By Christopher R. Bartocci
The roots of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s famous AK47 rifle have been discussed time after time, and the secrecy surrounding its roots as well as other wartime developments shrouds that birth in mystery. General Kalashnikov himself has told SAR in the past that he used the M1 Garand as a model to derive ideas from and denied any connection to the German MP44, and he once told veteran small arms designer Charles Rostocil that he made five prototypes before he got one to work- contrary to the legends surrounding the “one model-one success” AK-47. This will be a controversy for years to come, and we are pleased to present SAR Contributor Chris Bartocci’s analysis of this situation.-Dan
Every concept has a beginning point and that concept will branch out and evolve. The starting point for the assault rifle came from Nazi Germany with the StG44. In this weapon, the concept of the intermediate caliber, light weight and selective fire rifle began. Within 6 years, the StG44 had gone through its first evolution. Coming from the Soviet Union, the AK47 was the first rifle to adhere to this new concept. Just how similar are these weapons? From the StG44, the AK47 and many of the modern day assault rifles share concept and mechanical similarities that describes the evolution of the modern day assault rifle. Another truth is that the mechanical lineage of most modern infantry rifles go back much farther than the StG44. The StG44 also adapts previous designs from other weapons. The real question becomes, how much of the designs were specific to that weapon or what traits were carried over from other designs to make one better weapon than any previously designed? But the evolution of the modern day AK-family of weapons was seriously influenced by the German rifle.
During World War II, the German Army introduced a new type of warfare, mechanized/maneuver warfare, a type which would redefine the whole concept of the modern battle rifle. This consisted of massive artillery and air strikes followed by assaults with infantry troops. No more hiding in trenches as in World War 1. Throughout modern warfare, much emphasis has been placed on individual marksmanship. The “one shot one kill” concept prevailed till the end of World War II. During World War I, trench warfare offered opportunities for troops to engage the enemy between 500 and 1,000 meters. With the introduction of mechanized/maneuver warfare, combat was brought much closer. Quite rarely did anyone engage targets beyond 400 meters. Emphasis was put on the new devastating machine guns and machine pistols. There was a practical use for a cartridge which fell in power in between the full powered battle cartridge and the submachine gun pistol cartridge.
The German Army recognized the need for an intermediate cartridge: a round which would have the range of the full powered 7.92x57mm ball round and have the controllability of the machine pistol in 9mm in a light weight, select fire weapon. While fired on fully-automatic it would fire controllable and effective bursts. The high volume of fire desired by the Germans was one of the keys to their effectiveness. It was not necessary to have the 1,000 meter capability when the maximum distances that engagements would take place in would be under 400 meters.
In 1935, there were trials for this new intermediate cartridge conducted at the School of Infantry at Dobeite and sponsored by the Heerswaffenamt (Army Weapons Bureau). In 1941, this new cartridge was adopted by the German Army. It was the 7.92x33mm Kurz (short) round. This round fired a 125-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,250 feet per second.
Development began with the MKB42 (Maschinen Karabiner 42 or Machine Carbine 42). There were two different models: both chambered for the new 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge. The first was the MKB42(H), which was designed by Hugo Schmeisser who worked for Hanel. The second was the MKB42(W) manufactured by Walther. The main difference between the two was the one designed by Hugo Schmeisser fired from an open bolt position. After testing, the MKB42(H) was selected for further development.
In 1942, Adolph Hitler became aware of the development of the new Kurz cartridge and the intermediate rifle program. However, he was not interested in any new weapons. With Germany’s success with the machine guns and machine pistols at hand, he did not think there was any need for a new weapon let alone anew cartridge. He ordered the project cancelled with no further development into this concept. Heerswaffenamt continued the development of the MKB42(H) covertly.
