AK-47: The Real Weapon of Mass Destruction
Last month, Izhevsk Machine Works sold its stake in almost half of its company to two private investors for $78 million. The sale is expected to quadruple its annual profit to $770 million and increase output to 1.9 million guns annually by 2020. The success of the company is largely due to American sales, which account for 40% of the factory’s output. The sale represents the power of Russia’s defense industry, which accounts for 20% of all manufacturing jobs.
Izhevsk Machine Works is a Russian government-owned conglomerate that manufactures Automat Kalashnikov assault rifles, also known as the AK-47. Of the 550 million guns in worldwide circulation, the AK-47 is indisputably the world’s most distributed firearm. An estimated 100 million have been produced in hundreds of factories in dozens of countries during its 60-year history. 
Rapid-fire automatic guns are nothing new. Richard Gatling’s designed a manual artillery-size gun capable of a rapid and huge rate of fire in the 18th century that allowed small groups of Europeans to subjugate indigenous peoples. Hiram Maxim created the first recoil-operated machine gun in 1884, later known as the “devil’s paintbrush” in World War I. While Gatling sought to “invent a gun which would do the work of 100 men,” this wasn’t realized until 1947.
In 1947, the Soviet Union launched a secret design contest to create a weapon similar to the Nazi automatic rifle. Soviet propagandists attributed the design to senior sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov, who was supposedly inspired to create it after being wounded in a battle against the Nazis. The winning design was essentially a mash up of the best features of a myriad of assault rifles.
What set the AK-47 apart from similar weapons were its durability, easy operation, and lethality. Weighing only 9 pounds, it works in virtually every environment, firing even when it is covered in mud or sand. It can be assembled and disassembled with little guidance. It’s so easy that even a child can operate it.
The Soviet army officially adopted the AK-47 as its standard issue assault rifle in 1949. In the 1950s, the Kremlin shared these gun designs with allied states and ordered Eastern Bloc countries to mass-produce the arms. Production continued in the 1960s and tens of millions of AK-47s were stockpiled in the Eastern Bloc. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, these surplus arsenals flooded into international black markets, providing a seemingly limitless supply of deadly assault rifles. 
From its beginnings as the Cold War icon of the Soviet bloc, the AK-47 has powered some of the most dramatic revolutions of the past half-century and has rewritten the rules of modern warfare. The AK-47 was originally intended as a tool to put down anti-Soviet uprisings in the Eastern Bloc, but in many cases, it was used against the Soviet regimes. In 1956, Hungarian rebels picked up abandoned guns in Budapest and fought police forces a nationwide revolt against Soviet policies. The Hungarian Revolution ultimately failed, but it was highly influential in bringing down Soviet Union. In 1979, the US armed the mujahideen with AK-47s to fight against the Soviet army. Many of the mujahideen fighters are now members of the Taliban and use these weapons to this day.
The AK-47 has been used in some of the most brutal episodes of violence in the 20th century. Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony abducted children as soldiers and armed them with easy-to-use AKs in his attack on the government. AKs were widely used in the Rwandan Genocide, massacre of Kurds in Iraq, and Bosnian Genocide in Srebrenica.
It’s accessibility and lethal efficiency is unparalleled. Today, prices for an AK-47 range between $40 and $125 in Somalia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Congo, and Tanzania. In 2005, you could purchase this deadly assault rifle for as little as four cows.
The Automat Kalashnikov’s familiar silhouette has become a cultural icon, appearing on Palestinian currency, Russian vodka, and Mozambique’s flag. The AK-47 has gone from a tool of Soviet state power to an instrument of terrorism, crime, and insurgency worldwide. It has given moderately skilled fighters the power to take on some of the best-resourced armies in the world. “The Everyman’s gun” is the real weapon of mass destruction, enabling any person with the capacity for inflicting extreme devastation.