September 30, 2019

What could be more iconic than the Kalashnikov? Rough-hewn from wood and iron, its simple
construction belies an enduring example of industrial design. It’s the weapon of choice for a revolution,
and the backbone of any insurgency. So, what makes the AK so special? Why is a near seventy year old rifle still
so popular? And is there really no substitute? The legendary rifle’s story starts in Soviet
Russia, in the embers of World War 2. This was an era of rapid technological progress
amidst valiant acts – and the Soviet Union loved a hero. Mikhail Kalashnikov was a tanker in the Red
Army, wounded in action in 1941. During his recuperation he learned of his
comrade’s woes with their issued rifles – and resolved to tackle them with a soldier-focussed
approach to small arms design: with innate usability borne from simplicity and reliable
function. His early designs caught the eye of officials,
and Kalashnikov found himself part of a small arms development group for the Red Army. The Soviets were not shy to take influence
from what other forces were fielding – and between captured Nazi weapons, Allied supplies
– and a long line of Russian prototypes – the AK-47 began to take shape. The German Sturmgewehr 44 was a major influence:
with similar form factor, it proved the viability of a mid-power cartridge – and provided the
gas system for Kalashnikov’s design. The earlier RPD would also lend its intermediate
cartridge to the AK-47: the 7.62x39mm round, also known as the M43. Its slightly tapered casing is responsible
for giving the AK-47 its distinctive curved magazine. In demonstrations, the 1947 prototype outperformed
any rival, and was readily adopted by the Russians – although initial manufacturing
issues did slow down deployment. These issues were remedied by 1959, when a
modernised version was introduced: known as the AKM. It replaced the milled receiver with a stamped
metal one – both lighter and easier to produce, and was also equipped with a muzzle brake
to improve the accuracy of automatic fire. There were a large number of variants of this
basic design: from the AKS, with a folding stock; to a large number of foreign-produced
AK pattern rifles, such as the Chinese Type 56; Hungarian AMD-65 or the Finnish Rk 62. The smaller calibre AK-74 emerged in 1974
– firing the lighter but higher velocity 5.45x39mm round: with greater wounding potential versus
the older round, the AK74 would supplement and eventually replace the AKM in service. Pair these variants with such a broad service
history, and you have a recipe for a very popular weapon indeed. There have been more Kalashnikov-pattern rifles
made than all other assault rifles combined – in fact, of all the small arms that exist:
1 in 5 is an AK. It’s utterly ubiquitous: found in every corner
of the globe – and such is its influence, it even adorns the flag of Mozambique. No surprise, then, that the AK-47 is as popular
in video games as it is in real life: with perhaps as many digital renditions as those
stamped from steel. It’s so well known that most instances – regardless
of variant – are labelled as the ‘AK-47’, without fear of license rights: only the most
cautious opting to use ersatz appellations, such as Goldeneye’s ‘KF-7 Soviet’ or the ‘CV-47’
in earlier Counter-Strike games. These virtual depictions reflect the rifle’s
design in a variety of ways: but there’s no mistaking the familiar characteristics of
the AK. Often, a weapon’s identity is forged by the
powers that wield it: and with its prominent use by the Second World during the Cold War,
the AK has come to symbolise the defiance and might of those who would oppose the west. It’s the foil to the American M16, and the
weapon of choice for any opposing force: and for that reason it’s often the default option
for the ‘bad guys’ in games that mirror any recent conflict. In some cases, like in Counter-Strike, the
AK is only available to the terrorist forces: and here it has prime placement, being the
top-tier automatic weapon on offer, alongside the Counter-Terrorist’s M4. Perhaps it’s by its association with untrained
militia fighters, or just affinity by design: but long bursts of automatic fire – spray
and pray – seems a natural fit for the AK. It has perfectly good accuracy, and is more
than capable of hitting targets within its effective range: but somehow the AK doesn’t
feel like a marksman’s rifle. Luckily, the weapon is quite suited to sustained
fire: and this is normally reflected within its depiction. The AK’s rate of fire is fairly moderate,
and while recoil is present it’s still possible to wrest the weapon onto a close-range target. It’s not particularly elegant, nor great for
ammo conservation – but you’ve got 30 chances to hit something, even if it’s not what you
were aiming at. Of course, it’s not just enough to be capable
of automatic fire – a weapon must also be able to dole out magazine after magazine without
stoppage or fuss. Luckily, the AK’s reliability is legendary:
with loose tolerances, and as simple a mechanism as possible – there’s not too much that can
go wrong, and even less that can’t be put right. This is one trait that doesn’t transfer well
to video games: malfunctions are seldom shown, as firearm maintenance isn’t a particularly
exciting endeavour – and experiencing a feed failure mid-firefight would only prove frustrating. Some games do reflect these factors, however
– perhaps most notably Far Cry 2, with scavenged weapons proving much less reliable than those
bought brand new. Weapon condition is also a factor in some
RPGs, such as in Fallout 3: but a poorly-kept weapon suffers only in the damage stakes,
rather than with any interruption. It’s this reliability and simplicity that
gives the weapon much of its charm – other weapons might be more high-tech, but that
does you no good if it chokes in dusty environments. It seems almost sacrilegious to tamper with
the purity of the AK – strapping anything superfluous to the weapon is an insult to
the design principles of Kalashnikov. Some games do let you customise your AK-47
with a variety of attachments: optics, suppressors and garish paint jobs. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had the right
idea, as equipping a red-dot sight would harm the AK-47’s long range damage: meaning the
most sensible choice was just a plain rifle with iron sights. Remember: just because you can… doesn’t
mean you should. Of course, if you’re some tin-pot dictator
of some far-flung land you can generally do whatever you like – and this extends to having
your favourite rifle gold-plated. Although such weapons are ornamental, and
clearly not designed for the rigours of battle, some games do feature golden guns. Some represent the pinnacle of accomplishment
with the weapon, a reward for the completion of challenges: while others just represent
an absence of good taste. So, the AK-47. The very best there is. From drug lords to peasant rebellions, the
AK is everyone’s favourite weapon: a great equaliser, irrespective of wealth or status. It’s not the most accurate weapon, nor the
most elegant – but it simply doesn’t have to be. It’s good enough. It excels where fighters need it most: it’s
reliable. Stoppages are rare, and any faults that do occur can probably be fixed with a
hammer. It’s simple to use. There’s no need to pore
over a manual, the AK is point and shoot. It’s so simple a child could use it – and
in some parts of the world, they often do. It’s cheap. Easy to manufacture and even easier
to acquire – if you’re looking to arm an insurrection on a budget, no other rifle will come close. It is an old weapon, but it’s not yet outdated:
at the end of World War 2, it was cutting edge – and led the way for the rise of the
assault rifle during the 20th Century. Today, although not quite as high-tech as
some infantry weapons, the AK-47 still performs its duty: and with 100 million rifles in existence,
its popularity is unlikely to evaporate any time soon. With its widespread use and low cost, the
weapon can be counted alongside the most basic of tools: The hammer; The sickle; The AK-47. Thank you very much for watching – and until
next time, farewell.

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