02 October 2009
Here Leslie Thurston looks at the life of the man behind the Kalashnikov rifle. ...
The list of important gun designers familiar to military historians and weapons collectors is very extensive, including names such as Colt, Winchester, Remington, Browning and Gatling from the USA.
Dozens of equally famous names from our side of the Atlantic will be remembered for their particular role in the design and development of newer and better weapons.
Who was Mikhail Kalashnikov?
But perhaps no one is more likely to be remembered for his work on gun design and development than Mikhail Timfeyevick Kalashnikov, a bright, technically minded Sergeant tank commander serving on the eastern front in 1942.
Seriously injured when his T34 tank sustained a hit by a German anti-tank gun during the battle for Bryansk, he began a long period of treatment and recuperation in a military hospital. It was while listening to experiences related by other tankers undergoing treatment that ideas for improving automatic weapons began to develop in his mind.
While all this was taking place, he was informed that for his bravery in escaping through the German lines after being wounded, he was to be awarded the Order of the Red Star, one of the top awards for outstanding service in the defence of the Soviet Union. Such was the seriousness of his injury – a large shell fragment passed through his shoulder – he was ordered to take six months convalescence, a rare privilege during such desperate times when fighting men were so badly needed.
Kalashnikov’s ideas for a new machine gun
Kalashnikov, desperate to get back into action, protested but he was regarded as too valuable to risk at the front. The months spent in his log cabin, far from the battlefront, were not wasted. In between trips to hospital for treatment, his active mind was formulating ideas for a new sub-machine gun. With the help of machinists and other engineering friends, he produced his first fully working weapon, but this was only hand made. From then on, Kalashkinov’s fighting days were at an end. He was put to work with teams of designers with years of experience behind them.
In a highly bureaucratic society like the Soviet Union, life for budding designers, no matter how promising, was never likely to be easy. His first ideas attracted little interest at the time when the PPS43 was proving to be so successful. Even so, it wasn’t long before he was working alongside some of the great names in Soviet weapons design. Simonov, Degtyarev and Sudayev were amongst many keen to further the career of this young and talented prodigy. Being a war hero also helped.