As development went on, the weapon was re-classified as an MP (Maschinen Pistole or Machine Pistol). The MKB designation was dropped to mask from Hitler and others the development of this new system. By calling it an MP, Hitler was led to believe it was an improved MP40 and no attention was given to it. This new prototype was classified as the MP43. Some of the improvements and changes made to the newer MP43 were the switch from an open to a closed bolt system and an internal hammer and a mechanical safety lever were added. The first production run of rifles were MP43s and they were sent to the Eastern Front. In Russia, they proved themselves to the troops that used them. When Hitler saw the merits of this new weapon system, and the troops reaction to it, he gave his blessing to move forward with development. Not only were the Wehrmacht impressed by it, so were the Soviet soldiers who captured the weapons.
The MP43 rifles were highly prized by Soviet soldiers and they were anxious to use them against the Germans. It has been said that the Soviet development on the 7.62x39mm round began at this point.
On April 6, 1944 the MP43 designation was changed to the MP44. For all intents an purposes it was an identical gun. The only recorded changes were some machining and metal forming techniquesin manufacturing of the rifle. This rifle was by far the most common and mass-produced of all of the 7.92x33mm Kurz caliber weapons.
In December 1944, Hitler gave the MP44 the new name that would classify an intermediate caliber, select fire, shoulder or hip fired, gas operated, magazine fed rifle. He called it the Sturmgewehr, or the assault rifle. The rifle was now officially called the StG44 Sturmgewehr. It is said that this was a propaganda move, which gave the new 7.92x33mm Kurz rifle a new identity of a horribly effective new weapon, one that if introduced sooner could have had a significant impact on the infantry battles of World War II. According to Hugo Schmeisser, many modifications were made from the MP44 to the StG44. Most of these modifications were to simplify the manufacturing process of the rifle. Spot-welding was used instead of riveting and the elimination of the threaded muzzle. The rifle was found in different finishes ranging from lustrous factory blued finish to crude mixed finishes or completely parkerized finishes. By the end of 1944 around 426,000 StG44-type rifles were produced.
The StG44 “Sturmgewehr”
The StG44 had an overall length of 37 inches with a barrel length of 16.5 inches. It weighed approximately 11.5 pounds with a cyclic rate of fire of approximately 500 rounds per minute. The rifle had a steel detachable box magazine with a capacity of 30 rounds of 7.92x33mm Kurz ammunition. The safety lever is on the left side of the receiver with “safe” in the down position and “fire” in the up position. Right above the safety lever is the fire selector. Pushing in to the right is “E”(Einzelfeuer or semiautomatic), pushing in to the left is “D” (Dauerfeuer or fully automatic). There is an ejection port dust cover that will automatically open after the first round is fired.
The firing sequence of the StG44 is as follows. After the trigger is pulled, the cartridge fires. As the bullet travels down the barrel it passes the port hole in the barrel and gas is bled into the piston chamber. The force from the gas drives the piston rearward. While the piston assembly drives rearward, the claw comes in contact with the bolt. As the gas piston draws further rearward, the claw fully engages the bolt, lifting the bolt out of the locked position, and carries it rearward. Then extraction and ejection of the fired cartridge case takes place. The recoil/buffer spring returns the gas piston rod/bolt forward, stripping a round off the magazine and chamber-ing it. With the full forward motion of the gas piston, the bolt is forced back down into the locked position and it is ready to fire another round.
This was a revolutionary design that would forever change the concept of the modern battle rifle. There were a few problems encountered with the design. Some of the biggest criticisms were the very long profile of the magazine that caused shooting from the prone position difficult and the lower hand guard was made of aluminum. This was a conductor of heat and caused the rifle to be too hot to hold during extensive firing. The other complaint was that there was just not enough to go around.
The Soviet Intermediate Cartridge
During World War II the Soviets had a serious shortage of small arms to equip their soldiers. The mechanized/maneuver warfare they encountered had taken a very serious toll on the Red Army. Casualties averaged 1 dead German soldier for every 15 Soviet soldiers. The main battle rifle of the Soviet Army was the Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle firing the 7.62x54mm Russian round. This was no match for the German MP38, MP40, StG44, MG34 and MG42. This high volume of fire put out by the Germans was too much for the Russians. The Russians also developed their own submachine gun, the PPSh-41, chambered for the 7.62x25mm round and used the Maxim M1910 machine gun.
