Birth of an Assault Rifle

By Robert A. Cortese

Infantry forces of the belligerent nations faced a difficult technological problem during the Second World War. Each military establishment counted various types and models of small arms in its arsenal. With the exception of the US M1 Garand rifle, which was a gas-operated semi-automatic weapon, bolt action rifles comprised the majority of shoulder arms available to the world’s infantry at the outset of the war. Armies also had access to smaller quantities of automatic weapons, principally submachine guns and light machineguns, for distribution to squad-sized formations. Logistics suffered as a result of this variety of weapons; submachine guns fired pistol caliber ammunition, while rifles and light machineguns shot more powerful cartridges. There was practically no interchangeability of parts between these differing kinds of weapons. Additionally, training programs increased in complexity as infantrymen had to be proficient in the use of all types of small arms. The ordnance design authorities of many warring nations set about developing general purpose infantry weapons in response to the problem posed by the plethora of shoulder arms then in use.

Small arms designers used the tactical experiences gained in the early years of World War II to establish design criteria for such a general purpose infantry weapon. They wanted to preserve the salient features of each of the major types of small arms without creating an excessively complicated, unreliable monster on the process. Of paramount importance was the demonstrated superiority of automatic weaponry for the suppression of infantry and gun emplacements. Automatic fire is necessary for suppression as a direct result of the effects of battlefield stress on the combat infantryman. Roughly 25% of trained infantrymen fired their weapons during firefights in the Second World War. Also, recent studies indicate that the rifleman’s accuracy decreases to less than 30% of his training range effectiveness when in battle. Thus an infantry unit of the Second World War could rely on less than 10% of its theoretical firepower when fighting; most of the men are too overcome by combat stress to function as riflemen, while the remainder experience a drastic reduction in their ability to deliver effective fire. A classic example of this occurs during the battle for Makin Island. Makin is part of the Gilbert chain of islands that was targeted for invasion by American forces in November of 1943. After action reports indicated that only 36 men of one battalion of the 165th Regiment fired at a group of Japanese conducting a climactic banzai charge. These few men barely halted the charge (thereby saving their battalion) by maintaining a steady volume of automatic fire. Most riflemen failed to aim at individual Japanese targets during the charge. An additional problem with aimed fire arises from the fact that a soldier, whether attacking or defending, rarely sees targets on the battlefield. The reality of combat in the Second World War showed the tactical dominance of a steadily maintained volume of fire delivered over a target area as opposed to unreliable aimed fire directed at unseen targets.

At the war’s beginning, the submachine gun was the only weapon available to the individual infantryman that could generate the volume of fire necessary to suppress a defender’s positions. In short supply in all armies at the end of the 1930’s, the submachine gun rapidly became the preferred infantry arm in the combined arms assaults of the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army. But the submachine gun had (and still has) one significant flaw; its ammunition was the same as that used in pistols, and as a result, the submachine gun’s range and striking power were radically weaker than that of a rifle or light machinegun. For example, the submachine gun’s tactical range was limited to within 100 meters, while arms that used rifle ammunition could be used to effect at up to 350 meters range. The critical question facing small arms designers of this period was how to combine the volume of fire attributed to submachine guns with the range and lethality of rifles and machineguns. The nation that successfully combined these capabilities would possess enormous advantages over opposing armies on the fluid battlefields of the Second World War and beyond.

Thus, was born the technological race that culminated in the development of the assault rifle. The main participants in this race were those two nations that proved the most skilled in mating technology and tactics during the war, namely Germany and the USSR. The Soviets forged ahead early on in this race with the advent and widespread deployment of the PPSh-41 submachine gun. Designed by Georgi Shpagin (the PPSh nomenclature stands for Pistolet-Pulemyet Shpagina or Shpagin Machine Pistol), the PPSH-41 quickly became identified as the primary small arms weapon of the Red Army’’ combined arms assault teams that revolutionized warfare in the latter stages of World War II. The infantry units of these combined arms teams relied upon a concentrated fire of automatic weapons to shock German defenders. This imparted a high degree of tactical mobility to the Russians, which was used in turn to isolate and destroy German infantry formations. Both brutally simple and brutally effective, at least five million of these submachine guns had been produced by the war’s end. The PPSh-41 fired 7.62 x 25mm ammunition that was already in use in the Tokarev series of pistols. This ammunition is among the most powerful ever made for pistols, and it is more akin in appearance and ballistic performance to a short rifle round than the standard 9mm or .45 caliber pistol rounds then in use. Shpagin incorporated a selective fire switch into his design that permitted the infantryman to choose single shots or automatic bursts depending on the tactical situation that he faced. As a further advantage, the PPSh-41 used stampings in its construction that reduced production times by nearly 50 percent. These novel features made the PPSh-41 the dominant weapon of its type during World War II.

