What Made The AK-47 So Popular?

iStock/RollingEarth
iStock/RollingEarth

Over the last 64 years, the AK-47 has become the iconic rifle of choice for everyone from the Soviet military to terrorists to drug lords. Let’s take a look at the world’s most common assault rifle.

© Ed Darack/Science Faction/Corbis

Why are AK-47s sometimes referred to as Kalashnikovs?

That name would be a nod to the rifle’s inventor. Mikhail Kalashnikov was born to a farming family in southern Russia in 1919. As a boy, he wanted to become a poet, but like a lot of young Russian men he ended up in the army instead. Kalashnikov rose through the ranks to become a tank commander until he was wounded while fighting Nazis at the Battle of Bryansk in 1941.

While Kalashnikov was convalescing he began poking around in small arms design.

A fellow soldier had asked Kalashnikov why the Russians weren’t as well armed as the Nazis, each of whom had his own automatic rifle. Kalashnikov started tinkering with designs for an automatic rifle that could help defend his country, and he finally perfected his design in 1947. The rifle is officially known as the Avtomat Kalashnikova (Automatic Kalashnikov), and the “47” derives from its year of completion.

What made the AK-47 so popular?

One might think that the AK-47’s wild popularity stems from pinpoint accuracy. Think again. The standard issue AK isn’t particularly accurate; it’s best in relatively close-range combat situations rather than distant engagements.

The AK-47’s major selling points are its simplicity and its ability to take a beating. The rifle was designed to be easy to use, easy to repair, and reliable. The ruggedness of the gun makes it the perfect weapon for dirty, sandy conditions or for soldiers who might not be super disciplined about maintaining their firearms. Its simple firing mechanism means that the gun jams very rarely. Depending on conditions of use, an AK-47 can have a service life of anywhere from 20 to 40 years.

We see terrorists and rebels with Kalashnikovs all the time. How many are out there?

The AK’s ubiquity isn’t simply a testament to its reliability. It’s also partially a function of the mind-numbing number of Kalashnikovs that have been produced. Oxford economist Phillip Killicoat cites an amazing statistic in his 2006 paper “Weaponomics: The Economics of Small Arms.”

There are somewhere around 500 million firearms worldwide. Around 100 million of those are some sort of Kalashnikov, with the AK-47 leading the way with roughly 75 million units in existence.

Huge production numbers coupled with a long service life have littered the globe with AKs. Killicoat’s paper cites another big reason for the AK-47’s global status: the Soviet government may have been stingy with its own people, but it was awfully generous when it came to giving away or selling Kalashnikovs to regimes and rebel groups it supported.

Even with relatively high demand, such a gigantic supply has kept the AK fairly cheap for terrorists, drug lords, and thugs around the globe. In fact, in some places an AK-47 is actually much cheaper today than it was 25 years ago. In a 2005 interview about his book Illicit, editor Moises Naim of Foreign Policy relayed an anecdote about a Kenyan village in which an AK-47 cost 15 cows in 1986. Nineteen years later the price had cratered to just four cows. In Killicoat’s “Weaponomics” paper he breaks down average AK-47 prices by region, and while most run buyers a few hundred dollars, he tracked transactions for as little as $40 or $50.

So Mikhail Kalashnikov must be pretty rich, right?

Think again. The Soviet government wasn’t exactly generous with its royalty payment on his rifles. Kalashnikov has confirmed that he never made a cent in royalties off of his gun design since the government simply took the plans and mass-produced the rifle. Kalashnikov reportedly lives modestly off of his government pension. He's lent his name to several other products, including Kalashnikov Vodka, which was launched in 2004.

Kalashnikov actually comes across as a deeply conflicted inventor in interviews and public statements. He’s obviously very proud of having designed a workhorse rifle that served the Russian military for so long, but he’s uneasy about the role the gun has assumed in terrorist culture. At the same time, he realizes that he’s not to blame for the AK-47 ending up in the wrong hands. At a celebration of his 90th birthday, he said, ''I created a weapon to defend the borders of my motherland. It's not my fault that it's being used where it shouldn't be.”

