Game changer

Milkhail Kalashnikov, the Russian gun designer who created the AK47 assault rifle has died. Called upon by the Soviet Army during the Second World War to design a gun to counter the Germans’ automatic rifles, Kalashnikov came up in 1947 with Avtomat Kalashnikova. The rifle would soon come to be known as the Avtomat Kalashnikov-47 or simply the AK47. Born amidst World War II, the AK47 went on to become an iconic symbol of the Cold War. It was the standard issue firearm of the Soviet Army from 1949 onwards and of the Warsaw Pact countries thereafter. 

 And importantly it became the weapon of choice of insurgents in national liberation struggles the world over. It played a significant role in the success of several of these struggles. Indeed, the AK47’s role in achieving Mozambique’s independence was publicly acknowledged, with an image of this rifle adorning this country’s flag.  In fact, the AK47 quickly emerged a symbol of resistance. The armies the insurgents fought in the many proxy wars that erupted during the Cold War coveted this weapon as well. It is said that during the Vietnam War, American soldiers threw away their M-16s once they got their hands on AK-47s from dead Vietnamese soldiers. Unlike the M-16 that jammed often while firing, the AK-47 was reliable. It worked even in extreme weather conditions.

Mikhail Kalashnikov’s creation was so popular that it has figured in almost all wars fought over the past six decades.  Over 100 million AK47s are believed to be in circulation around the world. It is said that more people have been killed by AK47s than by any other weapon. Kalashnikov himself sought to distance himself from the deaths caused by his creation by pointing out that he had invented the rifle to defend his country and wasn’t responsible for its misuse by others.

Kalashnikov’s legacy is deeply controversial. His critics – mainly the western powers – describe the AK47 as a killing machine, one that empowers ‘terrorists’. True, the AK47 killed many. But it did correct to some extent the military imbalance between states and insurgents, and occupation powers and freedom fighters and in doing so enabled oppressed people to liberate themselves from colonial rule, authoritarian regimes and occupation. The AK47 shaped the history of the world in the 20th century. Kalashnikov’s legacy must be examined in that context. 

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