THE COMPACT AUTOMATIC rifle that Stalin’s engineers unveiled in 1947 didn’t look like much of a gun. The result of a secret design contest, its components were simple, inelegant, workmanlike. Its ammunition lacked the stopping power of other rifle cartridges.
Its barrel was too short to achieve the range of standard infantry rifles. When the Pentagon finally got its hands on a few of the weapons in the 1950s, officials scoffed. But from this unheralded beginning, the Soviet Union’s modest little gun—dubbed the Avtomat Kalashnikova-47—would become one of the most recognizable artifacts of the 20th century.
The AK-47 and its variants can be seen as a lot of things—amoral massacre machines, pop-culture icons, the most plentiful and influential weaponry of the past half century. But the gun can also be viewed as one of the most disruptive technologies ever. Quickly transcending the purposes and borders of the highly centralized state that created it, the AK-47 gives individuals and small groups a lethality that previously belonged only to rigidly organized and well-financed militaries. What it may have lacked in precision and power it has made up for in ease of use, cost, reliability, and readily available parts and ammunition. It has helped ensure that even the poor, the small-statured, the dim-witted, the illiterate, and the untrained are able to acquire weapons and keep them functioning.
The AK-47’s rise was enabled by a government-led manufacturing push. Throughout the 1950s, the Kremlin shared its new rifles with like-minded states and ordered its Warsaw Pact vassals to produce them. By the 1960s, factories were churning out AK-47s in the planned economies of the Eastern bloc, where the communist governments distributed and stockpiled the rifles by the tens of millions—whether anyone wanted them or not. That oversupply, combined with poor security and rampant corruption, meant that by the 1970s and ’80s, the guns were available to fighters for almost any cause. After the Warsaw Pact unraveled and the Soviet Union collapsed, many successor governments lost custody of their surplus arsenals, providing an almost boundless new supply.
Today, the AK is almost everywhere, and it has fundamentally rewritten the rules of modern warfare, giving bands of moderately skilled fighters with few other resources the power to take on, and defeat, some of the best-resourced armies in the world. Stalin’s rifle became, and remains, the everyman gun, a success—and scourge—that is sure to last well into the 21st century.