Lessons of the AK-47

Larry Kahaner is the author of the just-published AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War. This is his first post for Defense Tech.
In our quest for the latest and most sophisticated weaponry we sometimes tend to overlook a major success in low-tech arms. But there’s a lot we can learn from them especially the AK-47 assault rifle.
LCpl Cheema on the AK-47.JPGThe AK-47 is the world’s most popular military weapon. At last count, there may be as many as 100 million of these uncomplicated but deadly rifles in use. That’s one AK for every 60 people. It is used by about 50 legitimate armies as well as terrorists Osama Bin Laden calls it the terrorist’s most important weapon insurgents, drug cartels, paramilitary groups and guerrillas.
The rifle, first produced in 1947 hence the name AK-47 for Automatic Kalashnikov 1947 has undergone very few changes since it was first produced by Soviet soldier Mikhail Kalashnikov. The furniture has been replaced with low weight plastics, and a few other mods here and there depending upon which of the 19 countries produced it, but it is essentially the same weapon it was 60 years ago.
What accounts for its success? Quite simply: it works. Despite its low price (as little as $10 and as much as $300) and often shoddy workmanship, this rifle rarely jams, is almost indestructible, and is easy to fire with no training. Overnight, it can transform paramilitary forces, thugs and street gangs into formidable armies.
It is not very accurate but can fire about 700 rounds per minute. Many western military experts consider it a piece of junk, but it’s perfect for poorly-trained soldiers because they can ‘spray and pray.’ And indeed, it is a piece of junk compared to the M-16A2 now used in Iraq or the shorter barreled version M-4. These rifles are well built, accurate and engineered to close tolerances. They are technological things of beauty. The AK, on the other hand has loose tolerances, feels like it will shake apart (but doesn’t) and won’t make any friends at the marksmen club. These loose tolerances are the open secret to the AK’s almost jam-free history. It’s also why you can drag it through mud, leave it buried in the sand and take it out a year later, kick it with your boot, and it will fire like it was cleaned that morning. Again, because of its imprecision, the AK can fire poorly produced ammunition as well as ammo that has been sitting and deteriorating in the jungle or desert.
When the Defense Department offered M-16s to the Iraqi police and army, they refused. They wanted AKs which had to be bought from Jordan (the weapons actually were made in Germany). Indeed, like their brethren in Vietnam, many US soldiers are using AKs in Iraq despite official sanctions against the practice.
As the Pentagon planers ponder what’s next for infantry firearms, they need to think in terms of simple instead of complex and practical instead of sophisticated. There’s no reason why soldiers should be using M-4s that overheat or place condoms over their gun barrels to keep out the desert sands.
The solution has not come for lack of trying. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the Army was developing a new assault rifle known as the XM8 project an outgrowth of the Objective Individual Combat Weapon program, which was to produce a new type of battle rifle. The main goal of the XM8 program was to find a replacement for the M-16 and M4.
However, by late 2005, the XM8 was scrapped partially because of politics; Congress was reluctant to spend billions to outfit soldiers with new rifles while the Iraq war was draining the treasury.
The real problem may be that as the program progressed, military planners kept adding bells and whistles to the rifle system — even including an electronic bullet counter — and it became too complex, heavy and unwieldy. Designers would have done better to simply aim for a new infantry rifle that works as well as the AK-47 and be just as simple.
The AK may not be the best rifle for the US but designers can learn from Kalashnikov’s experience in building the AK-47. He often found himself guided by the words of arms designer Georgy Shpagin, who developed the successful PPSh41 submachine gun: “Complexity is easy; simplicity is difficult.”
Larry Kahaner

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,
    Ah, at last the AK myth debunked. This story could have been writen exactly as is fourty years ago. As the author of the above article say the only virtue of the AK’s, there are now two types the 47 and 74, is that the damn thing works.
    Byron Skinner

  • Moose

    Same reason the M1911 is still so popular. Reliable as all hell, solid, and you’ll know when it hits you. On the other hand, M1911 also shows that you can have all that and still have some precision. Hence, my love of the Mk. 17 SCAR.

  • wacki

    Hrm….. it seems the people at my gun forum do not like this article at all.

  • Tod Glenn

    As long as collateral damage remains a concern for US forces, the AK is not a solution.
    There is a lot to be said for the reliability of the AK, but the real reality is that in modern warfare, the rifle itself is rather insignificant in deciding battle outcomes -= but don’t tell that to an Infantryman.
    The M-16 is now America’s longest serving rifle. Perhaps not as reliable as as the AK, but more accurate. It is better suited to mounting optical sights, lasers and other items that inprove the soldiers ability to deliver effective fire.
    But don’t expect to see any real improvements in the rifle anyway. The technology has reached it’s apex. The next big step in infantry weapons will be with a whole new technology. Consider the OICW/SABR.

