The AK-47 (for Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 goda, Russian: Автомат Калашникова образца 1947 года) is an assault rifle designed in 1947 by Mikhail Kalashnikov, produced by Russian manufacturer IZH, and used in many Eastern bloc nations during the Cold War. Compared to the rifles used in World War II, the AK-47 was lighter and more compact, with a shorter range, a smaller 7.62 x 39 mm cartridge, and was capable of fully-automatic fire. This was possible due to the lower recoil of the cartridge allowing practical fully-automatic fire, thus making it one of the first assault rifles.
It also has a legendary reputation for ruggedness, reliability, and ease of field maintenance. Inexpensive to manufacture, the AK-47 is the most widespread of all small arms, with 80+ million weapons having been produced. Despite its official deprecation by the Russian military, the weapon and its derivatives are still widely manufactured and used, especially throughout the Third World, where it enjoys a special mystique.
In World War II, most soldiers used longer rifles such as the American M1 Garand; these weapons were good at placing single shots of powerful rounds at long distances, but were slow and clunky close in. Submachine guns like the German MP40 and U.S. Thompson Sub-machine gun were common in urban combat; while lighter and faster to fire than a rifle, the pistol rounds they fired were often too weak to be effective. (There were rumors that they, along with several other small-caliber rounds, had problems penetrating heavy winter clothing. This was tested and proven incorrect, however.) Assault rifles such as the AK-47 represent a practical compromise between the two types of weapon. In contrast, Western powers replaced WW2-era rifles with battle rifles such as the M14 and the FN FAL.
The AK-47 was not the first assault rifle but was preceded by earlier Italian, Russian, and German Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle designs. Mikhail Kalashnikov furiously denies it being based on the German or Italian models.
Tank sergeant Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov began imagining his weapon while still in the hospital, after being wounded in the battle of Bryansk. He had been informed that a new weapon was required for the 7.62 × 39 cartridge developed by Elisarov and Semin in 1943. Sudayev's PPS43 submachinegun was preferred to Kalashnikov's first attempt, but Kalashnikov redesigned the rifle after examining a German STG 44 in 1946.
There were many difficulties during the first phase of production, as at first the Soviets were not able to use stamped sheet metal construction (as the Germans had). Instead, they preferred machining the components, a slower and costlier process. Even though it was famous as the "AK 47" (where AK stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova, or Kalashnikov's Machine gun), the Soviets were not able to distribute it to soldiers until 1956. The first transfer-stamped sheet metal version appeared in 1959 and is named the AKM.
In 1974 the Soviet military began replacing the AK-47 with the AK-74, which fires the smaller, lighter 5.45 x 39 mm M74 round, enabling troops to carry more ammunition and easing strain on supply systems.
The AK-47 is inexpensive to manufacture and very simple to clean and repair in the field. Its ruggedness and reliability are legendary, and it can fire even after being submerged in water (if the water is poured out first), or when it is covered in dirt. Some sources claim that the ejector pin is prone to breakage (depending on the exact alloy and heat treatment, it may or may not be likely with a particular rifle – Romanian AKs are prone to it, Russian and Bulgarian AKs aren't).
Some AK rifles are considerably more accurate than others. The first AK-47s (not the AKM) and the Bulgarian AK types, with their heavy milled receivers, as well as Yugoslav and late AK-74 rifles from Russia, with their heavy 1.6 mm stamped receivers, are usually said to be capable of accuracy of two MOA. Most AK type rifles, with thin 1.0 mm stamped receivers, are less stable as the bullet goes through the barrel and there is consequently greater random vibration and oscillation before the bullet leaves the muzzle, and are typically only capable of approximately six MOA accuracy. Most Western military rifles are capable of six MOA or better.
Classic AK-series have a cyclic rate of 600 rounds per minute. Newer versions have delayed automatic sears that cycle at 300 rpm.
AK-type rifles do not lock the bolt back when they are empty, unlike most Western assault rifles.
