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Lessons of the AK-47

by jason on October 25, 2006

Larry Kahaner is the author of the just-published AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War. This is his first post for Defense Tech.
In our quest for the latest and most sophisticated weaponry we sometimes tend to overlook a major success in low-tech arms. But there’s a lot we can learn from them especially the AK-47 assault rifle.
LCpl Cheema on the AK-47.JPGThe AK-47 is the world’s most popular military weapon. At last count, there may be as many as 100 million of these uncomplicated but deadly rifles in use. That’s one AK for every 60 people. It is used by about 50 legitimate armies as well as terrorists Osama Bin Laden calls it the terrorist’s most important weapon insurgents, drug cartels, paramilitary groups and guerrillas.
The rifle, first produced in 1947 hence the name AK-47 for Automatic Kalashnikov 1947 has undergone very few changes since it was first produced by Soviet soldier Mikhail Kalashnikov. The furniture has been replaced with low weight plastics, and a few other mods here and there depending upon which of the 19 countries produced it, but it is essentially the same weapon it was 60 years ago.
What accounts for its success? Quite simply: it works. Despite its low price (as little as $10 and as much as $300) and often shoddy workmanship, this rifle rarely jams, is almost indestructible, and is easy to fire with no training. Overnight, it can transform paramilitary forces, thugs and street gangs into formidable armies.
It is not very accurate but can fire about 700 rounds per minute. Many western military experts consider it a piece of junk, but it’s perfect for poorly-trained soldiers because they can ‘spray and pray.’ And indeed, it is a piece of junk compared to the M-16A2 now used in Iraq or the shorter barreled version M-4. These rifles are well built, accurate and engineered to close tolerances. They are technological things of beauty. The AK, on the other hand has loose tolerances, feels like it will shake apart (but doesn’t) and won’t make any friends at the marksmen club. These loose tolerances are the open secret to the AK’s almost jam-free history. It’s also why you can drag it through mud, leave it buried in the sand and take it out a year later, kick it with your boot, and it will fire like it was cleaned that morning. Again, because of its imprecision, the AK can fire poorly produced ammunition as well as ammo that has been sitting and deteriorating in the jungle or desert.
When the Defense Department offered M-16s to the Iraqi police and army, they refused. They wanted AKs which had to be bought from Jordan (the weapons actually were made in Germany). Indeed, like their brethren in Vietnam, many US soldiers are using AKs in Iraq despite official sanctions against the practice.
As the Pentagon planers ponder what’s next for infantry firearms, they need to think in terms of simple instead of complex and practical instead of sophisticated. There’s no reason why soldiers should be using M-4s that overheat or place condoms over their gun barrels to keep out the desert sands.
The solution has not come for lack of trying. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the Army was developing a new assault rifle known as the XM8 project an outgrowth of the Objective Individual Combat Weapon program, which was to produce a new type of battle rifle. The main goal of the XM8 program was to find a replacement for the M-16 and M4.
However, by late 2005, the XM8 was scrapped partially because of politics; Congress was reluctant to spend billions to outfit soldiers with new rifles while the Iraq war was draining the treasury.
The real problem may be that as the program progressed, military planners kept adding bells and whistles to the rifle system — even including an electronic bullet counter — and it became too complex, heavy and unwieldy. Designers would have done better to simply aim for a new infantry rifle that works as well as the AK-47 and be just as simple.
The AK may not be the best rifle for the US but designers can learn from Kalashnikov’s experience in building the AK-47. He often found himself guided by the words of arms designer Georgy Shpagin, who developed the successful PPSh41 submachine gun: “Complexity is easy; simplicity is difficult.“
Larry Kahaner

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