June 12, 2006 -- From Liberia to Afghanistan to the jungles of South America and the badlands of Iraq, the weapon of choice is nearly always the Kalashnikov. But it wasn't supposed to be that way.
"I didn't put it in the hands of bandits and terrorists," the rifle's elderly inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, mused in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "It's not my fault that it has mushroomed uncontrollably across the globe. Can I be blamed that they consider it the most reliable weapon?"
Afghan fighters will tell you the Kalashnikov is the best there is. It's sturdy. It's simple. Rain, shine, dust or snow, the rifle will fire. British and American soldiers speak of the AK-47 with a hint of envy. Kalashnikov claims some U.S. troops in Iraq have abandoned their standard issue M-16s in favor of the Russian-made AK-47.
Later this month in New York, the United Nations will hold a conference on curbing the worldwide trade in small arms. There are 100 million assault rifles in the world, and 80 percent of them are Kalashnikovs. The rifle's inventor plans to send a statement to the delegates. Human rights groups have also asked him to throw his weight behind the campaign to limit the spread of small arms. He seems eager to cooperate.
Popularized During the Cold War
"When I look at TV," Kalashnikov said, "and I see the weapon I invented to defend my motherland in the hands of these bin Ladens, I ask myself the simple question: How did it get into their hands?"
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden often uses a Kalashnikov as a prop in his video messages, and the flag of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah is emblazoned with an image of the gun.
How did it happen? Well, Mr. Kalashnikov came up with the idea for an assault rifle back in 1941, when the Soviet Union was buckling under the Nazi invasion. The Red army didn't have an automatic weapon, and it hurt. But Kalashnikov's rifle wasn't ready until 1947, too late to repel the Nazi hordes. In the end, the Soviets managed without it. However, it came in pretty handy during the Cold War. The Soviets shipped crates of the rifles to any number of rebel groups fighting "national liberation struggles" around the world.
He may be the Henry Ford of modern weaponry, an icon for the Soviet era, but Kalashnikov didn't earn a dime, or a kopeck, as he might say, in royalties from his invention. "At that time, patenting inventions wasn't an issue in our country," he said. "We worked for a socialist society, for the good of the people, which I never regret."
It's Easy to Use, and That's Its Primary Danger
The Chinese, Africans and Pakistanis "borrowed" the design and made knockoff copies of the AK-47. The appeal of the weapon is obvious: It fires 600 rounds a minute and will work after six hours of being strapped to the back of a donkey that has crossed three mountain rivers and a blistering desert.
The Kalashnikov is so simple to operate that anyone can fire one after about 30 seconds of instruction. And that's the problem. African children are instantly turned into child soldiers as soon as they're given a Kalashnikov. And a disgruntled cab driver from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan can become an Afghan Talib with little more than a Kalashnikov and a pair of flip-flops.
The octogenarian inventor recently lent his name to another Russian institution: vodka. Let's hope Kalashnikov Vodka doesn't also find its way into the hands of the underage and the irresponsible.