AK-47

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It’s probably the most recognised firearm in the world. It is used in 115 countries and manufactured in 33 countries. Even after nearly seven decades it remains the most popular and widely used assault rifle in the world. It is simple to maintain, reliable under harsh conditions, costs little to produce and, above all, is easy to use.

The weapon in question is, of course, the Avtomat Kalashnikova - better known as the AK-47 or just AK.

The AK-47 has seen service with armed forces as well as irregular forces worldwide, and was the basis for developing many other types of individual and crew-served firearms. Of the estimated 500 million firearms worldwide, approximately 100 million belong to the Kalashnikov family, three-quarters of which are AK-47s.


Origins and Development

During World War II, the Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle used by German forces made a deep impression on their Soviet counterparts.

The select-fire rifle was chambered for a new intermediate cartridge, the 7.92×33mm Kurz, and combined the firepower of a submachine gun with the range and accuracy of a rifle.

On 15 July 1943, an earlier model of the Sturmgewehr was demonstrated before the People’s Commissariat of Arms of the USSR. The Soviets were impressed with the weapon and immediately set about developing an intermediate caliber automatic rifle of their own, to replace the PPSh-41 submachine guns and outdated Mosin–Nagant bolt-action rifles that armed most of the Soviet Army.

The calibre decided upon was the new 7.62x39mm cartridge. Naturally they would have to design a new rifle for the new cartridge. One of those that submitted a design for a new submachine gun was tank sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Born in 1919 Kalashnikov was attracted to all kinds of machinery from an early age. After leaving school he found a job as a mechanic at a tractor factory in Kurya.

In 1939 Kalashnikov was conscripted into the Red Army. Because of his small size and his engineering skills he was assigned as a tank mechanic. Later he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and became a tank commander.

He served on the T-34s of the 24th Tank Regiment, 108th Tank Division station in Stryi. In October 1941 he was wounded during the Battle of Bryansk and spent six months recovering in hospital.

It was while in hospital that he heard fellow soldiers complaining about the Soviet rifles. This is when he came up with the idea of making a new rifle.

His first submachine gun design was not accepted, but his talent as a designer was noted. From 1942 onwards Kalashnikov was assigned to  the Central Scientific-developmental Firing Range for Rifle Firearms of the Chief Artillery Directorate of the Red Army.

In 1944 he designed a new gas-operated carbine for the new 7.62x39mm cartridge. His design lost out to the new Simonov carbine which would eventually be adopted as the SKS.

In 1946 a competition was held to design the best assault rifle. Although Kalashnikov was competing against more experienced designers such as Vasily Degtyaryob and Georgy Shpagin, his design won.

His winning entry was called the Mikhtim and it became the blueprint for a family of prototype rifles that culminated in 1947 when he designed the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 rifle or AK-47.

In 1949 the AK-47 became the standard issue assault rifle of the Soviet Army and was used by the majority of the member states of the Warsaw Pact.


Design

The AK-47 was designed to be a simple, reliable automatic rifle that could be manufactured quickly and cheaply, using mass production methods that were state of the art in the Soviet Union during the late 1940s.

The AK-47 uses a long stroke gas system that is generally associated with great reliability in adverse conditions. The large gas piston, generous clearances between moving parts, and tapered cartridge case design allow the gun to endure large amounts of foreign matter and fouling without failing to cycle.


Operating Mechanism

To fire, the operator inserts a loaded magazine, pulls back and releases the charging handle, and then pulls the trigger. In semi-automatic, the firearm fires only once, requiring the trigger to be released and depressed again for the next shot.

In full-automatic, the rifle continues to fire automatically cycling fresh rounds into the chamber, until the magazine is exhausted or pressure is released from the trigger.

After ignition of the cartridge primer and propellant, rapidly expanding propellant gases are diverted into the gas cylinder above the barrel through a vent near the muzzle.

The build-up of gases inside the gas cylinder drives the long-stroke piston and bolt carrier rearward and a cam guide machined into the underside of the bolt carrier along with an ejector spur on the bolt carrier rail guide, rotates the bolt approximately 35° and unlocks it from the barrel extension via a camming pin on the bolt.

The moving assembly has about 5.5 mm of free travel, which creates a delay between the initial recoil impulse of the piston and the bolt unlocking sequence, allowing gas pressures to drop to a safe level before the seal between the chamber and the bolt is broken.

The AK-47 does not have a gas valve; excess gases are ventilated through a series of radial ports in the gas cylinder. The Kalashnikov operating system offers no primary extraction upon bolt rotation, but uses an extractor claw to eject the spent cartridge case.

AK-47

Fire Selector

The fire selector is a large lever located on the right side of the rifle, it acts as a dust-cover and prevents the charging handle from being pulled fully to the rear when it is on safe. It is operated by the shooter’s right fore-fingers and has three settings: safe (up), full-auto (center), and semi-auto (down). The reason for this is that under stress a soldier will push the selector lever down with considerable force bypassing the full-auto stage and setting the rifle to semi-auto. To set the AK-47 to full-auto requires the deliberate action of centering the selector lever.

