Why AK-47 Kalashnikov is the world’s most widely used assault rifle

Nigerian Soldiers with AK-47

Why is AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle the first weapon of choice for insurgents and rebels?

More generally, what makes the AK-47 the world’s most widely used assault rifle?

You will hardly see a rebel/terrorist/insurgent with an M16 or another alternative that is more accurate in shooting targets than AK-47.

Well, first of all, the rifle is available in huge numbers.

Without patents and so on to worry about in Communist countries it could be offered at a low cost: there are still huge stores of the weapons in military and police armouries in Russia, Ukraine and other nations which came under the USSR’s sphere of influence.

The Kremlin dutifully authorised factories to be built to churn out identical versions of Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov’s famous design in friendly nations, something the Russian government rues to this day.

The gun soon became a symbol of revolution, even making it onto the flag of Mozambique. The USA was happy to supply Chinese-made AK clones to anti-Soviet insurgents, ensuring Kalashnikov was what every revolutionary wanted for Christmas, even if neither he or his enemy believed in Santa Claus.

National Flag Of Mozambique
National flag of Mozambique. It includes the image of an AK-47 with a bayonet attached to the barrel and is the only national flag in the world to feature a gun.


To what extent its design is “borrowed” or copied from the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44) is a matter of debate, but the AK-47 is the quintessential mid-20th century military weapon: it is simple in design with only 9 basic components, which makes it very easy to both use and maintain, and per the military doctrine prevailing at the time, it throws a fusillade of big, nasty (i.e., large caliber) chunks of lead at the enemy in high volume. It provides instant and effective firepower, even in the hands of semi-literate Third World civilians – children, even.

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As already noted, the Soviets (and subsequently, the Russians) mass-produced Kalashnikovs and flooded the markets, and as well, freely gave (or ignored) patents to other countries to make and even modify AKs, so that since the 1960s you’d be hard-pressed to find regions outside Europe and North America that didn’t have them. Russia today is paying for the Soviet Union’s having flooded the markets; the Soviets did so for ideological purposes, but it has cost modern Russia a lot in export potential because there are still many crates of the 1970s and 80s-era AK-47s all over the world. This makes them very cheap, and easily available for terrorists, insurgencies, disgruntled ethnic groups and the occasional rogue regime.


The Soviets distributed Kalashnikovs as a part of a larger anti-Western strategy, for local groups to use them to destabilize countries with Western interests. This over time led to Kalashnikovs being associated with anti-colonialism as well as anti-Westernism. Groups from Peru to Africa to the southern Philippines all used images of the AK-47 (or some variant) on their flags or in their literature.

Ease of use:

Terrorist with Kalashnikov
Terrorist with Kalashnikov

While the early ARM-series American assault weapons proved unreliable in the 1960s, over time improvements were incrementally made to the extent that in some respects, they are now superior to AK-series guns, BUT only in certain circumstances. They represent a new military philosophy that discarded the large calibre and instead concentrated on refining the powder and changing the nature of the bullet itself to the point where a .223 round can deliver as much penetration or “knock-down” power as the much bigger 7.62mm AK round – allowing an American soldier to carry more ammunition. The ARM guns are also more accurate at longer ranges and have improved their tolerance for dirt, grime and battlefield conditions. However, this again reflects changes in American military philosophy, with the assumption being that there will be a highly trained and disciplined soldier using the weapon. The AK series guns allow just about anyone to pick it up and begin using it to its maximum value by spraying lots of large-calibre lead at the enemy – which as some have already pointed out, is how much close-quarter combat happens anyway, particularly among untrained troops. And the AK, while less accurate than the ARM-series guns at greater distances, is not a wash-out at longer distances – some have been modified into sniper rifles – it just falls short in head-to-head competitions with some other modern assault weapons, but again, most combat is fairly close-quarter.

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In a post-Communist world, the unlicensed copying of the weapon continues to upset Russia’s Foreign Ministry – 90 percent of the 100 million or so AK’s around the world today were made in this way.

Once you have a good supply of ammo you flip the switch to full auto and have a fighter who might be unaware of his weapon’s design history and be poorly trained in infantry tactics, but who will be confident of being able to empty 30 hard-hitting 7.62mm x 39mm rounds into a police van in 2.5 seconds.

In contrast, the USMC trains every recruit to be a rifleman, and a good shot, which takes time and money.

The AK is certainly very easy to train troops to use, quick, compared to Western weapons, and because it’s built with loose tolerances it works in the desert as well as in the frozen tundra.

Guerilla forces in Afghanistan reportedly tie knots in their bootlaces, soak them in oil, and drag these homemade ‘cleaning rods’ through the barrels every now and again without any noticeable loss in function of the rifles.

If the barrel gets bent out of shape? No problem – hit it with a hammer to straighten it out. It should be okay…

Rusty Chinese AK 47
This Type 56 (a Chinese copy of the AK) is still carried by a poacher in Africa. It will still kill you.

Need parts? Simply cannibalise another AK as they can be interchanged from models made in different factories, on different continents (or take some wire and a lump of wood like our poacher friend, and get to work).

Simply put, once you have ammunition to fire through it your AK will not let you down; a boast few other weapons can make.

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