Two very prominent Russian gun designers, Vladimir Federov and Fedor Tokarev, had been working on semiautomatic battle rifles firing the full powered battle cartridges. After the lessons learned in World War II, the Russians were looking for something new and wanted their own intermediate range cartridge. It is unconfirmed, but Soviet sources claim that the development of the 7.62x39mm round began in 1939 but was not adopted until 1943 just two years after the development of the 7.92x33mm Kurz round and one year after the first MP43/MP44/StG44 rifles went into service. The new 7.62x39mm Soviet round was a 123-grain full metal jacket boat tail bullet fired at a velocity of 2,300 feet per second compared to the full powered 7.62x54Rmm cartridge firing a 150- grain bullet at 2,800 feet per second. The change resulted in a major decrease in weight and most importantly, recoil. The Soviets had their intermediate powered cartridge. Now all they needed was a weapon to fire it
The first weapon adopted to fire this new Soviet intermediate cartridge was the SKS45 (Samozaryadnya Karabin Siminova 45) developed by Sergei Simonov. The design of the SKS dates back to another Simonov design, the 14.5mm PTRS-41 semiautomatic antitank rifle. However, the SKS45 rifle was outdated at the time of adoption. It fired semiautomatic only and had a 10-round fixed magazine. One interesting note is that the StG44 incorporates the same locking mechanism as the SKS45. The PTRS-41 went into production in 1941 and was fielded on the Eastern Front where the Germans would have access to captured weapons. Another question is; does the StG44 have the same bolt group as the Soviet PTRS-41? It has the same claw-style locking mechanism and the gas operation principal is basically the same, but the major difference is that the piston is not connected directly to the bolt carrier. Though the Soviets had great success with submachine guns during World War II, the future in military small arms was clearly the select-fire assault rifle. Mass controlled full-auto bursts boosted the firepower on the individual level. The Soviets were looking for their own assault rifle and this set the stage for the AK47.
Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born on 10 November 1919 to a poor family in Kurja – a small village in the Altay District, Russian Federation. He was fascinated by machines from a young age. He entered the Soviet Army in 1938 and wound up in the Tank Corp. After basic training he went to a technicalschool for armorers. There he made his first invention: a device to measure fuel usage on tanks. In June of 1941, the German invasion of the Soviet Union caused Kalashnikov to leave school and he was given command of his own tank. During action, Senior Sergeant Kalashnikov was seriously wounded and sent to a military hospital for treatment. While in the hospital, he heard stories from veterans about how Germans armed with automatic weapons were overwhelming the poorly armed Soviet troops and he started heavily researching the development of small arms. He was given six months convalescent leave from the Army to recover from his wounds but he did not relax. He entered in an Army sponsored competition for a new submachine gun. In three months time he produced a working prototype in a railroad machine shop. His design was rejected but it got him noticed by the Red Army and he was sent to the Small Arms Proving Ground at Ensk. At the time Kalashnikov worked on his first design, the SKS45 was adopted, but the next generation Soviet battle rifle was in the making.
In 1945-46 Kalashnikov worked diligently on his assault rifle. Instead of working in a railroad machine shop, he had professional technical support to perfect his design at the Tula Weapons Factory. In 1947, his design was adopted by the Soviet Union as their new assault rifle and the AK47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947) was born. It was not until 1949 to 1950 that the AK47 went into production. There was a good four years of refinement and improvement before it was fielded on any large scale. The development was highly classified and kept very quiet. Those outside of the Soviet Union did not get the first look at the new weapon until 1956 when Soviet troops carried them during the Hungarian Revolt.
