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Kalashnikov’s Gun

The AK-47 and Russian engineering.
March 1, 2005

One of Russia’s newest museums is devoted to what may be the world’s deadliest work of art, the AK-47 assault rifle. In the western Urals, a redoubt of weapons manufacture since Tsarist days, the museum might be dismissed as a shrine of nostalgia for the Soviet arsenal. Yet the AK-47 remains a unique advertisement for a distinctly Russian approach to technology, one with lessons beyond the world of weapons enthusiasts.

The Kalashnikov is the most successful firearm in history. William Hartung and Rachel Stohr report in Foreign Policy that between 70 and 100 million of the weapons are in circulation, compared with just seven million U.S. M-16s. In Afghanistan, the AK-47 costs as little as $10.

The AK-47 has become a global brand, the preferred weapon of revolutionaries and insurgents for decades, but nevertheless uniting the bitter adversaries of the Cold War. Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, 85, is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, even though the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow features an AK-47 that was used by a North Vietnamese soldier to kill 78 U.S. troops. Indeed, the same museum collection shows Egyptian and Chinese knockoffs used by anti-Soviet Afghan fighters, and countless similar ones are in the hands of al-Qaeda.

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.

Russian ingenuity flourishes in isolation and adversity. When I visited Moscow in 1988, I saw the result of a minor car crash near the giant Rossiya Hotel. A fender bender dented the heavy Soviet sheet metal, when lighter Western metal parts would have creased or plastic parts shattered. There were surely brigades of body-and-fender men ready to hammer them back into shape rather than bolt in new replacements. The scarcity of consumer goods, in fact, helped promote of ubiquitous fix-it (remont) shops for small appliances wherever I walked in Moscow; try to find their counterpart in the capitals of the throwaway West.

Thus, the worldwide success of the AK-47 design was not a fluke. Even the United States has bought Kalashnikov-style arms from factories in former satellite countries in order to equip its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The designer and Russian authorities have even claimed violation of intellectual property laws for these knockoffs. Whatever the ultimate settlement, the decline of the market for Russian successors to the AK-47 reveals an unintended consequence of its rugged, reliable simplicity. It is all too easy for non-Russians, including anti-Russian terrorists, to reuse, repair, and manufacture it.

The Russian style does have other, more benign outcomes. A U.S. aerospace company has imported NK-33 liquid fuel rockets, first developed in the 1960s, for their exceptional reliability. Russia remains a major exporter of night-vision goggles, with 15,000 workers in the consumer night-vision industry in 1999. And Tetris, which helped launch Nintendo’s Game Boy in the late 1980s, achieved its addictive fame through ingenious use of the limited processing power and memory of the day; it was the masterpiece of Alexei Pajitnov, a mathematician in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Pajitnov, who has lived in the United States for more than 13 years, continues to create puzzle games with a global following. He has described Tetris as “a kind of game which helps you order the world. You fight against chaos.” Which is itself a Russian sentiment. Because Russia has often stood at the edge of chaos, its best technology is art of a special kind.

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