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10 little-known facts about the AK-47

The AK-47 is not just the preferred weapon of America's enemies, it's also the weapon of America's allies. It's the most widely used weapon on Earth. People name their children after it. Some countries have its distinctive shape on their flag. Egypt even built a monument featuring the rifle with its barrel and bayonet in the Sinai Peninsula.


Yet, despite its widespread legitimate use in 106 recognized countries' standing armies, the AK-47 has also become a symbol of pirates, insurgents, warlords, and terrorists. So where does the rifle live on the scale between good and evil?

To help figure that out, WATM presents 10 facts about the most durable, dependable and infamous rifle ever designed:

1. Though it is widely known that he did not receive any royalties from his design (the Stalin-Era Soviet Union wasn't too big on international copyright law - the AK borrows from many contemporary designs), Kalashnikov received an award from Stalin and special privileges until the Soviet Union was dissolved.

2. The original AK-47 was unwieldy and much too heavy. It's unusual to find a "real" '47 AK. Most of the weapons produced by the Soviet Union and shipped abroad are really AKMs or AK-74s. You can tell the difference by the barrel: the AKM uses a muzzle brake while the 74 has a flash suppressor. For example, the Malian soldier pointing his rifle at my chest in the photo below is holding an AKM.

3. Because the Russian government produced and shipped out so many, and because more than 30 countries are licensed to produce AK family rifles, no one knows how many of them there really are. Its estimated that there is an AK-47 for every 70 people on Earth, around 100 million. The next most widespread family of rifle is the M-16 line, with a paltry 10 million.

4. The Kalashnikov is the deadliest weapon ever produced, killing around 250,000 people each year. This far surpasses the casualty count for any weapon (including nuclear ones) made by man.

Even if that man is John McClane

5. The worldwide average cost of a single rifle is between $100 and $300. Prices of AK-47s in public markets can be used as a barometer for social unrest: The more expensive they are, the more likely an uprising is about to take place. For example, some AKs in Afghanistan can be purchased for around $10. If you can get an AK for less than $100, it might be better to buy a ticket home.

6. During the Iraq War, the US lost track of 110,000 AK-47s. So many ended up in the hands of insurgent groups, the U.S. began issuing M-16s to Iraqi Security Forces instead. (Fun fact: Saddam Hussein received a Gold AK as a gift. It was found by American troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: slightly used, dropped once.)

7. The AK is a relatively inaccurate rifle. This is because of its chrome lining, but that lining is why it's so dependable, as the chrome reduces the need for cleaning. When the AK does need cleaned, it can be done faster than any weapon ever made, under almost any conditions.

8. A Missouri car dealership once offered a free AK-47 to new customers, which seems more controversial than it really is. True AKs have an automatic feature -- rare in the US -- and are only legal when grandfathered in before 1986. Legal AK-47s are only semi-automatic.

9. A Colombian artist, Cesar Lopez, turns AK-47 rifles into guitars. He was even able to put one into the hands on then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2005.

10. Mikhail Kalashnikov did well financially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, doing speaking tours and launching his own brand of Vodka.

For more information about the history of automatic weapons, Mikhail Kalashnikov, and his famous design, check out The Gun by CJ Chivers.

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