    • steve smith

      you must be high to think a grunts rifle doesnt make the difference,

  • Harry Hamlin

    …..and what was true for my unit in Vietnam forty years ago remains true. M14’s became priceless as backup SAW’s and penetrators of light cover.
    The first requirement of an infantry weapon is that it function reliably. Any perputed advantage of technical sophistication is pointless when it doesn’t work. The 7.62X39MM cartridge is to the 5.56MM as the 5.56 was to the 7.62 NATO (.308); a seeming devolution in performance that masks a superior utility, while the AK47 is a superb battle weapon for short range infantry use. Lets face it, over a hundred meters is now the province of specialized marksmen or mounted weapons. In practical terms it always has been.
    During World War II the Allied navies and air services discovered that more sophisticated and capable platforms were battle winners, even though the crews were resentful of the required training and increased maintenance. Somehow, this lesson has come to be applied in every area of force application. It doesn’t always work, especially in land warfare. Usually you end up with 20-50% more effectiveness at 20 times the price. The Hummer and the 1/2 ton truck are an excellent example. You can’t make a Hummer an AFV, no matter how hard you try, so go Hi-Lo with AFV’s escorting cheap trucks and jeeps and spend the money saved on improved surveillance. Similarly, you can’t make Joe Jarhead a killer at 100% yards in the heat of battle. Give him a weapon that shoots a decent AP ALL THE TIME at the 30-40 meter range of urban combat. As for mounting accessories, an American variant of the AK47 can have any damn mounting system we want. Just don’t get too fancy….

  • katsesama

    The ak is indeed a piece of reliable simplicity,
    simplicity in operation is indeed a good thing in
    any mechanism.however,simplicity without effectiveness does not a war win.The ak was created with the express purpose of skirmish warfare in mind,a function for which it is eminantly qualified.it is an outgrowth of the way the soviets fought close combat in ww2,emphasis on CLOSE combat.300 meters or less.Effective within that envelope in the hands of poorly trained conscripts and wahabist insergants, assuming their indexing the antiquated open,nagant inspired sights.
    in an age where you can mount an electro-optic
    on a finely tuned AR platform chambered in 6.5
    grendel or 7.62 nato/300 winmag.sweetspotted to
    strike at 600 meters and beyond,that simple rifle
    and the close quarters,soviet era skirmish warfare
    doctrine suddenly goes straight out the window,as
    our friends the jihadis ar finding out,much to
    their chagrin.
    Let the badguys have the ak’s and we,ll keep
    the refined product we have now.Johnny Jihad can
    go on rattling away with said simple rifle,using
    the very ineffective technique of beirut offhand
    (i,e,fireing overhead,around corner,blindly).
    hopeing that allah will direct the bullets into
    the infidels body(which will be protected by a
    sapi plate,sorry hasan).While he’s doing allahs
    will the marine with the M-16a4 with ACOG reflex
    sight loaded with MK 262/77grain sierra matchking
    ammo will take calm,deliberate aim,hold breath and squeeze.The result will be one martyr sent to his
    predestined reward with an empty kalashnikov next
    to his now inert body and one marine,still living
    with 29 more chances to help mr martyrs friends
    reach paradise.
    This is the ultimate lesson of the simplicity
    to be found in the AK and its effectiveness.

    • steve smith

      the acog is not a reflex sight dip ****

    • Brandon

      We got our ass kicked in vietnam by ak’s

      • Harry
    • Harry
    • eastern star

      yes, you are right. but for a mass infantry fight, it is different story. think about hundred thousands of infantry attack in a front. which rifle would be more effective?

  • Noah (the other one)

    … good for fragging treads and 90 day wonders, too.

  • Steven Burda, MBA

    Interesting read!
    Have you fired from AK47 before?
    Steven Burda, MBA

  • ninnano

    Not all weapon manufacturers produce low quality AK-47s. I’ve shot myself a model that was deadly accurate upto ca. 600 meters range. It costed some 1000 euros and worked always like a charm.
    I wetted it, froze it at -40 celsius degrees, hit it repeatedly to trees and ground, shot enough with it to make the barrel glow red hot (kids, that is HOT!), took it apart, cleaned, reassembled, … I had only one failure to operate in weeks of 24/7 usage and that was because the box was literally full of ice (the ammo couldn’t move anymore, I had to remove the ice).
    It is a very pleasant weapon to shoot with. It practically has no back kick for shooter and for aimer it’s pleasant push to back/up and practically returns automatically to the same spot. At 700m/s those 7.62s make pretty holes to stuff and they work through light leaves and rain – unlike the faster smaller caliber stuff.
    AK47 and its derivatives > the rest.

