Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Soviet general who designed the ubiquitous automatic weapon that now bears his name, died on Dec. 23 at the age of 94. Iterations of the gun he invented now exist in the tens of millions, making it the most popular rifle in the wars of the latter half of the 20th century.
A former Soviet tank gunner of humble Siberian origins, Kalashnikov submitted his prototype as part of a competition held to design a new Soviet infantry rifle in the waning moments of World War II. The AK-47 was born: a lightweight automated gun that was both easy to use and maintain. As C.J. Chivers — the New York Times journalist and author of a book on the history of the AK-47 — writes, Soviet infantry first wielded these rifles during the brutal crackdown on the Hungarian uprising in 1956. It was “repression’s chosen weapon, the rifle of the occupier and police state,” writes Chivers. But it was also the chief instrument of a new generation of global conflict.
Use of the weapon first spread along ideological lines, proliferating among armies and militias that had common cause with the Soviet Union. It sprung up in Vietnam in the 1960s and made its way to insurgencies in Africa and Latin America. The flag of Mozambique — an ensign adopted after the successful struggle of leftist guerrillas against Portuguese colonial rule — still features an AK-47 armed with a bayonet.
Subsequent models and versions of the gun mushroomed elsewhere. It became synonymous with the activities of militant groups. In the 1980s, mujahedin brandishing Kalashnikovs clashed with the Soviet army occupying Afghanistan and, to this day, the culture that spawns the Taliban’s foot soldiers is branded with a telling alliteration: the Koran and the Kalashnikov.
Kalashnikov, the man himself, remained through his life a figure of Soviet and later Russian nationalism. He still professed loyalty to Lenin and Stalin, despite losing family members to Siberian prisons. He also claimed the creation of his weapon was not for offensive purposes, but the “defense of the motherland” — no matter that there’s now virtually no place on earth not in range of a Kalashnikov’s muzzle.