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Kalashnikov assault rifles

Written by Sakhal

In 1944 the Germans introduced a rifle calibrated for a new cartridge of lesser power, capable of being fired in full automatic mode. This "assault rifle" very soon proved to be superior to any previous design and after the war the British and the Soviet produced their own assault rifles. The AK-47 entered service in the early 1950s and nowadays it is still considered the best assault rifle.

The analysis of infantry combats happened during the Second World War revealed that most of them took place at distances below 400 meters, even if the largest part of soldiers of both fighting sides carried weapons and munitions with potential ranges of 2000 meters or more. The Germans were the first in understanding that if lighter munitions were developed, these would be effective at actual combat ranges and also would allow to carry a larger equipment and to increase firepower by means of selective fire weapons which have a lesser recoil. Thus, the German Army introduced the Sturmgewehr (assault rifle) and its innovative kurtz (short) cartridge of caliber 7.92x33 millimeters, which gave the possibility of full automatic fire for each individual soldier. Once again, the Germans were leading the development of portable firearms, opening the way for future developments.

On the other side, the Allies used ammunitions which in the best case had been developed decades ago and, even if they were largely aware of the necessity of replacing these aging cartridges, they had to face the huge problem of holding huge reserves which should be depleted priorly, while the large industrial facilities which manufactured millions of those cartridges would have to be adapted for future developments. To accept a new type of ammunition involved a great expenditure of money and material, and the nations did not wish to face such a program. Hence the development of new munitions was delayed and it is not surprising that the important conflicts of the 1950s, including the Korean War, were fought with the same weapons and munitions that had been used during the Second World War. Besides, the reluctancy of United States in adopting an intermediate cartridge forced the cancellation of the first assault rifle of "bullpup" type, the British EM-2.

Consequently, there were little chances of having any of the Allies accepting the German kurtz cartridge, but the Soviets, being the recipients of the largest part of those cartridges, had been very impressed by them. From the German cartridge they developed their own cartridge, of caliber 7.62x39 millimeters, and introduced the SKS semiautomatic carbine and the AK-47 selective fire rifle for firing it. The new Soviet cartridge demonstrated to be one of the best military cartridges of all times and, at certain point, the most widely used one. It has an excellent lethality and impact power at combat range, despite of being light enough to be used in portable automatic firearms.

Kalashnikov assault rifles

Also the British dedicated the immediate postwar years to the investigation of new military ammunitions to replace the old 0.303-inch cartridge, which used the ineffective propellant known as cordite and had a flange which rendered impossible its utilization in automatic firearms. After a series of tests it was created a new flangeless cartridge known as the 0.280-inch (equivalent to 7x44 millimeters), along with the experimental EM-1 and EM-2 assault rifles for firing it. The 0.280-inch demonstrated to be an excellent lightweight cartridge gifted with good combat prestations. Everything seemed ready for introducing the new cartridge and associated weapons when international politics made apparition. The new cartridge arrived precisely at the moment when the Atlanctic Alliance (NATO) had been just signed in 1949, and the participating nations were obliged by its terms to adopt a standardization program for their armament that were as wide as possible, with the ammunition of portable firearms leading the list of priorities.

The idea of using a common cartridge for all of the members of the NATO was senseful, but it led to a wrong choice because the Americans were not convinced about the necessity of shifting to a less powerful cartridge. In fact, they did not approve the new British cartridge, which they considered lacking of power at long distances (ignoring that the cartridge had been expressly designed for delivering an optimal performance at short distances). This lack of appreciation for the tactical lessons learned during the Second World War was influenced by the introduction of the 0.30-inch Carbine cartridge, which was based in a pistol ammunition and had demonstrated to be ineffective when fired from the M1 carbine. The US Army, impressed as well by the German Sturmgewehr, had demanded portable automatic weapons but ones which fired "full power" ammunition. Both requisites were incompatible, but American designers believed that they were the best prepared to solve this problem. To be more precise, many American manufacturers understood the necessity of introducing a lighter cartridge, but given that the Army would not accept it they had to design what was demanded instead.

The US ordinance rifle cartridge was in that time the 0.30-06 (equivalent to 7.62x63 millimeters), which dating back from 1906 was ready to be replaced. However, the designers used this old cartridge as the starting point for the new cartridge and, after shortening its case to a length of 51 millimeters, they believed to have achieved the intermediate cartridge that they needed. Given that the bullet had kept the same weight while the propellant charge had been reduced, the new cartridge had inferior prestations than the 0.30-06. The US Army adopted the new 7.62x51-millimeter cartridge in 1952 and the rest of the NATO members had to do the same. Since then this one would be the standard rifle cartridge of the NATO, remaining in use for decades, even after the introduction of the SS109 5.56x45-millimeter cartridge.

