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Everything you want to know about the legendary AK-47

The AK-47 is perhaps the most widespread firearm in the world. Carried by American enemies and allies alike since 1947, it is the standard infantry weapon for 106 countries. There are an estimated 100 million AK-47s of a number of variations round the world.

It’s a popular weapon among firearms enthusiasts, professional soldiers and terrorists alike. In the United States, it has a reputation as the “bad guy” weapon, given its history and usage among so many former enemies.

So it’s natural that readers have a lot of questions about it.

1. What is ‘AK-47’ short for?

Its Russian name is Avtomat Kalashnikova — also known simply as the Kalashnikov. It was named for its inventor, Senior Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov. He was supposedly a wounded T-34 tank commander in the Red Army during World War II. According to legend, he admired the weapons made by the Nazis.

After five years of engineering, the former agricultural engineer made his famous weapon. It was based on a number of other designs floating around at the time, mostly Germany’s Sturmgewehr-44. Called StG-44 for short, the Sturmgewehr was the first real mid-range infantry rifle. It didn’t shoot a heavy round but could still lay down heavy fire. The AK-47 was designed to do the same.

But the true brilliance of Kalashnikov’s invention was in its simplicity. It was designed for all-around ease of use: easy to repair, easy to unjam (if it ever does), easy to maintain. If a round is chambered in an AK-47, chances are good that weapon is going to fire.

His creation was so simple and dependable that the Soviet Union began exporting the weapon en masse. The country made so much money from exporting the weapon that Kalashnikov received special treatment in the USSR and later Russia for the rest of his life.

2. Are AK-47 guns illegal?

The legality of the AK-47 depends on what country you’re reading this in. In many countries, it’s not only legal to own an AK model firearm, it’s necessary and/or celebrated.

AK-47 model weapons are also dirt cheap in many places around the world — but the further away you are from the production centers, the more expensive it can be.

According to a study on transnational crime in the developing world, the cost of a black market AK-47 can run as little as $150 in Pakistan to $3,600 on the Dark Web for shipment to the United States.

The price of an AK family firearm in Africa is an exception to that general rule. It’s usually much cheaper in many African countries because the demand is so high that markets are usually flooded.

3. How many bullets can an AK-47 fire in a minute?

The AK-47 can fire 600 rounds per minute in a fully automatic setting.

4. Can I legally buy an AK-47 in the United States?

As for American wannabe AK owners, it also depends on what state you live in. In general, however, a true AK-47 has a fully automatic setting, which is illegal in the United States. Models with semi-automatic settings are available and legal in the US. Manufacturers cannot make or import fully automatic weapons for the civilian market.

But you can still legally buy a fully automatic AK-47. Because this is America.

Any automatic weapon fully registered before May 1986, with the passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act, can be purchased or sold. This means there is a market of an estimated 175,000 legal automatic weapons in the United States. The limited legal supply also means that one of these rifles can be wildly expensive — not to mention the stiff Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives oversight and a $200 excise tax.

But if you can afford $10,000 for a legally automatic AK-47, $200 is likely not going to bother you.

5. How deadly is the AK-47?

The AK-47 is the deadliest weapon ever built, on the whole. Its kill count even tops nuclear weapons in sheer numbers. But the first AK-47s were very heavy and weren’t really built for aiming. Kalashnikov wanted to develop a compact weapon that still delivered firepower within 300 meters that could bring a blaze of bullets (with ammunition light enough that soldiers could carry a lot of it).

A real 1947 Kalashnikov is surprisingly difficult to fire for a standard infantry weapon, but it was still very easily produced and easily used. Today’s AKs are actually AKMs (modernized) and variations on the AKM. Everyone will still refer to it as an AK-47 or simply “AK” — because it sounds cool.

The weapon uses a 7.62 mm, high-velocity round that can “destroy whole areas of a body,” according to New York City trauma surgeons. They shatter bones, tear through organs and liquefy other materials as the round tumbles through the body — often in ways that cannot be repaired.

