By Richard Henry, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

Date: 25 March 2021



AK stands for Automat Kalashnikova (meaning Automatic Kalashnikov).  The 47 is 1947 the year the design was completed and was first accepted.


Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov

Kalashnikov was born in Russia in 1918 to a peasant family.  As a boy he took great interest in all things mechanical and was known for stripping everything he got hold of to see how it worked.  In 1938 he enlisted in the army and was posted to the tank corps where he designed an engine tachometer, which impressed General Zhukov.  He was then sent to the technical armoury school.   In 1941 he was made a tank commander to counter the invasion of Russia by Germany.  He was severely injured and while recuperating in hospital from a shoulder wound, he wondered why the Soviet Army lacked the firepower the Germans used with their machine pistols. From 1942 he decided to design a sub-machine gun and got involved from this time onwards with the designing of firearms.    He worked under and with the well-known Soviet small arms designers Federov and Simanov.

Influenced by the German Sturmgewehr 44

In 1943 the Germans introduced a revolutionary cartridge the 7.62 x 33 mm Kurtz for their new assault rifle. It was more powerful than the machine pistol’s parabellum round but less powerful than the 7.92 x 57 mm full rifle cartridge. It was accurate and effective out to 300 m and it could be fired on full automatic. It had a 30 round detachable box magazine. It had the firepower of a sub-machine gun and the accuracy of a rifle.

The Soviets at the time were using the Mosin rifle and the PPSh 41 sub- machine gun in numbers. The PPSh was only effective to a maximum of 50 m. The German 7.62 x 33 mm cartridge and their Sturmgewehr greatly impressed the Soviets who set about making something similar.

Introduction of the Soviet 7, 62 x 39 mm Model 1943 Intermediate Cartridge

The Soviets had many examples of the new cartridge and German Sturmgewehr captured on the Eastern Front. The head designer for the similar but completely new cartridge was N M Elizarov of the Experimental Design Bureau. The design team also co-operated with the well-known small arms designers of the time. War allows for quick development and the cutting of red tape. Work was started on 15 July 1943. Three hundred and fourteen designs were considered but these were quickly whittled down to eight and by December 1943, the completed cartridge was designed, tested in trails and accepted into Soviet service all within a five month period. After refinements a pilot production run began in March 1944.

The 7.62 x39 mm Model 1943 cartridge pertinent details

The cartridge was a rimless, bottlenecked cartridge with a case length of 38.65 mm and a complete cartridge length of 55.80 mm. The mass of the cartridge was 16.3 grams or 252 grains. The bullet weighed 7.9 grams or 123 grains.

The early boat tailed bullet had a lead core with a copper plated steel jacket. The cartridge case was bimetallic and made from steel and copper. The case was filled with 31 grains (1.63 grams) of powder. When fired, the chamber pressure was about 50 000 pounds per square inch (355 MPa). The bullet left the muzzle at 730 metres per second and thus the energy imparted to that bullet was about 2100 Jules. It gave excellent penetration and was not affected by heavy foliage. The bullet however remained intact when passing through human tissue and did not tumble or yaw thus reducing the desired effect. When fired at a later stage, through ballistic gelatine, which simulates human tissue, it showed how it was able to penetrate 740 mm of gelatine.

Kalashnikov is introduced to the new cartridge

In 1944 Mikhail Kalashnikov was given some 7.62 x 39 mm Model 1943 cartridges and was asked to see what he could design using this cartridge. It was known that the future development of a rapid firing rifle was tied to this cartridge and that it was important for the designers to come up with something to assist the Motherland. There were many designers working on the same ideas and many were more senior and had greater authority than Kalashnikov.

He started to work on his design, knowing all designs rely and build on that which has been designed before them. The German Sturmgewehr and the American M1 Garand rifle were looked at for inspiration, and weaker ideas which should be eliminated. He started to develop his ideas of “all that is complex is not useful and all that is useful is simple.” He believed in simplicity and ease of use. He entered his design in a competition to see which rifle would replace the venerated but obsolete 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifle. His design lost out to the more senior and connected Simonov’s SKS-45 carbine. The SKS carbine also used the Model 1943 cartridge, was simple and strong, had a ten round box magazine but was only semi-automatic. It was introduced into Soviet service in 1945.