It was not a right choice, as the assault rifles created to fire the new cartridge tended to be heavy and expensive, and were often restricted to semiautomatic fire to limit the strong recoil caused by the still excessively powerful propellant charge. On the other hand, the 7.62x51-millimeter cartridge was a polyvalent ammunition which could be used in machine guns alike. The soldiers were restricted to carry a reserve of ammunition similar to that carried by their comrades during the Second World War (usually about 200 cartridges). Only after the introduction of the 5.56x45-millimeter ammunition, in the mid 1960s, could the infantrymen of the NATO achieve the firepower that the German Frontschwein had at their disposal at the end of the Second World War.

The AK-47 and AKM

The AK-47 must be considered as one of the most successful and widely used portable weapons ever produced. Together with its successor AKM, this rifle has been used by regular and irregular forces worldwide. The Red Army, which had paid notable attention to infantry weapons for short-range combat and consequently had deployed large quantities of 9-millimeter submachine guns during the Second World War, decided to adopt an automatic weapon which combined the firepower of the submachine gun with the precision and robustness of the classical infantry weapon. After several trials to achieve a 7.62-millimeter automatic rifle, effectuated already from 1936, it was adopted in 1943 the SKS semiautomatic carbine and its 7.62x39-millimeter cartridge which weighed 43 grams. Later, since the SKS was too heavy for the characteristics of the new ammunition, Mikhail Kalashnikov and his team designed the new weapon which would be known as AK-47 (after the initials of Avtomat Kalashnikov, followed by the year of introduction, albeit the first exemplars were delivered already in 1946). Gradually the AK-47 became the ordinance rifle of the Warsaw Pact, so the production lines for the new rifle were numerous and the production numbers very high.

The basic AK-47 was a well-built weapon on which the experiences of mass production with stamped metal, started in the Soviet Union with the PPSh41 and PPS43 submachine guns, were applied on the manufacture of the magazine. The frame of the AK-47 is made of machined steel of excellent quality and the wooden parts have a very good finishing. The result is a weapon which can endure the harshest mistreatments and manipulation mistakes. As mobile parts were reduced to a minimum and disassembly is rather simple, maintenance is simple as well and the rifle can be used after a minimal training. Over time, a certain number of different versions were produced in the Soviet Union (including one with folding steel buttstock, called AKMS) as well as in other countries of the Warsaw Pact. All of these variants use the same firing mechanism: a simple rotating bolt fitted with protrusions that fit in respective grooves dug in the inner face of the frame. As in other assault rifles, the gases are gathered on the last section of the barrel to actuate the piston and push backwards the bolt carrier.

AK-47 assault rifles have been produced in China, Poland and the German Democratic Republic, and the basic design has been copied by different foreign designers. Due to the huge acceptation of this rifle, in the late 1950s the production process had to put more emphasis in mass production. A redesign gave as result the AKM version, which while externally resembles the former model has been carefully revised to ease production. The most visible change is the frame, produced by means of stamped steel instead of machined steel. Also the bolt carrier has been modified to make it even simpler. There are many other modificacions but in general they are related only to the simplification of manufacture. The AKM did not replace the AK-47 immediately but rather served as its complement. The other production lines in the Warsaw Pact gradually shifted towards the AKM and some even went further, modifying the basic design to produce their own version. For example, the Hungarian version AKM-63, which has a rather different appearance. On the other hand, the Chinese version Type 56 is almost identical to the original design.

The AK-47 has a length of 869 millimeters versus 876 millimeters on the AKM, and both rifles have a barrel length of 414 millimeters. The AK-47 has a weight of 5.13 kilograms when loaded, which is of only 3.98 kilograms on the AKM. The rest of characteristics are similar in both weapons: a curved magazine with 30 rounds of the 7.62x39-millimeter cartridge, a rate of fire of 40 rounds per minute in semiautomatic mode and 100 rounds per minute in automatic mode (being the cyclic rate of fire 600 rounds per minute), a muzzle velocity of 710 meters/second and an effective range of 300 meters.

Kalashnikov assault rifles

The AK-74

On the early 1960s the first official knowledge arrived to western observers about a new rifle cartridge for the forces of the Warsaw Pact. Shortly after it was confirmed the existence of a new rifle for firing an intermediate cartridge of caliber 5.45x39 millimeters. During the early 1970s the AK-74 entered mass production to serve as complement of the huge amount of AK-47 and AKM in service. The new rifle was in fact an AKM adapted to the new cartridge, being its appearance, dimensions and weight very similar to those of its predecessor. Externally, the most evident differences are a plastic magazine of new shape and a prominent muzzle brake. There are versions with either a wooden or a folding metal buttstock. The AK-74 has an overall length of 930 millimeters, of which 400 correspond to the barrel, and a weight of 3.6 kilograms without the 30-round magazine. The cyclic rate of fire is 650 rounds per minute and the muzzle velocity is 900 meters/second.

