What is the deadliest weapon of the 20th century?
Perhaps you first think of the atomic bomb, which killed up to 200,000 people, it is estimated when the United States toppled two in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
But another weapon is responsible for many more deaths – reaching millions. It is the Kalashnikov assault rifle, known as AK-47.
Originally developed in secret for the Soviet military, some 100 million AK-47s and their variants have been produced to date. This weapon is now found all over the world, including the hands of many US civilians, who in 2012 bought as many AK-47s as the Russian police and military. As a doctor, I have witnessed the destruction this weapon can cause to human flesh.
Russian Mikhail Kalashnikov invented the weapon that bears his name in the mid-20th century. Born on November 10, 1919, Kalashnikov was a tank mechanic in the Soviet military during World War II. He was injured during the German invasion of the USSR in 1941.
Having seen firsthand the combat advantage conferred by Germany's superior firearms, Kalashnikov decided to develop a better weapon. While still in the army, he produced several designs that were lost to competitors before finally producing the first AK-47.
The name of Kalashnikov's greatest invention means Automat Kalashnikova 1947, the year it was produced.
In 1949, the AK-47 became the assault rifle of the Soviet army. Later adopted by other nations in the Warsaw Pact, the weapon quickly spread around the world, becoming a symbol of revolution in lands as far away as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mozambique, whose flag features prominently.
Throughout his long life, Kalashnikov has continued to adjust his classic design. In 1959, production began on his AKM, which replaced the milled receiver of the AK-47 with one made of stamped metal, making it lighter and cheaper to produce. He also developed the cartridge-powered PK submachine gun. The modified AK-47s are still in production in countries around the world.
The advantages and abundance of AK-47
Why was the AK-47 such a revolutionary rifle?
It is relatively inexpensive to produce, short and light to carry and easy to use with little indentation. It also has legendary reliability under harsh conditions, ranging from soaked forests to Middle Eastern sandstorms, in extreme temperatures in both cold and heat.
It also requires relatively little maintenance. This is due to its large gas piston and ample clearance between the moving parts, which helps prevent it from getting stuck.
Kalashnikov liked to brag about the superiority of the rifle over the M-16 rifle of the US military. “During the Vietnam War,” he said in a 2007 interview, “American soldiers were throwing away their M-16s to get the AK-47s and bullets from dead Vietnamese soldiers. And I hear that American soldiers in Iraq use it quite often. ”
The most abundant firearm in the world is also suitable for crime and terrorism. The hijackers who invaded the Olympic Village in Munich in 1972 were armed with Kalashnikovs, and US mass shooters used semi-automatic versions of the weapon in killings in Stockton, California and Dallas.
The US military acted as a distributor of the weapon in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. With a service life of 20 to 40 years, AKs are easily relocated and reused.
Today, global prices are usually in the hundreds of dollars, but some AK-47s can be purchased for as little as $ 50. The world's huge gun production, especially in countries with low labor costs, has brought down prices.
The Kalashnikov Legacy
For his works, the Soviet Union awarded Kalashnikov the Stalin Prize, the Red Star, and the Lenin Order. In 2007, President Vladimir Putin named the Kalashnikov rifle "a symbol of the creative genius of our people."
Kalashnikov died a national hero in 2013 at the age of 94.
For most of his life, Kalashnikov rejected attempts to blame him for the large number of deaths and injuries inflicted by his invention. He insisted that he had developed the weapon for defense, not for attack.
When a reporter asked him in 2007 how he could sleep at night, he replied, “I sleep well. It is the politicians who are to blame for not agreeing and resorting to violence. ”
However, in the last year of his life, Kalashnikov may have changed his mind. He wrote a letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, saying: “The pain in my soul is unbearable. I keep asking myself the same unsolved question: If my assault rifle took people's lives, that means I'm responsible for their deaths. ”
It's a perennial debate: what kills? Guns, or those who carry them? At the end of the letter he signed: "A slave of God, the designer Mikhail Kalashnikov".
* Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts and Philanthropy at Indiana University
© 2019 The Conversation. Posted with permission. Original in English.