The Most Dangerous Weapon of Mass Destruction

Posted on Wednesday, August 15, 2007

…turned 60 this year. And no, it’s not the atomic bomb.

AK-47 assault rifle

It’s the AK-47 assault rifle — a weapon that was born from the cauldron of World War II, and has since become the emblem of several generations of armed struggle around the world. And in the process, it has taken a startling number of lives.

The idea of the “assault rifle” — a weapon designed to unleash a storm of medium-caliber bullets upon targets at short range — didn’t originate with the Soviet Union. The first army to field them in any quantity was the army of Nazi Germany, which began equipping its troops with the Sturmgewehr 44 in the waning months of World War II. Russian troops, who had no comparable weapon, were unpleasantly surprised by the sudden increase in firepower available to their German opponents, and began to wonder how to match it.

One of those soldiers was Mikhail Kalashnikov, who began contemplating a Soviet assault rifle while recuperating from a battle wound. From his bed, Kalashnikov dreamed of the simplest automatic weapon possible — a weapon so simple that it would withstand even the harshest conditions. When the Soviet government put out a call for design proposals for such a weapon, Kalashnikov responded with the design that would become world famous — the AK-47.

The AK-47 became standard Soviet Army issue in 1949, but its real fame came later, when the Soviets began exporting the weapon to their allies around the world. Frequently, these allies were armies associated with “wars of national liberation” — armies attempting to overthrow the established governments of their countries and replace them with Communist states.

The AK-47 was uniquely well-suited for these armies, because of its simplicity. It had been designed, after all, for use on the World War II Eastern Front — a famously unforgiving environment where ruggedness was prized above all other factors in a weapon. Weapons that jammed easily, that required special care and attention, didn’t last long on the Eastern Front, where temperatures would drop to unbelievable lows and where the front lines were manned by barely-trained peasants. Years of bitter fighting with the Germans in this environment had taught the Russians the value of simplicity and reliability.

The AK-47 became perhaps the single purest distillation of these lessons. It was built to be made cheaply, to require no training to operate, and to be usable even in the worst conditions — in bitter cold or howling sandstorm. To armies of guerrillas around the world, operating in jungles and deserts, leading troops with no training, these qualities made the weapon enormously attractive. (As did the USSR’s willingness to supply them generously to her allies, of course.)

American soldiers ran up against the AK-47 in Vietnam, and found their own weapon — the M-16 — wanting in comparison. In his book Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts, Colonel David Hackworth recalled how a discovery while digging up the earth of Vietnam gave him a chance to demonstrate just how superior the AK-47 was:

One of the bulldozers uncovered the decomposing body of an enemy soldier, complete with AK47. I happened to be standing right there, looking down into the hole and pulled the AK out of the bog.

“Watch this, guys,” I said, “and I’ll show you how a real infantry weapon works.”

I pulled the bolt back and fired 30 rounds – the AK could have been cleaned that day rather than buried in glug for a year or so. That was the kind of weapon our soldiers needed, not the confidence-sapping M-16.

The AK-47 became such a symbol of the guerrilla that when Mozambique won its independence, they put the weapon on their flag. Today in Iraq, American soldiers face insurgents with AK-47s once again.

In the sixty years since Kalashnikov’s first design, the AK-47 has become one of the most widely distributed weapons in the world, for two main reasons. First, the Soviets’ unwillingness to recognize intellectual property made it a kind of “open source” rifle — able to be ripped off by any country that wanted to start producing their own assault rifles. And second, when the Soviet Union collapsed, a tidal wave of AK-47s that had been stored in Soviet armories was unleashed upon the world by cagey Russians out to make a buck.

Estimates are that more than 50 million AK-47s have been produced over the years. Nobody knows how many people have been killed by them, but consider this:

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — widely considered the worst violence ever unleashed by man — killed about 100,000 people.

Every year, 300,000 to 500,000 people are killed by small arms in brushfire conflicts around the world; and in those conflicts, the most common weapon is the same as it was in 1950, 1970 and 1990 — the AK-47.

That’s mass destruction too. Just in slow motion.

UPDATE (July 24, 2012): If you want a more in-depth treatment of the history of the Kalashnikov family of weapons, I highly recommend C.J. Chivers’ excellent book The Gun, which explores both the history of the family of weapons spawned by the AK-47 and the shameful shortcomings of the development process that led to the M-16.


This entry (and everything else on this blog) was written by Jason A. Lefkowitz. Did you like it? Subscribe to this blog's feed to get new stuff the moment it's posted. Want to read more like this? Hit the archives for more than ten years' worth of essays, or jump right to The Best of Just Well Mixed. Angry and wanting to know who to punch? Here's more information about me, including how to get in touch by email and various social networks.


Sound Off, Loudmouth!

SAm says:

u kidding me right?I thought the atomic bomb or the Adams bomb was more dangerous and here ur telling me its not?I mean okay the AK-47 is bad but an atomic bomb can affect a hole nation or even the world.Logically its the Atomic Bomb,cause has an AK-47 ever affected the world or nation or Pearl Harbor right u know when those Japanese bombed almost half of our nations military powers well the president ordered a emergency where he asked for the Atomic Bomb to be launched against Japan and hey they lost so many casualties that they surrendered there power of military forces.What does this have to do with anything,well think about an AK-47 is not exactly gonna scare the Japanese or any country but an Atomic Bomb is going to affect the hole country.
ps. I might be 14 urr 15 but even i know the difference.