Not less noteworthy are the characteristics of the new ammunition. To obtain the maximum effect from the 5.45-millimeter caliber, the designers chose a configuration outside the international armament conventions. The bullet has a steel core on the rear part, and an inner cavity on the ogive which displaces backwards the gravity center. At the moment of impact the tip of the bullet is deformed, which allows the weight of the core to move forwards, thus managing to turn the bullet. This way, a bullet of small caliber causes damages that are superior to its sectional area. Some high-velocity projectiles, such as the M193 of caliber 5.56 millimeters used by the M16, can cause this effect as well, at least occasionally.

Kalashnikov assault rifles

The AK-74 has a folding buttstock made of metal tube, a prominent muzzle brake and a plastic magazine of lesser curvature. This rifle is an AKM of smaller caliber, with many identical pieces. Note as well the difference between the 7.62x39-millimeter cartridges of the AK-47 and the 5.45x39-millimeter cartridges of the AK-74.

The diverse and successful family of the AK-47

The following picture is one of remarkable importance because of the amount of versions of Kalashnikov rifles, some of them very rare, that it contains. These designs appeared in 1989 in a magazine from the former German Democratic Republic. It is accompanied by the cover of December 1991 of the magazine Zolnier Polski, which illustrates the Polish KBK version.

Kalashnikov assault rifles

The derivatives in 7.62-millimeter caliber listed in the picture are: AK-47, AKM and AKMS (USSR), MPi-69, MPi-72 and KMS-72 (GDR), AKM SR and AKM with SR grenade launcher (Romania), M64B (Yugoslavia), Type 56-1 VR (China), Valmet M76 (Finland), Model 1960 VR (Poland), AMD-65 VR, AKM VR and AMP VR grenade launcher (Hungary). The derivatives in 5.45-millimeter caliber are: AK-74, AKS-74, AKR and RPK-74N (USSR), and AK-74N (GDR).

Kalashnikov assault rifles

The Finnish Valmet M60 and M62

When in the late 1950s Finland decided to adopt a new ordinance rifle it was negotiated with the Soviet Union the production under licence of the AK-47 and its ammunition. But once acquired, the always active Finnish arms industry decided to make some changes on the AK-47 design, and so the Valmet company began the modifications which gave as result the Valmet M60. The origins of the new rifle were evident on its appearance, but the deep redesign had improved many aspects of the weapon. The M60 did not make use of any wooden parts, which were replaced by plastic or metal tube. Albeit this did not make the new rifle easier to produce it granted an increased robustness, and also the possibility to transport the cleaning tools and other accessories inside the hollow tube that forms the buttstock. The pistol grip and the handguard were made of hard plastic, and the trigger guard was modified to ease the utilization with gloves, an important aspect given the winterly conditions of Finland. Other changes included sligthly modified sights, a flash hider with three perforations and a bayonet lug adapted to the Finnish type, which could be used as a combat knife.

Internally, the mechanisms of the AK-47 remained practically unchanged, leaving apart some small modifications required by production norms. Also the 30-round curved magazine and its socket remained unchanged. The later model M62 was quite similar with exception of some modifications, which included a redesigned handguard with additional cooling holes. The M62 has a weight of 3.05 kilograms when empty and 4.7 kilograms when loaded, an overall length of 914 millimeters, a barrel length of 420 millimeters, a muzzle velocity of 719 meters/second and a cyclic rate of fire of 650 rounds per minute. Both the M60 and M62 were excellent rifles that managed to improve the original formula of the AK-47, but they were surpassed in ease of production by the Soviet AKM.

Kalashnikov assault rifles

The Yugoslavian M70

Originally produced in the former Yugoslavia by Zavodi Crvena Zastava, the state-owned arms factory located in Kragujevac, the M70 is a model developed from the earlier M64, with a reduction in the total number of components and a redesigned pistol grip. This copycat of the AK-47 presents some substantial differences in regard to the Soviet counterpart: a sight placed above the gas intake, a somewhat shorter cannon (375 millimeters versus 419 millimeters on the AK-47) and an optional muzzle for firing FUSA grenades. The models M70AB2 and M70B1 can be differentiated from their buttstock: either a folding metallic type or a fixed wooden type, respectively. The characteristics of the M70 are: length, 957 millimeters; weight (empty), 3.75 kilograms; barrel, 375 millimeters with four right-handed grooves; rate of fire, 600 rounds per minute; muzzle velocity, 700 meters/second; cartridge, 7.62x39 millimeters M43.

Kalashnikov assault rifles

Article updated: 2017-12-20

Categories: Small Arms - Infantry - Cold War - 20th Century - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2017-12-20

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