Today’s news of the death of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Soviet general who created the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle, reminded us of a 2005 piece in this publication (“Kalashnikov’s Gun”) in which Edward Tenner said the gun may be “the world’s deadliest work of art.” In explaining why the Kalashnikov was used by revolutionaires and insurgents everywhere, Tenner argued that it wasn’t only because the rifle was cheap. It was because of its qualities that were born from Russia’s isolation and adversity:
The AK-47 illustrates the power of incremental adaptation. As a tank sergeant in World War II, Mikhail Kalashnikov saw that most Soviet troops had only carbines against the superior range of the German Sturmgewehr. While recovering from battlefield wounds, he began to create a design for a new weapon, one that could be assembled with relatively loose tolerances by relatively inexperienced workers, avoiding the supply bottlenecks that often resulted from the German cult of fine craftsmanship. A tractor plant originally produced the gun. Not only was the AK-47 simple to manufacture, but it could withstand rough handling in harsh terrain and climates. … It is all too easy for non-Russians, including anti-Russian terrorists, to reuse, repair, and manufacture it.
Tenner argued that this quintessential Russian ingeniousness also had “more benign outcomes.” As an example, he cited the video game Tetris, whose addictive simplicity derived from the limited processing power and memory available to its Soviet creator.