When I turned my computer on this morning, to check the news, the headline on my Google News Page was Ever defiant, freed Pussy Riot members slam Putin’s amnesty from The Christian Science Monitor. In the back of my mind, the thought, Almost Christmas, not much is happening, rattled around. Intellectually, I know that stuff is happening all over the world, but lots of people are off for the holidays so stuff like Benghazi suicide bomb kills 14 just sort of disappears.
After I read my morning Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes, I went back to read the morning paper in a little more detail. Now the headline was Mikhail Kalashnikov, Creator of AK-47, Dies at 94. I found it a little sad that Pussy Riot got bumped by the death of the guy who invented the most ubiquitous killing machine in history. But the Pussy Riot piece was just a filler , we all knew they would remain defiant, we didn’t know that Kalashnikov was even still alive. As an aside, Why are so many brave people young women? Shit! we men seem to only get Mr. Duck-breath and Kalashnikov; the women get Malala Yousafzai and Pussy Riot. And as an aside to the aside, Did Putin have any idea he was releasing Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot, on the anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s release from the gulag? End asides.
But, the essential ingredient of The News is that it is out of the ordinary and new (although nothing is more fun than reading about news we have witnessed, that is why it is so fun to watch a game our team won and then read about it). So, last week, Mikhail Kalashnikov, Creator of AK-47 is still alive, would be down in human interest somewhere. Mikhail Kalashnikov, Creator of AK-47, Dies at 74 is interesting because it is new, change, a milestone.
The AK-47 was a brilliant idea with a brilliant execution. There had been handheld automatic weapons before but they all used pistol bullets, think of the Tommy Gun – M1921 Thompson Submachine Gun to the military, Tommy gun to Chicago mobsters – or the M3A1 “grease gun” used by American tankers. The problem is, that because they used pistol bullets, they were not very accurate and did not carry enough punching power. Automatic rifles wouldn’t work because the large, rifle, ammunition made them too hard to handle. Kalashnikov came up with the simple – but out of the box – idea of making the ammunition bigger than pistol ammunition but smaller than that used in regular rifles.
Regular rifles are still more accurate, but the AK-47 makes up for that it is easy to carry and has a high rate of fire. The genius of the AK-47 is that because it is not accurate in the first place, it can be made with loose-fitting parts, like the old, cheap, Timex watch that took a beating and kept on ticking. It was designed to be reliable when used by people who were not very well-trained and did not have a history of using and maintaining mechanical devices. That is not a easy thing to do. It is easier to use and cheaper to make, but the AK-47 was harder to design.
The American equivalent assault rifle, the M16A1 is a better weapon but much more complex, takes more maintenance, and is much more expensive (about $150 vs. $670). Ironically enough, when we wanted to arm militias in Afghanistan and Iraq, we ran up against the problem that the militias were not composed of mechanically sophisticated troops, so we supplied them with AK-47’s. Whom we bought them from, I don’t know. As an aside, I am reminded of a story that was going around when we were in the Space Race with the Soviets. NASA spent something like 30 Million dollars developing a ballpoint pen that could write in zero-gravity; the Soviets used a pencil. End aside.
Anyway, Mikhail Kalashnikov is dead and the AK-47 lives on with over 100,000,000 out there.