Will The New AK-47 Be As Popular As The Original?

A Colombian police officer stands guard next to seized Chinese-made AK-47 replicas on Nov. 18, 2009. The guns have become so ubiquitous around the world that Russia's planned redesign may not do much to booster sales.

hide captionA Colombian police officer stands guard next to seized Chinese-made AK-47 replicas on Nov. 18, 2009. The guns have become so ubiquitous around the world that Russia's planned redesign may not do much to booster sales.

Luis Robayo/Getty Images

The Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47, is one of the most dangerous and widely used weapons in the world. For more than 60 years, nations, rebels, gangsters and child soldiers have wielded the gun.

And now, Russian officials say it's outdated. As part of a $700 billion army modernization program, the country has announced a redesign of the rifle.

New York Times foreign correspondent C.J. Chivers — author of The Gun, a book about the Kalashnikov — tells NPR's Audie Cornish that the updates are mostly cosmetic.

A Look At The Kalashnikov Through History

  • The first time the automatic Kalashnikov, or AK-47, was used in a conflict was 1956, when the Soviet Army entered Hungary to crush a popular uprising in Budapest.
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    The first time the automatic Kalashnikov, or AK-47, was used in a conflict was 1956, when the Soviet Army entered Hungary to crush a popular uprising in Budapest.
    Keystone/Getty Images
  • A 14-year-old Vietnamese boy points an AK-47 in 1968. The Vietnam War became the first large conflict in which both sides carried assault rifles.
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    A 14-year-old Vietnamese boy points an AK-47 in 1968. The Vietnam War became the first large conflict in which both sides carried assault rifles.
    Henri Huet/AP
  • A Sudanese fighter holds his AK-47 at the ready in 1971. The gun's simple, intuitive design has made it popular among small-arms dealers, as well as insurgents, terrorists and child soldiers.
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    A Sudanese fighter holds his AK-47 at the ready in 1971. The gun's simple, intuitive design has made it popular among small-arms dealers, as well as insurgents, terrorists and child soldiers.
    John Downing/Express/Getty Images
  • A man is arrested by a policeman armed with an AK-47 after violent clashes erupted during a 1993 general transportation strike in Managua, Nicaragua.
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    A man is arrested by a policeman armed with an AK-47 after violent clashes erupted during a 1993 general transportation strike in Managua, Nicaragua.
    Matias Recart/AFP/Getty Images
  • Young rebels in Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, play with their AK-47s in the city of Goma in 1996.
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    Young rebels in Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, play with their AK-47s in the city of Goma in 1996.
    Matias Recart/AFP/Getty Images
  • Russian commanders gave Kalashnikov rifles to Chechen militiamen who helped in the fight against Islamic militants in 1999.
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    Russian commanders gave Kalashnikov rifles to Chechen militiamen who helped in the fight against Islamic militants in 1999.
    Abdelhak Senna/AFP/Getty Images
  • An undated photo of Osama bin Laden shows him with an AK-47 in his lap.
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    An undated photo of Osama bin Laden shows him with an AK-47 in his lap.
    AP
  • A Congolese fighter carries two AK-47s past burning bushes following strife in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003.
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    A Congolese fighter carries two AK-47s past burning bushes following strife in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003.
    AFP/Getty Images
  • Iraqi police cadets are trained to use AK-47s in Karbala, Iraq, on March 26, 2009.
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    Iraqi police cadets are trained to use AK-47s in Karbala, Iraq, on March 26, 2009.
    Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

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The plan is to add external features that would allow the use of accessories like flashlights and laser rangefinders. According to Chivers, at its core, the new Kalashnikov is basically the same rifle. The only change is that it seems to be targeting a new market.

"This new product, called the AK-12, is really going to be designed for traditional military customers," he says. "They're making this for police forces and military forces."

But Chivers doubts they'll have much luck reaching those customers. He says the market is already fully saturated with Kalashnikovs made not only in Russia, but also in Iraq, North Korea and China, to name a few places.

"There's a glut out there already of these rifles for the people who need them in short order, say, to go to war in Libya or to go to war in Syria or to go to war most anywhere else," he says.

That glut can be attributed to the gun's incredible staying power.

Designed in 1945 by former Russian tank gunner Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK-47 was the first gun to bridge the gap between submachine guns and long, heavy rifles. It was a simple, reliable, lightweight weapon that almost anyone could use. And once it was put into mass production, it was available to almost everyone.

Saving 'Russia's Coca-Cola'

More likely, Chivers says, the redesign is motivated by a desire to help save "the Detroit of the modern rifle world."

"The main Kalashnikov plant for the Russian Federation is the same as the main Kalashnikov plant during the Soviet Union's time," Chivers says, "and that's located out in the Ural Mountains in a city called Izhevsk."

The fortunes of Izhevsk have risen and fallen with the popularity of the Kalashnikov. Today, it can be characterized as a struggling factory town, but orders for new Kalashnikovs could help change that.

A second likely motivation Chivers cites is national pride.

"The Kalashnikov is in many ways Russia's Coca-Cola. It's their brand. It's the one thing that they made that we all know of and that has had global saturation," he says. "And to have it sort of catch up to what's been going on in Western rifles — the ability to carry all these additional features — and to have it going forward as a legitimate brand and not a legacy product, I think that's driving some of this, too."

Correction March 6, 2012

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly said that C.J. Chivers won a Pulitzer Prize for The Gun.

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