The world’s most popular and lethal weapon goes by many names — “The African Credit Card,” the “$10 Weapon of Mass Destruction” – and you see it every day in movies, on TV news, in magazines and newspapers. You see it in the hands of legitimate armies but more often brandished by insurgents, terrorists and even child soldiers.
The AK-47 rifle.
The AK’s distinctive banana-shaped silhouette defines what a deadly small arm is supposed to look like. Osama Bin Laden is purposely photographed with his special AK, rappers sing its praises, terrorist groups like Hezbollah display it on their flag, countries such as Mozambique use it on their coins and currency, vodkas are named after it and even haute designers like Philippe Starck produce furniture using its deadly image.
No single weapon – save the atomic bomb – has had as profound an impact on modern warfare and global instability. Despite its low price and often shoddy workmanship, this powerful rifle rarely jams, is almost indestructible – a single rifle can last 50 years – and is easy to fire with no training. It is the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to turn a farmer, teacher, peasant or even a teenager into an effective killing machine. Overnight, it can transform rag-tag forces into formidable armies. It is the fuel that keeps alive protracted ‘small wars’ in Africa, Asia, South America, the Middle East and domestic crime almost everywhere. Its creator, Mikhail Kalashnikov, never made a penny from his invention, even though there are more than 75 million AK-47 rifles in the world today, millions of them spread across the globe by covert actions of the American CIA.
Before his death in 2013, Kalashnikov said that he wished he had invented a lawnmower instead, but it’s too late. No tool has spread so much raw power to so many people in so little time. Or has left such a wide swath of destruction. The AK’s legacy will continue well into the 21st century.
On March 23, 2003, under cover of darkness, 32 US Army Apache attack helicopters flew into Baghdad in advance of coalition forces moving northward on the ground toward the capitol city. The choppers were on a search and destroy mission to find Saddam Hussein’s elite Republic Guard, who reportedly were deployed in a semi-circle to protect the southern part of town. In the hours leading up to this mission, Saddam’s main artillery positions had been pounded by American surface-to-surface missiles and ATACMS rockets carrying 950 half-pound bombs. The remaining enemy forces would then be wiped out by these low-flying $22 million machines, equipped with 30-mm cannons and state-of-the-art Longbow radar systems that could direct Hellfire anti-tank missiles at multiple targets.
Yet as the Apaches settled into position, something unexpected happened. The lights on the outskirts of Baghdad shut off, as if hit by a black out. Then just as mysteriously they came back on two minutes later.
The US Army pilots did not realize the lights were a signal to attack.
What happened next shocked even the most seasoned combat veterans. The Apache helicopters were attacked from all directions by the world’s most prolific and effective combat weapon, a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for less than the price of a live chicken. This weapon, depicted on the flag and currency of several countries, waved defiantly by guerillas and rebels around the world, has changed the geopolitical landscape of the post Cold War. It has been responsible for over a quarter-million deaths every year. It is the undisputed firearm of choice for at least 50 legitimate standing armies, along with untold numbers of disenfranchised fighting forces ranging from international insurgents and terrorists to domestic drug dealers and street gangs.
It is the AK-47 assault rifle.
As the Apaches hovered in position, they received thousands of rounds of gunfire from Iraqi ground troops. Thirty-one of the 32 helicopters sustained damage; all had to abort their mission. One was downed and two pilots captured. Pentagon officials do not know if the chopper was shot or suffered mechanical problems. A pilot who made it back safely said: “It was coming from all directions. I got shot front, back, left and right.” Springfield, Massachusetts pilot Bob Duffney, who flew combat helicopters in the first Gulf War, added: “In Desert Storm, we didn’t have a firefight like this.”
