The AK-47: A real weapon of mass destruction

The folklore of war features many weapons: the flintlock rifle of the Revolutionary War, the Henry repeaing rifle in the Civil War and the M-series rifles that served American soldiers from World War I through modern times.

But no hand-held weapon has impacted the history of conflict more than the Soviet-designed AK-47.

Writes Larry Kahaner in today’s Washington Post:

In the grand narrative of World War II, the Battle of Bryansk is a minor conflict, barely deserving of a footnote. But Bryansk has another place in history. It was there that a then-unknown tank commander named Mikhail Kalashnikov decided that his Russian comrades would never again be defeated. In the years following the Great Patriotic War, as Soviet propagandists dubbed it, he was to conceive and fabricate a weapon so simple, and yet so revolutionary, that it would change the way wars were fought and won. It was the AK-47 assault rifle.

The AK-47 has become 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 cost of a live chicken. Depicted on the flag and currency of several countries, waved by guerrillas and rebels everywhere, the AK is responsible for about a quarter-million deaths every year. It is the firearm of choice for at least 50 legitimate standing armies and countless fighting forces from Africa and the Middle East to Central America and Los Angeles. It has become a cultural icon, its signature form — that banana-shaped magazine — defining in our consciousness the contours of a deadly weapon.

This week, the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq will surpass the length of time that American forces were engaged in World War II. And the AK-47 will forever link the two conflicts. The story of the gun itself, from inspiration in Bryansk to bloody insurgency in Iraq, is also the story of the transformation of modern warfare. The AK blew away old battlefield calculations of military superiority, of tactics and strategy, of who could be a soldier, of whose technology would triumph.

Ironically, the weapon that helped end World War II, the atomic bomb, paved the way for the rise of the lower-tech but deadlier AK-47. The A-bomb’s guarantee of mass destruction compelled the two Cold War superpowers to wage proxy wars in poor countries, with ill-trained combatants exchanging fire — usually with cheap, lightweight and durable AKs.