The Kalashnikov era

Kalashnikov was now more determined to design the ultimate rifle. In 1946 he submitted a modified rifle of his previous design with stamped receiver and a 30 round box magazine. The weapon was simple and reliable, his underlying philosophy. This design, sometimes called the AK-46 made it to the second round of testing. His assistant convinced him to make some adjustments and his design prototype was accepted in 1947 as the Automat Kalashnikov Model 1947. It had a chromed lined barrel to prevent pitting by the cartridge propellant.

How the AK-47 Assault Rifle works

The AK-47 is gas operated. This means that it used the gases of the burnt cartridge case propellant, which forced and followed the bullet down the barrel, to reload the rifle. This is done by bleeding off some of the gasses up a port connected to the barrel and onto the head of a gas piston. The piston, located above the barrel is driven rearwards and drives the bolt carrier, which it is attached to the piston, rearwards. At the same time a cam track on the carrier rotates the bolt to lock and during the rearward stroke also cocks the hammer. A return spring forces the bolt carrier forward and the bolt picks up a new cartridge from the magazine and inserts it into the chamber. The process is repeated without fail at a cyclic rate of 650 rounds per minute until the magazine is empty. It could be fired in either the semi-automatic of full automatic mode, selected by a large fire selector / safety catch on the right hand side of the receiver.

Kalashnikov simplicity

His design was simple to operate, rugged, reliable and used a stamped sheet metal receiver which was amenable to mass production and cheap to manufacture. Most firearms designers used close fitting working parts with fine tolerances. Kalashnikov deliberately used loose fitting parts so that the working parts would still function under dusty, sandy, wet conditions or other trying conditions. The army conducted severe trials with the weapon in 1948 and it passed with flying colours. His design was put into production in 1949 at the Izhmash Arms Factory. Slight changes were made to the cartridge at the Ulyanovsk Machine Building Plant which was making the ammunition. The introduction of the AK into service made the SKS-45 obsolete and these were exported and given away to Socialist and Communist guerrilla forces in third world countries.

Production problems

Production of the AK-47 was at first slow. There were problems welding the stamped sheet metal together and there are a few reports of the welds coming undone. In 1951, the factory decided to use a solid block of steel and to use 122 milling operations to mill out the receiver. The receiver was now extremely strong but expensive to manufacture. A section of right outside of the receiver, above the magazine well was milled out to reduce weight. This became the distinctive feature in quick identification of the AK and the later AKM. There was great secrecy with the production and use of the AK. On the range, all spent cartridges had to be picked up and handed in. The West would not get a good look at the weapon until 1956 during the Prague uprising. By 1956 large numbers of the AK were being produced, but they wanted to revert to the stamped sheet metal receiver to increase production and lower costs. When fired on automatic the AK had a slight tendency for the barrel to climb up.


In 1959 a modernised version of the AK was introduced, the AKM. The M stands for modernised. It reverted to a 1 mm thick stamped sheet metal receiver with a smaller oval stamping on the right side above the magazine well. This made the AKM 30 percent lighter than the AK. A small lip compensator was fitted to the lower part of the muzzle. When the AKM was fired on full automatic, the gases leaving the barrel pressed down on this lip and kept the barrel from climbing. This small innovation made the AKM very stable when firing on automatic and became the main visual identifying feature of the AKM. This model became the most numerous firearm ever made.

A new bullet
In 1967 a new bullet was introduced. It had a softer lead core and the ballistics was slightly altered. This caused the bullet to tumble or yaw about 8.4 cm after striking human tissue. This caused greater wounds than the previous bullet. In tests firing this bullet into ballistic gelatine, it was found to reduce the penetration to 640 mm from 740 mm. In 1985 the Soviet service rounds in use were:

  • Ball type PS with a 7.97 gram streamlined steel-cored bullet
  • Tracer Type T45 with a 7.45 gram non-streamlined bullet
  • Armour Piercing Incendiary Type BZ with a 7.7 7 gram streamlined steel-core with an incendiary pellet in the nose
  • Incendiary Ranging ZP with a 6.61 gram non-streamlined bullet with incendiary and tracer elements.

