Sad news today of the death of Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the iconic AK-47. Designed by then-sergeant Kalashnikov, a wounded Red Army conscript, in response to what he saw as the inadequate weapons he was issued, the AK-47 has become the most popular rifle in the world, seeing use in virtually every armed conflict since.
While the rifle was designed for a government and mass produced by governments, it’s hard to dislike the design itself. In many ways the Avtomat Kalashnikova, to give the weapon its full, Russian name, prefigures the open source, distributed production ideals we hold so dear today. Designed to be manufactured cheaply anywhere out of simple stamped sheet metal and with high tolerances that not only made manufacturing a snap but also made the rifle legendarily reliable, the AK-47 rapidly became the favorite weapon of insurgents and resistance movements everywhere, aided by the Soviet government’s admittedly self-serving policy of distributing the design for free.
And what an incredible design. The standard issue American rifle of the Second World War, the M1 Garand, could fire around 40 rounds a minute, if the person wielding it managed to avoid getting his thumb caught in the action while reloading. The AK-47 can sustain one hundred rounds per minute of automatic fire; in other words, the Kalashnikov puts into an individual’s hands the firepower of an entire company of Napoleonic soldiers. Furthermore, unlike many more elaborate designs, the AK-47 can fire under virtually any conditions with very little maintenance. US Army colonel David Hackworth, fed up with the finicky American M16s his men were issued, once famously buried an AK-47 in mud, dredged it up, loaded a magazine and fired it on full auto until it was empty without a single malfunction- truly a people’s rifle.
Mikhail Kalashnikov designed his great weapon while working for one of the most vicious governments ever to blight the Earth, but let that not blind us to the brilliance of his design, and to what it represents. The Avtomat Kalashnikova was the earliest forerunner of the great work of Defense Distributed today, and presaged a future when power will truly be open source and fully distributed.