In the early eighties, I was assigned by Saturday Review (a magazine that vanished long ago) to do a story on the Marine Corps. In the course of my research, I went back to all the places I’d been stationed while I was a marine. While interviewing the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division in his office at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, I couldn’t help noticing a beat-up looking AK-47 assault rifle mounted on his wall. I told him that I assumed he’d brought it home as a souvenir of his time in Vietnam.
“Souvenir, hell,” he said. “That was my regular weapon. Anybody who could get one used it. The AK would still fire after three hours in the mud in a rice paddy.”
I’m recalling this moment because I just read an obituary for Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the formidable weapon that has supplied armies and revolutionaries and good guys and bad guys for more than six decades. (AK-47 stands for Avtomat Kalashnikov 1947.) He died at the age of 94, about as close to an official national treasure in Russia as Lenin. And for good reason. While recovering from wounds received as a tank crewman in 1941, Kalashnikov thought about the superiority of the German infantry weapons he’d been facing, and decided to put his mechanical skills to work designing their equal. The war was over by the time his invention went into production, but from then until now it has reigned as one of the most successful industrial designs in history.
As the co-author of the book Quintessence, I have long been drawn to products that remain popular for years, whether or not they are technically the best of their particular breed. The reason for their endurance is hard to define, though we tend to know them when we seem them because they have a certain ineffable quality. The Kalashnikov has been in production for 66 years, an astonishing span in an age of constant technological change and hotly contested arms races. It has a few years on another military marathoner, the B-52 bomber. Were it not such a killing machine, it might be called the Volkswagen Beetle of weaponry, though it has outlived the Beetle by quite a bit and is still going strong. When I was a marine, we ground-pounders were issued World War II and Korean war era M-1 rifles. They were good weapons, remarkably accurate at long range, and rugged. But by Vietnam the M-1 had been replaced by the less expensive, less accurate, less dependable M-16; wood had been replaced by plastic, approximately .30 caliber ammunition had been replaced by the smaller .223 caliber. Most notably, durability had been replaced by frequent jamming and failure-prone parts. While I was at Camp Lejeune for my Saturday Review article, I saw rows of trash cans filled with the burned out barrels of M-16 rifles.
The AK-47 has the characteristics that great designs like the Beetle have: simplicity, utility, and user-friendliness (and, in the case of the assault rifle, usee-unfriendliness). I have heard from pilot friends of mine who collect old airplanes that Russian planes are similarly tough and dependable, though lacking some of the refinements of U.S. and French planes. The Kalashnikov, unlike, say, the Uzi, is not the kind of design that is innovative, but it does well the job its made for, and has become an iconic symbol as well as ubiquitous. I didn’t include it in Quintessence (my co-author Betty Cornfeld and I chose the far less lethal Daisy Red Ryder BB gun), but I certainly could have.
That AK-47 ubiquity came about in part as a result of the decision of the Soviets to license production to other countries, eventually thirty, over several years. By now, there have been more Kalashnikovs produced than all other military automatic arms combined. The unmistakable profile of the weapon has even appeared on a certain nation’s crest and another country’s flag. This cannot be said of the VW Beetle.
Mikhail Kalashnikov didn’t get rich from the huge success of his rifle, since he didn’t hold a patent. (That sort of thing was simply not done by citizens who labored for Soviet socialism.) He has been quoted saying that he would have preferred to create a good lawnmower, and blamed the Nazis for making him invent a weapon. But he was considered a national hero — not the fate of those who design lawnmowers — and lived well until he died. Of natural causes, not at the business end of his brilliant design.