Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, died on Dec. 23 at the age of 94. The famed tank mechanic-turned-military engineer’s design for the Avtomatni Kalashnikova (Automatic of Kalashnikov), has shaped the evolution of warfare for over 65 years. Cheap, user-friendly, and above all, reliable, the AK-47 was officially adopted as the standard issue assault rifle of the Soviet military in 1949 and has since become the weapon of choice for both government and opposition forces from China to Haiti to Afghanistan.
Since going into production in 1947, it’s estimated that up to 100 million AK-47s have been made. The AK’s design uses springs and generous clearances between moving parts—each bullet’s casing tapers allow wiggle-room for sand that might make its way down the barrel—to give the assault rifle wide operating parameters. The gun can shake off battle conditions that would foul other assault rifles, which makes it an extreme value at $150-$400. It’s also easy to use: It switches readily from semi-automatic to automatic firing modes and has simple enough controls that a Russian soldier in the Arctic can operate the gun with gloves on. Kalashnikov conceived of the weapon for mass production, continually refining the design from 1945 to 1959. The result is a widely copied, easy-to-produce machine gun that has no rivals.
The prevalence of guerilla and asymmetrical warfare are directly attributable to the success of the AK-47. Why stay in one place and wait for the enemy to bring out its tanks and planes? A small, driven group of rebels can be far more effective hiding in cluttered cities and dense jungles, picking off its enemies from concealed positions. The AK is so popular with rebel independence movements that it’s immortalized on Mozambique’s flag.
It is, all things considered, a monumentally, terrifyingly effective invention. AK-47s kill 250,000 people each year. But despite criticism, Kalashnikov said his invention never kept him up at night. He said he built it “to defend the borders of our fatherland.”
Here are photos of the AK-47 used in military efforts around the world: