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.

What’s the Difference Between a Pirate and a Buccaneer?

geniebird/iStock via Getty Images
geniebird/iStock via Getty Images

Talk Like a Pirate Day is returning to port on September 19th and you can bet your boots that a few celebrants will be using the terms pirate and buccaneer interchangeably. Most people do. Nevertheless, these two words aren’t actually synonymous.  

Four hundred years ago, if you were a seafaring thief, the label that you received said a great deal—mainly about whoever it was doing the labeling. Anyone who called you a "pirate" probably hated your guts. But those who cited you as a “buccaneer” might have had a very different attitude. Within certain contexts, the latter group may have even embraced you as a national hero.

Time for a swashbuckling semantics lesson. In article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy is defined as "any illegal acts of violence or detention ... committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship." UNCLOS also states that, to be considered piracy, a crime must occur within international waters. If the event in question takes place within a particular country’s territorial waters, the aggressors will be deemed armed robbers rather than pirates.

Historical definitions tended to be a lot broader. During the 17th and 18th centuries, England regarded piracy as any criminal act committed on the high seas or below the low tide mark around shores, rivers, and estuaries. Hundreds of years earlier, in the year 100 CE, Plutarch—a noteworthy Greek scholar— talked about pirates as anybody who attacked a ship or maritime city without legal authority.

Just what did he mean by “legal authority?” Plutarch was probably alluding to warships. Nowadays, these are generally owned by national governments, but this wasn’t always the case. From medieval times through the early 20th century, it was common practice for a nation at war to recruit private vessels to assault its enemy’s ships, steal their goods, and plunder their ports. Mariners who engaged in such state-approved mischief were called “privateers.”

Usually, a privateer vessel was allowed to operate under a license that was granted by the country it served. Dubbed the Letter of Marque, this document laid out a code of conduct and payment policy for the crew. (Privateers almost always got to keep a percentage of whatever they took.)

Essentially, privateers were independent contractors, acting as hostile, government-commissioned, seafaring mercenaries. Therefore, they technically weren’t pirates because real pirates didn’t behave in accordance with any national laws or regulations. But the dividing line here was pretty blurry. Many privateers eventually became pirates and vice versa. Also, a captured privateer would sometimes be tried as a pirate by the country he or she was victimizing.

This brings us back to buccaneers: Throughout the 16th through 18th centuries, Spain more or less controlled the Caribbean. However, in the 1600s, she started to get some not-so-friendly competition. By the middle of that century, settlers from various other European countries—including England, France, and the Netherlands—had colonized parts of the Leeward Islands and Hispaniola. Among these newcomers, transplanted Frenchmen were especially common. The Gallic colonists would frequently smoke their meat over a wooden platform that they called a boucan. Thanks to this cooking technique, the frontiersmen were given the nickname “buccaneers.”

Before long, many turned to piracy. Because of Spain’s huge colonial presence in the Caribbean, buccaneers more or less exclusively targeted Spanish ports and ships. This turned plenty of heads across the Atlantic. In an attempt to cripple Spain’s empire, the English, French, and Dutch began issuing Letters of Marque to buccaneer vessels.

Eventually, the word buccaneer came to possess its current—and very specific—definition, which is: “any of the piratical adventurers who raided Spanish colonies and ships along the American coast in the second half of the 17th century.” (Told you it was specific.)

The most famous buccaneer of them all was undoubtedly Sir Henry Morgan. Little is known about his early life, although most historians believe that he was born in Wales at some point in 1635. Nearly 20 years later, he set sail for Barbados as a member of an expedition that saw England seize Jamaica from the Spanish.

Morgan quickly emerged as a leading buccaneer, and as England’s most ruthlessly effective privateer. In 1668, he seized the heavily guarded city of Porto Bello, Panama, holding it for ransom until the Spanish coughed up an amazing 250,000 pesos. Three years later, Morgan raided and sacked Panama City, which promptly burned to the ground. Such exploits did not endear him to the Spanish, but in England, Morgan was a widely beloved figure. Knighted by King Charles II, he was made Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in 1674. Following his death on August 25, 1688, Morgan received a grandiose state funeral, complete with a 22-gun salute.

And, yes, that rum was named after him. Clearly, buccaneering had its perks. 

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Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?

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iStock

Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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