Lt. Gen. Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, the arms designer credited by the Soviet Union with creating the AK-47, the first in a series of rifles and machine guns that would indelibly associate his name with modern war and become the most abundant firearms ever made, died on Monday in Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurtia republic, where he lived. He was 94.
Viktor Chulkov, a spokesman for the republic’s president, confirmed the death, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Born a peasant on the southern Siberian steppe, General Kalashnikov had little formal education and claimed to be a self-taught tinkerer who combined innate mechanical skills with the study of weapons to conceive of a rifle that achieved battlefield ubiquity.
His role in the rifle’s creation, and the attention showered on him by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, carried him from conscription in the Red Army to senior positions in the Soviet arms- manufacturing bureaucracy and ultimately to six terms on the Supreme Soviet.
Tens of millions of Kalashnikov rifles have been manufactured. Their short barrels, steep front-sight posts and curved magazines made them a marker of conflict that has endured for decades. The weapons also became both Soviet and revolutionary symbols and widespread instruments of terrorism, child-soldiering and crime.
The general, who sometimes lamented the weapons’ unchecked distribution but took pride in having invented them and in their reputation for reliability, weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union to assume a public role as a folk hero and unequivocal Russian patriot.
A Soviet nostalgist, he also served as the unofficial arms ambassador of the revived Russian state. He used public appearances to try to cast the AK-47’s checkered legacy in a positive way and to complain that knockoffs were being manufactured illegally by former Soviet allies and cutting into Russian sales. The weapon, he said, was designed to protect his motherland, not to be used by terrorists or thugs. “This is a weapon of defense,” he said. “It is not a weapon for offense.”
General Kalashnikov’s public life resulted from a secret competition to develop the Soviet infantry rifle for the Cold War. The result was the AK-47 — an abbreviation for “the automatic by Kalashnikov” followed by the year the competition ended.
General Kalashnikov, a senior sergeant at the time who had been injured in battle against German tanks, was credited with leading the design bureau that produced the AK-47 prototype. The Soviet Union began issuing a mass-produced version to soldiers in 1949.
The true AK-47 was short-lived. It was followed in the 1950s by a modernized version, the A.K.M., which retained its predecessor’s underlying design while reducing its weight and manufacturing time.
Shorter than traditional infantry rifles and firing a cartridge midway between the power of a pistol and the standard rifle cartridges of the day, the Kalashnikov line was initially dismissed by American ordnance experts as a weapon of small consequence. It was not particularly accurate or well made, they said, and it lacked range and stopping power.
It cemented its place in martial history in the 1960s in Vietnam, where a new American rifle, the M-16, experienced problems with corrosion and jamming in the jungles, while Kalashnikovs,ncarried by Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers, worked almost flawlessly.
By this time, in an effort to standardize infantry weapons among potential allies, the Soviet Union had exported the rifle’s specifications and its manufacturing technology to China, Egypt, North Korea and the Warsaw Pact nations.
Communist engineers would eventually share the manufacturing technology with other countries, including Iraq.
The weapon’s design was also incorporated into arms manufactured in Finland, Israel, South Africa and other nations. The result was a long line of derivatives and copies. Almost all are referred to as AK-47s by colloquial, if inaccurate, shorthand.