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AK47 – The Back Story of the World’s Most Famous Gun

AK47 – The Back Story of the World's Most Famous Gun

The AK-47 from its Baptism of Fire in Budapest to its Iconic Status, Myths and Misconceptions.

Today the AK-47 is arguably the most recognizable small arm in the world. In excess of 75 million AK-47s were produced, and weapons in the Kalashnikov-family that is based on the AK-47 exceed 100 million worldwide. Few weapons in the history of mankind have had such a lasting impact. According to a World Bank Policy research paper, published in 2010, of the estimated 500 million firearms in the world, more than one fifth were based on the weapon designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov.

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A view of the classic AK-47 courtesy of kalashnikov.hu/

The firearm became an icon of the Soviet Union but also of insurgents around the world. Its low production cost –coupled with its ease of manufacture – made it easy for vast numbers of the AK-47 to be practically given away to revolutionary movements during the Cold War. It became such a symbol of world-wide revolution that it was on the Coat of Arms of East Timor and on the flag of Mozambique. Since the end of the Cold War the AK-47 brand – as well as its inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov's name – was used on a variety of products, most notably vodka, including an AK-47-branded version that had the bottle shaped like the familiar assault rifle.

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Budapest4 A period photo of Hungarians with what could be the first captured AK-47 during the 1956 uprising (Photo: kalashnikov.hu/)

The story of the Russian tank technician, who went on to develop the Avtomat Kalashnikova – the AK-47 – has been widely told. What is often forgotten is that for years this Soviet assault rifle, which was notable for its ruggedness, was far more advanced than anything used by the western powers until the 1960s. Throughout the 1950s the United States relied on the same small arms that had won World War II, and it wasn't until the 1960s that the M14 and later M16 finally were introduced.

Yet, one misconception about the AK-47 is in its history and development. For years Kalashnikov had suggested that he wasn't influenced by the German StG-44/MP-44 assault rifle. However, there is no denying that Hugo Schmeisser – who was responsible for the StG-44 – was forced to work for the Red Army, and likely had some role in the AK-47's development. In fact, in recent years it has been speculated that Kalashnikov considered the best elements of the American M1 and the StG-44. So while his design was revolutionary, it was also somewhat evolutionary.

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RIA1 The Rock Island Arsenal collection includes numerous StG44 assault rifles (top three weapons), which can be seen in comparison to the AK-47 (bottom three weapons)

Budapest and its Baptism of Fire

The Red Army officially adopted the AK-47 in 1949, but in those early days of the Cold War there wasn't the 24/7 news cycle and information only trickled out of the Soviet Union. Because of the early production issues, which included a complex milling process to make each receiver, adoption of the assault rifle was also likely slow.

Contemporary evidence suggests that the AK-47 was not used in the Korean War, but the SKS semi-automatic rifle did play a significant role. That weapon was developed at the tail end of World War II by noted Soviet arms designer Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov, and while it arrived too late to be used against Nazi Germany the world found the impact of its 7.62x39mm round in the Korean War. That same cartridge was used in the AK-47.

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Budapest1 The Budapest Military Museum offers a full-room of exhibits devoted to the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule –such a display wouldn't have been possible until the end of the Cold War.

The AK-47 may have been used in the short-lived People's Uprising in East Germany, which occurred on June 16-17, 1953. There are few period photos of the brief event, and it should be noted that at the time the East German Volkspolizei – the paramilitary forerunners of the Nationale Volksarmee, the East German army – were equipped with StG44, so it is possible that accounts of the AK-47s use were misunderstandings. This fact is important to note because even during the era of the Warsaw Pact the East German military was considered the most reliable yet least trusted by their Soviet overlords, so it would have been unlikely that any of the Volkspolizei would have been provided with the latest Soviet hardware.

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Budapest3 A display of Soviet small arms that were used by the Hungarian military during its time as a Warsaw Pact member state at the Budapest Military Museum. Among the items in this collection include an early AK-47 with milled receiver.

Instead the AK-47 likely met its baptism of fire in the streets of Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. That nationwide revolt was against the Hungarian People's Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, and it began as a student demonstration that attracted thousands to march on the capital's Parliament building. After a student was killed when State Security Police fired on the gathering turned into a full-blown revolution that spread across the country. Thousands organized into militias and in the fighting that ensued the first Communist Bloc almost fell –except that the Soviet force invaded and ensured that the Central European nation would remain under Communist rule. What began on October 23 finally ended on November 10 – and it cost the lives of some 2,500 Hungarians on both sides, as well as 700 Soviet troops.

In the fighting Western observers spotted the rumored new assault rifle of Soviet design and origin. The AK-47 was introduced to the world at this time. The Soviet Red Army, which helped squelch the uprising was armed with this weapon – but it would end up being used against them as well.

“The AK-47 was only used by the Soviet Red Army during the conflict, but it was not issued in the Hungarian People's Army,” explains Máté Balogh, museum educator at the Hadtörténeti Múzeum (Military Museum) in Budapest. “So if a revolutionist got one it can only mean that he or she acquired it from a killed or surrendered Soviet soldier.

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Budapest2 Soviet Red Army uniforms from the time of the 1956 uprising in Hungary at the Budapest Military Museum – these show that the standard small arm of the Soviets was the AK-47.