The AK47 is a selective fire, gas operated, air cooled, magazine fed assault rifle. The AK47 weighed approximately 9.5 pounds with an overall length of approximately 34.25 inches and a barrel length of 16 inches. The magazine is cammed into the receiver with the magazine release in front of the trigger guard. The selector lever sits on the right side of the firearm. When in the safe position, the selector acts as a dust cover enclosing the groove the cocking handle follows on its backward motion. Drop the lever down one notch puts the rifle in full automatic mode, and down one more notch for semiautomatic mode. There is a cleaning rod attached to the bottom of the barrel. The rear sight has elevation adjustments up to 800 meters. It has a very short sight radius and a maximum practical effective range of 250 to 300 meters.
The operation of the AK47 is as follows. When the trigger is pulled, a claw on the trigger releases the hammer. The hammer strikes the firing pin and the cartridge discharges. As the bullet travels down the barrel, it passes the gas port. Gas is bled into the piston chamber, driving the piston rearward. As the bolt moves rearward, the rotating bolt unlocks. Continuing rearward motion extracts and ejects the fired cartridge case. The hammer is caught by the disconnector in semiautomatic mode. When the hammer is all the way down, the auto sear engages the hammer. The recoil spring then drives the bolt forward, stripping a round from the magazine, and feeds the round into the chamber. When the bolt moves into the locked position, the bolt trips the auto sear releasing the hammer to the disconnector. When the trigger is released the hammer is engaged to the trigger. When firing in the full-auto mode, the only difference is that the auto sear would not release the hammer to the disconnector, it would release the hammer to strike the firing pin.
There was no question where the roots of the AK47 stem. When comparing the AK47 to the StG44, one can not help but notice the resemblance. The concept of the StG44 is seen very clearly with the intermediate caliber: the StG44 with the 7.92x33mm Kurz and the AK47 with the 7.62x39mm Soviet. Both rifles have a detachable 30-round magazine and fire semi or fully automatic at the discretion of the shooter. Both have similar rates of fire and effective ranges. In comparing to the StG44, the AK47 uses the exact same gas operated mechanism and the same gas piston type as the StG44. The AK47 uses a different locking mechanism than the StG44 and the AK47 uses a rotating bolt that some believe had its origins come from the M1 Garand.
Kalashnikov simplified the trigger group of the StG44. By comparison, the StG44 trigger group is much more complex. It is unfortunate that Kalashnikov did not keep the safety location of the StG44, instead he used a long lever on the right side that has a reputation for being noisy and clumsy. The trigger group of the AK47 appears to have a similar resemblance to that of the M1 rifle.
At the time, the StG44 was the only rifle to have a sight system where the sights sat a good distance above the barrel. The StG44 and the AK47 have the exact same sight system. The only difference noted is the AK series has an adjustable front sight post. When examining the muzzle of the StG44, note the threaded muzzle cap locked in place by a spring loaded detent and is identical to the muzzle of the AK47. The cyclic rate of the StG44 is approximately 500 rounds per minute compared to the approximate 750-800 rounds per minute of the AK47. The result is the StG44 is easier to control on full automatic and thus more accurate. Slight edge in powergoes to the Soviet 7.62x39mm. The felt recoil is similar with the StG44 being a little less than the AK47.
The gas system of the AK47 is identical to that of the StG44. The locking mechanism differs but the gas piston is the same. The SKS45 and the StG44 have the exact same locking mechanism. The claw on the bolt carrier catches the claw on the bolt, lifts the bolt out of the locked position allowing extraction, ejection, chambering and as the carrier moves forward, the bolt drops back to the locked position. Then when the carrier is fully forward, the bolt is in a locked position. This poses the interesting question of who copied whom? This design was used by Simonov in the Soviet Union on his 1941 accepted PTRS-41. The StG44 development began in 1942. Very close dates.
