“Why Didn’t He Design Anything Else?” Looking at Mikhail Kalashnikov’s Forgotten Firearms Portfolio

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Last weekend, I took the major arguments of Kalashnikov conspiracy theorists head on, and one of those – which I hear rather frequently – is why he did not design any other weapons besides the AK-47.

The reason is… He did. Kalashnikov was a skilled and fairly prolific designer who by the mid-1960s had a near-monopoly on the designs of platoon-level small arms (excluding the Makarov handgun and short-lived Stetchkin machine pistol). This was of course partly due to the universality of his AK assault rifle design, but also because of his excellent PK machine gun – a weapon that borrowed many of the AK’s mechanical features but married them to an extremely well-designed and reliable belt-feed mechanism.

Kalashnikov’s career as a designer spanned several decades, beginning in 1942 as he was recovering from a shoulder wound he received the previous year when the T-34 tank he was commanding was hit. His first firearm design was the submachine gun chambered for the 7.62x25mm Tokarev round, shown below:

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Kalashnikov first used the MP40-esque folding stock design on his 1942 submachine gun design.

 

Kalashnikov’s submachine gun did not get far; it was not judged competitive with Sudaev’s already-adopted PPS-43 submachine gun. However, the design brought Kalashnikov recognition as an extremely creative and dedicated designer. In 1944, Kalashnikov was given samples of the new 7.62x41mm round, and set to designing a selfloading rifle for it, resulting in the rifle below:

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By late 1944, the focus had shifted from selfloading rifles, to assault rifles – avtomats – and Kalashnikov accordingly began work on his first prototypes in this class. The rifles below are often collectively called “AK-46”, although they are properly two different designs. Both use the same rotating bolt design as his selfloading rifle above, something he adapted from John Garand’s M1, and which – along with his robust and reliable magazine design, also present in these early prototypes – would form the heart of his world-famous AK-47:

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These weapons, however, were short-stroke, and sported left-hand charging handles as well as left-side switch-type controls. In trials, Kalashnikov’s initial prototypes suffer problems, and so he went back to the drawing board, creating the substantially simpler and more robust AK-47, the first version of which is shown below:

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Mechanically, AK-47 No. 1 is 100% Kalashnikov as we recognize it today; only secondary features would change on the road to adoption.

Once Mikhail’s AK-47 was accepted by the Russian military, he set out to design a new submachine gun, once again, this time in the brand-new 9x18mm Makarov caliber. This rifle was an open-bolt, select-fire weapon sporting a collapsible stock. It also featured an invention that many probably believe came much later with Marc Krebs: A bolt-hold open notch on the Kalashnikov-style safety.

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On modern closed-bolt AK-47 rifles, this notch is a convenience, but on this open-bolt submachine gun, it’s a major safety feature. Its inclusion means that this weapon could be cocked, and then the safety engaged to absolutely prevent any possibility of the bolt slipping the sear and firing a round unintentionally. This mechanism was typical of the simplicity and effectiveness of Kalashnikov’s inventions.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Raginzerker

    I really like that first submachine gun, looks like it should be in fallout, good read.

  • Denis

    Sorry for my English, but main argument – the Kalashnikov machine gun PK.

    • ZMD

      Yep, the PK/PKM was his other big design and common everywhere you can find AKs.

      • PK

        …except the USA. I cry about that, at times.

        At all times.

        • wysoft

          I always hoped for lots of Romanian PKM kits if they adopted 7.62 NATO
          It will probably never happen.

          • jcitizen

            All PKM kits dried up instantly after the Sandy Hook disaster. There was someone making excellent semi-auto receivers for them, but because the parts kits dried up, they quit making them.

      • wysoft

        It’s funny how simple the execution was.

        We need new GPMG
        “Okay, make AK bigger and put bipod”
        We need belt feed, quick barrel change, and eject to left side
        “Okay, flip AK internals upside down, now rifle is loading from top”

        Project complete

  • JustAHologram

    Is that a Tommy gun grip?

    • PK

      From a Thompson? No, it’s only similar.

      Inspired by a Thompson? Yes, possibly, although it was already a feature on some prototype Russian arms by then, so it’s likely Kalashnikov had exposure to the concept from multiple sources.

      • Joe

        Yep, definitely not a Thompson grip, but we did Lend-Lease several thousand M1928’s to the Soviets, which I assume is where Kalashnikov got it from.

        • iksnilol

          Or he could have gotten the idea from Fedorov?

          • Anonymoose

            We gave the Soviets a Thompson with every tank purchased (but never any ammo afaik). Kalashnikov was a tanker originally, so he may have seen some Thompsons firsthand. Still, having an integral, ergonomic foregrip like that is a good idea on any submachinegun or automatic rifle.

            On a side-note, they used those Thompsons in movies later on, like the original Stalker film from the 70s.

          • iksnilol

            Yeah, but Fedorov automat was made in WW1.