For all of the billions of dollars spent by the United States military on space-aged weapons and technology, the AK-47 still remains the most devastating weapon on the planet. Its banana-shaped magazine gives this gun a familiar silhouette that makes it a symbol of third-world rebellion and power. Unlike the scourge of landmines in the world, the 80 to 100 million AKs manufactured and distributed since its invention in 1947 pose a more dangerous threat because these devices can be easily transported, fixed, and used by roving bands of assailants. The AK has made possible coups in Africa, terrorist raids in the Middle East and bank robberies in Los Angeles. It has become a cultural icon, its signature shape defining in our consciousness what a deadly rifle is supposed to look like.
Why has the AK earned such a legendary reputation? The gun has few moving parts so it hardly ever jams. It is resistant to heat, cold, rain and sand. It doesn’t always shoot straight, but in close combat its awesome firepower (600 rounds a minute) and reliability give it a nod over more sophisticated weapon designs such as the M-16. American GIs in Vietnam reported that AK’s buried in rice paddies for six months or more, unearthed filthy and rusted shut, fired perfectly after kicking the action bolt with the heel of a boot.
In scenarios played throughout the world’s hot spots like Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and the Gaza Strip, low-tech AKs are besting superior military training and weaponry. In Iraq, for example, insurgents recently have inflicted demoralizing casualties on US troops mainly with simple tactics such as bombings, kidnapping and massive small arms fire with AK-47s. U.S. troops are hamstrung, forced to fight street to street where the AK-47 allows an everyday citizen to be just as deadly as a professionally trained, well-armored and physically fit U.S. soldier.
Why the U.S. military as a whole has been so slow to recognize this ‘new’ face of war remains a mystery, because individual soldiers, those on the ground, understand it. “It’s somewhat frustrating,” Col. Bill Wolf, former commander of the Army’s 11th Aviation Regiment, said. Referring to long-standing U.S. policies about civilian casualties, he said, “We can’t take out a street block because of the way we go to war.”
This ‘way we go to war’ doesn’t work anymore, and some would argue it never did once the Russian assault rifle spread throughout the world and became as ubiquitous as the common cold. Today’s wars are small, hot conflicts in urban areas, where sophisticated and expensive weapons are no match for rebels carrying AK-47s. This sentiment was expressed by Major General William J. Livsey, Jr. the commandant of Fort Benning, the infantry headquarters and school, in the early 1980s. The military was going through a monumental change at the time because computer chips were being integrated into the first generation of smart weapons. The army was enamored of the complexity and promise of these smart weapons. “Despite all the sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with, you still have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of land. It’s the damn hardest thing in the world to do.”
The AK has shifted the balance of power in warfare by allowing small factions, not armies, to overthrow entire governments. Charles Taylor, a Liberian-born, US-educated preacher, proved this in 1989 when he and a rag-tag cadre of 100 men armed with AK-47s, stormed the presidential palace in Liberia and controlled the country for the next six years. By issuing AKs to anyone who swore allegiance to the new regime, Taylor stayed in power with factions of thug soldiers, all of whom were allowed to pillage their defeated enemies as payment for their loyalty.
On the other side of the continent, Mozambique’s flag and coins display an AK-47 as homage to the weapon that brought this nation its freedom. Ironically, the United Nations estimates that the country is awash in more than 6 million undocumented AK’s left behind from civil war. As long as the AKs remain, the seeds of instability stay rooted in Mozambique’s land.
War has changed; it no longer has to be about border disagreements, ideology or political differences. Through the power of AK assault rifles, factions could roam through a country, terrorize its citizenry, and grab the spoils.
They could even keep a superpower at bay.
Consider the U.S. Rangers in Mogadishu during the now famous “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993. Eighteen American soldiers were killed and many more wounded during several days of bitter street fighting that eventually led to the resignation of the Secretary of Defense and a total U.S. troop withdrawal from Somalia. Yusuf Hassan of the BBC’s Somali service, who covered the action, said during one of his broadcasts: “The Americans were seen by their country as heroes, when in fact they had all the technology. It was a hi-tech war against people who only had AK47 rifles. And these people won.”