The standard flip-up iron sight is calibrated with each numeral indicating in hundreds of metres. It is released by squeezing the two buttons on the back end. The standard calibration of the flipped-down sight is 50 metres, the normal minimal distance for aimed fire. Distances below this range are usually aimed instinctively. For night fighting, some Russian models have a flip-up luminous dot, also calibrated to 50 m. The open sights are one of the most heavily-criticized features of the rifle, being both farther from the eye than many common rifle sights, and less accurate than peep-sights, such as those found on the M16 rifles. Sights, of course, are a matter of personal taste, but most people do find the aperture-type sights on Western military rifles like the M16, M14, or FAL to be both faster and easier to use, as well as being more accurate.
The magazine release is in front of the trigger guard. The trigger guard is very large, to permit the use of gloved fingers.
A sling is provided for accurate aimed fire. It should wrap around the forearm supporting the barrel.
Models for paratroopers, cavalry, and mechanized troops have folding stocks. Most fold sideways, but a few fold downward and forward over the pistol grip like the folding stock on the old German MP40 submachinegun.
Bullpup variants exist, in which a shoulder pad is bolted onto the back of the receiver, and the trigger is moved in front of the magazine. These have a shorter overall length because they have no stock, yet they still have full-length barrels. Small numbers of semi-auto bullpup rifles of the AK type were imported into the US from Finland and China in the early 1990s, where they now command healthy four-figure sums among collectors of rare and unusual military firearms.
Some models, mainly Chinese, include an integral folding bayonet. Almost all others have a removable bayonet; some of these can attach to their scabbards to form a scissors-style barbed-wire cutter (a feature later integrated into the M9 bayonet used with the M16 rifle).
Some models, mainly Yugoslav and Polish, include a gas valve on the forward gas port (above the barrel) to permit firing grenades. Sometimes the valve is controlled by flipping a special "grenade sight" up into position.
The bore and chamber, as well as the gas piston and the interior of the gas cylinder, are almost always chromium-plated, to resist corrosion and improve wear resistance, but cleaning after every firing is strongly recommended. Many types of military ammunition, particularly of Soviet, Chinese, or Eastern European origin, use corrosive primers the residue from which can eventually corrode steel if the weapon is fired and left dirty.
The standard AK-47 or AKM fires a 7.62 × 39 mm round with a muzzle velocity of 710 m/s. Muzzle energy is 1,990 joules. Cartridge case length is 38.6 mm, weight is 18.21 g. Projectile weight is normally 8 g, though some Russian ammunition made for export to the US uses a soft-nose hunting type bullet of 10 g mass.
The AK-47 and AKM, with the 7.62 x 39 mm cartridge, had an effective range of around 300 metres and usually had the sights zeroed at 200 metres.
The rate of fire is between 300 and 600 rounds per minute. Later models have modifications to the trigger assembly and bolt to fire more slowly. This helps make the weapon more controllable and waste less ammunition. This can help reduce logistic requirements. The rate-reducing devices may also be intended to reduce the wear and tear on moving parts.
A diagram showing the design of AKM. Includes instructions for disassembly of the gun for maintenance
To fire, insert a loaded magazine, move the right selector lever on the right to the bottom position, and pull back and release the cocking lever on the right top. Aim and pull the trigger.
The selector lever is a large lever on the right side, easy to manipulate even with mittens under arctic conditions. The selector lever blocks the bolt and cocking handle when it is in the "safe" position, so the rifle can only be loaded with the safety off. Kalashnikov made this design decision because when the safety lever is in the upward position, it covers the slot in the side of the receiver behind the cocking handle, preventing sand and dirt from entering the mechanism.
The selector lever makes a loud and very distinctive sound when it is moved from one position to another.
The highest position of the selector lever is safe. Safe prevents trigger movement and cocking, and the selector lever covers the slot in the receiver behind the cocking handle in order to keep out sand and dust. In many models, this position is unmarked. International weapons may place a "0" in this position.
The bottom position is single-shot. On Russian weapons this is marked "ОД" in Cyrillic, from ОДин (one). International weapons may have a "1" or a single dot.
The middle position is full automatic. On Russian weapons this is marked with "АВ" in Cyrillic, from АВтомат (automatic). International weapons have an infinity-sign (∞) or multiple dots in this position.
Some AK-type rifles have a fourth selector setting, usually between full-auto and semi-auto, normally three or four rounds per burst. On Bulgarian rifles built with this feature, this selector position is usually marked with the numeral 3 or 4.
