The AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War

by Larry Kahaner. Joe Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, N.J., 2007, softcover $25.95.

Virtually every American veteran of Vietnam and later conflicts knows the Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifle. Few, however, know anything about its designer or how the weapon came into being. Both make for interesting reading and provide ironic insights into how the Soviet Union succeeded in introducing the world’s first modern post–World War II assault rifle into service before the West. For Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashinikov was not the head of a major Soviet design bureau, or even a Communist Party member, when he designed his now-famous weapon. He was a simple soldier who adopted the features and technology that his combat experience told him a military rifle required. In writing the rifle’s history, Larry Kahaner had to write its designer’s story, and in many ways, the highly readable AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the World reflects both.

Many have wondered how the Soviet system could design such a cheap and practical weapon while the supposedly more innovative and free-thinking West could not. The debate about whether the AK-47 is better than the M-16 continues to this day, but it can be said that both rifles’ reputations were established in the world’s mind by 1970, to the AK’s benefit.

Interestingly, its designer is now a 90- year-old pensioner who refuses interviews and receives no royalties. As an employee of the Soviet state, Kalashinikov was given only a medal and one-time cash award when he invented his rifle.

Larry Kahaner’s book is a fitting tribute to the humble Kalashinikov. It is also an educational repast for those interested in understanding how bureaucracies and closed minds can block innovation at the cost of those whose lives they should serve.


Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.