6. Does the US military use AK-47s?

When the M16 rifle was first introduced in the Vietnam War, it had a number of issues. There were so many problems that American troops were killed in combat simply because they couldn’t shoot back.

Even after the kinks were worked out, a dirty M16 was (and is) much less likely to operate than a dirty AK-47. So US troops were known to pick up AKs from their fallen enemies and keep them handy . just in case.

When the AK-47 was first introduced, it was such a great weapon that the Red Army actually hid it from the world. The US didn’t really know about its existence until the mid-1950s. Not that the American military would buy its standard-issue rifle from its main geopolitical foe and potential World War III adversary anyway.

These days, the US does not field AK-47s, but some members of its military are trained to use them. Special operations forces from all branches might have to pick up an enemy AK-47 at some point because of the nature of their work — sometimes help isn’t coming.

7. Why do terrorists use AK-47s?

The rifle was designed to be carried, maintained and fired by anyone in the area who happened to need its services. And if you need a weapon like the AK-47, you need to be able to use it fast, whether you’re a professional soldier or a poorly trained conscript.

The worldwide availability and durability of the AK-47 also makes it an attractive weapon for terrorists, militias and other illegal paramilitary organizations. Whether they’re trying to take over a military base in frozen tundra or overthrowing a government in Sub-Saharan Africa, the AK-47 works really well in every environment, is always available (usually at a steep discount) and will still work even if it falls into water, mud, sand or some other muck.

The average lifespan of a terrorist in a gunfight isn’t very long, so that rifle is likely going to hit the ground, and someone is going to need it to work when they pick it up. The terrorist group is definitely going to need a cheap replacement.

There are an estimated 100 million AK-47s of many variations in use around the world by gun enthusiasts, professional soldiers, and terrorists alike.

How the AK-47 earned its (controversial) reputation

The AK-47 has seen action in numerous communist uprisings over the last six decades. It has forever changed the rules of modern warfare as it provides reliable firepower even to the least fortunate of fighting men – the untrained and unskilled who, more often than not, have none of the prerequisite military knowledge to win any kind of armed conflict.

If there’s one word in the previous paragraph that AK-47 pundits swear by, that word is “reliable”. A serious classic, the AK-47 is known as one of the world’s most reliable firearm. In fact, because of its legendary reliability, it has become so popular that it’s being produced in well over a hundred different countries.

Estimates put the total number of AK-47s manufactured since its year of release at over 200 million units worldwide. No other firearms in history have been produced with such staggering figures.

Doing an online search on its reliability returns thousands of independent tests done by gun enthusiasts, manufacturers and people in the military and law enforcement.

Sure, there will always be non-believers, people who find fault in everything (and there’s no problem with that – they’re the reason air bags are a thing, in a manner of speaking) – and some tend to subject their AK-47 to unnecessary abuse to prove that it too, like its major rival the M16, has flaws.

But by and large, the AK-47’s reputation for reliability is unquestionable, and will remain so for an indeterminate amount of time… or until rail gun technology is perfected to the point that it could dethrone gun powder-driven hand-held weapons as the human species’ best tool for self defense and pacification. But I digress.

I’m not here to talk about the AK-47’s reliability. I’m here to talk about how, even with its creator’s good intentions, it has become a symbol of revolutions, insurgencies and terrorism.

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The AK-47s story

Very few people (save for historians and gun collectors) find the story behind the creation of the AK-47 interesting.

The father of this iconic rifle, the late Mikhail Kalashnikov, was a Soviet military man-turned-weapons designer. Born in 1919 and raised into peasantry in Siberia, Kalashnikov started his career as a lowly railroad clerk.

He joined the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic’s Krasnaya Armiya (more commonly referred to as the Red Army) in 1938. Upon joining, he was trained as a tank mechanic and assigned to man one of the T34s of 24th Tank Regiment. After his training, he started to display mechanical aptitude (he reportedly had been fascinated by machines as a child) and invented several modifications for Soviet tanks. Eventually, he was promoted to tank commander.

