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The late Mikhail Kalashnikov designed the AK-47 to be both deadly and user-friendly

AP Photo/Vladimir Vyatkin
Kalashnikov and his assault rifle.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

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:

Reuters/Muzaffar Salman
A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon from a defensive position in the old city of Aleppo on Jul. 3, 2013.
Reuters/Feisal Omar
A Somali government soldier fires at Islamist fighters in Mogadishu on Jul. 11, 2009.
Reuters/Mushtaq Muhammed
Iraqi policewomen during training in Kerbala on Mar. 22, 2009.
Paramilitary policemen take part in a drill at a military base in Yinchuan, China on Apr. 16, 2009.
Reuters/Chor Sokunthea
A Cambodian soldier crouches in a trench during fighting near the disputed Preah Vihear temple on Oct. 15, 2008.
Reuters/Stuart Price/Albany Associates
Teenage fighters in Sudan’s Western Darfur region on Apr. 18, 2008.
Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas
Soldiers from the Nicaraguan special forces at a training exercise near Managua on Oct. 20, 2007.
AP Photo/Richard Lewis
A British soldier in southern Macedonia among AK-47 rifles collected from ethnic Albanian rebels on Sep. 3, 2001.
AP Photo/Misha Japaridze
Elderly Chechen volunteers rest during a rally in Grozny on Dec. 1, 1994.
Reuters/Charles Platiau
Romanian soldier taking cover during a battle between the army and pro-Ceausescu supporters in Bucharest on Dec. 24, 1989.
Reuters/Richard Ellis
Afghan women at a parade of village defense forces in 1988.

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