Despite this thrashing in Somalia, the message never seems to reach decisonmakers: superpowers with superweapons are no match for a determined warrior with an assault rifle. General Mohammad Yahya Nawroz, Army of Afghanistan and U.S. Army LTC Lester W. Grau, wrote for the Foreign Military Studies Office a case study titled The Soviet War In Afghanistan: History And Harbinger Of Future War? in which they posited that well-equipped nations do not want to wage war with the United States. because U.S. weapons are technically superior. Less capable nations have a stronger position. “At present, the countries that have a large supply of high-tech weaponry are few and unlikely to go to war with the United States in the near future. Now, the only effective way for a technologically less-advanced country to fight a technologically-advanced country is through guerrilla war. Guerrilla war, a test of national will and the ability to endure, negates many of the advantages of technology.” Written in 1996, their report apparently fell on deaf ears as the U.S. now has become bogged down in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
On a cultural level, the AK-47 is a symbol of anti-Western ideology, seen daily on the front pages of our newspapers. AK-47s built by the Soviet Union were offered to countries that shared the dream of worldwide Communist domination. Although they were supposed to be sold, the Soviet Union ended up giving millions away free to Soviet Bloc nations and allowing others to manufacture the gun on their own soil. Nowadays, in destabilized areas, owning an AK is a sign of manhood, a rite of passage. Child soldiers in Congo, Burma, Sri Lanka and dozens of other countries proudly display their AK’s for all to see. Stock video footage of white-robed Osama Bin Laden shows him firing an AK-47, a message to the world that he is the true anti-establishment fighter. Saddam Hussein was captured with two AKs beside him in his hidey-hole in the ground. He, too, was so enamored with the weapons that he built a Baghdad mosque sporting minarets in the unique shape of AK-barrels. His son Uday commissioned gold plated AK-47s.
And what of its designer? During World War II, young tank soldier Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, the son of peasants, was convalescing from a gunshot by Nazis pushing east. In his hospital bed, he sketched the simplest automatic weapon possible and later was given the opportunity to build it. His goal was to help the Soviet army defeat the Germans and quickly end the war.
Now 85, tiny, feeble, nearly deaf, his right hand losing control because of tremors, Kalashnikov thinks about the terrible gift he has given the world and it often haunts him. “I wish I had invented a lawn mower.” At other times, this financially poor man, who receives no royalties for his invention, is defiant and aloof, blaming others for his progeny’s misuse. “I invented it for protection of the motherland. I have no regrets and bear no responsibility for how politicians have used it.” [update: Kalashnikov died on Dec. 23, 2013.]
The utilitarian AK-47, which stands for ‘Automat Kalashnikov – 1947,’ the year it was produced, came along too late to end World War II, but its creation was perfectly timed to spread death and destruction throughout the world, and it will continue to do so well into this century.
Page 2: AS THE APACHES HOVERED IN POSITION, Sheridan, Mary Beth; Ground Fire Repels Copter Assault; Two Crewmen Seized by Iraqis as Apache Goes Down, The Washington Post, March 25, 2003.
Page 3 WHY THE U.S. MILITARY; ibid
Page 4: THIS ‘WAY WE GO TO WAR’ DOESN’T WORK ANYMORE, Author interview with Major General William J. Livsey, Jr.
“A chilling and perversely entertaining look at the dark side of innovation.”
“During the past half century, the AK-47 assault rifle has established itself as the most ubiquitous implement of destruction on the planet. No other gun comes close for its durability, low price, ease of operation, and sheer killing power. It has become a mainstay of armies and terrorists alike, and a universal icon of revolutionary upheaval. Larry Kahaner’s book is the best history of this weapon that I have seen. AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the World will appeal to anyone who has ever watched the History Channel – or the evening news.”