Sandy says:

Sam, you don’t know whether you’re 14 or 15? Don’t huff and post, or you’ll end up a pundit on Huffington Post. How did you think it got the name?

ADAMS BOMB says:

of course the Ak-47 is the most deadliest, it has caused more deaths than the Atom Bomb has ever, and u spelled atom bomb, ADAMS BOMB? wtf ur man ur retarded go suck a dick. the AK has more of an effect to the world than the Hbomb ever OKAY!? FUCK!!

Oliphant says:

I agree with the 14-15 year old fella. 1000 nuclear weapons (less than that in existence) are more powerful than as many guns as you want.
I can’t believe your even arguing this. Put your subjects in the correct context. By the way that last dickhead said H Bomb thats a hydrogen bomb which is completely different, so get your facts straight before bagging other peoples

mokube says:

it’s just impossible to brlieve that the AK47 is the most dangerous of weapons but as it is i have to believe it .The problem lies in the fact that this weapon is distributed in any part of the world which is not a good thing on sivilians like us because of the daners attributed to it .if there is a way of withdrawing this weapon from the public it should be done immediately.

dick robinson says:

the atomic bomb can destroy the all human kind ……
the atomic bomb’s radiations destroy the land which would be not useable for 200 or more years and u say that Ak 47 is dangerous ……
it is but not more than Atomic bomb or any other h.bomb etc

So your saying I have the most dangerous weapon of mass destruction beside me?

Kadius says:

We are the deadliest weapon on earth. We pull the triger, push the buttons and point at the next target.

Crankdart says:

You cannot compare the atom bomb to the AK47 because they are in different categories and are used for different purposes. Obviously, the bomb will do more damage in less time when compared to any gun, as said by the writer of the post above, but you can’t compare the two. Bombs are obviously more deadly when you think about the ratio between the amount of bombs to the deaths caused when the target is hit. Every gun kills the same way. We all bleed. Every weapon is dangerous, ut when you are talking about amount of deaths in an amount of time, any bomb causes more damage in less time with a higher percentage of fatality than and gun.

omolade joseph says:

it is so ridiculous to get such information ,i dont agree because the atomic bomb is feared to destroy the world.make sure u get facts from reliable sources before posting on net.

luke says:

consider this: the AK-47 is a cheap, easily manufactured weapon sold and made all over the world. used to fuel war and rebellion. an atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, whatever kind of bomb you can think up off, can’t be distributed that easily, and the only countries with them are rich and powerful ones. the only way a nuclear bomb could be considered the more dangerous of a weapon is if it could flat out tear apart the world, because the AK-47 will continue to lay in the hands of a huge diverse army of guerrilla terrorists and rebels. the lives killed by the atomic bomb will never match the rate or amount the AK-47 kills.

Alex says:

Although the AK-47 may be easily distributed, and can easily kill, it cannot kill like bombs, what about the tsar? Yeah it was long ago and only made once, bt it had a huge explosion, if that were put in say New York city, it would wipe it out, It’s a million times more deadly, but the AK-47 has killED a lot of people, ad will stil continue, We all agree the Death Star will kill us all.

Tommy says:

If a world war 3 beggins we would kill a lot more in a day…
J. F. Kennedy said in the 60th years (1962 I think before or after the cubacrisis) that USA and USSR got so much atomic weapons that they could kill 300 million in ONE day….
just think about that…. mostly of that would be because of Nuclear bombs….

Mike says:

Regardless of the potential of nuclear weapons, the fact remains that they have only been used twice in military history. There are absolutely staggering amounts of red tape that must be crossed in order to use them, and there are thousands of systems between nations to deescalate tensions between nuclear powers, not to mention that, with the fall of the USSR and with the exceptions of India and Pakistan, there are no longer any major tensions between nuclear-armed nations. Nuclear weaponry is not only insanely difficult to use, it is also nearly impossible to attain (despite what bad action movies tell us time and time again), and even among nations that already possess them, there is now really no reason to even consider using them. The Kalashnikov, however, has absolutely no limitations on use, is readily available for less than 20 USD almost anywhere in the world, and is so easy to use that children can (and often do) use them with little or no training. It is easy to produce, nigh-impossible to destroy, and there are infinite reasons for small, belligerent forces to employ their use.

jeter says:

yes nuclear bombs kill more people in the blink of an eye but lets be honest, how many nuclear bombs are being dropped now days NONE the last one dropped in the act of war was in 1945, small arms are fighting wars every single second while those nuclear bombs sit in their silos doing nothing, YOU need to stop arguing the facts

jeter says:

but how many nuclear bombs do you see getting dropped now days?

jeter says:

please tell me where your seeing that they cost $20, i want one

billy mosley says:

i just want an ak47 along with an m4 so i could stand my grounds at home as the other countrys brings the fight to are door steps

hafer says:

ak-47 is not a dangerous weapon at all it is us the peple.

Corey says:

How is that the most dangerous wepon

Star says:

If the Us and germany are to go to war, and the states uses atomic bomb on germany, the whole of germany will be destroyed before the german troops move out to use their AK47. Thus the A-bomb is more dangerous

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