Mikhail Kalashnikov began designing weapons after being wounded in the Battle of Bryansk in WWII and recovering in a Soviet Hospital. From there, he would go on to create the world’s most famous assault rifle, the AK-47.
The AK-47 became the AKM, and then armed the Soviet Army, and went on to be mass-produced around the world and used by dozens of military forces. While the AK series is his most famed design, it wasn’t his only design.
After the AK, he continued to help produce weapons for the Soviet military, and many of those weapons are still used to this day.
All the other AKs
Mikhail Kalashnikov supervised the development of the AK-74 series, which wasn’t very different from the original AK but different enough that it needed a skilled designer who knew the systems inside and out. The AK-74 developed into the AKS-74, the AK-74M, and the AKS-74U series rifles.
In World War II, squad-support firepower was tied to submachine guns (SMGs), but as intermediate cartridges and assault rifles took over, the SMG faded away. Squads still needed fire support, and that led to the creation of the belt-fed RPD. While the RPD was a great weapon, it complicated logistics, so, Kalashnikov stepped forward with his design, the RPK.
On the outside, the RPK is essentially a bigger AK-series rifle. It uses the same long-stroke gas-piston design, iron sights, and magazines. Its manual of arms is almost identical to the AK’s. This simplified logistics and training. The RPK can be classified as either a light machine gun or an automatic rifle.
Kalashnikov designed the weapon to increase its effective range and accuracy, as well as make it more suitable for sustained fire. This included extending the barrel from 16 to 23.2 inches. Kalashnikov slightly extended the receiver to decrease the firing rate and ensure it was controllable. The gun lacks a bayonet lug but does have a folding bipod. It also typically uses 40-round magazines.
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When the Soviets wanted a general-purpose medium machine gun, they turned to Kalashnikov who designed a belt-fed, 7.62x54R mm, long-stroke gas piston gun known as the PKM. When used by infantry, the PKM could provide supportive fire out to increased ranges; but it also found a home on tanks, helicopters, armored cars, trucks, and numerous other vehicles.
The PK and later PKM are surprisingly light at 19.84 pounds. It’s lighter than the Belgian FN MAG and not much heavier than the M249 SAW. Like most good general-purpose machine guns, its barrel is quickly detached for swaps to prevent overheating. The weapon has a controllable cyclic rate of 6,750 rounds per minute.
What’s interesting is when you look at the gun’s design, it’s very much an AK designed to be belt-fed —it’s just flipped upside down.
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Kalashnikov Sniper Rifle
Soviet and American sniping are very different. American snipers are designed to reach out and touch targets at absurd ranges. Soviet snipers were a bit more like designated marksmen extending the effective range of the squad out to about 600 meters. The Soviet military wanted a weapon to fulfill that role so Kalashnikov answered.
As a heavy piston moving back and forth tended to increase movement as the weapon fired, to help maximize accuracy, Kalashnikov broke away from his long-stroke gas-piston design and went with a short-stroke gas-piston design. The rifle fired the full power 7.62x54R and fed from detachable 10-round magazines. Optics were mounted to the side of the receiver, much like on an AK.
In order to minimize the sniper’s movements, the rifle was also designed to be fed from the top with single rounds or stripper clips, as changing magazines was more noticeable.
However, the Soviet military decided to go with the Dragunov rifle, and the Kalashnikov rifle faded away.
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Kalashnikov Submachine Gun
The Kalashnikov submachine gun might not have gone anywhere, but it’s the reason the AK exists. The firearm originally designed by Kalashnikov as he recuperated from his wounds in WWII was a submachine gun. He envisioned it replacing the bolt-action Mosin Nagant rifles that the Soviet soldiers were using.
Kalashnikov designed and even prototyped this submachine gun. He presented his prototype to several Soviet authorities. The weapon fired 7.62×25 Tokarev and used a novel screw-delayed blowback system. This could theoretically make the weapon lighter, with less recoil than the standard Soviet designs.
However, the Soviets were leaning towards a more intermediate cartridge and rifle. That would lead to the SKS and then to the AK series.
While the SMG would never be adopted, it showed Kalashnikov had talent and got him a job and education.
The world of Kalashnikov
When you look at Mikhail’s designs, it’s easy to say he found a niche and stuck with it. All of his successful designs use his long-stroke gas piston system.
Mikhail Kalashnikov lived a very interesting life, coming from nothing to being the man who designed the most prolific gun ever made.
Feature Image: Famous weapons designer Eugene M. Stoner, left, holds an M-16, and Mikhail T. Kalashnikov holds an AK-47 rifle during the latter’s visit to Washington DC in May 1990. (Photo by Sgt. Chris Lawson/U.S. Marine Corps)
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