Greatest Gunsmiths: Mikhail Kalashnikov

  • Jack Collins
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So far in our Greatest Gunsmiths series, we’ve focused on American inventors. Today, we’re going to change that. In this post, we’re going to look at one of the most famous small arms builders in the history of the world: Mikhail Kalashnikov.

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Kalashnikov: Early Life

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born in the eastern Russian district of Altai Krai in November of 1919, in the thick of the Russian Civil War. His father was a peasant and he was the second-youngest of 19 siblings. When Kalashnikov was 11 in 1930, the Soviet government confiscated his family’s property and deported them to Siberia for being landowners.

Kalashnikov showed an interest in and aptitude with machinery at a young age. He was also a lifelong poet, and published several poetry books. In addition, his father taught him to hunt with a rifle at a young age. This gave the boy Kalashnikov experience handling and using firearms.

After completing seventh grade, Kalashnikov went to work as a mechanic at a tractor factory. Once there, a Communist Party representative at the factory saw the child’s mechanical skill. The representative wrote Kalashnikov a letter of recommendation to work at the local weapons bureau. 

Military and Design Career

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Kalashnikov didn’t join the army by choice. The Red Army conscripted him when he was 19 in 1938. He worked as a tank engineer during the Second World War. Eventually, his superiors made him a tank commander. He saw action fighting in T-34 tanks in the Battles of Brody and Bryansk in 1941. 

After being wounded in action, Kalashnikov spent time recuperating in a hospital. While there, he heard several soldiers complaining about the performance of their rifles. That inspired him to begin working on what would become his most famous work: the AK-47.

Firearms that Mikhail Kalashnikov Designed

Even if you know nothing else about Mikhail Kalashnikov, you know about the AK-47. Based on the concept of the German STG-44, the AK-47 was a select-fire rifle chambered in the intermediate 7.62×39 cartridge. Kalashnikov said that the AK-47 (short for “Avomat Kalashnikova”) was a “weapon of defense,” not a “weapon for offense.” The rifle would eventually proliferate into conflicts worldwide. 

Although he’s most famous for designing the AK-47, those weren’t Kalashnikov’s only designs. He was also responsible for firearms like:

  • AKM: an improvement on the original AK-47’s design released in 1950. The AKM shared many functional similarities with the AK-47, and the two are indistinguishable to the layperson. Most AK-pattern modern sporting rifles are actually based on the AKM.
  • RPD/RPK: light machine guns based on the AK-47’s design. Usually used with a bipod and longer barrel than a standard AK.
  • AK-74: an updated version of the AK that Kalashnikov designed around the 5.45×39 cartridge. The Soviets were worried about an “ammo gap” thanks to the 5.56×45 NATO round, which they were trying to emulate.

Mikhail Kalashnikov: Later Years and Death

At the end of his life, Kalashnikov showed remorse for his invention. He’s quoted as saying that he wished that he “designed a lawnmower,” but the Nazis made him build firearms instead.

Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 2013 at the age of 94. He had five children. One of them, Victor, went on to become a small arms designer himself. He’s responsible for the PP-19 Bizon, a submachine gun chambered in 9×18 Makarov based on the AK-74’s design.

Who are some other famous gunsmiths that you’d like to know more about? Let us know on social media! In the meantime, check out the story of famous gunsmith, John Garand.

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