Despite the PPSh-41’s success as a submachine gun, the Red Army was unable to correct the fundamental drawback of the submachine gun’s limited tactical range. While the 7.62mm x 25P cartridge was more powerful than other pistol rounds of the time, it was still inferior in performance to commonplace rifle rounds such as the Soviet 7.62mm x 54R or German 7.92mm x 57 used in Moisin-Nagant and Mauser rifles respectively. It rapidly became apparent that an intermediate round was necessary to extend the range and striking power of the submachine guns. Both East Front antagonists began development programs to address this problem. The design team of N.M. Elizarov and B.V. Semin produced the now-famous 7.62mm x 39 cartridge as the USSR’s solution. Also called the M43 or “intermediate” cartridge, the 7.62mm x 39 maintained rifle ammunition lethality at ranges up to 400 meters while delivering considerably less recoil forces. But this new cartridge was not used up to its full capabilities by Soviet forces during the war. The arm originally designed to shoot the M43 was incapable of automatic fire. That arm, Sergei Siminov’s SKS45 carbine, was intended strictly as an interim weapon pending the development of a rifle that could fire the M43 automatically. The Soviet armaments establishment did not accomplish this during the war, however, and it was left to their rivals in Germany to develop and deploy the world’s first true assault rifle.

The Polte Works of Magdeburg constructed a similar intermediate round concurrently with Russian efforts. This 7.92mm x 33 round was most commonly called the Kurz (short) M1943. Louis Schmeisser examined the Kurz round and designed his new rifle around its potential. This rifle, the Maschienenkarabiner 42(H) - MKb 42 (H) or Machine Carbine of 1942 with the (H) denoting the Haenel company as its developer - was supposed to replace all infantry small arms up to light machineguns. Haenel could not mass produce the MKb 42(H) due to lack of experience with stamping technologies. The Wehrmacht solved this problem by awarding the critical stamping component manufacture to the high tech Mertz Works as a subcontract, thereby defining the relationship between primary contractors and subcontractors that exists in defense work to the present day. A crucial feature of the MKb 42(H) was its selective fire switch which permitted automatic fire unlike the SKS45. Roughly 35 MKb 42(H)’s passed field tests in July of 1942. The road was now opened for increased production of this both evolutionary and revolutionary arm.

Mass production of the MKb 42(H) began in November of 1942. Initial difficulties were overcome by February of 1943, during which month 1217 MKb 42(H)’s rolled off the assembly lines at Haenel. But the project needed more developmental work as Schmeisser’s carbine suffered from one serious technical flaw. The flaw was the carbine’s reliance on firing from an open bolt position. Firing from an open bolt, commonplace among submachine guns, prevents rounds from “cooking off”. Cooking off is an unintentional discharge of a cartridge caused by an over-heated bolt or chamber. This small factor of safety is more than offset by the fact that the entire bolt assembly must travel forward after the trigger is pulled, thereby upsetting the rifleman’s aim in the process. Enter the eminent pistol manufacturing firm of Walther with an ingenious solution. The senior designer at this firm, Erich Walther, introduced a rotary bolt that dissipated heat sufficiently to allow firing from a closed position. This weapon, initially called MKb 42(W) where the (W) stood for Walther Works, was far more balanced and stable than the Haenel carbine. It was more accurate in single shot firing as a result. Both carbines stayed in production until mid-1943, by which time Haenel and Walther delivered 5,200 and 2,800 carbines respectively.

Now was the time for one of Hitler’s incessant and pointless intrusions into the affairs of the German Army. He decided against further production of the new carbine and its ammunition, citing the stockpile of 7.92mm x 57 cartridges and logistical problems caused by the distribution of the Kurz round. Undaunted by Hitler’s edict, the Wehrmacht adopted the ruse of changing the nomenclature of the MKb 42 (H) to MP 43. The MP designation stood for Maschienen Pistole (machine pistol or submachine gun), a weapon class already in use that shot ammunition readily available to the Army. Tests in September 1943 of the new “Maschienen Pistole” resulted in highly favorable combat evaluations from troops on the East Front. German troops so equipped no longer had to restrict their maneuvers to areas close to their machineguns. This gave them the same tactical flexibility as their PPSh-41 armed Soviet opponents with the addition of one deadly advantage. Men carrying the MP 43 had twice the effective range of those using the PPSh-41, hence imparting the ability to inflict grievous casualties on Soviet infantry formations. A variant of the MP 43, called the MP 43/1, introduced external threads on the barrel that accepted a screw on grenade launcher cup. MP 43’s used a traditional Mauser clip attachment (when available) for their grenade launchers. German forces took delivery of 19,501 MP 43’s and MP 43/1’s by January 1944. Minor production modifications caused the nomenclature to change once again to MP 44 in April 1944. This version was the most common German assault rifle of World War II. Weapons bearing both MP 43 and MP 44 markings continued to be manufactured during 1944 and 1945. The MP 43/1 was apparently canceled by April 1944. A strange twist of fate caused Schmeisser’s invention its third and final name change. News traveled slowly up the chain of command in Nazi Germany, but Hitler caught wind of the “Maschienen Pistole” ruse in December 1944. Rather than berate his subordinates for their blatant disobedience, Hitler did the world a rare service by renaming the MP 44. The name he gave the MP 44 was Sturmgewehr 44 (STG 44). The literal translation of Sturmgewehr in England is assault rifle, a name that has been retained for this class of universal arms to this very day. Variations of the MP 44/STG 44 include three Krummlauf or curved barrel versions that were used to fire out of foxholes or buildings without exposing the shooter (30 and 40 degree curve) and out of armored vehicles (90 degree curve). Some experimental versions mounted scopes or the Zielgerat 1229 Vampire infrared night scope.

Haenel and Erma Works held the primary contracts for the manufacture of these arms. Walther dropped out of assault rifle production in 1943 to concentrate on their self loading 41 and 43 rifles. This is despite the fact that all assault rifles from the MP 43 on used the closed bolt system of fire developed by Walther. Many subcontractors contributed components to Haenel and Erma, foreshadowing the state of arms production in the future. These include Mertz, Wuttembergische Mettallwarenfabrik, J.G. Anschutz, Progress Works, J.P. Sauer and Sons, Adolf Rosseler and the Trippel Works. The combined output of these firms reached 281,860 in 1944 and 124,616 in 1945. The resulting total production of all models of MP 43, MP 44 and STG 44 amounted to 425,977 during the war. This figure was far too small to alter the outcome of the war. Most of the assault rifles saw combat with Waffen SS and select Wehrmacht units on the East Front, where they ultimately wound up in Soviet hands. It was in those hands that the assault rifle gained its ultimate expression in the post war years as history’s most successful infantry weapon, the AK47.

German experience in the Second World War demonstrated the inadequacy of infantry armed with weapons incapable of automatic fire. The Red Army’s combined arms assault teams were able to overcome German defenders armed mostly with bolt action rifles, time and time again by virtue of the volume of fire generated by Soviet submachine gunners. These rules did not apply, however, when Russian attackers encountered German troops with assault rifles. The assault rifles obviated all small arms other than light machineguns (which were retained one to a squad for sustained fire applications) in chosen German formations. The universal nature of these arms freed German infantry from the obsolete squad-level tactics that were by now so easily overcome by the fast paced and hart hitting Soviet submachine gunners. As a consequence, the assault rifle armed German infantry squad was able to inflict disproportionately high casualties on any Soviet infantry unit of equivalent size. This can be seen in the battle of Heiligenbeil. German defenders in that town, which is situated near Konigsberg, checked successive assaults from powerful Red Army combined arms teams on 13 March 1945. These defenders included a few ad hoc formations from the crack Grossdeutschland division armed with STG 44 assault rifles. Initial air and artillery bombardments failed to dislodge the Grossdeutschland troopers who engaged Soviet submachine gunners with their assault rifles. The defense was so successful that the Red Air Force was forced to destroy Heiligenbeil with white phosphorous bombs on the following days, which finally allowed the Russians to continue towards Konigsberg. These lessons were not lost on the post-war Soviet military. In particular, one newcomer in the armaments field combined his creative technological genius with these tactical lessons to create the AK47. His name is Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov.

