The Eternal AK

By Lucas Bernard 

The AK is more than just a weapon. Its storied history has seen the AK imbued with symbolic meaning.

The first pictorial evidence the West received of the then-secret Soviet rifle came out of the attempted 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The image featured a dapper young revolutionary named Jozsef Fejes, sporting a bowler hat and toting a Kalashnikov. He cut a scruffy and rakish figure, setting in stone the type of fighter one envisions carrying an AK. He met the same fate many future desperate AK-clutching guerrillas would: an ignominious death at the hands of the state he was fighting.

How did the AK develop this reputation despite its impressive pedigree? The AK was not born in a third-world backwater, although that’s where most people tend to associate it. Rather, it was born out of a mighty existential struggle between two of the most powerful military machines that the world has
ever known.

The Red Army learned many lessons in World War II. After initial setbacks, the Soviets rallied with the help of “General Winter,” breaking the German advance and pushing them back into their own country. Contrary to popular conception, the Red Army that raised the hammer and sickle above the Reichstag did not win merely because they had more bodies than the Germans had bullets. In the latter stages of the war, it was a highly mobile and effective force that used the lessons of urban warfare learned in Stalingrad to devastating effect.

The Mosin-Nagant rifle became shorter and less common. The true darling of the late war Red Army was the submachine gun. Frontoviks tore through the streets of Berlin with the PPSh-41 and PPS-43. Masses of men spitting thousands of bullets for suppression and movement led the way to the toppling of the Nazi State. They encountered a revolutionary new weapons system along the way and instantly recognized its superiority: The German StG-44, the first true assault rifle.

That’s when both German and Soviet military thinkers came to the same conclusion: Modern infantry combat generally took place within 300 meters. The full size rifle cartridge was unnecessary for these ranges, and the pistol cartridge lacked effective range. An intermediate between the two was the way of the future. It was small enough for effective suppressive fire with its increased combat ammo load, but powerful enough to meet the needs of the ranges anticipated in modern combat.

Before the Kalashnikov, there was the M43 cartridge. It was the Soviet answer to the intermediate caliber question. We know it today as 7.62x39mm.

Building a rifle for this cartridge was the task given to Mikhail Kalashnikov and other Soviet arms designers. This program bore many famous Soviet designs such as the SKS, RPD, and of course, the AK-47. After initial production issues, however, the AK quickly outclassed the SKS and relegated it to reserve usage. Now each Soviet soldier had a portable machine gun for effective fire-and-maneuver tactics. Once it was streamlined and perfected as the AKM, it became the primary implement of Soviet diplomacy. Throughout the Cold War, any rebel group willing to wave the red flag and call themselves Communist would soon receive crates of AKMs to spread revolution. Thus, the rifle proliferated the world’s consciousness. The USA had Coca-Cola, the USSR had the Kalashnikov.

Western militaries came to find that a relatively small group of insurgents armed with AKs could maintain a fighting posture that punched far above its weight. The carbine’s simple manual of arms and ease of maintenance and acquisition made it perfect for guerrillas. The AK fought the forces of the West and other Communists holding slightly different ideologies across the world. Eventually, it even got turned against the Motherland. Back when the Taliban were the good guys and fought with Rambo, Soviet soldiers were faced with the inevitable consequences of the rifle’s proliferation.

The Soviet-Afghan war was also the grand debut of a new type of Kalashnikov, the AK-74. As America was first encountering the AK during the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union was equally interested in the new M16. As with many similar cultural exchanges we had with each other over the course of the Cold War, this led to a certain amount of insecurity in Soviet arms design. The venerable M43 cartridge seemed to be antiquated in comparison to the new small caliber, high-velocity American 5.56×45 cartridge. No doubt the Russians thought: If those guys are doing it, we have to keep up.

Thus was the genesis of the 5.45×39 cartridge. Even with the new cartridge, the overall design of the rifle remained practically unchanged and received an excellent new muzzle device, making recoil virtually nonexistent. This new round was so effective that it was dubbed the “poison bullet” by the Mujahideen. Mikhail Kalashnikov personally disliked the new cartridge, but nonetheless did his duty for the Motherland. Even with this successful new weapons system, it was not enough to turn the tide against the grit of Islamic determination and U.S.-provided military aid. The war became the Soviet Union’s own Vietnam, and signaled the death knell for the USSR.

The USSR collapsed, but the AK lived on. It soon became America’s turn to invade and occupy Afghanistan, with about the same amount of success. We brought the party to Iraq too, and a whole new generation of U.S. soldiers found themselves facing the AK just like their fathers and grandfathers. Once again, the same insecurities that plagued the American soldier in Vietnam about the perceived inadequacies of his rifle compared to the AK hung heavy in the heads of the fighting men of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). But as we saw earlier with the Soviet reaction to the M16, every guy is sometimes a little too concerned with the dude in the urinal next to him.

Two decades later, the GWOT era seems to finally be winding down. Huge technological and military advancements were made during that time, including drones, tactical combat casualty care, night vision, pizza MREs, the list goes on. Nonetheless, the AK was always there to greet them. It can’t seem to go away. In fact, there are pictures of 1950s-era Type 2 milled receiver AKs that have been found in Afghanistan.

In 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Both are former territories of the USSR, and are awash with Kalashnikovs of various types. Despite heavy casualties on both sides and knowing Eastern European conflicts, victory is still up for grabs. Once again the AK finds itself pitted against itself, but it doesn’t mind. Where there is mud and pain, the AK will remain.

It has long been said that only the dead have seen the end of war. Modern history shows that it’s likely they died clutching Kalashnikovs.  

From the FE Films Archive

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