Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov was born on November 10, 1919, into a world that had just seen the end of World War I—“The War to End All Wars”—and hoped for a lasting peace. His family had been exiled to the cold, desolate Altai village of Kurya during political purges, something that the sickly boy did not comprehend. In this harsh environment, only eight of the family’s nineteen children survived.
Always one to tinker—Mikhail had taken apart every lock in his village—he and his friend obtained a U.S.-made Browning pistol. Mikhail cleaned it, shined it, took it apart and reassembled it over and over again. He burned with desire to fire it, to watch it work. He was frightened yet fascinated by the firearm and hid it in a pile of junk from the authorities, because it was illegal to possess such a weapon.
Somehow, the militia learned of the gun, and the teen was arrested but later released. He had vehemently insisted he did not own a pistol, and the authorities were unable to find it.
Fearing that he would be found out eventually, Kalashnikov and his friend fled, scattering pieces of the Browning in the snow along the way. He later wrote of this prophetic experience, “That was it. The perpetrator of my hardships, my first acquaintance with arms.”
After making his way to Kazakhstan and finding a job with the railroad, Kalashnikov was drafted in 1938. Because of his mechanical acumen, he was assigned to a tank company, where he invented several improvements to gauges that checked engine operating hours. He was never able to fully test his inventions, however, because Germany attacked in June 1941, and he was sent to the front. Before he left, he heard stories of the Germans’ superior tactics and savagery, but he had no idea he would be a victim or how it would change his life.
Only a few weeks after shipping out, Sergeant Kalashnikov was out of the war for good. His injuries were substantial enough to keep him from serving again. Convalescing in the hospital, he naively promised himself to build a weapon that would drive the Germans out of his homeland. This promise turned into obsession. “I thought about it when I woke up at night, and tried to imagine what kind of submachine gun I would make. In the morning, I took a notebook from the night table and made various drawings. Later, I redid them many times.”
In an effort to keep his mind diverted from pain, he read everything he could find at the hospital library about submachine guns—which many military planners saw as the ultimate infantry weapon and the key to winning land battles. Combatant nations had quickly put into production their own submachine guns, but the Soviet Union was late to the game and few soldiers had access to these rapid-fire weapons.
What frightened Kalashnikov and other Soviet soldiers was the German Maschinenpistole (MP40), also known as the Schmeisser after weapons designer Hugo Schmeisser. Hugo Schmeisser did not actually design the MP40, but he worked on the MP41, which was an MP40 outfitted with an old-fashioned wooden rifle stock. Like all submachine guns, it fired pistol-sized bullets—nine millimeters in diameter, the familiar 9mm of many contemporary pistols—instead of the larger, more powerful ammunition used in rifles. (Sometimes the distinctions between pistol and rifle rounds are not always clear cut because pistols can use large-sized rounds and rifles sometimes can use small-sized rounds. With some exceptions, however, rifle rounds are generally longer and heavier and contain more propellant, thus offering more “killing power.”) This necessitated firing at close range to be effective, but the MP40 made up for this drawback by being lightweight, easy to handle, and able to stream bullets at an astonishing rate of 500 rounds per minute. The magazine, a device that automatically feeds ammunition into the gun, carried thirty-two bullets, or rounds in military parlance. The MP40 (with most small weapons, the number designates the year it was introduced or produced, 1940 in this case) also was shorter than a rifle and could be easily carried by airborne and tank soldiers. It was the first firearm of its kind to be made entirely of metal, with no wooden stock or handle grips, which made it almost indestructible. By 1945, the Germans had produced over a million of these, and it became so popular that even Allied soldiers preferred using these captured weapons instead of their own submachine guns, which were variations of the Thompson submachine gun, or “Tommy Gun,” of 1920s gangster fame.
Indeed, the Soviet Union had a submachine gun, the PPD34/38, but it was poorly designed. Although it fired 800 rounds per minute, it was heavy and unreliable in combat. It was also too difficult to mass-produce. A much simpler weapon followed, the PPSh41, which was put into limited production in 1941 but not approved until the following year. The gun was popular with troops. However, it was not as well made as its German counterpart, because the Soviet Union’s riveting and welding technology lagged far behind that of the Germans.
Upon his release from the hospital, Kalashnikov convinced friends at the railroad to allow him to work in their metal shop. With his left arm stiff and not fully recovered, he set about improving his motherland’s submachine gun, because the war on the eastern front was still raging with no end in sight.