To operate the fire selector lever, right handed shooters have to briefly remove their right hand from the pistol grip, which is ergonomically sub-optimal. Some AK-type rifles also have a more traditional selector lever on the left side of the receiver just above the pistol grip.

This lever is operated by the shooter’s right thumb and has three settings: safe (forward), full-auto (center), and semi-auto (backward).


Magazines

The standard magazine capacity is 30 rounds. There are also 10, 20, and 40-round box magazines, as well as 75-round drum magazines.

The AK-47’s standard 30-round magazines have a pronounced curve that allows them to smoothly feed ammunition into the chamber. Their heavy steel construction combined with “feed-lips” (the surfaces at the top of the magazine that control the angle at which the cartridge enters the chamber) machined from a single steel billet makes them highly resistant to damage. These magazines are so strong that “Soldiers have been known to use their mags as hammers, and even bottle openers”.

This contributes to the AK-47 magazine being more reliable, but makes it heavier than U.S. and NATO magazines.


Accessories

All current model AKM rifles can mount under-barrel 40 mm grenade launchers such as the GP-25 and its variants, which can fire up to 20 rounds per minute and have an effective range of up to 400 metres.[62] The main grenade is the VOG-25 (VOG-25M) fragmentation grenade which has a 6 m (9 m) lethality radius. The VOG-25P/VOG-25PM (“jumping”) variant explodes 0.5–1 metre above the ground.

The AK-47 can also mount a (rarely used) cup-type grenade launcher, the Kalashnikov grenade launcher that fires standard RGD-5 Soviet hand-grenades. The maximum effective range is approximately 150 meters. This launcher can also be used to launch tear-gas and riot control grenades.

All current AKs (100 series) and some older models, have side rails for mounting a variety of scopes and sighting devices, such as the PSO-1 Optical Sniper Sight. The side rails allow for the removal and remounting of optical accessories without interfering with the zeroing of the optic. However, the 100 series side folding stocks cannot be folded with the optics mounted.

AK-47

AKM

Further Development

A redesigned version designated the AKM (M for “modernized” or “upgraded”; in Russian: Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy was introduced in 1959. This new model used a stamped sheet metal receiver and featured a slanted muzzle brake on the end of the barrel to compensate for muzzle rise under recoil. In addition, a hammer retarder was added to prevent the weapon from firing out of battery (without the bolt being fully closed), during rapid or automatic fire.

This is also sometimes referred to as a “cyclic rate reducer”, or simply “rate reducer”, as it also has the effect of reducing the number of rounds fired per minute during automatic fire. It was also roughly one-third lighter than the previous mode.


Replacement

In 1974, the Soviets began replacing their AK-47 and AKM rifles with a newer design, the AK-74, which uses 5.45×39mm ammunition. This new rifle and cartridge had only started to be manufactured in Eastern European nations when the Soviet Union collapsed, drastically slowing production of the AK-74 and other weapons of the former Soviet bloc.


Influence

Throughout the world, the AK and its variants are commonly used by governments, revolutionaries, terrorists, criminals, and civilians alike. In some countries, such as Somalia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Congo and Tanzania, the prices for Black Market AKs are between $30 and $125 per weapon and prices have fallen in the last few decades due to mass counterfeiting.

There are places around the world where AK type weapons can be purchased on the Black Market “for as little as $6, or traded for a chicken or a sack of grain”.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, as well as United States and other NATO nations supplied arms and technical knowledge to numerous countries and rebel forces around the world. During this time the Western countries used relatively expensive automatic rifles, such as the FN FAL, the HK G3, the M14, and the M16. In contrast, the Russians and Chinese used the AK-47; its low production cost and ease of manufacture allow them to make AKs in vast numbers.

In the pro-communist states, the AK-47 became a symbol of third-world revolution. During the 1980s, the Soviet Union became the principal arms dealer to countries embargoed by Western nations, including Middle Eastern nations such as Iran, Libya, and Syria, which welcomed Soviet Union backing against Israel.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, AK-47s were sold both openly and on the black market to any group with cash, including drug cartels and dictatorial states, and more recently they have been seen in the hands of Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq, and FARC, Ejército de Liberación Nacional guerrillas in Colombia.

In Mexico, the AK-47 is known as “Cuerno de Chivo” (literally “Goat’s Horn”) because of its curved magazine design. It is one of the weapons of choice of Mexican drug cartels. It is sometimes mentioned in Mexican folk music lyrics.

Mikhail Kalashnikov would go on to become a Lieutenant General in the Red Army. He died on 23 December 2013 at the age of 94.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: The AK-47 has a straight muzzle while the AKM has a muzzle brake.

THE DESIGNER: A young Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man that designed the AK-47.

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