The inventor of the most successful killing machine in human history is dead. According to the AP, Mikhail Kalashnikov succumbed to unspecified health complications at the age of 94. He died in Izhevsk, the capital city of the Udmurtia Republic where he lived out his final, modest years.
The AK-47 (literally, “Avtomat Kalashnikova” fixed to its first production year) is the world’s most popular assault rifle. It’s the first choice of “freedom fighters,” narco-gangs, and pirates. Those who wield it stifle development. They destabilize communities. They topple tyrants and fight foreign proxies.
Of course, the AK-47 is much more than a gun. It’s a symbol of revolution. It’s the subject of cinematic soliloquy. It adorned currency, stamps, and posters in the Soviet Union. Fixed with a bayonet, it flies on the flag of Mozambique. It stirs the chorus of countless songs and anthems.
Speaking on occasion of the rifle’s 60th birthday, its inventor proudly remarked, “During the Vietnam War, American soldiers would throw away their M-16s to grab AK-47s and bullets for it from dead Vietnamese soldiers.” I wasn’t there, so I wouldn’t know. But I do recall the climax of Platoon when Taylor killed Barnes with a Type 56 variant—a moment that captured the protagonist’s ultimate rebellion and emergence from innocence. Oliver Stone clearly knew what he was doing.
To put things in perspective, the preface of The Gun that Changed the World offers a fair accounting of the rifle’s place in pop-culture:
There are a dozen or so words that are the same in every language of the world. Everyone knows them, from Chileans peasants to Japanese workers, from English city folk to Afghan mountain-dwellers. They include the words "taxi," "radio," "Coca-Cola"—and "Kalashnikov." The Russian name that is uttered most often, worldwide, isn’t Lenin, Stalin, or Gorbachav, but Kalashnikov. And the word points to significant reality: between 60 and 80 million Kalashnikovs are in circulation, in all five continents.
The gun is rugged. It works as well in a swamp as it does in a desert. It’s not particularly accurate, but it won’t jam in conditions that confound more complex assault rifles. It’s a humble weapon, built for humble people. As Nick Cage observed in Lords of War, “it’s so easy, even a child can use it. And they do.”
Paradoxically, nothing that I’ve written about this gun is particularly revolutionary. But I am struck by the fact that efforts to historicize and contextualize its impact summon lots of similarities to the fighters and farmers who carry it.
For his part, Mikhail Kalashnikov rests in peace. As he told the AP in 2007, “I sleep well. It's the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence.”
Interesting point: Kalashnikovs don’t kill people…political ambitions do. Maybe he was on to something.