After several years of building AK-platform rifles, including the very successful and reputable M10™, I find that I am asked more and more frequently about the origins and development of the original AK, and where that platform is going in the immediate future.
Interestingly, while many people are familiar with the name of Mikhail Kalashnikov, most folks who raise the subject with me know little about the circumstances that shaped the AK-47, the rifle that went on to become, arguably, the most successful military rifle in history. Those details, in my opinion, are as significant in the final design as any other factor.
At the end of World War II, studies were showing that most combat between infantry soldiers took place at distances less than four hundred meters. At the same time, infantry theory was moving towards accentuating higher mobility (“mobile warfare” doctrine,) which meant more and more vehicles on and over the battle field, and therefore smaller and handier weapons which would be more practical for troops deployed by means of military vehicles.
Likewise, the trend in combat doctrine was moving in the direction of favoring higher volumes of fire, as opposed to more precise fire. The Soviet Union had seen the effectiveness of higher rates of fire in combat as they faced thousands of StG-44 “storm rifles” used by Nazi soldiers in the last year of combat. These “storm rifles” were handier than the long Mauser bolt action rifles that preceded them, and had a much higher rate of fire, but were also much more accurate than the various “machine pistols,” or submachine guns in use during the war.
These were some of the same considerations that paved the road for the US military to adopt the M1 Garand, and later the M14 and M16 rifles, though the US moved more rapidly in that direction, and entered the war already fielding the semi-automatic M1 Garand. That rifle provided such an advantage over the Axis powers’ standard bolt action rifles that General George Patton called it, “the greatest implement of battle ever devised.” This, as well as the effectiveness of the StG-44, was not lost on the Soviet military. But even coming a bit late to the project of developing a high rate-of-fire military rifle, the Soviets had other considerations they had to take into account, and those considerations shaped their eventual selection of the AK-47.
To begin with, the Soviets didn’t have the same machine capacity and other resources as the US did. They needed a rifle they could manufacture cheaply and rapidly, without a great deal of “tooling up.” In addition, Soviet doctrine was to treat war materials as expendable and disposable, and this included not only large equipment, but the very arms their soldiers carried. The Soviets preferred to replace weapons as they wore out or became damaged, rather than training armorers and providing the equipment and supplies to repair them, and the design of the rifle demonstrated this preference, requiring spot-welding and other operations that are difficult to provide in the field for some repair and assembly. Even the “service life” of the weapon was a secondary consideration as compared to the cost of manufacture, and estimates of the service life of various AK models have run from as low as 6,000 rounds up to a maximum of 15,000 rounds. At that point, the weapon is expected to be discarded, whereas US military arms which are found to be out of specification are typically rotated to an armory where they are refitted and returned to service.
In the end, the AK-47 was adopted. It was cheap to produce, and required a minimum of machine work. Early obstacles, such as problems with the first stamped-metal receivers were overcome by switching over Mosin-Nagant factory machinery to manufacturing milled receivers for AK rifles, and later on, better (stiffer) stamped receivers were developed. The rifle, even with a stamped receiver, was generally expected to deliver groups of six inches or better at one hundred meters (<6 MOA) which translates to eighteen inches or better at three hundred meters, the accepted standard for “effective range” in combat at that time (milled receiver rifles were more accurate, at around four MOA, but the improved stamped-metal receiver was adopted in 1959, so most AK-47 were manufactured with stamped metal receivers.). Further, with the loose tolerances designed into the rifle platform, the stoppage rate is generally considered to be around one stoppage per thousand rounds fired. By comparison, the current estimate for M16 rifles is about double that, in field conditions (two stoppages per 1,000 rounds fired.) By the late fifties, when the Soviet army began providing the AK-47 to their military in large numbers, they had a combat rifle effective to at least three hundred meters, more reliable than the American counter-part, and much cheaper to manufacture.
The Soviets had found their new rifle, and went on to provide the design and specifications to many countries they found common cause with. Since then, more AK-variant rifles have been manufactured and issued than all other “assault weapon” style rifles combined, and about three out of four of those are AK-47 rifles. Today, upwards of half of all assault rifles in the world are AK-47 rifles. While people can (an do) argue which rifle is “best,” there is no argument about which rifle is most successful across the globe: Mikhail Kalashnikov’s AK-47.