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Sixty years ago the world got its first look at an AK-47

The dapper young Hungarian revolutionary named József Tibor Fejes holding a captured AK-47 in what is believed to be the first widely distributed photo of the weapon. (Public domain photo.)


Sixty years ago the weapon that became a symbol of Cold War guerrillas and current day insurgents made its debut in a most unlikely way.

The AK-47, arguably the most widely used assault rifle in the world, first appeared in the hands of both Communist troops and Hungarian revolutionaries during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The revolution against the nation's communist government began on October 23 but was ruthlessly crushed by Hungarian secret police and Soviet troops by Nov. 10.

In particular, one photo from the revolution gained worldwide attention – and it is arguably the first time the Kalashnikov entered the public consciousness.

C.J. Chivers, former Marine Corps infantry captain and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote in his book The Gun that nobody knows which Hungarian revolutionary first picked up a captured AK-47.

But a LIFE Magazine photographer snapped a picture of József Tibor Fejes – "22-years-old, fresh-faced, sharp-eyed, purposeful, and seemingly unafraid" – whose costume as an insurgent always included a bowler hat. "The Man in the Bowler Hat" was also hefting an AK-47, making Fejes the first known revolutionary carrying what became widely known as a revolutionary's weapon.

Fejes with other revolutionaries, still wearing his bowler and carrying a captured AK-47. (Public domain photo.)

"The AK-47 was destined to become a symbol of resistance fighters almost everywhere, a weapon with innumerable spokesmen," Chivers wrote. "Fejes had nonchalantly assumed the requisite pose and begun to flesh out this historical role. He did so before Fidel Castro, before Yasir Arafat, before Idi Amin. He was years ahead of the flag of Zimbabwe, which would expropriate the AK-47 as a symbol. He was ahead of Shamil Basayev and Osama bin Laden, who would convert the product of an atheist state into a sign of unsparing jihad. József Tibor Fejes was the first of the world's Kalashnikov-toting characters, a member of a pantheon's inaugural class."

Although the Soviet Union had first publically acknowledged the rifle's existence in 1949, firearms experts and military intelligence analysts in the West knew little about the weapon.

In fact, it was not until 1956 that the Army's Technical Intelligence Office issued a classified report about the AK-47 – a report that mistakenly labeled the rifle a submachine gun and led to Pentagon brass dismissing the effectiveness of the weapon.

Eventually, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and a host of Soviet satellites and licensees manufactured more than 100 million AK-47s. First encountered by U.S. fighting men during the Vietnam War, the robust construction of the weapon and its reliability soon made believers out of Americans who faced it in the hands of their enemies.

To this day, U.S. soldiers and Marines continue to face adversaries armed with some version of the Kalashnikov.

As for József Tibor Fejes, his fate was sealed. Charged with the execution of a State Security Forces officer by gunning him down in the streets of Budapest, a Hungarian court found Fejes guilty and sentenced him to death.

Despite an appeal, authorities hanged Fejes on April 9, 1959, his punishment for what the court said was an attempt to overthrow the Hungarian people's republic, the murder of a police officer, and the theft of state property – namely an AK-47 assault rifle.