Lead Designer Of World's Most Popular Firearm Dies

The lead designer of the world's most popular firearm has died. Mikhail Kalashnikov, who helped invent the AK-47, was 94. David Greene talks to New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, and author of The Gun, about the myths surrounding Kalashnikov and the weapon he made famous.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

1947 was the year the most notorious weapon in history was born. That is the Avtomat Kalashnikov, or AK-47. Today, millions of them - maybe 100 million - are in use. The man who helped bring the weapon to the world - Mikhail Kalashnikov - has now died, at age 94.

Joining me now is C.J. Chivers. He's a reporter for The New York Times and author of "The Gun," a book about the AK-47. Chris, welcome back to the program.

C.J. CHIVERS: Thanks very much for having me.

GREENE: Can you tell me how you define Mikhail Kalashnikov's role in history?

CHIVERS: Well, there's sort of two takes on that. The one is a very popular take - that, you know, a light bulb went off in his head and he then, you know, through this momentary epiphany, sat down at a workbench and developed the weapon that became the most abundant firearm ever made.

It's really a lot more complicated than that. He was part of a state-directed design process where a lot of different people's ideas came together, and then his name was lent to it. And then he spent the next several decades, you know, essentially promoting the weapon, and refining the weapon with other design teams.

And sort of died yesterday a folk hero in Russia, and for much of the world. But also a little more complicated than that, in that there are a large number of people who see him as someone who lent his name to a killing machine and didn't show a whole lot of remorse.

GREENE: Yeah. A killing machine that, I mean, is used in conflicts everywhere. It's used by gangsters. I mean, can you just remind us - give us a sense how prolific this weapon really is.

CHIVERS: Well, no one really knows the precise numbers because this weapon was made in many countries; almost all of them secretive governments living in secretive times, and most of the transfers have been nontransparent. But there is this strong sense somewhere on the order of 100 million of these have been made.

GREENE: A lot of guns.

CHIVERS: A lot more than any standing army ever needed. And there's peculiar reasons for that. It's not just that the rifle was a well-conceived piece for what it was intended to do. It's that its production was hooked up to planned economies, and so it was made whether anyone ordered or bought them - or not.

GREENE: Well, is there something about it that makes it so popular, compared to other guns that might be available?

CHIVERS: There's a lot of things. I mean, its essential features are a compromise of many different firearms that come together in a way that make it very easy to use. It was well-conceived, and it's designed to be very reliable. I mean, it gets knocked on a lot for not being a very good-looking rifle, for the people who care about those things. But in practical terms, it was produced to very good standards.

It has excellent chrome finish on the inside, and an exterior coating that resisted rust. And all of these things came together to make it long-lasting. And you add that into the raw numbers of them that were made, and then were made by, you know, brittle states that in many cases fell apart and lost custody of their weapons, or were cash starved and sold them; and between the abundance and its own inherent qualities, it's a natural to show up in most anyplace where there's a war.

GREENE: You mentioned that Mikhail Kalashnikov does not feel remorse. I mean, given this legacy of death from this weapon, explain that emotion to me.

CHIVERS: He's a pretty complicated figure, with a very complicated past. He was born a peasant and as a child, his family suffered under the collectivization programs of the Soviet Union. And his family was driven to Siberia, and their home was burned to the ground. And his father died in the first winter in Siberia; his brother was in prison for seven years. And he rose to this pretty incredible ascension inside the Soviet arms bureaucracy. The same system that had destroyed his family was the system that rewarded him. So he did express remorse, at times. But other times, it was more than tempered with a pretty fierce pride in what he'd helped create.

GREENE: C.J. Chivers is a reporter for The New York Times, and also author of the book "The Gun," about the AK-47, and we were talking to him about the death of Mikhail Kalashnikov. C.J., thanks so much for joining us.

CHIVERS: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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