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AK-47 assault rifle celebrates 60th birthday, eligible for senior's discount...


The notorious Soviet AK-47 assault rifle very nearly didn't happen. It was the brainchild of self-taught designer Mikhail Kalashnikov. He was a promising young apprentice railway engineer when called up for military service in 1938. While in the Red Army, he created several useful mechanical devices including a shell counter for tank cannons.

His counting device led to a fateful encounter with the German Army that almost killed him.

Kalashnikov was ordered to deploy his invention at Leningrad in 1941 -- not a popular vacation spot at the time -- and was seriously wounded while commanding a T-38 tank in battle. Luckily, his recuperation gave him considerable time to think. One question that haunted him was why Red Army soldiers had only one rifle for every two or three men, while their German foes carried lethal automatics.

AK-47 Being young and inventive, he decided to do something about it. Mikhail Timofeyevich returned to the railway workshop on a six month sick leave and crafted an innovative submachine gun. His design cleverly integrated ideas from several German and American mechanisms and quickly drew the attention of the Red Army's technical staff. He was assigned to a research position that eventually led to the development of the renowned Avtomat Kalashnikova, which entered service in 1947 as the AK-47. It earned him the Stalin Prize First Class.

The AK-47 served as the standard assault rifle for Soviet forces until 1978 and was exported extensively around the world. Its popularity was enough to ensure that it became synonymous with the man himself, although Kalashnikov worked on numerous successful weapons throughout his illustrious career. He eventually rose to become a Lieutenant-General and chief small arms designer for the Soviet Red Army.

These days, 87 year-old Kalashnikov lives not far from the arms factory he once helmed. Years of test-firing machine guns have left him almost stone deaf. He recently lent his name to Kalashnikov Vodka, although I suspect he keeps his two passions apart for safety reasons.

When asked whether he regrets his lethal invention, he explained to The Guardian, "I made it to protect the motherland. And then they spread the weapon [around the world] - not because I wanted them to. Not at my choice. Then it was like a genie out of the bottle and it began to walk all on its own and in directions I did not want. But I sleep soundly. The fact that people die because of an AK-47 is not because of the designer, but because of politics."

Guardian Unlimited: I Sleep Soundly [Interview]


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