–Max Boot, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Savage Wars of Peace
“Anyone who has fought or watched a war over the last half-century recognizes the AK-47, but few know much about it. Kahaner traces the rifle’s role in wars from Vietnam to Iraq and from Central America to Central Africa. A fascinating biography of a weapon that has truly changed world history.”
–Stephen Kinzer, author of Overthrow
“A detail-rich combat history, the book also offers a compelling human story of its inventor.”
— Macleans Magazine
“A fascinating examination.”
— Library Journal
“…a must-read for all firearms buffs.”
— Military Book Club
“…highly readable, and thought-provoking work.”
— Strategy Page
“Kahaner’s writing talents are obvious. He keeps the book from becoming a highly technical read as he traces the rifle, which he calls the real weapon of mass destruction, through history, all the way to the streets of Baghdad, Iraq.”
— McClatchy Newspapers
“All of the magnificence and horror of Kalashnikov’s weapon comes through in a taunt narrative that makes Kahaner’s book easy to read and hard to put down.”
— Soldiers for the Truth
“… well researched and intelligently written book.”
— Michael Yon
An AK FAQ
What does AK-47 stand for?
AK-47 stands for ‘Automatic Kalashnikov – 1947’ for the inventor Mikhail T. Kalashnikov and the year it was first produced 1947.
How many have been made?
Nobody really knows. The number probably is between 75 and 100 million worldwide. Since an AK can last for decades, we don’t know how many are currently in service.
Why is it so popular?
Despite its low price and often shoddy workmanship, this powerful rifle rarely jams, is almost indestructible and is easy to fire with no training. It is the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to turn a farmer, teacher, peasant or even a teenager into an effective killing machine. It is not very accurate but can fire about 600 rounds per minute. Many western military experts consider it a piece of junk. Some US soldiers prefer the AK especially in Iraq where dust tends to jam their M-16 rifles but does not affect the AK.
What has been its effect on world history?
The AK has shifted the balance of power in warfare by allowing small determined factions, not just armies, to overthrow entire governments. For example, Charles Taylor, proved this in 1989 when he and a rag-tag cadre of 100 men armed mainly with AK-47s, stormed the presidential palace in Liberia and controlled the country for the next six years. By issuing AKs to anyone who swore allegiance to the new regime, Taylor stayed in power with gangs of thug soldiers, all of whom were allowed to pillage their defeated enemies as payment for their loyalty. The other main impact is that cheap AK can keep small hot regional wars going for years. This is often the case in Africa and South America.
Where is the AK made?
More than 20 countries currently produce it, many of which are former Soviet bloc nations like Bulgaria and Rumania. China is the world’s largest producer of AKs. Russia no longer makes the weapon but has many stockpiles. There are dozens of different versions and names but they are all the same basic design with the signature banana-shaped magazine.
How many legitimate armies use the AK or its variants?
About 50 standing armies use the AK including those of China, Egypt, Cuba, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Why do terrorists prefer the AK to any other weapons?
For the same reasons that legitimate armies like it. The gun is cheap, easy to use, easy to obtain and effective in the hands of poorly trained fighters. Osama Bin Laden has called the AK the terrorists’ most important weapon.
How much does an AK cost?
In some parts of the world, it can be purchased for as little as US$10, leading to its nickname, “The Ten Dollar Weapon of Mass Destruction” because it kills more people than any other single weapon. In most places, however, an AK can be bought for $100 to $300 depending upon the level of hostilities in the area. As conflicts heat up in a region, prices rise.
Why has it become a cultural icon?
AKs are seen in art, movies, video games and even in fashion because it has become an anti-establishment symbol. It is seen on the coins and flags of several countries including Mozambique and also on the flag of terrorist group Hezbollah.
What about the inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov?
Kalashnikov, who died in 2013, acted in his later years as a celebrity spokesman at trade shows for Russian arms makers using his cult status to bring attention to their weapons. He has not made a cent from his invention but had hoped to cash in on a brand of vodka to which he had licensed his name. The vodka didn’t sell all that well.
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