Hitler had made a strategic error that offered the Soviets some breathing room to develop weapons. Instead of sending all his troops directly to Moscow, an overconfident Führer rejected the advice of his generals and diverted one of his three armies south to occupy the Ukraine, which was rich in oil and gas resources. After more than a month on this distraction, Hitler was running out of time; the harsh Soviet winter was coming fast. Mud roads were becoming frozen slabs and his troops were not prepared for the frigid weather. By November, the Germans had reached within seventeen miles of the Kremlin, but could advance no further due to a Soviet counterattack aided by temperatures dropping to minus twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit. German soldiers were not acclimated or dressed for the cold; many froze to death, and the survivors were exhausted. The Germans found themselves on the defensive for the first time.
With neither side able to extract a clear victory, the war continued, and so did Kalashnikov’s work. Along with several others, he toiled for several months in the railroad shop, producing a submachine gun that he hoped would level the battlefield. His single goal was to protect the motherland. With the prototype under his arm, he made his way to Alma-Ata, where he attracted the attention of Communist Party and military officials who saw promise in this self-taught designer. Although they rejected his submachine gun, Kalashnikov garnered some important lessons. He learned that his weapon was too complex to perform under rigorous combat conditions. For example, the firing mechanism employed too many moving parts. The gun overall had many small parts, increasing the chance that if any single piece were to fail, the gun would be rendered inoperable. However, seeing a spark of genius in this young man, the authorities offered Kalashnikov the opportunity to hone his skills at a technical school, where he invented a carbine, a weapon that was popular because of its versatility.
A carbine is similar to an ordinary rifle but with a shorter barrel and stock. It was originally developed for cavalry soldiers because they could not fire a full-sized rifle from horseback. Later, carbines were the logical choice for paratroopers and tank soldiers, because they were light and fit in tight quarters. Unlike submachine guns, which use pistol-sized rounds, carbines employ larger, rifle-type ammunition.
Many regular rifles, like the M1 Garand, the mainstay of U.S. troops during World War II, came in both full-length and carbine versions. In fact, Kalashnikov borrowed and modified for his own carbine the M1’s method of feeding bullets from the magazine into the chamber for firing as well as the spent cartridge ejection system.
By this time, however, it was becoming clear to the German military, the Wehrmacht, that warfare was changing again and neither the submachine gun nor the carbine were the best infantry weapons. Submachine-gun ranges were too short and their bullets too light for combat that was now being fought at ranges between three hundred and one thousand feet, the result of battles taking place mainly in urban environments. Machine guns had the range and the killing power of larger bullets but were too heavy to carry in fast-moving combat situations. In addition, the massive recoil from machine guns jerked the weapon around, which made them difficult to keep on target. A new kind of weapon was needed that combined the light weight of the submachine gun with the range and killing power of a machine gun.
Unbeknownst to Kalashnikov and Soviet arms designers, the Germans were already working on just such a weapon, and the key to its success was not the gun but a new kind of ammunition.
In many instances, the arcane and minute design elements of ammunition are much more complex and controversial among ballistic engineers than the weapons that fire them. Changing a bullet’s weight by a few grams, altering its shape from sharp-pointed to blunt, or using a few grains more or less of powder in the cartridge case can offer a soldier a vastly different fighting tool irrespective of the gun.
Ammunition is composed of several parts. The first is the bullet, the actual projectile. Bullets are usually made from a mixture of lead and tin, and most military bullets are jacketed with copper or steel to make them harder, the so-called full metal jacket round.
The bullet sits atop and within the cartridge case, held tightly in place by a crimp in the case. Brass is the metal of choice for the case because it is soft enough to crimp yet hard enough to keep its shape during the rapid firing and ejection process. The case actually stretches slightly as soon as it is subjected to pressure, sealing the breech, a process known as obturation. It retracts as soon as the pressure drops. Brass is also lightweight for its strength. Inside the case sits powder that ignites when the firing pin in the gun strikes the primer bottom at the center of the case—much like hitting an old-style match head—which then lights the powder. When the powder ignites, it propels the bullet out of the cartridge and through the barrel at supersonic speed.
German armament engineers in the 1930s began experimenting with an intermediate cartridge (often the word “cartridge” is used to signify the entire round—bullet plus cartridge case), sized between a pistol round and a rifle round, and they came up with a compromise in the PP Kurz (kurz means “short”), which was “7.92 × 33”—the bullet was 7.92 millimeters in diameter and the case holding it was 33 millimeters long.
