rounds into the air.