The AK-47 is a selective fire, gas operated 7.62mm assault rifle, first developed in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Kalashnikov. The designation AK-47 stands for Kalashnikov automatic rifle, model of 1947.
Design work on the AK began in 1944. In 1946 a version of the rifle, the AK-46, was presented for official military trials, and a year later the fixed stock version was introduced into service with select units of the Red Army. An early development of the design was the AKS-47, which differed in being equipped with an underfolding metal shoulder stock. The AK-47 was officially accepted by the Soviet Armed Forces in 1949 and used by the majority of the member states of the former Warsaw Pact.
The AK-47 fires the 7.62x39mm cartridge which produces significant wounding in cases where the bullet tumbles and fragments in tissue, but which produces relatively minor wounds in cases where the bullet exits before beginning to yaw.
The original AK-47 was one of the first true assault rifles. Even after six decades, due to its durability, low production cost and ease of use, the model and its variants remain the most widely used and popular assault rifles in the world. It has been manufactured in many countries and has seen service with regular armed forces as well as irregular, revolutionary and terrorist organizations worldwide. The AK-47 was also used as a basis for the development of many other types of individual and crew-served firearms. More AK-type rifles have been produced than all other assault rifles combined.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and the United States supplied arms and technical knowledge to numerous client-state countries and rebel forces. While the United States used the relatively expensive M-14 battle rifle and M16 assault rifle during this time, it generally supplied older surplus weapons to its allies. The low production and materials costs of the AK-47 meant that the Soviet Union could produce and supply client states with this rifle instead of sending surplus munitions. As a result, the Cold War saw the mass export, sometimes free of charge, of AK-47s by the Soviet Union and Communist China to pro-communist countries and groups such as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Viet Cong. The AK design was spread to over 55 national armies and dozens of paramilitary groups.
The proliferation of this weapon is reflected by more than just numbers. The AK is included in the flag of Mozambique and its coat of arms, an acknowledgement that the country’s leaders gained power in large part through the effective use of their AK-47s. It is also found in the coat of arms of Zimbabwe and East Timor, the revolution era coat of arms of Burkina Faso, the flag of Hezbollah, and the logo of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Western cultures, especially the United States, have seen the AK-47 most often in the hands of nations and groups the United States condemns; first the Soviet Army, then its Communist allies during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. During the 1980s, the Soviet Union became the principal arms dealer to countries embargoed by the United States, including many Middle Eastern nations such as Syria, Libya and Iran, who were willing to ally with the Soviet Union against U.S. supported states like Israel. After the fall of the Soviet Union, AK-47s were sold both openly and on the black market to any group with cash, including drug cartels and dictatorial states, and more recently they have been seen in the hands of extremist factions such as the Taliban and Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Iraq, and FARC guerrillas in Colombia. In the United States, movie makers often arm criminals, gang members and terrorist characters with AKs. For these reasons, the AK-47 is stereotypically regarded by most U.S.-influenced cultures as the weapon of the enemy.