The AK-74M is the basis for the new Russian AK-100 family of Kalashnikov firearms:
the 5.56×45mm AK-101 assault rifle and 5.56 mm AK-102 carbine,
the 7.62×39mm AK-103 assault rifle and 7.62 mm AK-104 carbine and
the 5.45×39mm AK-105 carbine.
The AK-101, 102, 103 and 104 are destined primarily for export, while the AK-105 is slated to replace the AKS-74U with the Russian Armed Forces.
Additionally, the AK-107 (5.45×39mm M74) and AK-108 (5.56×45mm NATO) rifles have a balanced recoil system to reduce felt recoil and muzzle rise. This balanced recoil system is derived from the AEK-971 rifle.
Ultimately, it was economic not military assistance that many of Moscow’s weapons clients really needed. This was something Russia was unable to provide and ironically the gifting of billions of dollars’ worth of arms, including the AK-47, contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and bankrupted its arms industry. Moscow’s Kalashnikov diplomacy ended in complete failure. While there can be no denying that the Kalashnikov became an icon of the many regional conflicts fought during the Cold war, it was at a terrible price for all concerned.
The announcement in September 2011 that Moscow would not be ordering any more AK-74m assault rifles must have come as a shock to its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov. He had long been fêted as a national hero, and variants of his ubiquitous AK-47 have been in service around the world for the past sixty-four years. However, the time had finally come for a brand-new standard Russian Army assault rifle.
In fact, the Kalashnikov had been on borrowed time in Russia for some years. Project Abakan saw new assault rifle designs being trialled in the Soviet Union throughout the 1980s. In these trials designer Gennadiy Nikonov’s Avtomat Nikonova Model 1994 (AN-94) out-performed all its rivals. Chambered for the same 5.45mm x 39mm cartridge as the AK-74, this weapon was declared the successor to the Kalashnikov family of weapons in the mid-1990s. In the event, it only ever went into limited use with the Russian armed forces and the police, and unlike Kalashnikov, Nikonov did not become a household name.
The AK-47 series led to a whole range of 7.62mm Soviet small arms including the RPD and RPK light machine guns and the SVD sniper’s rifle. The Soviets followed the Americans in developing a high-velocity, small-calibre cartridge. The American Armalite M16, and its successor the M4, fires a 5.56mm round and Britain, abandoning the self-loading rifle, followed suit with the same calibre for the SA80.
In fact, the last major modification to the AK-47 was the AK-74 (followed by the AK-100 series), which fires a smaller 5.45mm x 39mm round, which is the Russian equivalent to the 5.56mm x 45mm NATO standard ammunition. the AK-74 is readily identifiable by a much larger muzzle brake and a horizontal groove in the fixed wooden laminate stock (the side-folding skeleton stock is also very distinctive).
By the late 1970s the AK-74 had succeeded the AK-47 in general service with the Soviet Army and saw extensive combat in Afghanistan, though it never caught on with the Mujahideen or the Taliban due to ammunition compatibility problems with the earlier Kalashnikovs. Unlicensed copies of the AK-74 were produced by Bulgaria, China, former east Germany and Romania.
Other developments in the Kalashnikov family saw variants produced for Soviet paratroops and tank crews. The AKD assault rifle is a special folding-stock version of the AKS-74, which can be fitted with the Soviet BG-15 40mm grenade launcher. The AKS has a solid stock and can be fitted with a silencer. Soviet armour crews were issued with the compact AKR submachine gun. The RPK-74 squad automatic weapon was succeeded by the RPKS and the heavier PKM, all of which have seen service in Afghanistan’s wars.
In 1991 the Izhmash factory in Izhevsk began full-scale production of the AK-74M (M = Modernizirovanniy, or Modernised), which was accepted as the standard service rifle of the Russian Federation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This weapon features a black synthetic side-folding stock, pistol and fore grip.
The subsequent AK-100 (101–105) series based on the AK-74, which includes weapons with a variety of different calibres, were intended for the export market with the intention of appealing to AK-47 and AKM users. They look similar to the AK-74 and feature a solid synthetic side-folding stock. These are nowhere near as common as their predecessors. Libyan opposition fighters were seen sporting AK-74M/AK-103 during 2011, which presumably came from captured Libyan Army stocks. The previous year the AK-200 was unveiled again, largely as an export product.
Prior to Moscow’s decision to discontinue Kalashnikov production, the weapon’s world dominance had already taken a tumble in Iraq in 2007 when it was replaced by the M16. It also slipped in Libya in early 2011. Prior to the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Russia was contracted to provide billions of dollars’ worth of equipment as part of the Libyan Armed Forces modernisation programme. This included a $500 million contract to build a factory in Libya to produce the AK-103, but this was disrupted by the revolution and the death of Gaddafi. Only Venezuela and Kazakhstan and possibly India now have licences to produce the Kalashnikov legally.
The Kalashnikov has also disappeared from service in China. The Type 81 replaced the Chinese Army’s Type 56 in the 1980s and this in turn was superseded by the QBZ-95, a completely new design bullpup rifle, in the mid-1990s. The Type 81 (which draws on the AK-47, the SKS and the Dragunov) has been exported but is not in use in anything like the numbers of the Type 56. Similarly the QBZ-95 is only in use with about half a dozen countries. In contrast, it is estimated that up to fifteen million Type 56s were produced, accounting for around one-fifth of all AK-47s in circulation.
Similarly the former Yugoslavia’s M70 has since been replaced by the Serbian M21, which came into service in 2004 and has seen limited combat in Iraq. Compared to the M70, exports of the M21 have been very limited. Much to Russia’s displeasure, Bulgaria’s Kazanlak persists in marketing the AR-M range of assault rifles based on the Kalashnikov for the international export market. Similarly Iran markets its KL for export.
Although Egypt’s Army is now largely armed with American equipment, the Maadi Engineering Industries Company still offers customers the Misr assault rifle and semiautomatic rifle AKM clones. The Egyptian Army employs the Misr alongside the American M16 and M4. For a while in 2011 it looked as if the Egyptian armed forces might deploy their Misr to shoot large numbers of Egyptian civilians clamouring for democracy. In the end the Egyptian military chose to force President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
What does the future hold for this sixty-year-old weapon? while it is, or has been, manufactured in at least fourteen countries (including Albania, Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, India, Iraq, north Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Venezuela), AK-47 derivatives are listed in over eighty countries’ state arsenals. It has been assessed that the Kalashnikov 7.62mm x 39mm assault rifle will remain the dominant small arm in many parts of the world for several decades to come.
Russia reportedly has ten million Kalashnikovs in storage for an army with a strength of one million men. The worry is that many of these will end up on the international arms market to fuel yet more regional conflicts. In the meantime Izhmash pledged to provide the Russian government with a new assault rifle, but it is highly unlikely it will ever be as successful as the Kalashnikov.
The hugely successful AK-47’s position as the dominant weapon of the later twentieth century remains unassailable: up to a hundred million have been produced, more than any other post-Second World War small arm. One thing is for certain: in one form or another, the compact assault rifle with the distinctive banana-shaped magazine is going to be in service for some time to come. Its combat days are far from over.