On most variants, under the barrel is a steel cleaning rod. It bends slightly for removal. In standard AKs, cleaning patches and a metal bottle of oil and solvent are in compartments in the shoulder-pad of the stock.
To field strip, release the magazine catch, remove the magazine, and cock the rifle, holding the left hand ready over the receiver to catch any ejected cartridge. Release the catch on the right side of the rear sight. Push the piston assembly cover forward, detaching it from the rear receiver. Lift it and then pull it backwards. Remove the piston assembly and bolt. Clean as needed, with special attention to the barrel, gas cylinder and gas piston. Oil slightly and reassemble. Before inserting the magazine, press the trigger to release the spring tension.
The AK-47 and its derivatives are favoured by some non-Western powers because of their ease of use, robustness, and simplicity to manufacture, and also because during the Cold War the Russians were giving AKM rifles away in great numbers to their allies all over the Third World. Copies were made by many factories in other countries including USA, Finland (though the Finnish rifles are sufficiently different that many experts consider them AK-inspired but not pure AK), Hungary, China, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Egypt and Pakistan, where they remain in production today. Derivative designs were made in USA, East Germany, Finland, Hungary, Israel, North Korea, Poland, and Yugoslavia. Estimates of total number of units produced vary from 55 million to 100 million.
Copies, licensed and otherwise, manufactured in other countries had different nomenclature, and tended to differ from the original in small ways - Bulgarian AK-47 type rifles are made with the old milled receiver rather than stampings, Chinese 'Type 1956' rifles have the gas tube attached to the barrel in a slightly different arrangement and a permanently attached folding cruciform spike bayonet under the muzzle, the East German MPiK-47 rifles had buttstocks and handguards of pebble-finished black plastic instead of wood, etc. Copies may or may not have the slant-cut muzzle brake of the AKM. Further, end users may have modified their rifles. For instance, AKMs and close copies thereof made in Russia and various Warsaw Pact countries and given to the government of India as military aid during the Cold War have since 1995 mostly been fitted with flash suppressors that are copies of the one on the M16A2 rifle and bayonet lugs compatible with US-issue bayonets for the M16 rifle.
Copies of the AK-47 are also manufactured in Dara Adamkhel in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. It became so popular in Pakistan that it has become a social symbol for the Pashtun tribesmen who live there. Owning an AK-47 (or a copy made by a local gunsmith) is considered to be proof of manhood.
The AK-47 is included in Mozambique coat of arms (formerly also in Burkina Faso coat of arms), as a symbol of the Soviet-backed Marxist government's support for anti-Western governments like the Qaddafi regime in Libya and the Idi Amin regime in Uganda, as well as its willingness to supply Soviet-made weapons to anti-Western terrorist groups such as Robert Mugabe's "Zimbabwe People's Liberation Army" in Rhodesia and the "Southwest African People's Organization" in Angola, during the Cold War. Kalash, a derivative from "Kalashnikov" is used as a name for boys in some African countries.
Contrary to popular belief, American soldiers did not commonly use AK-47s in the Vietnam War; in fact the most commonly used rifle by American soldiers in the later phases of the war was the M16A1. Some American special operations forces did frequently use the AK, however, and it is rumored to be popular in the current occupation of Iraq because unlike the M16s, soldiers do not have to account for AK-47 ammunition expended.
Standard Kalashnikovs include:
- AK-47 1948–51, 7.62 × 39 mm. The very earliest models had a stamped sheet metal receiver. Now rare.
- AK-47 1952, 7.62 × 39 mm: has a milled receiver and wooden buttstock and hand-guard. Barrel and chamber are chrome-plated to resist corrosion. Rifle weight 4.2 kg.
- AKS-47 × Featured an upward-folding metal stock as opposed to the fixed wood stock of the AK-47.
- AKM 7.62 × 39 mm: a revised, lower-cost version of the AK-47; receiver is made from several pieces of stamped sheet-metal riveted together and a revized muzzle flash suppressor. Rifle weight 3.61 kg.
- AKMS 7.62 × 39 mm: folding stock version of the AKM intended for airborne troops.
- AKS-74 5.45 × 39 mm (AK-74); note the new, much smaller ammunition.
