Comrade Kalashnikov and his ubiquitous, eponymous invention

by Joe Harlan on 11/11/2009 · 13 comments

As I watched Al Jazeera this morning, I saw that Mikhail Kalashnikov turned 90 yesterday.

I thought this was as good a time as any to reflect on the weapon that bears his name and is used by both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of course the Central Asian former SSRs. And, interestingly, by the insurgencies that are troubling the region.

That it is used by both sides in the current conflict is something to remark on. It wasn’t always the weapon carried by the rural Pashtun warriors; indeed, the British had to contend with Afghans using (rather effectively) hand-made jezails and later, having their own Lee-Enfield rifles used against them — which were still being handed out to Pashtun militias in the early 1970s before the CIA and ISI could lay their hands on some spare AK-47s.

The most common assault rifle on earth, being used by children in Africa and old men in Paktia, is the end result of an arms glut never before witnessed in history. The armies of some two to three dozen countries use Kalashnikovs or an unlicensed copy. Armed non state actors on every continent except Antarctica have used it. The production of these weapons is estimated at roughly 100 million units, give or take, and is being copied — by hand in some places, or by industrial manufacturers in others.

When most people talk about the Cold War being responsible for the conflict in Afghanistan, they’re usually referring to the proxy war fought against the Soviets by Afghans and funded by the CIA, ISI, and Saudis. What usually is ignored are the millions of small arms either captured from Soviet forces or provided by the Chinese and Pakistanis. What makes this important is that for most entities to carry out what we’ll call “industrial” warfare, they require industrial arms production. After WWII, unprecedented levels of production and also proliferation by the two Cold War superpowers changed that; major armored vehicles, artillery, and nearly ubiquitous small arms made their way into the dusty forgotten corners of the world. By allowing that, we have given medieval societies the modern means to make war.

I don’t blame General Kalashnikov for the countless (really, people have tried) deaths caused by AK-47s. Indeed, it’s obvious to say that if it wasn’t his rifle it would have been another. In that vein, there may have been a Taliban without cheap and easily obtainable modern arms, leaving them to fight with rusty bolt action rifles in small numbers against the next village, instead of attacking in company-sized formations against patrols and smaller FOBs.

But if that had been the case, would anyone have cared?

A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.

-Rudyard Kipling

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 5 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Historian by training and Analyst/Cultural Advisor by trade, Joe is an American working for ISAF mostly in and around Kabul. As an insider at the U.S. Department of Defense for almost the past decade, he has ample experience when it comes to the functions and dysfunctions of the U.S. Government and its adventures in the dusty corners of the world -- especially the ones where Persian is spoken. Armed with an MA from a modest state school, a working knowledge of Dari, and about a quarter of the country under his heels, Joe imagines he can speak intelligently about what might be right and wrong with the Western presence in Afghanistan in general and U.S. DoD policy in particular. An avid runner, triathlete, skier, mountaineer and climber, Joe thinks Afghanistan would be great if it weren't for all the land mines and men with Kalashnikovs.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Dafydd November 11, 2009 at 9:17 am

and in his spare time he’s a POET!

Sailani November 11, 2009 at 9:19 am

Quality German design and Soviet mass production …

Prithvi November 11, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Kalashnikov’s motives for making the weapon were pretty compelling. He was a young soldier wounded during the Battle of Bryansk in 1941, defending his countries against the Nazis. He wanted to build a small arm that would give riflemen a more effective rate of fire, since the average Red Army man was issued the all but useless Mosin Nagant. So out of his mouth, the urge to defend his country wasn’t a useless platitude.

Unfortunately, the USSR was about the worst place in the world to have a noble aim.

Pol-Mil FSO November 11, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I think the actual production figure for AKs and clones is closer to 30 million units. The figure of 100 million is an example of what I like to call a “biblical figure,” one that someone pulled out of their rear end and is continually repeated by others because of laziness. The death figure for the Salvadoran Civil War – 75,000 – is another example (the more realistic number is closer to 35,000).

Whatever the actual production number, the AK is ubiquitous because of its unsurpassed reliability. It would be the perfect battle rifle if not for its atrocious ergonomics and mediocre caliber.

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 11, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Pol-Mil FSO I would like to beleive your words not because you proved that your estimation is coming from somewhere else but a rear end, but because it suggests there are less arms out there to kill people.

Joe Harlan November 11, 2009 at 10:59 pm

AK is ubiquitous because of its unsurpassed reliability

And because of its cheap cost compared to American and German weapons. And because of the willingness of producing countries, especially the Chinese, to proliferate it. And because after the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago, there were lots of spares to go around. And…well, not just because of its reliability. Single factors are usually not the answer.

