Kalashnikov - man and rifle - revered

Assault weapon inventor never received royalties

Mark McDonald
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Nov. 23, 2003 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

IZHEVSK, Russia - The first snow of the season was pelting his country cottage, too cold and wet for any hunting today, so the dapper little general had retreated to the warmth of his kitchen. A wheel of Camembert, dark bread, sliced pears and a bottle of Armenian brandy sat on the table. He swirled some of the brandy in a snifter and tried to explain about all the blood and tears of the past half-century.

"A lot of people ask me how I sleep, because of all the people who've been killed with my guns," said Mikhail Kalashnikov, 84, the designer of the renowned AK-47 assault rifle.Mikhail Kalashnikov

His light, inexpensive, virtually indestructible guns long have been the weapons of choice for communist armies from Vietnam to China to Angola to Cuba.

They've also been used by all manner of terrorists, freedom fighters, guerrillas and gangsters. The Kalashnikov has been the primary weapon - often for both sides - in most of the 40-odd wars of the past decade. Military historians estimate 100 million AKs in the world today.

'It's the politicians'

"They're like my children . . . " he said. "But it's not the designer's fault or the weapon's fault when terrible things happen - it's the politicians," said Kalashnikov, a retired major general.

"It's because the politicians are unable to reach peaceful agreements. I must say I sleep quite soundly."

What does he think about the ruthless Russian mafiosi who also use his AKs? What about the Chechen terrorists, the Taliban holy warriors, the drug-addled boy-soldiers of Liberia and Sierra Leone?

"I'd much rather have invented a machine to make life easier for farmers and peasants - something like a lawn mower," Kalashnikov said. "But like it or not, I have to live with it, like a shell fragment in one's body."

During the Vietnam conflict, many American soldiers openly admired the enemy's lighter guns. They almost never jammed, even in wet, muddy or sandy conditions. They were easier to carry, clean and shoot.

"The AK is in some way 'the equalizer,' a tag attached to various firearms in the Wild West," said Max Boot, author of The Savage Wars of Peace. "It puts a lot of firepower into the hands of just about anyone, and thus it makes life much more difficult for conventional armies."

For all the gun's global success, the Russian military says it's finally found a replacement for the Kalashnikov, a new assault rifle for the 21st century. It's the AN-94, nicknamed the Nikonov, after its designer.

"It's a completely new rifle," said Maxim Pyadushkin, a Russian military expert and author of a new small-arms survey, Beyond the Kalashnikov.

"There's less recoil, so it's much more accurate," he said. "The Kalashnikov era is about to be over."

Not so fast. The Russian military has been field-testing the Nikonov, and the reviews from paratroopers and commandos have been decidedly mixed. Also, since the Russian army is largely broke and can't afford 300,000 guns, the venerable Kalashnikov could well be around for another generation.

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov is a snub-nosed pistol of a gentleman, with hair so silver it looks nickel-plated. Six decades of test firings have left him half-deaf, but he's got a ready smile, almost boyish, and a handshake that's just right.

The long-widowed general keeps a modest apartment on Soviet Street in downtown Izhevsk, a drab industrial city in central Russia, and he has a tidy lakeside cottage just outside of town.

He was eager to show a visitor his latest inventions: a new hidden lock for his tool shed, a simple but deadly contraption for killing moles in his garden, a collapsible canvas boat, a portable grill he takes on fishing trips and a new shelter for the hedgehogs. "I really worry about the hedgehogs in the winter," he said earnestly.

Armament beehive

Izhevsk has long been the beehive of Russian small-arms making, and the Soviet emphasis on secrecy kept the city closed to outsiders until 10 years ago. Even now, foreigners asking for a look at the decrepit factory are turned away as trespassers, spies or both.

In the harsh economic reality of the post-Soviet world, the plant is trying to finance itself by making hunting rifles, burglar alarms and a tinny $3,000 car called the Oda.

Very few AK-47s actually were made. The original Automatic Kalashnikov 1947 was designed that year and went into production in 1949. It soon was tweaked and became the AKM. The M stands for modernized, and most of the guns in use today are AKMs.

Subsequent modifications came along, and the current AK 100 series can carry grenade launchers and night sights. Also, in a nod to real commerce and realpolitik, the AK-101 has been designed to fire the 5.56mm NATO cartridge. So, East meets West. Kalashnikov's relations with the Izhmash managers have become tense and strained in recent months. They refuse to manufacture a hunting rifle he's designed, and they're unhappy about his family's demands for financial compensation for his years of service.

The company owns the patent on the Kalashnikov designs, and its legendary designer, the two-time Hero of Socialist Labor and a six-term member of the Supreme Soviet, never has received a ruble in royalties. "I'm a product of my times, and back then nobody ever thought about royalties," the general said with a what-the-hell shrug. "All the countries in the Warsaw Pact got our technology and designs for free. We simply gave them away. I didn't always agree, but those were the rules we lived under."

The Soviet military machine gave his gun designs to the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Cubans, the Bulgarians, every empty-handed sibling in the communist brotherhood. Guerrilla leaders in Mozambique felt so indebted to their Kalashnikovs that they put a profile of the gun on the national flag when they came to power. Many rebel fighters even paid homage by naming their first-born sons Kalash.

Political instrument
"The Kalashnikov was used as a political instrument, to gain influence or encourage insurgents the Soviet Union liked," Pyadushkin said. "Nobody paid any attention to money, royalties or intellectual property rights. Now, of course, things are completely different."

Izhmash now is trying, with little success, to force more than a dozen countries to pay royalties for producing its Kalashnikovs and Dragunov sniper rifles. Meanwhile, the old general still draws a paycheck.

When Kalashnikov traveled to the United States in 1990, he met Eugene Stoner, the designer of the fabled American M-16. Stoner told him he got a dollar for every M-16 that was made, and the Soviet general was astounded at his counterpart's material wealth. He marveled that Stoner, now deceased, even flew his own jet.

"People say to me, 'Aren't you angry that you're not a millionaire? In the West, you'd be rich,' " Kalashnikov said. "But why do people always render things in terms of dollars? I was decorated by our leaders. And what other designer has a monument to him? Who has a museum built in his name while he's still alive? Aren't these things of value, too?"

Finally, though, there's some real money in his bank account: His grandson, Igor Krasnovski, a budding MBA, recently struck a deal with MMI, a German company, to put the Kalashnikov name on a new line of everyday products.

The first items: a German-made pocketknife and a Swiss-made military-style watch. On the drawing boards: an umbrella, kids' and hunting clothes and a Kalashnikov-signature vodka. (The general has licensed his name to a rather mediocre Russian vodka, which he admitted he doesn't much like. He said he drank the stuff only during cold-weather hunting or fishing trips.)

The Kalashnikov name, whatever it may mean for the marketing of umbrellas and kids' clothes, is likely to have staying power. Because the weapons are built so simply, so elegantly, so durably, they're likely to be around for years. With the exceptions of Sputnik, Stolichnaya and Bolshoi, it may be the most recognized name ever to come out of Russia.

"The gun never let anyone down in the worst conditions," Kalashnikov said proudly. "I still get lots of letters that say, 'You saved my life with your gun.' That makes me feel good. My whole intention was to make life easier and simpler for the common soldier."

AK 47