The legacy of the StG44 Sturmgewehr ended with the defeat of the Third Reich. But the theory of the StG44 would change the concept of the battle rifle forever. The AK47 on the other hand has had an extremely successful history. The AK47 has evolved in three phases and then the concept changed and the AK47 evolved to fit a new requirement. The initial AK47 rifles were made of stamped receivers. Industrial capacity of the Soviet Union did not permit this at its time of introduction. There was a major need for the rifle so the receiver was changed to a more simplified milled receiver. It is identified by an elongated milled groove above the magazine. Around 1954, the industrial situation changed in the Soviet Union, their manufacturing improved, and they switched back to the original stamped receiver decreasing the weight by approximately 2.5 pounds. This third generation rifle was called the AKM (Avtomat Kalashnikova sistemi Modernizirovanniyi) or Modernized Kalashnikov Assault Rifle. The AKM weighs approximately 7.92 pounds. Another change was the addition of a compensator, a simple 45 degree angle compensator that caused the gas from the rifle to force the muzzle down to reduce muzzle climb. The rear sight of the AKM has adjustment out to 1,000 meters.
Another requirement was for a rifle that would be more compact, one which would be used by paratroopers, tankers and any other unit which would require a more compact rifle. The AKS47(Avtomat Kalashnikova Skladyvauyushchimsya Prikladom 1947) was developed. The AKS47 was a standard AK47 with an underfolding metal stock that was nearly identical to that of the German MP38/MP40 machine pistols. The AKS47 had a milled receiver and the later AKMS (Avtomat Kalashnikova sistemi Modernizirovanniyi Skladyvauyushchimsya) was merely the stamped receiver version. The overall lengthof the AKMS with the stock folded is approximately 26 inches.
The Soviets also found the need for a magazine fed squad automatic weapon. Interchangeability of parts was a concern so they developed the RPK (Ruchnoi Pulemet Kalashnikova). The RPK was basically an AK47 but with some modifications to make it more suitable as a squad automatic weapon. The receiver was built stronger to withstand more constant automatic fire. The barrel was made much heavier and longer, approximately 23.2 inches in length, and weighs approximately 11 pounds. They equipped the RPK with basically the same sights as the AK47, but they made the rear sight adjustable for windage and a bipod was added. The stock is a different shape and the bottom handguard has been beefed up. With the exception of the mentioned parts, the rest are interchangeable. The RPK mainly uses a 40-round box magazine but a 75-round drum is also used. The RPK will also use the standard 30-round AK47 magazine. All magazines are interchangeable.
In 1974 the concept of the assault rifle changed once more for the AK series rifle. The Soviets saw how much more effective a small caliber, high velocity cartridge is compared to the .30 caliber cartridge. The experience with the M16 rifle and its new 5.56x45mm cartridge had proven this in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The Soviets wanted their own high velocity bullet and thus the birth of the 5.45x39mm Soviet round. The rifle that would shoot this new round would be the proven Kalashnikov design and designated as the AK74. The AK74 is identical to the AKM with the only differences being a new compensator and the magazines would be made of black or orange polymer. The AK74 also has a folding stock model, the AKS74, with the major difference between that and the AKMS was that the stock was a side folding skeleton stock instead of the underfolding style. There is also a RPK74 which is very similar to the standard RPK but fires the 5.45x39mm round and uses a 45 round magazine.
The AK series of rifles have been manufactured by numerous countries all over the world. Some make the exact design and others have improved the design. Some of the major producers of the millions of AK series of rifles are China, Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland, North Korea, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Israel, Egypt, Romania and the former East Germany. They are cheap to make and simple and their simplicity is what contributes to their reputation of reliability. Unfortunately, they never succeeded in the area of accuracy. The AK series rifles have evolved as far as they can. However, the legacy and concept of the StG44 is etched in stone as it has for more than 50 years. Most every current battle rifle adheres to the concept and theory of the StG44. Kalashnikov undoubtedly took the concept of the StG44 and refined it to a much more simple and reliable firearm. The future of the Kalashnikov assault rifle is beginning to fade. The evolution has reached its limit and the future Russian battle rifle belongs to the AN94 (Avtomat Nikonova Model 1994). But that is another story.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N7 (April 2007)|