Sometimes, ammunition is measured in America and Britain (which continue to resist the metric system) in inches instead of millimeters, and referred to as calibers. A caliber is one inch or 25.4 millimeters. To further complicate the nomenclature, caliber sizes are not always exact; a so-called .38 Police Special bullet is actually .357 inches, and a .44 Magnum of Dirty Harry fame is really .429 inches in diameter.
The new German round, thinner than a rifle round and thicker than a pistol round, was a vast departure from previous submachine-gun ammunition and opened up a world of new possibilities in rapid-firing guns that were light enough for an infantryman to carry, along with a large amount of ammunition, and easy to keep on target. As a bonus to designers, the less powerful rounds offered decreased wear and tear on rifle barrels and other components.
While the Soviets were still working on perfecting a submachine gun, German designers Hugo Schmeisser and Carl Walther, whose company produced James Bond’s pistol of choice, the Walther PPK, were busy building competing prototype rifles employing the intermediate Kurz round. By 1942, they were testing the Maschinenkarabiner, or Mkb for short. As the name implied, it was a hybrid of a machine gun and a carbine, but Hitler did not like this idea at all. He was wedded to submachine guns despite their shortcomings, so in an effort to circumvent him the designers and their military supporters decided to rename it Maschinenpistole (MP), or submachine gun, which was on the Führer’s “approved list” of weapons.
The Mkb42, or MP42, was field-tested against Soviet troops in the battle of Cholm in 1942. Cut off from conventional supply routes, a German army corps found itself encircled by the Soviets in Cholm on the Lovat River south of Leningrad. From February to April, German troops died daily from malnutrition and cold, until a cache of prototype Mkbs was airdropped. Using these new weapons, the Germans were able to blast their way through the Soviet lines and escape.
It is not recorded if the Soviets were able to capture one of these breakthrough weapons, but they were impressed by its performance, and so was Hitler, who finally admitted that these rifles outperformed submachine guns. Two years later, in 1944, in a face-saving move, he dramatically renamed the Mkb the Sturmgewehr, or assault rifle, offering the world a new class of automatic weapon and a name that endured. Had World War II continued, all German soldiers would have received this weapon as regular issue.
While this was transpiring, the Soviets had been working on their own medium-sized cartridge, the 7.62 × 39, also known as the M43 for the year it was approved by Josef Stalin, who, unlike Hitler, saw the need for a new type of ammunition and weapon to fire it. In the quest for a rifle to fire the new round, the government established a contest among designers. A who’s who of venerable Soviet designers entered, including Alexei Sudayev and Sergei Simonov, people virtually unknown in the West but who were household names among Soviets, on a par with legends Samuel Colt and Smith & Wesson. There was also an unknown designer who humbly threw his hat in the ring, Mikhail Kalashnikov, now only in his twenties.
By the time Kalashnikov began work on a rifle to use the new cartridge, the war was winding down and his dream of being the one to produce a weapon to drive out the Germans was dashed. In addition, Sudayev, who won the contest, designed an automatic rifle with too many production shortcomings to be considered practical.
Many military historians miss the cruel irony of the automatic rifle story, in which the Soviets were their own worst enemy. Although the German Sturmgewehr was considered the world’s first assault rifle, the concept had inadvertently been invented in Russia in 1916 by Vladimir Federov, an arms maker for the tsar. Federov’s Avtomat (“automatic”) employed an intermediate round favored by Japanese soldiers, whose smaller frames preferred the recoil of the less powerful ammunition. Federov’s genius was to place the 6.5 × 50.5mm Arisaka round in his automatic rifle, but he did so because the commonly used larger rounds were too hard on the Avtomats and required heavier bolts, pistons, and other components. He and his contemporaries knew little of the battlefield imperatives that would later necessitate the intermediate round. He was simply trying to make his guns last longer.
Federov’s brilliance was lost with the Russian Revolution of 1917, when his political beliefs landed him on the wrong side of the changing government. He even spent time in prison. More importantly, the officers in the field did not understand that this new weapon and round combination was the wave of the future. They still clung to the idea of a more powerful, longer-range ammunition and the mistaken belief that soldiers would always fight battles at long range. As the new regime cleaned house, it swept his work away and the Soviets went back to the old, larger round, which remained standard until 1943. Indeed, some arms historians argue that the Germans were familiar with Federov’s early work and built their Kurz cartridge on his experience. Whatever the true story, the Soviets were now playing technological catch-up. But the ending of the war afforded them the luxury of more time. With the Third Reich beaten by the Allies and the U.S. military showing no interest in assault rifles, the postwar Soviets had a clear road ahead.