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Kalashnikov's AK-47 Peacemaker

Mikhail Kalashnikov
Mikhail Kalashnikov

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov (1919–2013) was a railroad worker drafted into the Soviet Army in 1938, where he did some engineering and mechanical work before becoming a tank commander. He was seriously injured in battle in October 1941, and while recuperating in a Soviet hospital he conceived of an improved sub-machine gun. When released from the hospital he showed his sketches to superiors, and was assigned to weapons design work, where over the next several years and numerous design improvements his team developed a new weapon with a gas operated action, and an extremely lightweight mechanism that is easy to assemble and disassemble. The Automatic Kalashnikov, or AK-47, named for the 1947 launch of its manufacture, was chosen as the Soviet military standard issue assault rifle in 1949.

The AK-47 rifle is instantly recognizable by its curved magazine, half-wood half-steel construction, a fixed metal site over its muzzle, and its characteristic explosive popping sound when fired. It is not as accurate as the M-16, but its less complex design makes the AK-47 far less susceptible to jamming and other mechanical problems. Over subsequent decades and numerous redesigns into the 21st century, it has been a weapon of choice for the military in many nations, and also a favorite of terrorists, criminals, freedom fighters and revolutionaries. Guerrilla fighters from Mozambique told Kalashnikov they had named babies "Kalash" in honor of the weapon. "I'm proud of my invention," Kalashnikov said in a 2002 interview, "but I'm sad that it is used by terrorists. I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example, a lawnmower."

Kalashnikov also designed small arms for the Soviet Army, and helped develop several different machine guns (e.g. AKM, PK, AK-74), but none have became as famous and commonplace as the AK-47. It is the world's most commonly used combat weapon, with more than 100 million manufactured as of 2009, and in some countries a used but fully functional AK-47 can be bought for about ten American dollars.

Kalashnikov has been honored with numerous awards from the Soviet Union (e.g. Order of Lenin, Hero of Socialist Labor, Stalin Prize) and its successor Russian government (i.e. Hero of the Russian Federation), but said he had received only a small governmental pension for his weapons work. He had, however, licensed his name on products including vodka, knives, snowboards, and umbrellas (Marken Marketing International). Even towards the end of his life, Kalashnikov remained in good health, working four days a week as chief weapons designer at Izhmash, the company that produces his namesake rifle. Kalashnikov wrote The Gun that Changed the World (2006) book.