  • James Fahey

    Please remember that the AK-47 is a copy of the (WW2) German Mauser MP-44, which was scaled up for the new round! (also German) Kalsashnikov is just the man who scaled the MP-44 for the new round!!!

    • Enthusiast

      you have not clue what you are talking about kid

    • root

      That’s completely wrong ! RTFM my friend …

  • R. Ryan

    Nice article, but you need to brush up on your Russian. Avtomat Kalashnikov does NOT mean “automatic Kalashnikov.” Avtomat in Russian means “machine gun.”

  • B Richardson

    The addition of AK-47’s does not transform thugs into armies, it transforms them into thugs with automatic weapons. There is much more to being a soldier than a rifle, much more.
    And the OIC weapon program was never really aimed at creating a replacement rifle for the US military. It was simply an attempt by H&K to sell the US government expensive hardware, for which there was no practical need. Once the OIC (20mm) program was scrapped for being impractical, something any infantryman could have told them years and millions of dollars ago, the XM8 was spun off in an attempt to salvage at least some of the government contract dollars H&K craved.
    The lesson to be learned from the AK-47 and from the MP-44 is that medium power rifle cartridges fit the tactical requirements for an assault rifle. The M-16 needs a calibre change, more than it needs a redesign, although I agree that any design can be made better and you might as well add as many functional improvements as possible while the calibre is being changed. But you can’t base design change on urban myth and sales pitches.

  • Bill McGraw

    I have to aggree with the guys about the caliber. All of that hydrostatic shock hoopla is just that. And don’t believe any of that tumbling nonsense either. M-16’s haven’t allowed the round to tumble since the introduction of the A1 in the early 70’s.
    Sectional desnity is the key to knockdown power and any .30 cal round will hit harder than any .22 cal round. The same holds true for the .45 ACP verses the 9mm Parabellum in handguns. Even the cops gave up on 9mm handguns.
    What we really need is a move back to 7.62×52 (the good old NATO round) in a better platform (bullpup, better recoil buffering, and 30 round magazines). That would give us superior range, knockdown, and accuracy to the old AK. And for up close and personal defence an updated .45 (maybe the HK USP like you see the Delta boys using).

    • Pierre Dupuy

      Just one correction to your comments – the correct NATO designation is 7.62 x 51 (not 7.62 x 52) – aka .308 Winchester.

  • Willis P. Dunlevey

    Posted by: James Fahey at November 3, 2006 07:50 AM”Please remember that the AK-47 is a copy of the (WW2) German Mauser MP-44, which was scaled up for the new round! (also German) Kalsashnikov is just the man who scaled the MP-44 for the new round!!!”
    In correct. The AK-47 was designed to perform the same job as the German MP series but shares little with the MP except overall layout. The function, operation, and design philosopy are compltetely different.
    There are some similarities, but that is common in war/weapons. TO say that the AK-47 and MP series are copies would be similar to saying that the SU-27 is a copy of the F-15.

  • David Honish

    The Israeli’s are no slouches when it comes to knowing what does and what does not work in combat. Maybe that is why they designed their own ‘4th generation Kalishnikov’ in the Galil rifle? Their choice of 5.56mm caliber to use existing ammo supplies was not very inspired. Their current use of a lighter weight version of the Galil with modular barrel lengths available for different missions makes sense in their primarily urban combat environment.
    If it was up to me, I think a matte finish stainless steel Galil chambered in the available off the shelf 7mm-08 Remington would be about perfect. The short action cartridge of a 7mm-08 would be well suited for military use, and be an adequate one shot man stopper that the current 5.56mm is not. It would still retain the mild recoil characteristics that make training large numbers of inexperienced shooters more easy as well. It definitely could reach out and touch someone with greater range and precision than any 7.62X39mm rifle.

  • Benjamin Davis

    The AK is a work of art. Allways goes bang, allways nails the target, allways does the job. Every AK I have ever shot has been about as accurate as I am; not to brag, but I’m a better shot than the average soldier. If you need 800 yard pin-point accuracy use a sniper rifle; the 7.62X39 is perfect for everything closer.

  • kelly tippett

    fFnd the people that designed the Bell and Howell filmo movie cameras and put them together with the Ak-47 people. You’ll have a durable and accurate weapon.