Kalashnikov joined the Red Army in 1938. He possessed no formal training in science or engineering, but his mechanical talent gained him assignments as an armorer and tank driver. Constantly tinkering with existing weapons, Kalashnikov gained much useful experience with small arms in the years preceding World War II. The German invasion in June 1941 sent Kalashnikov back to a tank unit where he suffered a serious injury during the battle of Bryansk in September. This ended Kalashnikov’s military career, but his long convalescence gave him ample time to study existing small arms designs. His first design effort was a self-loading carbine that underwent testing in 1945. This early work paved the way for the more complex work necessary to complete the weapon that bears his name - the 7.62mm Avtomat Kalashnikova obrasetz 1947g or Kalashnikov assault rifle model 1947. The initial prototype caused quite a stir upon its completion in 1946. Further experimentation over the next three years culminated in the final product, which was type-classified as the AK47. Initial production runs of the AK47, spanning from 1948 to 1951, used the same metal stamping techniques used in the manufacture of the PPSh-41 during the war. A long standing rivalry with the aircraft industry caused Kalashnikov to lose his stamping machinery in 1951. Thus, the next series of AK47’s had machined steel receivers in place of stamped components. The Tula Weapons Factory, main producer of all AK types and variants, acquired another group of stamping machines around 1959, resulting in the third and final principal version of the AK. This is known as the AKM, in which the M denotes modernized. But the AK’s journey does not end here, however, as numerous variations manufactured in many nations have been deployed to date.

Folding stock versions carrying the postscript S for Skladyvayushchimsya prikladom have been issued to paratroops and mounted into internal fighting ports on BMP mechanized infantry combat vehicles. A squad automatic weapon known as the RPK (Ruchnoi Pulmyet Kalashnikova or Kalshnikov light machine gun) appeared around 1961. While not a true light machine gun due to a lack of a quick barrel change mechanism, the RPK can sustain a higher rate of fire than the AK47 as a result of its heavier barrel. RPK’s can accommodate standard 40 round AK magazines as well as the 75-shot drum magazine. The ultimate Russian AK is the AKS-74 which fires the smaller yet more deadly 5.45mm x 39 cartridge. The 5.45mm round makes up for its smaller mass with respect to the 7.62mm by incorporating an empty cavity in the nose of its projectile. A lead filler occupies space between the cavity and the bullet’s steel core. The steel core causes the lead filler to flow into the cavity in an uneven fashion when the bullet impacts a target. This causes the bullet to tumble erratically through its target, causing massive wounds in flesh and gouges in soft steel. An armored vehicle version called the AKSU has been identified that performs the same mission as the AKMS. This is the final expression of the AK system, yet other weapon designers in foreign lands have made their own derivatives of Kalashnikov’s general purpose weapon.

The Chinese have manufactures nine different AK variants under the designation Type 56 and a copy of the RPK called Type 81. Projected estimates of Chinese AK production fall between 10 and 20 million. The former German Democratic Republic made four models of their own known as the MpiK, MpiKS, MpiKM and MPiKMS72. Another RPK clone called the LMG-K came out of East Germany as well. The most interesting East German variant of the AK was the KKMPi69, which was a training rifle that fired inexpensive .22 caliber long rifle cartridges. East German factories made between 1.5 and 2 million AK’s before absorption into unified Germany. Poland has manufactured at least 2 million AKs under the name PMK. Both Hungary and Romania manufacture AKM’s (called AMD-65 in Hungary) with forward pistol grips that help the infantryman maintain control in automatic fire. Yugoslavia has been the most prolific manufacturer of the AK in terms of the number of types made. There are ten known Yugoslav variants of the AK. A sniper version using 7.92mm x 57 Mauser ammunition has been deployed under the name M76. Six different light machinegun similar to the RPK have been identified. Of note to the international defense community are the Automat M77B1 and the Puskomitraljez M77B1 export weapons that fire 7.62mm x 51 NATO ammunition. Zavodi Crevna Zavasta has made more than one million AK-style guns. North Korean output has been estimated at 3 million over the past twenty years. Roughly seven hundred thousand AK derivatives, called Ryannakkokivaari Malli 54 and 62, have come off Finnish production lines at the Valmet and Sako factories. Additionally, no less than thirteen variants have been made in these factories in three calibers for export purposes. Bitter opponents in Israel and Egypt make their own AK47 variants. In Israel, Israel Galili based his famous Galil rifle on an imported Valmet M62, while Maadi in Egypt manufactures an AK clone and a semi-automatic derivative called the Misr. When added to the 30 to 50 million AK-type weapons made in the USSR alone since 1947, it becomes obvious that at least 75 million of this remarkable assault rifle have already been manufactured, with no cessation of mass production foreseeable in the near future.

