In this post, we will look at the history of one of the most famous assault rifles in history, the AK-47. The AK family is pretty widespread around the world these days, but there are widespread myths about its origins. The Soviet propaganda machine liked to portray that it was an original design entirely invented by a self-taught Russian peasant named Mikhail Kalashnikov. The real truth is actually somewhat different. We will study the history of this firearm in the following series of posts.
In the last post, we saw how the concept of the assault rifle was successfully used by the Germans. Their assault rifle was used against the Soviet Union with great success. The Soviets, in turn, analyzed some captured weapons and decided that it was a pretty good idea. Another major influence was the American M1 Garand rifle, which was also supplied to the Soviets in large quantities by the US and the Soviets decided that they must also have a reliable weapon that fires intermediate power cartridges. They quickly established a factory to manufacture 7.62x41 mm. ammunition, but needed a rifle to go with it. The initial requests for new rifle designs were sent to various Soviet bureaus in late 1943 and by the spring of 1944, at least ten designs were submitted by different groups. The Soviets adopted a design by one Mr. Sudayev and his design was called the AS-44. A limited run of the AS-44 was produced just after WW-II ended and the troops were generally happy with these weapons as they were better than what they had previously. However, the AS-44 was just too heavy and thus the Soviets opened another design competition in 1946.
Meanwhile, in a little known battle, called the Battle of Bryansk in 1942, a certain Russian T34 tank commander named Mikhail Kalashnikov was wounded in combat and made it to the hospital on foot, to receive medical treatment. During his recovery period, he vowed that he would make sure that his country would never be defeated again. While he was lying in bed, he overheard some other soldiers complaining about the quality of the Soviet rifles and his own experiences with the standard Soviet infantry rifles of that period also were similar. Hence, he began to design his own firearm, a sub-machine gun. While his sub-machine gun design was rejected because it was over-complex, his talents as a designer were noticed and he was reassigned to the Red Army's Small Arms Research division. Here, he designed a carbine, which was heavily influenced by the American M1 Garand rifle's piston driven gas-operated system (if the reader looks at an AK, it uses a gas-operated system almost identical to the Garand, except that the AK has the gas tube mounted on top of the barrel whereas it is below the barrel in an M1 Garand.) While this carbine also was not successful, it was the basis of a new assault rifle that was submitted to the Soviet design competition of 1946, the AK-1 (otherwise known as the AK-46). There were 16 other competing designs originally, with the old AS-44 acting as the benchmark standard and after the first round of trials, the AK-46 was chosen along with entries by A.A. Demetyev (the AD-46 rifle) and F. Bulkin (AB-46 rifle). In the second round of trials, the AK-46 was actually rejected because it did not perform as well as its other rivals, but Mikhail Kalashnikov managed to pull enough strings in the selection committee to continue work on his design and submit a new entry for the next round of trials. He went back to the drawing board with his assistant, Alexandr Zaitsyev, and decided to incorporate design features from other weapons (including some from his competitors, the AB-46 and AD-46!). The design of the AK-46's gas operated systems was already heavily influenced by the M1 Garand and the idea of the long stroke piston attached to the bolt carrier and return spring design were lifted from the AB-46 and the idea of large clearances came from the AS-44 and the safety lever mechanism was from the John Browning designed Remington 8 etc. The new design was dubbed the AK-47.
The other two designers were also given an opportunity to make design improvements for the next set of trials held in 1947. In the next round of trials, the F. Bulkin design (AB-47/TKB-415) was actually the most accurate of the three weapons and the AK-47 was last. However, the AB-47 had issues with parts wearing out quickly and the AK-47 beat out the other two handily in tests for durability and reliability. The selection committee made the decision that it is better to have a not-so-accurate-but-durable-and-reliable firearm than wait for an indefinite period for an accurate-and-reliable weapon and hence the AK-47 was chosen over its two competitors. The first version of this was deployed to limited troops between 1947 and 1948.
Initially the design called for a stamped steel receiver pinned at the front, for quicker manufacturing time. However, Soviet machine technology was not advanced enough to do this reliably and there were a large number of rejected receivers. Hence, the decision was made to manufacture the receivers using various machining operations. This made the manufacturing processes slower, but at least they could make reliable receivers this way. Therefore the AK-47 Mark I featured a machined receiver.
Meanwhile, a designer named German A. Korobov began to make an improved assault rifle design himself. Korobov had actually submitted a bullpup assault rifle design (the TKB-408) for the original design competion of 1946, but it was rejected after the first round of testing. Nevertheless, he continued to experiment with other bullpup and traditional rifle designs. By 1952, he switched to using the lever-delayed blowback action invented by Hungarian designer, Paul Kiraly. This led to more accuracy and simpler production for his design. In 1955, the Soviets started another design competition and the improved Korobov design (TKB-517) was submitted to the competition.
Meanwhile, the AK guys were not sitting idle either. They recruited several captured German engineers, including the renowned Hugo Schmeisser (the designer of the StG44) and learned mass production techniques from them. Their new design submission for the 1955 competition was the AKM (AK Modernizirovanniy, the Russian word for "Modernized").
Believe it or not, the TKB-517 pretty much beat the AKM on almost all counts. It was more accurate (especially in full automatic mode), significantly lighter and about 1/3rd cheaper to manufacture. So why did the Soviets adopt the AKM then? Because the selection committee decided that since the troops were already familiar with the AK-47, it would not be a good idea to replace it with a firearm that uses an entirely new design. Hence, the less-reliable, but more familiar AKM beat out the more accurate, but new design, TKB-517.
In the next post, we will look at further developments of the AK-47.