Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian who designed the world’s most famous firearm and blamed Nazi Germany for forcing him to produce such a weapon, has died at the age of 94.
Kalashnikov once aspired to design agricultural equipment. But although his most famous invention, the AK-47 assault rifle, sowed havoc instead of crops, he often said he felt untroubled by his contribution to global bloodshed.
“I sleep well. It’s the politicians who are to blame for resorting to violence,” he said in 2007.
Kalashnikov died in a hospital yesterday in Izhevsk, in the Udmurtia republic. He had been in hospital for the past month with unspecified health problems.
The AK-47 was named after “Avtomat Kalashnikov” and the year it went into mass production. It became the world’s most popular firearm, favoured by guerrillas, terrorists and the soldiers of many armies. An estimated 100 million AK weapons are thought to exist worldwide.
Though not especially accurate, its ruggedness and simplicity are unmatched: the AK-47 will keep firing in sandy or wet conditions that jam more sophisticated weapons. It is also relatively short, meaning more slightly built races, women and even children can use it.
“During the Vietnam war, American soldiers would throw away their M-16s to grab AK-47s from dead Vietnamese soldiers,” Kalashnikov said in 2007.
The weapon’s suitability for jungle and desert fighting made it ideal for Third World insurgents backed by the Soviet Union, and Moscow not only distributed the AK-47 widely but also authorised its production in some 30 other countries.
Kalashnikov, born into a peasant family in Siberia, began his working life as a railway 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 defined his life was in the 1941 battle of Bryansk against Nazi forces, when a shell hit his tank. Recovering from wounds in hospital, Kalashnikov brooded about the superior automatic rifles he had seen the Nazi troops use. His ideas bore fruit five years later.
“Blame the Nazi Germans for making me become a gun designer,” said Kalashnikov. “I always wanted to construct agricultural machinery.”
In 2007, President Vladimir Putin praised him, saying: “The Kalashnikov is a symbol of the creative genius of our people.”
But because his invention was never patented, he did not make a penny. “At that time, patenting inventions wasn’t an issue. We worked for socialist society, for the good of the people, which I never regret,” he once said.
Kalashnikov continued working into his late 80s as chief designer of the Izmash company that first built the AK-47. He also travelled the world helping Russia negotiate new arms deals, and wrote books on his life.
“After the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union so much crap has been imposed on us, especially on the younger generation,” he said. “I wrote books to help them find their way in life.”
He was proud of a bust in his native village of Kurya in Siberia, and said newlyweds brought flowers to it. “They whisper, ‘Uncle Misha, wish us happiness and healthy kids’,” he said. “What other gun designer can boast of that?”