Production figures alone cannot explain the dominance of the AK among modern infantry arms. The infantryman armed with an AK generates a much higher percentage of casualties than infantrymen were capable of with earlier small arms. A study of early phases of the war in Vietnam shows that 34.7% of American casualties were inflicted by small arms. In contrast, the figure for small arms casualties in U.S. units during World War II was only 18%. In fact, U.S. forces of all types suffered at the hands of NVA/VC (North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong) troops armed with little more than their AK’s. The casualty rate was higher in maneuver battalions in Vietnam than it was in any theater of operations during the Second World War, with Army infantry battalions suffering approximately twice the casualty rate as their World War II counterparts. As an example, the battle of Ia Drang illustrates the deadly effectiveness of NVA troops armed with AK rifles. Ia Drang was the first American offensive operation of the war, in which General Westmoreland (head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) pursued the crack NVA 33rd Regiment with his newly formed First Air Cavalry Division. Known as First Cav, these troopers were trained in helicopter assault tactics and were among the best that the U.S. had to offer. In a four-day battle (14 to 17 November 1965) the First Cav lost 224 dead and 345 wounded/missing in a series of fierce NVA counterattacks. Most damaging to the American troopers was the ambush at LZ (Landing Zone) Albany in which the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment lost 62% of its men in a 16 hour engagement on 17 November. The NVA infantry began sniping from spider holes (one man covered foxholes) with their AK47’s after failing to overrun the 1st Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment on 14 November. The 1st Battalion was armed with the latest American assault rifle, the M-16, but it could not prevent the NVA from killing U.S. troops on an infantryman-to-infantryman basis. Westmoreland would later claim that roughly 2000 casualties (834 killed and 1215 wounded/missing) were inflicted on the NVA at Ia Drang, but that figure was never verified by eyewitnesses. In fact, this was the beginning of the system of “creative accounting” of NVA/VC casualties that only served to undermine the American effort in Vietnam. With no reliable means of accounting for the true number of NVA casualties, it becomes clear that the battle of Ia Drang was an unprecedented victory for the North Vietnamese Army. This victory was won in large part by men armed exclusively with the AK47 rifle.

(Editor’s Note: US forces who were there have a split opinion of the effectiveness of the M16 system. Some of the soldiers experienced failures in the M16’s and blamed their problems on this. Most officers interviewed felt that the new AR15/M16 system and its high firepower, along with the effectiveness of the 5.56 mm round, were the reason that the totally outnumbered First Cav battalions involved were able to not only survive, but to throw off all attacks by the NFA. In the Battle of Ia Drang (River Drang) Valley, the 450 men of the First Cav were dropped into the middle of nowhere, expecting a small confrontation. What they got was the fight of their lives against well over 2000 well trained North Vietnamese Army regulars. That was just in the first day! Reinforcements came in for both sides. The NVA had been looking for an opportunity to confront these new American forces and see what worked against them. Basically, the NVA learned that pitched battles against the Americans did not work, and this decisive battle colored the NVA tactics for the rest of the Vietnam War. While the body count was nebulous, there is no question of the heavy casualties inflicted on the NVA. Post war After Actions from both sides confirm the lethality of both groups of soldiers. If you are interested in a good solidly written account of the battle of Ia Drang, this old linedog suggests that you get a copy of “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway from Random House Publishers. Moore was the Light Colonel who had his ass in the grass with his battalion for the whole fight, and Galloway was one of the few journalists who ever really got out there, and he spent the whole fight with Moore’s battalion. Rousing, gut-wrenching story, and well worth reading.)

The war in Vietnam is rife with experiences of U.S. soldiers that preferred the AK to their own weaponry. Company C of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment discarded their obsolete M-14 rifles and used captured AK47’s to defend a hilltop near Nui Vu on 16 June 1966. Special Forces teams in Vietnam often had the luxury of selecting their own weapons. Many would choose the AK due to its superior reliability and penetrating power when compared to the M-16. Note that these same Special Forces teams suffered a 40% casualty rate in combat with AK47 toting NVA/VC troops. Many combat infantrymen marveled at the reliability of the AK, “That was the kind of weapon our soldiers needed, not the confidence-sapping M-16”. Ranger teams also used the AK47 for long-range patrols, and the entire Ranger complement that fought in II corps zone used AK’s for all their missions. Ranger teams that failed to equip themselves with the AK frequently had to pay an excessive price in their own blood. Such was the fate of Ranger Team 52 that was attacked by NVA infantry while operating in Cambodia on 17 June 1970. The five-man team returned fire with their M-14 rifles, but their fire was ineffective as there were no known NVA losses. Team 52 lost four of its five men in this firefight. This phenomenon, however, is not restricted to the war in Vietnam. The AK47 quickly became a prestige weapon in the Mujahadeen’s war against the Red Army in Afghanistan.

