Internationally-renown small arms designer, Russian military hero and inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov has died at 94 in his rifle’s home town of Izhevsk. His passage follows several years of heart trouble.
Kalashnikov’s most famous invention, the AK-47 rifle and the many guns that duplicate the design, is to-date the most successful firearm of all time, and likely will continue to be for many decades to come.
In that way he has achieved a little bit of immortality, joining the likes of Sam Colt, John Browning, Eugene Stoner, Hiram Maxim, John Garand, Richard Gatling, Benjamin Henry and the Mauser brothers.
While Kalashnikov has been given every ounce of credit due for his eponymous rifle, the design didn’t spring up in a single flash of genius. It took years of struggle and effort to invent the AK-47.
Kalashnikov was born in Kurya on Nov. 10, 1919, the 17th child of Timofel and Alexandra Kalashnikov, both well-to-do peasants. While from an early age he showed a predisposition towards machines and mechanics, he grew up hoping to be a poet and has in fact published half a dozen books of poetry later in his life. He never finished high school.
At the age of 11 Kalashnikov’s family was deported to Siberia and their property was confiscated by Stalin’s Dekulakization regime, where they lived in Nizhnyaya Mokhovaya on the Western Siberian Plain. There he and his father took up hunting to put food on the table. (Kalashnikov was from then on an active hunter into his 90s.)
After just a few years in Siberia Kalashnikov asked to leave his family in order to get a better education, hitchhiking 600 miles back to Kurya, his first home. There he worked to become a mechanic for a the Turkestan–Siberian Railway, where he would hone his engineering skills, until 1938 when he was drafted.
Given his aptitudes and smaller size, Kalashnikov was made a tanker and never stopped tinkering. In just three years he made a name for himself in the Red Army, having invented a Tokarev-TT stabilizer for shooting through tank slits, a tank engine runtime calculator and an inertia-driven tank shell counter to let tankers know how many shots they had remaining.
These inventions were so popular that the Russian forces would make them standard on all tanks. Not bad for a poet.
In June of 1941 he was called to Leningrad to complete and standardize his tank modifications for implementation military-wide. On his way to Leningrad he was hit by a shell during the October Battle of Bryansk, which tore through his shoulder.
From his hospital bed Kalashnikov continued to contribute to the Great Patriotic War, by working on plans for a new submachine gun after hearing so many wounded soldiers complain about the quality of their small arms.
When he was released from the hospital in April of 1942 he was immediately granted a six-month sick leave to continue his recovery. It was in that span that he traveled to the Matai depot to develop and prototype his submachine gun.
And it was a failure. The design was not accepted into service but his talent would not go unnoticed. His largely self-taught body of experience led him to build an entirely original sub-machine gun and it was his unorthodox approach to building small arms that got the attention of the Main Ordnance Directorate.
It was there in 1944 that Kalashnikov turned his efforts to the increasingly-popular and proven effective self-loading rifle. Chambered for the new 7.62x39mm cartridge, Kalashnikov developed a simplified version of the M1 Garand and submitted the rifle to the Red Army for evaluation.