As soon as actual fighting broke out the Hungarian rebels utilized whatever weapons they could find and/or capture. The rebellion was quick to improvise and this is noted by the fact that china plates were laid on the streets as a means to trick tank crews into thinking that they were land mines. Commonly captured weapons included Mosin Nagant rifles, which were still the primary weapon of the distrusted Hungarian military, and PPSh-41 submachineguns. The latter were ikely captured from Hungarian forces. Other weapons reportedly used in the uprising included notable small arms such as SKS rifles, DP-28 light machine guns and even American-made BAR rifles, which were actually in use by the Hungarian military in small numbers.

“The role of the AK-47 in Budapest in 1956 in the street fights was marginal, the success was not dependent on it,” said Szoeroes Zoltan, who runs a Hungarian website devoted to the history of the AK-47.

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RIA2 A close up view of an AK-47 with a stamped receiver at the Rock Island Arsenal. Widespread adoption of the AK-47 was slowed in the 1950s due to problems with the earliest stamped receivers.

“It could make adifference theoretically, because the PPSh-41 cannot hit that brick wall that could be hit by AK-47, and those brick walls were very common in Budapest inthose years,” added Zoltan.

Ironically the weapon that was so widely used in revolutions to follow was to be wielded by anti-Communist, anti-Soviet revolutionaries! Period photos show that revolutionaries, including the dapper József Tibor Fejes carrying the AK-47. Fejes,  just 22-years old at the time, would be described as a “hipster” for his bowler hat and dark suit were he alive today – and he fitting earned the moniker “Keménykalapos,” the man in the hat.

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The dapper looking József Tibor Fejes in Budapest with a captured AK-47  (Photo: kalashnikov.hu/)

Author C.J. Chivers, who chronicled the history of the AK-47 in his book The Gun, noted about Fejes carrying an AK-47:

“He did so before Fidel Castro, before Yasser Arafat, before Idi Amin. He was years ahead of the flag of Zimbabwe, which would expropriate the AK-47 as a symbol. He was ahead of Shamil Basayev and Osama bin Laden, who would convert the product of an atheist state into a sign of unsparing jihad. József Tibor Fejes was the first of the world's Kalashnikov-toting characters, a member of a pantheon's inaugural class.”

While Fejes and other leaders carried captured AK-47s, these may have been carried more for symbolic reasons than to contribute any actual effort to the cause. The Soviets greater numbers, better tactics, organization and training won out.

“A few of them were used by local leaders of the rebellion as a status symbol, and of course used as long they had ammo for it, but not so long,” explained Zoltan. “Even the fights were only for few days. Of course that was the first time the AK-47 was used in fight – and on both sides. But this was only symbolic, like a real life test.”

The West may have gotten its first glimpse of the AK-47 but it would be another six years until western military planners were reportedly able to obtain one. The first recorded example of the rifle being captured was when Dutch soldiers surprised an Indonesian Special Forces team in Western New Guinea.

The AK-47 in Popular Culture

The other irony of the AK-47 is that while it is now iconic in movies, TV shows and video games it wasn't until the 1980s that the weapon found its way into western popular culture. The reason is simple enough; there was no official commercial export of AK-47s during the Cold War.

Thus U.S. soldiers may have encountered the AK-47 in Vietnam but the earliest movies about the war didn't feature the weapon. In the 1968 film The Green Berets, which was among the very first movies to chronicle the war, there is not a single AK-47 to be seen.

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AK-47-Vietnam A Vietnam War era AK-47 with milled receiver and wooden pistol grip. The AK-47 proved durable in Vietnam and countless other insurgencies around the world throughout the Cold War (Photo: Author's Collection)

The AK-47 had already received its close-up, just not in any western film. The weapon was first seen in film in the 1955 Soviet film Maksim Perepelitsa, a comedy of all things about a young man who is drafted into the Red Army. The AK-47 was also seen in use in the East German war film Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt (The Adventures of Werner Holt), which was set at the end of the war on the Russian front. Several Soviet soldiers are seen carrying AK-47s, which is an anachronism as it wasn't invented during the movies 1944-45 timeframe.

The first “western” film to feature an AK-47 was in the 1977 Israeli-made Operation Thunderbolt, which told the story of the raid by Israeli commandos at Entebbe Airport in Uganda to free a hijacked aircraft. In the film several Ugandan soldiers as well as a couple of the terrorists are armed with AK-47s. It should be noted that this was also the first of three films/TV movies to be made about the successful rescue mission, and the only one to correctly feature AK-47s, which were certainly carried by the Ugandan Army and which may have been used by at least one terrorist!

The 1978 film The Fury, not a war film but a supernatural thriller starring Kirk Douglas, is likely the first American-made production to feature a Kalashnikov. The AK-47 – or at least Norinco Type 56 Chinese-produced clone of the AK-47 – made its big screen war movie debut in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter. The Type 56 would be used as the generic AK in several other Vietnam War based films including Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now, 1983's Uncommon Valor, and 1986's Platoon, among others.

The AKM, an improved version of the AK-47 – which featured a stamped receiver instead of the milled version –has also been used in a number of movies. It was featured in the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy – the first time a Kalashnikov weapon was in a Bond film – and was used prominently in the 1984 films Red Dawn and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

By the mid-1980s as noted by the above films the AK-47 was part of the American lexicon, where it has remained ever since.

Cover image from Sputniknews.com.


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