  • Nick

    As I understand it, the AK-47 reflects the overall weapons design philosophy of the USSR/Russian Federation: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The T-34 also was a simple design, uncomplicated, yet reliable and easy to produce and repair. The Red Army saw the Wehrmacht’s sophisticated (for the time) tanks break down and turn into expensive, useless monuments to over-design and over-engineering. Although this design philosophy goes hand-in-hand with a mass conscript army such as the Red Army, I wonder if it will continue as Russia goes to a professional army.
    As for the ability of the AK-47 to function in adverse environments, this is just where the US will fight for the foreseeable future. The deserts of Iraq, Afghanistan, (and Iran?), the jungles of Southeast Asia, are dusty, dirty, wet, humid, and overall rough. Why send US forces to fight there without a weapon that will stand up to the local environment?
    It seems telling that more than a few US forces in Iraq have dropped their M-16s in favor of the AK-47, just as they did in Vietnam. Friends of mine who fought in Vietnam tell me the AK-47 was superior weapon for one simple reason: it was there when you needed it.

  • Dan

    Bring back the M14. Great Desert weapon. Very hard to jam and a good reach out and touch range. It is a little heavier than the AK but with modifications the weight can be reduced.

  • Tony

    I think that the main battle weapon should not be set. It should be flexible, based on location and characteristics of the enemy. For example, over in Iraq the soldiers should be able to use any and every AK they can get their hands on. If they need more, buy some new AK-104’s, outfit each unit, and carry on. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, sell off excess weapons; either back to the occupied country government, gun dealers, or the U.S. to licensed individuals/dealers.
    When a new situation arises (oh, it will) just adapt to the environment.

  • William Cramer

    IMO the ruger mini 30, is the happy medium between the loose Ak and the precise m16.
    The 7.62×39 round is a very clean firing round. I believe this is another aid to the AK.
    The mini 30 uses simple assembly like the AK, but is much tighter and more accurate.
    It has a wood stock, which could be replaced with modern lighter man made products, and needs a flash suppressor.
    My brother has an AK, and I the Mini 30. This is how I can compare them.
    I think we have the technology to make a rifle worthy of the stressers of war, without spending
    billions to remake the wheel.
    The more complicated a weapon, the more it will way, or the more thought it will take to operate it. The Ak is lock, load and fire.
    Anything more may get the soldier killed.
    How about just modifying what is out there rather then trying to design something from scratch.

  • SSG Clark

    My first thought before I read the other comments, but after I read the initial article on the M16 versus the AK47 was pretty close to the first comment posted on here. Use the mini-30 with some minor modifications such as a synthetic stock. The old philosophy of wound one Soldier and take three out of the fight, due to it taking two Soldiers to carry off a wounded one doesn’t work in our present theater. The 7.62X39 is a much better kill round, which is what we need. I haven’t had to shoot a man yet, but I’ve tried out a great many differant calibers on white tailed deer, and from that I can tell you that I’ve shot a white tail a dozen times with a CAR 15, basically the civilian version of the M4 in semi-auto, and shot white tail with the mini 30, once with much better effects. There is of course another option. I believe I saw, years ago, a version of the HBAR in 7.62X39 as well. I have little doubt that the 7.62X39 round is the way to go, and I do know that the mini 30 is an excellent weapon. My opinion is that we definately need to change over to the 7.62X39 and test it in a variety of rifles. I’m fairly certain the mini 30 with minor modifications would fair the best, but I also believe that Soldiers need to train on more than one weapon, and have the right tool for the job. When going out on patrol bring the mini 30. When working a checkpoint a shotgun with support from a much larger crew serve weapon would be best, and in urban warfare a mixture of differant weapons, since situations vary greatly, would be ideal, but as far as the M-16 and the M-9 the beliefs on which they were introduced simply don’t work on today’s battlefield.

  • Demophilus

    Don’t forget that the AK’s durability and simplicity eventually blew back on the Russians. In building the perfect weapon for Third World armies and insurgents, they effectively armed the Chinese, mujahedin and Chechens. The excellence of your weaponry can come back to haunt you.
    As to the XM8, IIRC, it had a problem with the plastic receiver melting in full auto fire. Maybe not a good idea, for general issue to your own troops. Maybe not a bad idea for arming proxies.