During the Battle of Bryansk in 1941 against Nazi forces, his tank was hit by a shell, leaving him wounded. As he was recovering from the wounds he sustained, thoughts of the enemy’s automatic rifles being far superior than the Red Army’s flooded his head.

As he was unable to return to the battlefield, he put effort into developing a similar weapon for use by their troops. In the next five years he would form a team that would later produce the first working prototype of his automatic rifle.

Less than a year later, he would join a firearms design contest that had been launched in 1947 by the Soviet Union’s Defense Ministry for members of the military’s arms design community.

Kalashnikov’s rifle entry won him the competition, and the Soviet Union gave it the military designation of AK-47 (abbreviated form of Avtomatni Kalashnikova, literally meaning the automatic of Kalashnikov, and the year ‘47).

Early Kalashnikov models were produced and distributed exclusively to Soviet soldiers, and contrary to what a lot of people think, the original design wasn’t as reliable as the ones we see commercially available today, not by any stretch.

The AK-47’s reputation for reliability was a result of years of hard work and fine tuning, with Mikhail continuously troubleshooting issues of each manufacturing run as they gradually became apparent.

The AK-47’s rise to popularity (and eventually, to notoriety) was a result of a government-led manufacturing impetus. For the next decade, the Kremlin would share its new rifles with like-minded states like China and East Germany. It would also order its Warsaw Pact vassal states to produce them.

Toward the end of the 1950s the Soviet Union had somewhat of a franchising model in place, providing factories run by other communist governments the specifications for the manufacture of countless Kalasknikovs.

Because of how easy it is to manufacture, more and more of the communist rifles were built. As their numbers grew, they started drifting from government hands. By the 1960s, factories were incessantly mass-producing AK-47s in the planned economies of the Socialist Bloc where governments distributed and stockpiled them by the millions for no practical reason.

By the 1970s and 1980s, with loose security and blatant corruption within the states holding them, the rifles became available to fighters for any (or no) cause. After the Warsaw Pact unraveled and the Soviet Union collapsed, many successor governments lost custody of their surplus, which provided an almost boundless new supply.

Some of the AK-47s were supplied to proxy forces and devious arms dealers, some were stolen from weapons depots that were either insufficiently protected or uncared for, and others were smuggled to other countries, eventually reaching the drug cartels of Mexico.

It was in the Vietnam War when the AK first saw widespread use. American soldiers witnessed how effective the AK-47 was, as farmers armed with the rifles gave them a run for their money in the battlefield. It was for this reason that the U.S. military adopted Eugene Stoner’s AR-15 and modified it to become the army’s standard issue M16.

The influence of the AK-47 and the weapons developed with it in mind (whether to emulate its reliability or counter its threat) became an integral part of most of the violent armed insurrections within the Cold War era. But its reputation hasn’t suffered the worst yet.

In the Soviet-Afghan War, the Kremlin supplied the Afghanistan government with AKs and other Warsaw pact weapons prior to the war. To counter this, the CIA provided the insurgents – the mujahideen – with endless supplies of Chinese-made AK-patterned rifles.

In an ironic turn of events, Kalashnikov’s creation would ironically be used against the Soviet… the very soldiers his brainchild was designed to serve and protect. But perhaps what’s even more ironic is the fact that within two to three decades of America’s involvement in this particular war, the same AK-47s they supplied the insurgents with would be used against them.

To this day, the Internet is rife with images and videos of al Qaeda and ISIS members – sworn enemies of America – holding the very rifles given to their countrymen by the American government.

Kalashnikov’s rifle has become a victim of its own success and will fuel terrorism long after a century of its inception. It’s unfortunate, but the AK-47’s reputation as the quintessential Jihadist terrorist’s weapon is here to stay.

Estimates put the total number of AK-47s manufactured since its year of release at over 200 million units worldwide. No other firearms in history have been produced with such staggering figures.