People & Power
The legendary AK-47: Symbol of oppression and liberation
Posted Sunday, January 12 2014 at 02:00
Deadly machine. After six years of designing a rugged new rifle prototype that would work equally well in Russia’s harsh winter, in hot summer heat, in mud, sand, dust and rain, in 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Kalashnikov announced his new weapon --- the Avtomat Kalishnikova of 1947, or AK-47 as it is now known around the world. Sunday Monitor’s Timothy Kalyegira takes us through the journey of the gun and why it is the most popular weapon.
It is one of the most instantly recognisable objects around the world. With a curved magazine, the weapon has been both a symbol of liberation and oppression, hope and fear, instability and security.
Thanks to its use in the Soviet, Russian and Chinese armies, as well as dozens of armies in the Third World, the AK-47 has become by far the best-selling, most used rifle in military history, with more of them produced than all other assault rifles combined.
It became the weapon of choice for the guerrilla, the African, Latin American and Asian army, the poor man’s weapon, the terrorist’s badge of honour, the gun fired in the air in celebration in the Palestinian territories after an Israeli setback or attack on American installations.
Estimates are that every year, over 250,000 people die at the hands of an AK-47 in various conflicts and armed incidents around the world.
Two days before last Christmas, the Russian soldier, World War II veteran and inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, Lt Gen Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, died at the age of 94.
He was one of those inventors like Karl Benz or labour organisers like Charles Boycott, whose names become more famous for and associated with the products they created than their personalities.
As a tank mechanic and later tank commander during the battle against the Germans for the town of Bryansk, south of Moscow, in September 1941 during the Second World War, Kalashnikov was wounded in the shoulder and walked for two days to a hospital.
While being treated and recovering in hospital and haunted by the appalling suffering of the Russian population, he decided to design a new kind of gun that would give his people better protection in this and future conflicts.
The Germans, as they had demonstrated with their multi-pronged Blitzkrieg attacks in 1939, had more advanced weapons than any other army, with the infantry armed with lightweight, automatic “assault” rifles.
After six years of designing a rugged new rifle prototype that would work equally well in Russia’s harsh winter, in hot summer heat, in mud, sand, dust and rain, in 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Kalashnikov announced his new weapon --- the Avtomat Kalishnikova of 1947, or AK-47 as it is now known around the world.
While at first a tightly-guarded secret in the Soviet Army, the Cold War that followed from the end of the Second World War meant that the Soviet Union had to share some of its military capabilities with its key allies.
That was when it started issuing licences to China and North Korea to manufacture AK-47s. Through China and North Korea, the AK-47 eventually came into the possession of Socialist African countries like Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
It is said President Museveni has a personal AK-47 nicknamed “Rwitabagumi” (“The one which kills the stubborn ones”).
A source who knows the workings of the army says despite the Special Forces Command of the UPDF being equipped with rifles such as the Israeli-made Uzi sub-machinegun, in many instances when they get into actual combat, they tend to revert to the tried and tested AK-47.
A former NRA soldier in the early 1990s said during the Luweero Triangle war, one could bury an AK-47 in the ground for several months at a time, dig it up later, and it would still be in excellent working condition.
The AK-47 is to weapons what most Japanese cars are to the motor industry or a cassette tape is --- made for ease of use, spare parts easy to find and install, it can withstand difficult conditions without much service and as such is ideal for poorer countries and armed services.
When used and maintained well, the AK-47 can typically last about 50 years in service. But even if it is mishandled and kept in poor conditions, the minimum duration of service is usually 20 years. A magazine that worked in a 1949 AK-47 rifle can still fit and work well in an AK-47 manufactured in 2014.
This would explain why it had to become the Third World army’s or guerrilla’s first choice.
During the Vietnam War (1965-1975), the US Army and Marine Corps M-16 rifle sometimes began to jam under the Southeast Asian jungle and muddy conditions.
US troops, unable to use their sophisticated guns, then started searching through the jungle for AK-47 guns abandoned by Viet Cong guerillas or around the bodies of dead guerrillas.
The ability of the AK-47 to work perfectly under conditions that failed the more advanced US guns was a foreshadow of the outcome of the Vietnam War itself, in which one of the world’s two nuclear-armed superpowers was humbled by a determined Asian nation, Vietnam.
The most common AK-47 rifle version used in Uganda has been the 1957 Type 3. It first made its appearance in Uganda during the 1978-1979 Tanzania-Uganda war, used by the Tanzanian army and armed Ugandan exile groups and has remained the basic weapon for the army, police and prisons.
Before that, the Uganda Army in the late 1960s and all through the 1970s during Idi Amin’s rule used the West German-made Heckler & Koch G3 rifle.
The G3 was nearly all metal while the AK-47 was just under 50 per cent wooden in its parts.
The AK-47, although the most commonly used rifle in the developing world, is not particularly accurate. Beyond a distance of 100 metres, the possibility of it registering accurate hits reduces significantly, mainly because of the loose-fitting parts that it is made up of.
When the trigger is held down in automatic firing mode, the recoil effect --- the force of the bullets pushing back against the operator --- tends to cause the AK-47 to sway from side to side, much the same way most basic consumer digital cameras, when opened to full zoom, start to see the camera shake.
Several years ago, in its series on the NRA’s “Bush War Memories”, opposition leader Col Kizza Besigye narrated an incident in Masindi around 1984 in which he came under sustained fire from a government soldier but round after round was unable to hit him.
This same lack of accuracy explains why police opening fire in the direction of demonstrators in various countries sometimes accidentally hit protestors.
It was the G3, along with Kiswahili in the late 1960s and in the 1970s, that gave the army and the gun a bad reputation.
When the “Wakombozi” (liberators) in 1979 arrived with the AK-47, it immediately became associated with freedom from tyranny and bloodshed, as at first were the Tanzanians and the UNLA, the new national army.
In due time, however, as armed robberies and murders of prominent Ugandans resumed after the fall of Idi Amin, the 1980 elections were disputed, reports came in of atrocities against civilians in Luweero Triangle during the early 1980s and there was a military coup in 1985, the army and the gun regained their dreaded image and this time the AK-47 became the object of fear and hatred.
After the NRA took power in 1986, residents of northern and much of eastern Uganda reported bloody reprisals and brutal treatment and for these Ugandans, the AK-47 became a symbol of brutal oppression.
Over the last nine years in Uganda, as urban dissent and demonstrations have become common, the AK-47 in the hands of the police has also taken on the image of a tool of repression.
Right now, it is calling the shots, literally speaking, in serious internal conflicts that are raging in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique in the last few months and in Somalia.
When all is said and done, as it was with television and the Internet, the AK-47 although blamed for much of the ill that mankind faces, is by itself only a tool and channel used by men.
It is the greed, fear, pride and aggressiveness of men that has wrecked untold misery on the world over the last 66 years since the AK-47 was first put into service.
The AK-47 was the messenger and method, not the cause of the armed conflicts.