Confucius* is a bit of a gun-history nut. Skip this post if you suspect it won’t interest you. Apparently Confucius is not a big enough nut, as a hugely significant bit of trivia has thus far eluded his gaze. For the uninitiated, there’s an old controversy over the origins of the AK-47, the iconic Soviet assault rifle. Many hold it’s not coincidental that it emerged from the nation which was fighting a war against the country which had invented that category of weapon (not to mention the great brand name “assault rifle”) a few years earlier and largely deployed them on the Eastern Front. The best direct evidence Confucius ever ran across was in an article he can no longer find documenting that, however many of the German rifles the Russians might have captured, they had definitely captured a large cache of its ammunition—a key point, given the centrality of the new, “intermediate” sized caliber to the entire assault-rifle concept. Moreover, the new Russian M43 ammunition had distinct similarities to its German predecessor.
That said, while possessing a very similar silhouette, the actual design of the AK-47 was considerably different (and improved) from the German StG-44. The canonical Russian story is that Mikhail Kalashnikov, a wounded tank mechanic, dreamed it up while convalescing, improved it, and, Joe’s your uncle, Soviet Union creates world-beating weapon. While this is entirely possible, one oddity that’s always puzzled Confucius is the relative lack of subsequent innovations from Kalashnikov. Most gun designers are obsessive tinkerers and napkin-sketchers. The line of weapons bearing Kalashnikov’s name, however, changed very little over the ensuing decades. An improved “modernized” version was introduced in 1960, and the gun rechambered, following the M16, for a smaller, higher-velocity bullet—over Kalashnikov’s objections, it’s said—in the ’70s. Other weapons, like the RPK, used fundamentally the same action. Doubtless at least some of the lack of improvement had something to do with the excellent inherent simplicity and reliability of the design.
Kalashnikov, then, comes off as a bit of a one-hit wonder, having produced a work of genius and then more or less coasted. Even once his existence was acknowledged (he was a state secret), and he began to speak to the press in the ’90s, he was always slightly opaque, to this observer’s readings. So, if it’s possible that Kalashnikov wasn’t the genius who came up with the weapon, is there any plausible alternative candidate? To my knowledge, there was no designer executed and made an unperson by Stalin who might qualify.
It turns out, however, that (unbeknownst to me until yesterday) there was a colossal genius of firearms design with a track record back to the First World War living in Izhevsk, at the concern which would become known as Izhmash and manufacture the AK-47. The only hiccup? He was a German. Just as Sputnik inspired Bob Hope to quip, “I’d like to congratulate the Russians on putting that satellite in orbit. But I don’t speak German,” it seems the Soviets “imported” German small-arms designers as well, including Hugo Schmeisser. Schmeisser is most famously associated—incorrectly—with the iconic MP-38 and MP-40 submachine guns which are often dubbed “Schmeissers” (likely because he designed its magazine for another gun). Schmeisser was one of the driving forces in German submachine gun design, though, and, more importantly, was the major genius behind the first assault rifle. It’s inconceivable that Schmeisser was in Izhevsk and not very closely tied to the development of the AK-47. While he was in poor health and died not long after returning to German in the early 1950s, for the Soviets to have been working on an assault rifle and not have at least run it by Schmeisser would have been like a computer company working on an operating system not running it by Steve Jobs in the next cubicle, or a sports-car company failing to consult their employees Carroll Shelby and Ferdinand Porsche. Kalashnikov may have designed the thing soup to nuts, but it would have at least been reviewed by Schmeisser. So, whatever Kalashnikov’s contributions—and they may have been considerable, overwhelming, and even decisive—historians of the gun must reexamine the received version of the AK’s development, which bears the hallmark of propaganda from a regime unusually committed to the falsification of history. And Confucius really has to read more.
*For those who came in late, Confucius is the Gormogons’ Œcumenical Volgi. For his sins, perhaps.
Don’t ask impertinent questions like that jackass Adept Lu.