Mikhail Kalashnikov, has died at 94, with 'no regrets'

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Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: The father of the modern assault rifle, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has died in Russia. He was 94. His AK-47 is so simple and so universal, that Kalashnikov can arguably be considered one of the most influential people of the past several decades. The World’s history guy, Chris Woolf, is here to tell us more about Kalashnikov. And Chris, I hear you had an encounter with an AK-47.

Chris Woolf: Yeah, I never fired one. My experience was actually on the receiving end. I was in Afghanistan as a reporter during the last war and we were on UN truck which was trying to get across the country, and we were in a bit of a hurry, and then this shepherd boy who, like every other kid in Afghanistan, has an AK-47 decided that he wanted a bribery to let us pass his little stretch of road. And our driver just ignored him, so the kid grabbed his AK and opened fire on the truck. It was only a single shot. No one got hurt, and we didn't give him any money, but I think it illustrated the bigger problem with the AK-47, which is that it is just so simple and so easy to use that a 12 year old boy, with no education, in the mountains of Afghanistan, is quite comfortable operating and using it. You don’t need a lot of training. You don’t need a lot of mechanical skill. It’s just so simple and reliable.

Hills: What is the basic design that makes it so effective?

Woolf: It has very few moving parts. They don’t really need much or any oil. You can throw it down, bury it in mud, pick it up out of the swamp, bury it in the sand for years, and it’s still going to work as fine as it did on the day it came off of the production line. Extraordinarily reliable, extraordinarily cheap, extraordinarily simple, and extraordinarily effective. You can always rely on it.

Hills: I don’t even know what it looks like. Are we talking about a rifle, a gun? What is it?

Woolf: It’s a short rifle. If you see the classic curved magazine that gives it that classic look of that short stubby kind of sub-machine gun, like—

Hills: And the bullets come out over and over again, right?

Woolf: Yes, it’s a steady round magazine.

Hills: Now the father of the Kalashnikov, Mikhail Kalashnikov, he died, he was 94. How long ago did he design this?

Woolf: Well the “47” in the AK-47 is the clue. He actually was a kid and then went in to the Soviet army just before World War II, and was wounded during a great battle at a place called Bryansk in Russia in 1941, when they were fighting the German invasion. And it was while he was convalescing that he first decided that god, these Germans have such good weapons, we need something to defend the Motherland with. He started then, in his mind, tinkering with the idea of how to make a better weapon and tried to get into entering various competitions, until he got approval to go ahead and then came up with this design around 1946, came into production in 1947, and general use with the Warsaw pacts and Soviet armies thereafter, and after that, all around the world. So yes, the ubiquitousness came from, in the 1970s when the Soviets decided to license all these other manufacturers around the world to make their own variance of it because it was so cheap and popular and reliable. So it’s become this huge icon amongst, particularly, revolutionary style armies, to the extent that it’s now embodied in the flag of Mozambique, the flag of Hezbollah, it’s on the Coats of Arms of Zimbabwe and East Timor, and has this huge symbol of kind of like revolutionary power around the world.

Hills: Now, I read that Kalashnikov was one of seventeen children, and he obviously created this during the Soviet era. How did he benefit or not, from creating this?

Woolf: Well, he never made a fortune. He donated the design to the State. He was a good Socialist, and the Soviet State looked after him, and they heaped him with honors, especially in more recent years, when the Soviet Union became Russia. :But he was never wealthy. He lived modestly in an industrial town, east of Moscow, and there was a quote from him, saying “At that time in our country, patenting inventions wasn't an issue. We worked for Socialist society, for the good of the people, which I never regret.”

Hills: I wonder if Mikhail Kalashnikov ever had any regrets over his long life, over having created the AK-47, given how it’s been used in such a violent way.

Woolf: He was well aware of how it was used, and reporters would often badger him with this very question. And his standard response was that no, it’s not my fault; It’s the politicians who use it for ill, and taken advantage of it. He said in an interview in 2007, “I sleep very well.” However, he also has said that you can blame the Nazis for him coming up with a good design. He would have preferred to make agricultural machinery and he said “I always wanted to work on a good lawnmower.”

Hills: Chris Woolf, the World’s history guy. Thank you so much.

Woolf: You’re welcome.