The magazine
Initially the iconic curved 30 round capacity magazine had smooth sides. It was made from 1 mm thick sheet metal and was very strong and very reliable with few if any stoppages ever attributed to the magazine. The magazine weighed 430 grams and a fully loaded magazine was 916 grams. The magazine has been known to be used as a hammer in some guerrilla forces. With the introduction of the AKM, a lighter 330 gram magazine incorporating three strengthening ribs on each side was introduced. This magazine was also 25 mm shorter than the original magazine this decreased a full magazine to 819 grams. This does not seem a great mass saving but it allowed the soldier to carry more ammunition for the same mass. With the AK, only 11 magazines with 330 rounds could be carried in a 10 kg load but this was increased to 12 magazines and 360 rounds in the AKM. Later a lighter resin impregnated plastic, red rust coloured magazine was introduced (erroneously called Bakelite) with a mass of only 240 grams.

The sights are a simple V notched rear tangent iron sight calibrated from 100 – 800 m. The 800 m sighting is very optimistic as the AK and AKM were seldom aimed at targets further than 300 m. In modern /bush warfare the enemy can seldom be seen at more than 300 m anyway.

The front sight is a post type, adjustable in the field for elevation only. Ingeniously the Soviets zeroed the AK and AKM at 300 m. The doctrine and sight picture which soldiers were taught was to aim for where the waist belt buckle sat on a man. Firing at 100 m would mean the land of the shot would be up to 30 cm higher than the belt buckle (right in the middle of the chest). Again, if the range of the target was 200 m then the bullet strike would be about 15 cm above the belt buckle – stomach area. If the target was engaged at 300 m its effective maximum distance, then the enemy would be hit in the waist area. Therefore it was irrelevant for the military to teach complicated range estimation to the infantry. The rear sight would under normal circumstance never have to be adjusted.

The AK-47 and AKM are assault rifles and are considered accurate enough to strike the torso of a man out to maximum of 300 m. However accuracy of the rifle (not the shooter) is judged at how closely grouped ten consecutive rounds can hit the target. This test is usually done using a dead rest such as a sand bag and an excellent shooter. It has been found that the average best grouping of ten shots at 100 m fall within 15 cm. This could be considered fairly accurate. However at 300 m the ten shot grouping is greatly enlarged to 45 cm. The normal soldier may on average hit a target at 300 m, two or three shots out of ten. A Polish soldier known to the writer was considered a good shot when he scored 30/50 from 100 m range. His best score was only 15/50, when fired at the 300 m mark. At 500 m, the standard ball round drops by over 4.2 metres. Therefore to hit the target one has to aim 4.2 metres high.

The very best Soviet shooters are able to hit a man size target at 800 m within five attempts from the prone position and within 10 shots from the standing position. The probability of a hit at this distance is about 30 percent. For the average soldier to hit the target at this distance would be considered “lucky” and probability of less than 5 percent.

Originally the AK had a stock, butt and hand grips made of solid wood. Later a birch wood laminate was used. This was actually stronger, cheaper, warp -resistant in wet conditions and did not require the wood to mature before using it. The laminate wood was covered with an amber shellac. With the AKM, combinations of wood, plastic, and or plastic alone have been used to reduce costs.

Service life of the AK 47 and AKM
The chromed lined bore has assisted with extending the life of the AK /AKM to anything between 6 000 and 15 000 rounds. When the weapon is worn out, it is much cheaper to replace it, than to have it repaired.

