Osama bin Laden always kept one within arm’s reach. Its silhouette can be seen crossed with a hoe on the national flag of Mozambique. Chilean leftist President Salvador Allende died in the famous 1973 coup holding one — a gift from Cuban ally Fidel Castro. Its distinctive image has been emblazoned across T-shirts and vodka bottles around the world.
On Monday, Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man who designed and lent his name to the AK-47, the cheap, durable, easy-to-use assault rifle that since its introduction in the years after World War II has become more popular around the world than all its rivals combined, died in a hospital in Izhevsk, the capital of Udmurtia republic in Russia. He was 94.
Sixty years after Gen. Kalashnikov designed the AK-47 — “Avtomat Kalashnikova” — it is a weapon favored by terrorists, mercenaries, child soldiers and professional warriors alike. Dozens of countries use it in their national militaries.
“If you are going to have a gun, it’s a great gun,” said Olga Oliker, associate director of the international security and defense policy center at the Rand Corp. in Washington. “If you’re going to fight a war or if you’re going to fight an insurgency, it is lightweight, it is easy to maintain.”
The AK-47 was licensed by the Soviet Union to many of its allies around the world. But a lot of unlicensed manufacturing of the weapon — knockoffs — also flooded the global market.
According to some estimates, 100 million AK-47s are spread worldwide. But the number could be much higher.
“When I first met General Mikhail Kalashnikov in Russia he called it a ‘golem’ after the animated imp of Yiddish legend — it was a gun, he admitted, that had left the orbit of its creators and become a force in itself,” Michael Hodges writes in his book “AK-47: The Story of a Gun.”
Gen. Kalashnikov, who had the honorary rank of the military, was often asked how he slept at night knowing that he had created an assault rifle responsible for countless deaths.
“I sleep well. It’s the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence,” Gen. Kalashnikov said in 2007, according to The Associated Press.
His defense of his invention wavered slightly in an interview with a Russian online publication in 2009 when he acknowledged being sad that his AK-47 had become the weapon of choice for terrorists.
But Gen. Kalashnikov insisted he had developed the weapon for his country.
“His argument is [that] he developed that weapon for his country, and how others chose to use it is how others chose to use it,” said Ms. Oliker. “Can you kill an awful lot of people with an AK-47? Yes, you absolutely can. Is Mikhail Kalashnikov responsible for it? I guess that depends on your philosophy of things.”
The AK-47 owes its popularity to the fact that it is lightweight and virtually indestructible. It works well in the high humidity of jungles and the sandy terrain of beaches. It is said that you can bury an AK-47 in the sand, dig it out after 10 years and it still works just fine.
In Vietnam, the Viet Cong used AK-47s in wet and grimy conditions that sometimes caused the American M16s to jam.
“During the Vietnam War, American soldiers would throw away their M-16s to grab AK-47s and bullets for it from dead Vietnamese soldiers,” Gen. Kalashnikov said in July 2007 at a ceremony marking the AK-47’s 60th anniversary.
At a Kremlin ceremony on Gen. Kalashnikov’s 90th birthday, then-President Dmitry Medvedev bestowed upon him the highest state honor — the Hero of Russia gold star medal — and lauded him for creating “the national brand every Russian is proud of.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once hailed the AK-47 as “a symbol of the creative genius of our people,” on Monday expressed his deep condolences on the designer’s death.
Weapons specialists acknowledge that the AK-47 revolutionized warfare.
“It revolutionized warfare in the sense that insurgents and street armies had access to a reliable weapon that required very little in the way of maintenance and had tremendous destructive power,” said Ms. Oliker. “Has it had an impact? Absolutely.”
The gun’s light weight — about 8 pounds — makes it easy for muscled gunmen and child soldiers alike to wield.
“Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dim-witted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields,” journalist C.J. Chivers writes in “The Gun,” his 2010 book about the AK-47.
“For the purpose for which it was designed — as a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or undue complications — this was an eminently well-conceived tool,” Mr. Chivers adds.
The AK-47 has been used in conflicts across the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“You would be hard-pressed to find an insurgent group that doesn’t use AK-47s,” Ms. Oliker said.
But Gen. Kalashnikov never became rich off royalties because his invention was never patented.
Gen. Kalashnikov was born into a peasant family on Nov. 10, 1919, in Kurya, a village in south-central Russia. He was one of 18 children.
His determination to design superior firepower for the Soviet Union was crystallized after a shell hit his tank in a battle against Nazi forces in 1941. In a hospital, frustrated by the fact that Soviet weaponry was no match for the advanced guns used by the Nazis, he worked on designs for better rifles.
“Blame the Nazi Germans for making me become a gun designer,” said Gen. Kalashnikov, according to The Associated Press. “I always wanted to construct agricultural machinery.”