On a 2002 visit to Germany, Kalashnikov expressed similar ambivalence, saying, “I'm proud of my invention, but I'm sad that it is used by terrorists. I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work—for example a lawnmower."

Is it Legal to Own an AK-47 in the United States?

Short answer: if you’re talking about a legitimately fully automatic AK-47, only in rare cases. While it’s no longer legal for domestic companies to make or import machine guns for civilian use, private individuals can still lawfully own machine guns that were legally registered prior to May 1986. These grandfathered-in guns (including some AK-47s) can legally be transferred to new owners, but it’s a tightly regulated transaction overseen by the ATF. It’s also pricey; in addition to all the background checks and oversight the transfer usually includes a $200 excise tax.

Semi-automatic look-alikes (that is, rifles where you have to pull the trigger each time you want to fire a shot) are legal in many areas, though. Some enterprising companies have used this fact to their advantage. In 2009 Max Motors of Butler, MO ran a “Free AK-47 with Any New Truck” promotion. To see a contentious CNN interview with the dealer, click here.

Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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Why Does Santa Claus Live at the North Pole?

allanswart/iStock via Getty Images
allanswart/iStock via Getty Images

As children settle in for a restless night’s sleep this Christmas Eve, they’ll no doubt be picturing Santa Claus on his way from the snowy ’scapes of the North Pole to deliver them Star Wars LEGO sets, Frozen 2 dolls, and everything else on their wish list. They picture Santa at the North Pole, of course, because they’ve seen him living there in numerous Christmas movies, books, and television specials, from perennial Rankin/Bass programs to more modern classics like 2003’s Elf.

While it might seem a little more magical if we told you that nobody really knows why Santa lives there, there is a relatively traceable paper trail: The first known reference to Santa’s North Pole residence is in an 1866 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly.

According to Smithsonian.com, famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast—who was also responsible for establishing the donkey and elephant as the symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively—first started creating Harper’s Weekly Christmas cartoons as Union propaganda for the Civil War in January 1863. Borrowing imagery from Clement Clarke Moore’s (alleged) 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (which you’d probably recognize as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Nast developed the white-bearded, rosy-cheeked, all-around jolly guy that we know today, and showed him passing out gifts to Union soldiers, climbing into a chimney as a soldier’s wife prays, and more.

harper's weekly santa claus at camp by thomas nast
Thomas Nast, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The cartoons became so popular that Nast branched out from his source material and began inventing his own details to add to Saint Nick—like where he’s from, for example. A December 29, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly debuted a multi-image cartoon titled “Santa Claus and His Works,” which includes a small inscription along the circular border that reads Santa Claussville, N.P. According to The New York Times, we don’t know exactly why Nast chose the North Pole (or if it was even his own idea), but there are a few reasons it made sense for the time period.

For one, Santa Claus was already widely associated with snow because most of the publishing companies producing Christmas cards and other content were located in New England, where it actually snows around Christmas. Furthermore, the 1840s and 1850s were partly characterized by high-profile—and ill-fated, in the Franklin expedition's case—attempts to explore the Arctic, and the public was generally interested in the mysterious, poorly-charted region. Because the Pole was unoccupied, Santa and his elves could toil the year away without interference from prying eyes; and, because it was unclaimed, Santa could remain a bastion of benevolence for every nation.

merry old santa claus by thomas nast
"Merry Old Santa Claus," perhaps Nast's most famous illustration of Santa, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.
Thomas Nast, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though we’ll likely never know Nast’s personal rationale behind placing Santa Claus in the North Pole, one thing’s for sure: At this point, it’s hard to imagine him living anywhere else. It’s also hard to imagine him riding a broom, wielding a gun, or smoking cigarettes (find out the stories behind those early Santas here).

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