`I invented the AK-47 to protect my country'

For years a hidden, almost mythological figure, the designer of the world's most famous gun has rarely been seen in public. But as he reveals here, when he does leave his homeland, he is revered wherever he sets foot... from America to the Middle East.
Why did the world learn about the Kalashnikov rifle many years ago in the era of the USSR, while it remained ignorant of the inventor until the 1990s?

For years, I had a top secret clearance and never left Russia. Just once did I go to Bulgaria with my wife for a holiday at the Golden Sands resort, but I could not mention my real name. I was allowed to travel abroad only in the early 1990s. As an adviser to the Managing Director of Rosoboronexport, a government-controlled weapons export company, I visited many high-profile weapons exhibitions and at last could hold in my hands the most recent products. While examining them, I think to myself: this gun is good and that one is not impressive. So I keep learning all the time. Do not consider the AK to be the best ever assault rifle. I am saying it over and over again: only the sky is the limit.

Had you followed the progress of your international colleagues before?

In the world of weapons, everybody is watching each other and knows each other's systems. When I met Eugene Stoner, the famous designer of the М16 rifle, and teased him about my rifle being slightly better, he replied that he doubted that I would have been able to design a decent 2800g piece as required by the Pentagon based on the original 5kg prototype. When Stoner and I arrived at a Marine Corps base, its commander, General Coffield confessed: "For combat, I would personally choose your rifle, Mr. Kalashnikov. I have fought in Vietnam as a unit commander, and I wanted to have your rifle all the way. What stopped me was a different rate of fire and report compared to the M16. If I had started using it, my soldiers would have shot at me thinking that I had been attacked by the Vietcong guerrillas, so I could only feast my eyes on your masterpiece".

The word "Kalashnikov" is recognized in every part of the world. Clearly, it does not always have a positive ring to it as in "reliable like a Kalashnikov".

I sometimes call the АК-47 a rifle of peace and friendship, although it is sometimes used for the wrong ends. When I met the Defense Minister of Mozambique, he said: "Please come to visit us! We won our freedom with your rifle, and when soldiers got back home, many gave the name of Kalash to their new born boys. Please come, and you will meet a dozen Kalashes in any village".

Of course, there is a downside too. People often ask me how I feel about my invention being used to kill people every day and the AK being a common weapon of ethnic conflicts. I want to make it clear that I created my assault rifle to protect my country. You can blame politicians for its spreading out of control on a global scale.

Once when I was thinking it over, I recalled our specialist term - ricochet. At least the three of us - Eugene Stoner, Uziel Gal, and me - developed guns to do away with fascists as soon as possible ... But the bullets fired from the М16 hit Vietnam people who fought to unite their homeland. Uzi bursts shatter the slim hope for peace in Palestine and the countries next door ... Let alone my АК?

The rumor has it that somebody even suggested you should convert to Islam and become a live icon of the Arab world?

As we were exchanging farewells before leaving Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, one of the Arabian majors suddenly began speaking passionately: "Mr. Kalashnikov, has it ever occurred to you that you simply ought to convert?.. In Christian eyes you are a sinner ...you are responsible for tens of thousands of lives lost around the world. You have long been heading for hell ... But in Islam, things would be completely different for you. You could become a living banner of the entire Arab world. And when your earthly existence is over, Allah will welcome you as a hero. You deserve it, Mr. Kalashnikov". Like any well mannered Russian I said a polite `no' by promising to think about it. I said, not without embarrassment, that I would consider the idea. And at the same moment I recalled an old Russian proverb wisely admonishing that changing your faith is not as easy as changing your shirt ...

In recent years, the media has come up with many mythbusting "revelations" claiming that the АК-47 was designed by someone else and that the figure of designer Kalashnikov emerged as part of a well-staged Soviet publicity stunt.

Any designer believes his gun is the best, and when its test performance is a bit less impressive compared to other systems, he feels bitterness and envy. It is all about competition, and in any competition the loser starts plotting against the winner and spreading nonsensical rumors like the old boy got really old, lost all his teeth and cannot speak, etc. But you can see for yourself that I am still a weapons designer! Well, some think I've been gone long ago ... but I am used to it".

Kalashnikov Facts

Experts report that 70 to 100 million AKs have been manufactured around the world, and about 10-12 million M16s, its closest rival.

The Kalashnikov assault rifle has been adopted by 55 countries, and in some of them it is even featured on their national coat of arms.

Mikhail Kalashnikov's design bureau created over 100 small-arms systems. Kalashnikov is also known for his machine guns such as the 7.62mm RPK and folding-stock RPKS Kalashnikov light machine guns, and 5.45mm RPK-74 and RPKS-74 (folding stock) LMG systems.
He also used the AK concept to design a range of bestselling Saiga self-loading hunting rifles, including the smooth-bore Saiga, Saiga 410 and Saiga 20С. Over a dozen hunting models are still in production.

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