Weapons and Kit

The AK-47 - The Weapons That Changed The World

The enduring symbolism of the AK-47 and its descendants speaks to the romantic and rebellious cultural view of warfare...

In 1983 the Mozambican Liberation Front adopted a new national flag.

Years after independence and at the height of a bitter civil war the flag was introduced to embody the spirit of the country.

National flags are highly symbolic and Mozambique’s was no different. In the hoist was a red triangle.

The black, green, and yellow were derived from the flag of the African National Congress.

The star of Marxism also featured prominently – strongly linking the country to Russia and China’s strategy of destabilisation of the West by disrupting their hold on African colonies.

However, there’s one thing that sets the country’s national flag apart from others. There’s an AK-47 printed on the left side of the flag.

The controversial symbol is there to represent "defence and vigilance", but why is an assault rifle developed in the mid-1940’s still on this troubled country’s flag to this very day?

Listen to the second episode of 'Weapons That Changed The World' in full below...

The Soviet military had faced the Sturmgewehr 44 during World War II. The world's first mass-produced ‘storm’ assault rifle killed many Russians on the Eastern Front – and they wanted their own version.

There were many benefits to the rifle that the Soviets wanted to emulate. A comparatively light and compact rifle would allow the weapon to be transported and carried easily.

They also wanted a rifle that could be fired on automatic or semi-automatic – which would provide the flexibility of increased accuracy and low kickback but also give the option for rapid suppressing fire.

The AK-47 was designed through a contest, a method favoured by Stalin. This approach was profoundly modern and an early example of crowdsourcing design.

The self-taught weapons designer and modifier Mikhail Kalashnikov was one of those who entered his proposed designs.

The combat assault rifle marked just the right point between the large rifles and small submachine guns of the time.

The AK-47 was the ultimate Goldilocks arm and although the design was nothing new, by fine-tuning what made other weapons work Kalashnikov created a winning design that would forever carry his name.

It wasn’t innovation that made the Kalashnikov a lasting design but by iterating and perfecting previous arms before it.

The simple, cheap to produce weapon considered common faults with other rifles and designed around them.

One of the most recognisable features of the weapon is the curved magazine it uses.

The detachable box magazine was already widely used in the First and Second World Wars.

While not the first curved magazine, the curvature allows for more rounds in a shorter space.

The rounds are thinner at one end naturally leading the curved design. The curved design also increases the reliability of the weapon and reduces jams.

This is because the rounds in the magazine keep as much contact with each other as possible and therefore stay in line.

The standard magazine takes 30 rounds however the AK-47 also supports drum magazines that take up to 75 rounds.

The versatility of the rifle also means that it can support a 387mm long bayonet and multiple types of grenade launcher.

Later models can also support an optical sniper sight rather than rely on the iron sights.

The AK-47 is not the most accurate weapon when compared to other assault rifles which according to the American Shooting Journal is down in part to the wooden handguard.

At different temperatures, the wood will expand and contract ultimately affecting the harmonics of the weapon and lowering accuracy.

However, the rifle can cope with environments ranging from the deserts of Israel to the jungles of the Congo.

This is one of the reasons the rifle has found a home in so many conflicts around the world. Many iterations on the rifle would go on to be created.

Variants like the AKN would feature a night rifle whereas modernised versions of the rifle like the AKM would continually iterate and improve on the design by creating a lighter rifle that is easier to mass produce.

All these variations would be continually improving the rifle, championing the evolutionary spirit of collaborative crowdsourced design which created a finely tuned battle tested piece of kit.

The satisfactorily named AK-74 also designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov would go onto officially replace the AK-47 in 1974. But the AK-47 wasn’t going anywhere.

AK-74

It’s no accident that a Soviet-made rifle appeared in the arsenals of militaries fighting Cold War proxy-wars for the Soviets.

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces used AK-47’s and other equipment mostly manufactured and supplied by the Soviet Union and China.

Vietnam was a psychological war that profoundly impacted many of the American soldiers who were fighting a long way from home.

The weapon was to be feared firing at you from a dark jungle ambush.

Myths that American’s would ditch their M16 rifles in favour of the AK-47 have long been around since the war ended although there’s little evidence to suggest this actually happened.

However, the myths point to the truth that the AK-47 was to be respected and not underestimated.

The Americans much more recently developed M16’s were more likely to jam.

This was down to a condition called the failure to extract where the casing of the just-fired round is not successfully extracted from the chamber.

The AK-47 with few moving parts was much more reliable.

All these advantages mean that the weapon has been manufactured for decades.

The AK-47 has been produced in countries ranging from Albania to Vietnam although the licence holder Kalashnikov Concern claims that only 10-15% of global weapons under this name are legitimate.

You can still buy AK-47’s online in America where distributors claim “There’s an AK-47 out there for everyone.”

Kalashnikov USA is currently building a factory to supply the growing demand for American made AK-47s.

There’s also a flourishing demand for the weapon on the dark web and in the black market.

Many legitimately brought AK-47’s are now ending up in the hands of terrorists.

Chinese made rifles make their way to African states whose leaders supply rebel forces or because their soldiers sell them on.

Legally bought Kalashnikovs disappear only to reappear on the black market and in the hands of those who would not be able to access them normally.

There are believed to be as many as 200 million Kalashnikovs in the world.

Many of the rifles used during the Balkan wars simply returned home with the men who used them during the conflicts.

These end up in the hands of smugglers and in turn end up in the hands of terrorists.

Kalashnikov rifles have been used during multiple terrorist attacks and found on many terror suspects in Europe.

In 2016 the UK police seized 22 Kalashnikov assault rifles from a UK gang who sourced them from the same shop as the Charlie Hebdo terrorists.

During the ongoing Syrian Civil War, every major faction in the conflict had access to Kalashnikov Rifles.

The Kalashnikov in the conflict had simultaneously become the weapon of the authoritarian regime, those rebelling against it and the Islamists wishing to hijack the country.

The enduring symbolism of the AK-47 and its descendants speaks to the romantic and rebellious cultural view of warfare.

Despite never being used during the Cuban Revolution thousands of knock-off products feature Che Guevara wielding multiple Kalashnikovs.

As with the case Che Guevara the idea of the weapon has kept it in the public’s consciousness rather than any specific conflicts.

The strong design of the family of weapons also inspires designers, artists and engineers.

Austrian designer Rainer Weber created one of the most unusual pieces of furniture in the world created out of used AK-47’s.

Rainer Weber's AK47 Chair. Pic Courtesy Alexandra Schedl

The weapon is a blank slate which inspires everyone from freedom fighters to survivalists, from video game players to terrorists.

The row over the AK-47 on the flag of Mozambique falls to two sides.

One see’s it as a symbol of independence, but after a bitter civil war, the opposition say it is a barrier to reconciliation.

As of 2018 the flag still remains.