Export and manufacture in other countries

The Soviets signed a Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance with the Peoples Republic of China on 14 February 1950. As a fellow communist country they agreed to share technology and assist each other in military matters. This led to the Soviets allowing the Chinese to manufacture a version of the AK- 47 at the Chinese State Factory 66. The Chinese version was nearly identical to the Soviet AK and was called the Type 56 Assault Rifle, as the first copies were made in 1956. The Chinese made about 7 million of the Type 56 and started to give /or sell them to various socialist or communist insurgency groups throughout the world. Thousands were used by the Vietcong in the Vietnam War. Later the Chinese started to gain influence in Africa and countries like Tanzania and Zambia were supplied with weapons.

By 1956, the AK was in full production and the AKM on the drawing board. To counter the formation of NATO in 1949, the Soviets signed the Warsaw Treaty Organisation agreement on 14 May 1955. This was similar in aims to NATO and called for a collective defence response and shared military technology and equipment by the Soviet Union and seven Eastern Bloc socialist republics of central and Eastern Europe. Countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria and Romania were given a licence to manufacture the AK and later AKM. Each of these countries had a slightly different variant to the original. These differences are outside the scope of this article.

Southern African insurgency groups

Tanzania hosted African Nationalist Groups like the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and armed wing SWAPO – the Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). The Organization of African Unity also assisted and or arranged for the Type 56 and AK-47 / AKMs to be made available for the many bona fide guerrilla groups which required weapons to fight against the colonial occupiers of their countries. Zambia also later assisted many of the groups. FRELIMO in Mozambique, ZIPRA and ZANLA in Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, MK in South Africa, MPLA, FNLA and UNITA in Angola and PLAN fighting for the independence of Namibia, were all supplied with these iconic weapons from the early to mid -1960s. The numbers of weapons increased yearly and by 1976, the AK and its derivate was the weapon of choice. Under trying conditions of sand and rain and often with little maintenance or cleaning the AK still fired without any stoppages. The light recoil and full automatic firing ability suited the smaller stature of many of the freedom fighters, including women guerrillas. However not all firing was on full automatic. This was to save the guerrillas ammunition. When fired in a semi-automatic mode, the normal rate of fire was about 40 rounds per minute. Sometimes it was necessary to fire bursts of ammunition at a rate of 100 rounds per minute. The trainee guerrilla’s instructors, who had been trained by Soviet or Chinese advisors, stressed the firepower of the AK.

The SADF uses the AK on a limited scale

In cross border raids by the South African Defence Force into Southern Angola from 1978, many AK and AKMs were captured from PLAN. From 1980 many more were captured from FAPLA (the army of the MPLA). Some of these were given to UNITA who had an understanding with the SADF for military assistance. Other captured AKs were used by SADF Special Forces. Some members of the feared 32 Battalion used the AK as a weapon of choice on prolonged reconnaissance or battle operations in southern Angola. Others, both black and white used it to “camouflage” their identity. From 1979/80 some members of the Police counter insurgency unit Koevoet, preferred the AK over the R1 while others preferred the R1 battle rifle for its greater range and stopping power. The Rhodesian forces also generally preferred their FNs / R1 over the many captured AK s.

The writer did military service in 1979 /1980 and trained with the South African R1 rifle. In 1983, I fired a captured AKM at Oshikati in northern Namibia and at the time, my preference was the R1 over the AK.

The AK is revered

The AK-47 and AKM are considered the most influential small arms of the 20th Century. The silhouette of the AK is easily recognisable. To some it is a cultural phenomenon. To others such as third world guerrilla forces and nationalists it was the tool used to gain independence from their colonial masters. It is so revered in some societies that it appears on postage stamps, and on the on the coat of arms of East Timor, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso. Mozambique has a silhouetted AK-47 on her National Flag.


The 75 million AKs built world-wide, were used by over 70 countries and their continued use by many countries is a testimony to the simple, rugged, reliable, small arm designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov.



  • Hogg IV & Weeks J Military Small Arms of the 20th Century Arms and Armour, London, 1981.
  • Hogg, IV Jane’s Directory of Military Small Arms Ammunition Janes, London, 1985.
  • Barnes, FC Cartridges of the World Follet, Washington, 1965.



The AK 47


AK 47


 Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia


Sino- Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance


StG 44 (Sturmgewehr 44)


Type 56 Assault Rifle


Warsaw Pact

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