I have official production counts for AR-15/M-16 type weapons. Kalashnikovs and derivatives are estimated to be higher, by both the Russians themselves as well as western observers. I don’t think I can believe a thirty million unit estimate. Do you have a source?

Alex Visotzky November 13, 2009 at 1:23 am

Here’s a fun fact:

In the early 1990s, after the Soviets started selling off their weapons stockpile and bargain-basement rates, one could buy a Kalashnikov in Sierra Leone for about $10. That turned out well.

Hooray for the arms race!

oldschool boy November 13, 2009 at 5:06 pm

I wonder what people refer to when they say AK-47. I have never seen one (may be in a school museum), and as I understand it is very first version of the famous automatic rifle. There have been several modification of AK since then, the ones I have trained with and used are AKM, and AK-74 and their modifications. Yes, AK-47 has a medieval 7.62 caliber, so does AKM, but AK-74 that has been used by the Soviet and post-soviet forces since 1974 has more modern 5.45 caliber, close to the NATO standard one. Since the Soviet-Afghan war started in 1979, the weapons captured by modjaheddins from the Soviet Army (or bought) could only be AKM (which was still used by some paratroopers) or AK-74. The weapon in mass production in Asian and African countries could be AK-47, its license was sold to China and then from China spread to other countries.
Advantages of Kalashnikov weapons is not their cost. I can confirm that it is a very reliable weapon, you can shove it in mud or sand or let it stay in dump for several days, it will still work

Tosk59 November 13, 2009 at 9:44 pm

The “original’, real” manufacturer of the AK-47 is going bankrupt, done in by cheaper knock offs…. See:,1518,652043,00.html

Pol-Mil FSO November 13, 2009 at 9:56 pm


“The Gun Digest Book of the AK & SKS” by Patrick Sweeney (published 2008) takes a look of the 100 million figure on pages 47-48 and argues that the math does not compute. Sweeney notes that if there were ten factories making 250 AKs each day for five days a week it would take 160 years to make 100 million rifles. He also looks at the U.S. production of M1 carbines during World War – 6.5 million – and calculates that even at this wartime production rate it would take 60 years to produce 100 million AK rifles. Sweeney goes on to state that the volume production of the AK occurred from 1947 to 1989, a total of 42 years. Sweeney does not include AK-74 rifles in his calculations but the AK-74 had a much shorter production run.

The 12th Edition of “Small Arms of the World” by Edward Clinton Edzell (published in 1983) gives an estimated production figure for the AK-47/AKM of 30-50 million. My figure of 30 million is one that I have to confess that I pulled out of my rear end. I estimated a production of 10 million for Russian military use, 10 million for Chinese military use, 5 million made by other producers (primarily Eastern Europe and North Korea), and 5 million specifically manufactured for the export market. The Chinese factor is what makes these figures no more than a wild-ass guess. I have not seen any figures for total AK production by China and I suspect that they do not exist outside of Chinese military channels. Nor have I seen any figure for Chinese production of SKS rifles, a near contemporary of the AK and an important second-line/militia weapon in Communist countries, including China. The only reference that I have seen about Chinese SKS rifles is mention of significant design difference that is found in SKS rifles with a serial number below 9 million compared to SKS rifles with a serial number above 9 million. (I’m not sure where the numbering started but it does imply a large production run of SKS rifles by China.)

Joe Harlan November 14, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Thanks for the sources, Pol-Mil FSO. The second is quite dated, although I think I have a copy lying around back in the States so I’ll take a look in a few months. 🙂

However, I could easily imagine more than ten factories making Kalashnikovs, especially from China (the primary export model in the world market is the “Type 56”, still being made today, 50 years after the first run). I could also imagine that with modern production techniques and machinery more than 250 weapons being produced per factory per day. And, as you said, the Chinese numbers are completely unavailable to us.

Incidentally, can you email me if you’re an FSO in Kabul?

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 14, 2009 at 11:50 pm

“day for five days a week” – did he also give days offs for Thanksgiving and Christmas, just curious.

oldschool boy November 17, 2009 at 10:33 pm

USSR had about 5million personnel army at any time,most of them serving for 2-3 years. Let us say from about half to two thirds used AKs, which were usually disposed off. During my service I had 4 or 5 personnal AKs, one after another, all brand new. Let’s assume most soldiers used one AK for the whole duration of their service. It gives us roughly 2.5-3 million rifles every 2 years being used, and, I believe, about 10 million rifles were stored for reserves. So only in 20 years period it estimates to at least 30-40 million rifles used and/or in stocks. And it is only in USSR

Previous post:

Next post: