Mikhail Kalashnikov

Man of war

Mikhail Kalashnikov, who was 94 when he died on Dec. 23, was the Russian military man who designed the ubiquitous automatic weapon that bears his name, the most popular rifle in the wars of the latter half of the 20th century. A former Soviet tank gunner, Kalashnikov created the prototype in a competition to design a new Soviet infantry rifle in the last days of World War II. The AK-47 was a lightweight weapon that was easy to use and maintain. The Soviet military first brought it out during the brutal crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian uprising. As C.J. Chivers, author of a book on the gun’s history, writes, the AK-47 was “repression’s chosen weapon, the rifle of the occupier and police state.”

But soon it was also the chief instrument of a new era of global conflict. It proliferated among fighters having common cause with the Soviet Union–in Vietnam in the 1960s, then in insurgencies in Africa and Latin America. Later it became synonymous with militant groups of all kinds, such as the Afghan mujahedin who clashed with Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. Though Kalashnikov always claimed his weapon was created solely for the “defense of the motherland,” there’s now virtually no place on earth that isn’t in range of a Kalashnikov’s muzzle.


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