  • fmJK-47

    Personally, i don’t care for either the kalashnikov or the M16. The M16 has better long range performance,(that i like), but it’s killing effect after the round has decreased below 2700 fps. leaves to be desired. It is fairly accurate though, i admit. The AK is even less appealing to me. The 7.62 Soviet’s wounding capabilities are exaggerated at best, this combined with the AK’s inaccuracy in full-auto makes it a very short range weapon. It is extremely reliable however.
    M16 Range-600 yrds.
    Ammunition-5.56x45mm NATO
    Kalashnikov AK-47 Range-350 yrds.
    Ammunition- 7.62x39mm Soviet

  • h jony

    i m lebanese
    i sow to many fights since 1975 during the civil war the ak 47 was the best in close combat between building . example if you need to cover your friend in his attempt to shoot rpg whith m16 the 30 rounds get finish quiqly and your friend is in the middel of the street taking bullets from enemies ,the ak 47 is slower in auto firing
    and give to much noise to scare the enemies located in less then 200meters away. in combat between building the m16 it is not good as ak47 especially in citys
    lebanese tiger

  • lebanese tiger

    ear Oldominion
    if you respond to my comment maybe you miss understood me i meant that the AK47 is better than the M16 in street fighting because it is slower in auto firing you could have enough times to shoot when you cross a wide road or covering your friend when his preparing to shoot an RPG7.the m16 it is very fast you could have an empty magazine while you didn’t cross the street yet.
    when i wrote it give to much noise i meant it have a good psychological effect on enemies.but i prefer M16 in mountain or prairie because it have very good impact due to high velocity of it is 5.56 amo.

  • Phil White

    Well having read all the comments I thought I’d throw my two cents worth in.
    I’ve owned both rifles as well as the Springfield M1A1. If things turned to crap and I had a choice of rifles to rely on for protection of myself and family I would choose my AK47. Why? It’s not going to break, stop working or need cleaning every 100 or less rounds. Accuracy is adequate for normal protection needs and the 7.62×39 round has very good penetration unlike my AR15 in M4 configuration. I love my AR15’s and more often than not if I’m going out plinking I’ll take it along and use the Aimpoint optics. My second choice would actually be my Springfield M1A1. Simple? No it’s not but it’s pretty darn reliable and will certainly reach out and touch someone. It’s also very accurate. That’s also why the military has taken them out of mothballs yet again for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Google designated marksman and see what they are shooting most often.
    For me at least in a real world situation I have to put my AR15’s in third place with the AK first then the M1A1 in second place.

  • Enthusiast

    AK-47’s extremely inaccuracy is nothing more than myth.. It’s accurate weapon that can engage targets at hundreds of meters. Just get quality produced AK and ammunition, not just a some cheap clone with a poor ammo.

    • crackedlenses

      Translation: We should all just replace our small arms and planes with Russian ones because just about everything we use right now is junk.

  • Wildcard

    One of the finest AK47′ out there is actually Swiss. Sig 550/551/552. Its Modern, highly accurate and just as reliable as the original… not as cheap though.

    Not wanting to advertise particular companies but there are a host of M16/M4 type rifles that utilise a piston system(s) that resolve the issues surrounding the weapons, and even come in 6.5 Grendel/6.8 SPC. Its not a case of the tech not being available.

  • Chris

    I guess in my 4 Army deployments I was in the wrong firefights. When the enemy gets shot – he goes down. He dies. These s*** stories that people keep repeating about how the 5.56mm round is worhtless is irritating to say the least. In Somalia during the Black Hawk Down debacle, yes, the rounds didn’t do well. That was a different round than is fired now. Also, the Somali’s were all amped up on drugs enabling them to not feel pain. If the news has taught us anything it is that crackheads have the strength of 10 men and no bullet is going to deter them. Accept the ever faithful .50 Cal. NO ONE WEAPON WILL EVER BE THE ANSWER. As a grunt with almost 3 years in Iraq and 10 months in Afghanistan, I have ZERO complaints about the M16/M4 series or the 5.56mm round. Sidenote, my 10th Mountain unit was a group that got to field test the XM8. It was the biggest piece of s*** I have ever laid m hands on.

  • You could not pay me money to take an AK into battle over an M4. No f*&!ing way.

  • Yorgos

    Agreed, Chris. This is the real and primary reason. You should know I agree with your choice of weapons. I have an aquaintance who picked off an enemy in vietnam at 800 yards with an M14, this was with iron sights no less, a helluva shot. Thank you for letting us know about the different ammo than that from the Blackhawk Down situation. I did not know that.
    God bless you,and thank you for your service!

  • M-14 ,.308

    ”all that is usefull is simple,that which is complcated is not usefull”
    Mikhail Kalashnikof

  • rudy
  • rudy
  • rudy