The Kalashnikov Legacy, in One GIF

The designer of the AK-47 died this week, but there are 100 million of his killer creations out there.

Dec 27 2013, 5:20pm

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It’s an uneasy claim to fame, being the creator of the most iconic handheld killing machine in the world. But Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the eponymous assault rifle, was always proud of his invention. He died this week aged 94, and today high-ranking officials including Russian President Vladimir Putin paid their respects to the arms designer at his funeral.

The AK-47 (the AK stands for “Automat Kalashnikov,” and the 47 for 1947, when the gun was first manufactured) is seen in conflicts across the world, and the images it generally brings to mind are those of child soldiers and guerrilla warfare. An estimated 100 million AK-47s have been produced since it was invented, not to mention countless knock-off designs. The gun is so synonymous with some conflicts that it even features on the national flag of Mozambique, where the weapon played a role in the nation’s struggle for independence.

The reason for it’s popularity is simple: It’s a good gun. The story goes that Kalashnikov came up with the design after being injured as a Russian soldier in the Second World War, and he was always keen to emphasise that he had his fellow soldiers, and protecting the homeland, in mind. The rifle is notoriously easy to assemble and use, functions reliably even in adverse conditions such as Russia’s cold temperatures, and is relatively cheap to produce (and therefore easily accessible).  

Given his initial intentions, Kalashnikov insisted he never regretted his invention, though he certainly didn’t always agree with how it was used. “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,” he told the Guardian in 2003. He maintained, however, that the positives still outweighed the negatives, “because many countries use it to defend themselves.”

Although he denied any responsibility for the deaths caused by his invention, instead blaming politicians for failing to prevent violent conflict in the first place, it’s clear in his protests that some unease lingered in his mind. “I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists,” he reportedly told German newspaper Bild in 2002. “I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work – for example a lawnmower.”

At the time, Kate Connolly of the Guardian pointed out the comment’s similarity to Albert Einstein’s famous reflection on his role in building the atomic bomb: “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

In Russia, Kalashnikov is honoured as a patriot, having been named a “Hero of the Russian Federation in 2009,” on which occasion then-President Dmitry Medvedev called his rifle “a national brand which evokes pride in each citizen.” Kalashnikov died of gastric haemorrhage in a hospital in Izhevsk, the Russian city where the AK-47 is still manufactured, and the Daily Mail reports that he’ll be buried in a new cemetery for national heroes.

One thing’s for sure: not many people leave a legacy as ubiquitous as to match one in every 70 people in the world.