What Made The AK-47 So Popular?

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?

© Kevin Coombs/Reuters/Corbis

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.

Big Questions
Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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Big Questions
How Do They Dye the Chicago River Green for St. Patrick's Day?

It wouldn’t be a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the Windy City without 400,000 spectators crowding the banks of the Chicago River to “ooh” and “aah” at its (temporarily) emerald green tinge. But how do officials turn the water green?

First, a bit of history: The dyeing tradition became an annual thing nearly 60 years ago, in 1962, but its real origins go back even further. In the early days of his administration as Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley was a man on a mission to develop the city’s riverfront area. There was just one problem: The river itself was a sewage-filled eyesore. In order to get to the bottom of the city’s pollution problem and pinpoint the exact places where waste was being discarded into the waterway (and by whom), Daley authorized the pouring of a special green dye into the river that would allow them to see exactly where dumping was occurring.

Fast-forward to late 1961 when Stephen Bailey—part of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local, the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade chairman, and a childhood friend of Daley’s—witnessed a colleague’s green-soaked coveralls following a day of pouring Daley’s dye into the Chicago River. That gave Bailey an idea: If they could streak the Chicago River green, why not turn it all green?

Three months later, revelers got their first look at an Ecto Cooler-colored river when the city poured 100 pounds of the chemical into the water. They got a really good look, too, as the river remained green for an entire week.

Over the next several years, the same practice was repeated, and again it was carried out by the Plumbers Local. The only difference was that the amount of dye used was cut in half over the next two years until they finally arrived at the magic number: 25 pounds of dye = one day of green water.

Unfortunately, the dye that was intended to help spot pollution was an oil-based fluorescein that many environmentalists warned was actually damaging the river even more. After fierce lobbying, eco-minded heads prevailed, and in 1966 the parade organizers began using a powdered, vegetable-based dye.

While the exact formula for the orange powder (yes, it's orange until it's mixed with water) is kept top-secret—in 2003 one of the parade organizers told a reporter that revealing the formula would be akin to “telling where the leprechaun hides its gold”—there are plenty of details that the committee lets even non-leprechauns in on.

The dyeing process will begin at 9 a.m. on the morning of the parade, Saturday, March 17 (it's always held on a Saturday) when six members of the local Plumbers Union hop aboard two boats, four of them on the larger vessel, the remaining two on a smaller boat.

The larger boat heads out onto the water first, with three members of the crew using flour sifters to spread the dye into the river. The smaller boat follows closely behind in order to help disperse the substance. (The best place to catch a glimpse is from the east side of the bridge at Michigan Avenue, or on Upper and Lower Wacker Drive between Columbus and Lake Shore Drives.)

Approximately 45 minutes later, voila, the Chicago River is green—but don’t expect it to stay that way. These days, the color only sticks around for about five hours. Which is roughly the same amount of time it takes to get a perfectly poured pint of Guinness if you venture out to an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day.

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