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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.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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