            Yeah, Tommies are popular, high ROF made it well liked by my uncle in the 90’s in Ex-Yu.

          • ostiariusalpha

            As a tanker, he would have been far more likely to run across a Thompson than one of the few thousand Fedorov rifles that had been issued for the faraway Karelian front.

          • Jonathan Ferguson

            True, but he was very familiar with Federov’s work and cited his book on automatic weapons as a major inspiration (read it whilst recuperating).

          • ostiariusalpha

            That’s true, “Evolution of Small Arms” even has an illustration.
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3a94d071ed6a9324dbcda0d942ea18986f712cbb3106c26241408ceb1d50083c.jpg

          • Jay

            The Russian tankers weren’t very impressed with the Thompson that came with their tanks. Few weeks ago i read the memoir of a Russian M4 Sherman tanker. The guy was happy with his tank and preffered it to the T34, but they got rid of the Tommy gun quick. The guy said the gun was too big and bulky to maneuver inside the tank and they found out the performance of the round to be poor, in the winter, when soldiers wore heavy clothing. They quickly got rid of it and replaced it with an MP-40. He said that all tankers loved the compact mp40. That’s what he carried for the rest of the war.

          • Rock or Something

            Commanding the Red Army’s Sherman Tanks: The World War II Memoirs of Hero of the Soviet Union Dmitriy Loza

            His story is fascinating for sure. He recalled a time in (Yugoslavia?) where the high center of gravity from his Sherman pretty much saved his life. When it was knocked on its side due to a mine, everyone in his tank survived, but the other tanks behind him pressed forward and were destroyed in a well planned ambush.

            Crewman would often find little gifts in newly shipped lend and lease Shermans, like hard liquor from the factory workers here in the states.

            Another thing about the Thompson is that I don’t think they shipped over enough 45 caliber ammo, so even if the Russians wanted to use them, they couldn’t for any long periods of engagements.

          • PK

            My thinking exactly, and one of the earlier guns in the area to feature such a grip.

  • kyphe

    The common opinion I run into is that the Ak46 is Kalashnikov but the 47 is the committee gun he was told to build using technical drawings and examples of all favored parts from all the other submissions from the other designers in that same test.

    The level of difference between the two is one of the main reasons some people don’t class the AK47 as primarily Kalashnikovs

    • That opinion is baseless, so far as I know.

      Kalashnikov clearly did take ideas from the AB-46 Bulkin, but where in the West this would be a scandal, in the USSR this kind of idea-sharing was encouraged. So in using the best elements of the AB-46 to simplify and ruggedize his design, Kalashnikov was actually doing his job.

      Despite the similarities between the AK-47 and AB-46, I still think Kalashnikov designed the AK-47. I’ll explain why in a post some other day.

      Regarding how different the AK-46 and AK-47 are… That’s very normal. Garand’s T3 and T1 rifles are very different than his previous models, for example, and Eugene Stoner’s AR-10 prototypes are likewise substantially different than the work he was doing before. We must remember that designers learn from their experience and especially their mistakes. Kalashnikov’s AK-46 was criticized in trials, and so he took it back to the drawing board to correct those errors.

      • Steve_7

        Kalashnikov himself always gave evasive answers when people started to look into the details of how he designed the rifle. It clearly was a group effort.

  • Sasquatch

    That smaller open bolt smg makes me think of a scorpion.

    • PK

      It’s the nose and wire stock, for sure. It’s like a stretched receiver Sa61.

      • Sasquatch

        Yea I wish the would import some….

        • PK

          You could always make one? Even if it were importable, they weren’t ever really made in great numbers since you’re looking at a prototype. It may have even just been a one-off. PPS-43 parts kits are cheap and abundant, and with some work you could end up with just what you want!

          Or did you mean a Sa61? Those are commercially available in the USA, and in Canada there are parts kits and 80% receivers available as well.

          • Sasquatch

            The Sa61. Yes commercially available but no more imports as far as I can see. Also where can you find these parts kit and receivers?

          • PK

            For the USA or for Canada?

            The pistols are still brought into the USA and sold by Czechpoint, and Recon Ordnance has kits and receivers (100%) for sale.

            For Canada, I’m unclear on the status of the finished gun and I’m unaware of any company selling them, but Dlask sells 80% receivers, blueprints, and parts kits.

          • Sasquatch

            US and that’s sweet I will have to check them out. Only place I thought they were anymore was gunbroker.

          • PK

            No problem! Czechpoint doesn’t do much advertising, but their customer service is fantastic. I own a few of their Sa61s, one of each caliber. Great guns, and they’ll be bringing in the .22lr kits soon as well.

          • Sasquatch

            I know what santa will have in his sack for me this year…..

          • PK

            Make sure to read the whole FAQ on Czechpoint’s website.

          • jcitizen

            APEX gun parts has a lot of kits most of the time. (when they don’t run out)

  • jimmy craked corn

    How much of this is true and how much is Soviet propaganda? Can you even separate the two?