- AK-74M 5.45 × 39 mm folding stock (for motorised infantry)
- AKS-74U 5.45 × 39 mm, tanker's self-defense weapon, folding stock, short barrel, altered sight and gas mechanism, odd-looking flash suppressor device on the muzzle. Nicknamed the "Krinkov" after its designer. Very popular with Spetznaz (Russian Special Forces) troops as well as Russian law enforcement in Russia's large cities.
The AKM design is still in production in Russia, now in a modernized form utilising lightweight plastics instead of some wood and metal components:
- AK-101 5.56 × 45 mm round (NATO round)
- AK-102 short stock 101
- AK-103 7.62 × 39 mm round
- AK-104 short stock 103
- AK-105 5.45 × 39 mm round (short stock)
Derivative designs included these:
- SVD Dragunov 7.62 × 54 mm 10 shot sniper rifle. This is semiautomatic, with a skeletal laminated "outline" stock. The standard optical sight is the PSO-1. Uses a unique, short-stroke piston system because a standard piston for the larger cartridge was so heavy that it upset the point of aim. The piston moves a bolt-carrier. Has a very distinctive flash suppressor device on the muzzle resembling that mounted on the PKM general purpose machine gun. Developed in 1958 by Yevgeniy Feodorovich Dragunov, a gunsmith at the Izhevsk Machine Factory, where he originally designed sporting rifles. Not as accurate as Western military issue sniper rifles but very rugged and reliable. Popular with the troops, it is nicknamed the "veslo," which means "oar."
- MedVed Sporting Rifle , 9 × 54 mm. Very similar to the SVD.
- RPK 74 squad automatic weapon, identical to an AK-74 but featuring a thicker, longer barrel and fixed bipod,
- OC-14 Groza, a bullpup rifle nearly identical to an AK-74 in function that also shares many internal parts,
- Saiga 12K, a semi-automatic shotgun,
- AKR (Russians evolution),
- Type 56 (China),
- Yugoslavia: M64, M64A, M70, M70A, M79B, M79A1B, M77, M82, The M77B1 takes a NATO 7.62 × 51 mm rifle round, and is Yugoslavia's squad automatic weapon.
- Finland: Assault rifle model Rk 62 has been offered in 13 variants, with 7.62 × 39 mm, 5.56 × 45, and 7.62 × 51 cartridges and metal, folding and plastic stocks, Valmet M60, M62, M76, M82. The M82 is a bullpup design, with the action and magazine moved into the stock, and the trigger far forward on the barrel.
- Galil (Israel), argued by some to be AK-inspired but not a pure AK, it has aperture sights and uses a proprietary 35-round magazine for the 5.56 x 45 mm NATO cartridge. Most have an extremely rugged (and rather heavy) steel buttstock that folds to the side. Regarded as a good design but poor quality control when most were manufactured in the 1970s has given the Galil a poor reputation among Israeli troops, who are today mostly issued M16A1 rifles instead. A licensed copy of the Galil is made in South Africa, called the R4.
- PGM-DGM-60 (Poland), which can shoot grenades; there are other AK variants made in Poland, and the Polish government is considering going to a 5.56 x 45 mm AK variant called the "Beryl" after joining NATO. The Beryl has a distinctive looking perforated stamped steel handguard and a folding buttstock resembling that of the old German MP40 submachinegun.
- East Germany:MPiK, cal.22LR KKMPi69, STG940 "Wieger"
- FPK, AKM-R, (Romania), WASR-10 a low quality semi-auto civilian version that only accepts smaller magazines, exported to the US. The WASR-10 has a reputation for being poorly made, and is prone to parts breakage, particularly the ejector. ROMAK-3 Copy of RPK Squad automatic weapon converted into sniper rifle.
- Hungary: AMD-63 , AMD-65 , AMP-69
- North Korea Type 58 and 68 . The 68 has a distinctive perforated stock-strut.
- The South African R4 and R5 rifles, licensed copies of the Galil from Israel.
It is a common misconception that the Czech assault-rifle Sa vz.58 is an AK-47 derivative, but despite its external resemblance it is a completely original design.
- Edward Clinton Ezell, "The AK-47 Story." Ezell is curator of weapons at the U.S. Smithsonian Museum.