Two final battles will now be used to complete the proof of the AK47’s status as the most successful battle rifle of all time. The first occurs during the Six-Day War of 1967. Advanced elements of General Israel Tal’s armored brigade passed through Egyptian infantry defending a fortified complex called Jiradi near El Arish on 5 June 1967. El Arish was a key point on the coast road between the Suez Canal and Gaza, so General Tal pushed straight through the Egyptian positions en route to the coast. Units of the Egyptian 7th Infantry Division, armed with AK47’s, regrouped after the departure of Tal’s tanks and defeated two follow-up convoys of infantry until they were finally overcome by a night assault involving combined Israeli arms. The significance of this action resides in the inability of Egyptian forces to win any other battles in the Six-Day War. This fleeting Egyptian success, coupled with more numerous examples in the Yom Kippur Ware of 1973, caused Israel to develop the aforementioned Galil rifle. The close-quarter combat found in the fortified zones of the Sinai and the Golan Heights then and now are ideal for high volume of fire weapons such as the AK and Galil. The final example of the AK’s dominance on the modern battlefield can be found during the events of the ambush of American Rangers and Delta Forces personnel in Mogadishu on 3 October 1993. Somali infantry, loyal to General Mohammed Aidid, executed a carefully planned ambush directed against the Rangers and Delta Force who were attempting to arrest some of Aidid’s lieutenants and perhaps apprehend Aidid himself. A sharp firefight ensued in which the Rangers quickly found themselves surrounded. The Somalis, armed with an assortment of weapons but primarily AK47’s, operated in fire teams and squad-sized elements throughout the ensuing 15 hour battle that involved UN relief forces. One component of the relief forces was Company A of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. The company was well equipped, incorporating an engineer squad and a platoon of four Pakistani T-55 tanks. Company A took a total of 17 casualties during the battle (2 dead and 15 wounded). Of these, mortar and RPG fire accounted for one casualty each. The rest resulted from small arms fire, the bulk of which came from AK47’s. Thus, up to 88% of the casualties inflicted on a well equipped American infantry company came as a result of AK47 fire. It has been noted that this battle, fought largely by Somalis armed with AK rifles, caused UN forces to withdraw from Somalia.

These battles clearly prove the need for a reliable, high rate of fire weapon for deployment to infantrymen. It is vital that modern defense establishments give a high priority to the development of infantry tactics and technology as small arms will continue to dominate the low-intensity conflicts (i.e. Vietnam, Somalia) most likely to obtain in the future. Once again, the AK47’s impact on the battlefield can be measured by the large number of copycat arms that have seen action in other armies worldwide. In addition to those mentioned above, France, the United Kingdom and the United States have produced their own small arms in response to the tactical successes gained by infantrymen worldwide using the AK. France’s FAMAS, considered a technological marvel in its own right in the 1970’s, borrows little from the AK design but owes its existence to the need of French infantrymen to counter insurgent forces armed with AK-type arms. In the United Kingdom, the L85A1 Individual Weapon continues the trend began with the FAMAS by introducing assault weapon capabilities to British soldiers previously limited to semi-automatic fire. The M16 rifle earned its break with U.S. forces in Vietnam as it predecessor, the M-14, could not deliver sufficient fire to counter NVA troops armed with the AK. Current small arms development centers on mating missile guidance technologies with the proven assault rifle technologies found in the AK47. When deployed universally, these deadly new assault rifles will be able to replace many of the anti-tank, grenade launching and mortar systems now being phased out of the leading armies of the world. Thus the new assault rifles will permit the combat infantryman of the 21st Century a level of tactical freedom undreamed of by Schmeisser and Kalashnikov, but this would not have been possible without the outstanding achievements of those two in developing the world’s first true general purpose infantry weapons.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N12 (September 1998)
and was posted online on February 3, 2017


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