    • Considering none of the above weapons ever actually appeared in Soviet propaganda, none of it.

  • Audie Bakerson

    Why did they ever adopt 9×18 when better pistol cartridges were widespread by the time it was introduced?

    • PK

      Direct blowback pistols are incredibly cheap and easy to manufacture. When you need a few million of something, you tend to attempt cost reduction per unit.

      • Audie Bakerson

        Ah, so they deliberately made a worse cartridge so it was low power enough for that. That makes sense.

        • RJMBI

          If I recall, and someone correct me if I’m wrong, I believe the Soviets wanted to adopt something different enough that if their depots were overtaken, western enemies wouldn’t be utilize the munitions.

          • PK

            Likely apocryphal.

          • SlowJoeCrow

            Maybe for the pistol round, but the 82mm mortar was almost definitely designed to prevent enemies from using captured ammunition, since 81mm mortar bombs will work in an 82mm tube but 82mm bombs won’t fit in an 81mm tube.

          • Tritro29

            I think it’s more of a by product than the goal. Plus that’s our dear Rezun’s line, don’t fall for it.

          • n0truscotsman

            Them pesky Russians. Very tricksy 😉

        • PK

          That was pretty much the raison d’etre behind the PM and 9x18mm’s development, yes. The simplest pistol with the fewest parts firing the heaviest bullet at the highest velocity that could still easily kill out of a handgun barrel, but would be dead simple to make a blowback pistol to accommodate.

          It worked for the mission goal, and very well. It isn’t a “worse” cartridge, it’s just lower powered. For the purpose required, it’s fine.

    • Kivaari

      It delivered near 9×19 performance in a blow back pistol and could not share ammunition with the enemy. Pistols don’t have a big roll in combat. Perhaps they felt it was enough.

  • I wasn’t describing your comments specifically, just generally pointing it out.

    • Jay

      You are absolutely right. Usually they share research and the final product usually incorporated good design features from competing designs.
      In some cases, research institutes, not involved in the actual competition shared new discoveries with all competing teams to improve the final product.
      A perfect example is the use of long LERX ahead of the wing on combat aircraft. Sukhoi discovered the advantages of the LERX and they informed the central aeronautical research institute, who did all the wind tunel testing and the math and then shared the info with the other aeronautical companies, MIG, Yak, Tupolev. That’s how Mig 29 and Tu-160 and later yak 130 got their LERX.

  • David B

    There was a Hillary Clinton ad in the middle of this article. Almost ruined it for me.

  • Steve C

    You forgot the best weapon he ever designed = The PKM light machine gun in 7.62x54R. The most prevalent soviet era machine gun, and it is still being used in the Russian Army and variants of it can be found and are made all over the world. This is probably the best gun of it’s type on the battlefield today. Not because it is finely crafted and made from the finest materials, but because it works – in fact it will even continue to operate with a broken firing pin. It’s basically an inverted AK action beefed up to handle the 7.62x54R round. It requires less maintenance and care than any other machinegun – belt or magazine fed, and it weighs less than most of the guns in it’s class. Kalishnikov perfected the quick change barrel with the PKM, and it’s probably the fastest barrel to change of any weapon in it’s class. It has a controllable rate of fire, doesn’t care about rain/wind/snow/ice/heat/dirt/sand/water or any other condition you can throw at it, it just works and keeps working. Like the AK47, the PKM is a loose tolerance weapon, somewhat crudely finished but it is accurate and mobile and that is what you want in a light machine gun.

    • Second paragraph.

      • Steve C

        Sorry, apologies… I’m using a tablet and it isn’t always accurate and the ads scramble the articles… damned Android OS. Anyway,

    • Max Glazer

      Not loose tolerances, but big clearances

  • Kivaari

    Nathaniel, This is an excellent series. I’ve heard the disbelievers repeating the negative claims for 40 years. After 40 plus years if being around and using AKs and reading quite a few books on the man and the guns I developed a deal of respect for him.

  • Kevin Gibson

    Again, excellent job Nathaniel; thank you. Also remember, Kalashnikov is credited with inventing the PK machinegun, which, while not perfect, is an excellent machinegun.

    • Hi, Keith, thanks for the kind feedback! I do mention the PK in the second paragraph.

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    Great condensed article — thanks! The association of Mikhail Kalashnikov with the AK-47 is so ubiquitous that we often fail to see beyond to his numerous other designs. All supported, of course, by a design bureau that also tends to be overlooked for the same reason.

    A similar fate appears to have befallen most other well-known firearms designers and design teams throughout history when one or a handful of their products becomes the primary symbol of their success, except perhaps for John Moses Browning.

  • There are also a bunch of sporting guns. None of them went into mass production (or at least were popular as far as I know), but the Kalashnikov exhibition at St.-Petersburg Artillery and Signal Corps Museum had several of his post-war prototypes for civilian self-loading rifles and shotguns.