The AK-47: the gun of choice for revolutionaries around the world?

Posted by hi29 at May 08, 2014 05:05 PM |
What has the development of the AK-47 meant for war and violence around the world? Dr Jon Moran from the Department of Politics and International Relations examines the development of this pivotal weapon, and what its use has meant throughout history.

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the inventor of the assault rifle which bears his name has just died, aged 94. A weapon that was designed by a patriotic communist army officer became an international bestseller. The market for AK-47s is now a truly global one: they have helped decentralise or privatise violence and insurgency.

During the bloody struggle between Axis and Soviet forces in Stalingrad the Soviet troops used the PPSH machine gun effectively in urban warfare, but after World War Two the Soviets wanted a new weapon and the Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK)-47 was born.

Developed from a number of prototypes, the weapon we recognise today emerged in 1947. Adopted as the standard assault rifle for the Soviet Army, the AK-47 became the USSR’s most popular export. Licenses to produce it were granted to Warsaw Pact countries, and also to other countries seen as leaning to the USSR, such as Egypt and Iraq. The Chinese made AK 47s in great numbers. However the simple design also meant the weapon was produced unofficially at many sites, and so weapons were traded on. While Soviet soldiers carried AK 47s in their ten year war in Afghanistan the mujahideen fighting them also carried AK 47s made in China and shipped to them by the CIA.

The AK 47 has been central to most of the killing in the last 50 years. The weapon was used in conventional wars like Vietnam and Iran-Iraq; it was used in civil wars (in El Salvador) and in insurgencies (by Sandinistas and their opponents the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua). It was so prevalent in wars of anti-colonial liberation such as Angola and Mozambique that the AK 47 appears on Mozambique’s national flag. It is also used in situations of total breakdown of authority (‘war markets’) such as the Congo and it is a staple of the drug trafficking groups in Colombia and Mexico.

The low cost has made the AK outstrip any of its rivals. After the Coalition invasion of Iraq the price of AK-47s dropped by over half and they became central to the early insurgency, along with another democratised weapon the IED. Their ease of use is another selling point. Untrained troops and even children can shoot AK-47s relatively easily. Even so, AK-47s are not accurate, they spray fire. As such, in the hands of child soldiers, vigilantes and militias without the least training, they are ironically even more lethal. As the ISAF forces prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014 locals are once again buying AK-47s as they fear criminal and political violence will return. And so the cycle continues. An estimated 100 million AK-47s have been manufactured, but no-one can estimate how many people have been killed or maimed by them.

The history of violence - whether conventional war, civil conflict, guerrilla campaigns or warlord competition - is also the history of the AK-47.

View the related presentation (PDF, 310KB)

By Dr Jon Moran - Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

Archived website

The Social Worlds project ran from March 2014 to November 2015. This site is no longer being updated but provides an archive of all the articles which were created as part of the project.

Search Articles

Download publication (PDF)

Dr Jon Moran

Research Interests:

  • The continuing power of the state in the international system
  • Issues of intelligence and security accountability
  • Other areas of security and state power

Supervision Interests:

  • Counter-terrorism
  • Counter-insurgency
  • Corruption
  • Anti-corruption
  • East Asian politics and history
  • Most aspects of democratisation

Contact Details:


Telephone: 0116 252 2303

Visit Jon's staff page