His dream armed a world of fighters

MOSCOW — Mikhail Kalashnikov started out wanting to make farm equipment, but he is credited with designing the AK-47 assault rifle, the world's most popular firearm.

It was the carnage of World War II, when Nazi Germany overran much of the Soviet Union, that altered his course and made his name as well-known for bloodshed as Smith, Wesson and Colt. The distinctive shape of the gun appeared on revolutionary flags and adorns memorabilia.

Mr. Kalashnikov died Monday at age 94 in a hospital in Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurtia republic where he lived, said Viktor Chulkov, a spokesman for the republic's president. He did not give a cause of death. Mr. Kalashnikov had been hospitalized for the past month with unspecified health problems.

Mr. Kalashnikov often said he felt personally untroubled by his contribution to bloodshed.

"I sleep well. It's the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence," he told the Associated Press in 2007.

The AK-47 — "Avtomat Kalashnikov" and the year it went into production — is favored by guerrillas, terrorists and the soldiers of many armies.

Because Kalashnikov rifles were principally made by secretive governments and often changed hands in nontransparent transfers, it is not known how many have been manufactured. Common estimates put production at 70 million to 100 million; either number would dwarf the production of any other gun.

The rifles eventually filled armories throughout Eastern Europe and Asia and spread from war to war, passing to Soviet allies and proxies, and to terrorists and criminals, aided by intelligence agencies and gray- and black-market sales. The United States became an active purchaser, arming anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s and indigenous Afghan and Iraqi forces in recent years.

How essential Mr. Kalashnikov was to creation of the Kalashnikov line has been subject to dispute. A post-Soviet account in the newspaper Pravda challenged his central role, asserting that two supervisors modified his weapon during field trials.

An amiable personality with a biography ideal for proletarian fable, he was given credit for their work, the newspaper said. He disputed suggestions that the design was guided by others, but also said the rifle was the result of the collective that labored beside him.

The Kremlin embraced his version, although a careful reading of the official histories and Mr. Kalashnikov's many statements and memoirs shows that his accounts of his life, combat service and work repeatedly changed, raising questions about the veracity of the conventional accounts.

The true AK-47 was short-lived. It was followed in the 1950s by a modernized version, the AKM, which retained its predecessor's underlying design while reducing its weight and manufacturing time. Though it isn't especially accurate, the Kalashinkov performs in sandy or wet conditions that jam more sophisticated weapons such as the U.S. M-16.

"During the Vietnam war, American soldiers would throw away their M-16s to grab AK-47s and bullets for it from dead Vietnamese soldiers," Mr. Kalashnikov said in July 2007.

Mr. Kalashnikov, born into a peasant family in Siberia, began his working life as a railroad clerk. After he joined the Red Army in 1938, he began to show mechanical flair by inventing several modifications for Soviet tanks.

The moment that firmly set his course was in the 1941 battle of Bryansk against Nazi forces, when a shell hit his tank. Recovering from wounds in the hospital, Mr. Kalashnikov brooded about the superior automatic rifles he'd seen the Nazis deploy; his rough ideas bore fruit five years later.

"Blame the Nazi Germans for making me become a gun designer," said Mr. Kalashnikov. "I always wanted to construct agricultural machinery."

In 2007, President Vladimir Putin praised him, saying, "The Kalashnikov rifle is a symbol of the creative genius of our people."

Over his career, Mr. Kalashnikov was decorated with numerous honors, including the Hero of Socialist Labor and Order of Lenin and Stalin Prize. But because his invention was never patented, he didn't get rich off royalties.

"At that time in our country patenting inventions wasn't an issue. We worked for Socialist society, for the good of the people, which I never regret," he once said.

Later in life, he disapproved of anyone who he thought had hastened the Soviet Union's downfall. In memoirs and interviews, he was harshly critical of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

Mr. Kalashnikov continued working into his late 80s as chief designer of the Izmash company that first built the AK-47. He also traveled the world helping Russia negotiate new arms deals, and he wrote books on his life, about arms and about youth education.

He said he was proud of his bronze bust installed in Kurya. He said newlyweds bring flowers to the bust. "They whisper 'Uncle Misha, wish us happiness and healthy kids,' " he said. "What other gun designer can boast of that?"

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

His dream armed a world of fighters 12/23/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 23, 2013 11:09pm]

    

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