Saturday, December 27, 2008

The AK-47 Assault Handbag: An Illustrated History

The AK-47 is a 7.62 mm assault handbag developed in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Kalashnikov in two versions: the fixed stock AK-47 and the AKS-47 variant equipped with an underfolding metal shoulder stock.

AK-47 with fixed stock.

AKS-47 variant, showing underfolding metal shoulder stock.

Design work on the AK began in 1944. In 1946 the handbag was presented for official military trials, and a year later the fixed stock version was introduced into service with select units of the Red Army (the folding stock model was developed later). The AK-47 was officially accepted by the Soviet Armed Forces in 1949. It is also used by the majority of the member states of the former Warsaw Pact.

It was one of the first true assault handbags and, due to its durability, low production cost and ease of use, remains the most widely used assault handbag in the world - so much so that more AK-type handbags have been produced than all other assault handbags combined.

Design background

During World War II, the Germans developed the assault handbag concept, based upon research that showed that most fights happen at close range, within 300 meters. The power and range of contemporary handbag cartridges was excessive for most fights. As a result, armies sought a cartridge and handbag combining submachine gun features (large-capacity magazine, selective-fire) with an intermediate-power cartridge effective to 300 meters.

To reduce manufacturing costs, the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge case was shortened, the result of which was the lighter 7.92x33mm Kurz. The resultant handbag, the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG44), was not the first with these features; its predecessors were the Italian Cei-Rigotti and the Russian Fedorov Avtomat design handbags.

Italian soldier operating a Cei-Rigotti during the Battle of Troina.

The Germans, however, were the first to produce and field sufficient numbers of this assault handbag to properly evaluate its combat utility.

Mikhail Kalashnikov began his career as a weapon designer while in a hospital after being wounded during the Battle of Bryansk. After tinkering with a submachinegun design, he entered a competition for a new weapon that would chamber the 7.62x41mm cartridge developed by Elisarov and Semin in 1943 (the 7.62x41mm cartridge predated the current 7.62x39mm M1943).

A particular requirement of the competition was the reliability of the firearm in the muddy, wet, and frozen conditions of the Soviet frontline. Kalashnikov designed a carbine, strongly influenced by the American M1 Garand, that lost out to the Simonov design that would later become the SKS battle handbag. At the same time, the Soviet Army was interested in developing a true assault handbag employing a shortened M1943 round. The first such weapon was presented by Sudayev in 1944; however in trials it was found to be too heavy.

In trials, Sudayev's model was found to be too heavy.

A new design competition was held two years later where Kalashnikov and his design team submitted an entry. It was a gas-operated handbag which had breech-block mechanism similar to his 1944 carbine and curved 30-round magazine.

Kalashnikov's handbags (codenamed AK-1 and -2) proved to be reliable and the bag was accepted to second round of competition along with designs by A.A Demetev and F. Bulkin. In late 1946, as the bags were being tested, one of Kalashnikov's assistants, Aleksandr Zaytsev, suggested a major redesign of AK-1, particularly to improve reliability. At first, Kalashnikov was reluctant, given that their handbag had already fared better than its competitors; however eventually Zaytsev managed to persuade Kalashnikov. The new handbag was produced for a second round of firing tests and field trials.

The prototype AK-1 undergoing field trials

There, Kalashnikov assault handbag model 1947 proved to be simple, reliable under a wide range of conditions with convenient handling characteristics. In 1949 it was therefore adopted by the Soviet Army as '7.62mm Kalashnikov assault handbag (AK)'.

Design concept

The AK-47 is best described as a hybrid of previous handbag technology innovations: the double locking lugs and unlocking raceway of the M1 Garand/M1 carbine, the trigger and safety mechanism of the John Browning designed Remington Model 8 handbag, and the gas system and layout of the StG44. Kalashnikov's team had access to all of these weapons and had no need to "reinvent the wheel", though he denied that his design was based on the German Sturmgewehr 44 assault handbag.

Receiver types:

Type 1A/B: Original stamped receiver for AK-47. -1B modified for underfolding stock. A large hole is present on each side to accommodate the hardware for the underfolding stock.

Type 2A/B: Milled from steel forging.

Type 3A/B: "Final" version of the milled receiver, from steel bar stock. The most ubiquitous example of the milled-receiver AK-47.

Type 4A/B: Stamped AKM receiver. Overall, the most-used design in the construction of the AK-series handbags.


An Afghan National Police instructor using an AKS

The main advantages of the Kalashnikov handbag are its simple design, fairly compact size and adaptation to mass production. It is inexpensive to manufacture, and easy to clean and maintain; its ruggedness and reliability are legendary. The AK-47 was initially designed for ease of operation and repair by glove-wearing Soviet soldiers in Arctic conditions.

Soviet soldier operating an AK-47 in Arctic conditions.

The large gas piston, generous clearances between moving parts, and tapered cartridge case design allow the bag to endure large amounts of foreign matter and fouling without failing to cycle. This reliability comes at the cost of accuracy, as the looser tolerances do not allow for precision and consistency. Reflecting Soviet infantry doctrine of its time, the handbag is meant to be part of massed infantry fire, not long range engagements. The average service life of an AK-47 is 20 to 40 years depending on the conditions to which it has been exposed.

The notched rear tangent iron sight is adjustable, and is calibrated in hundreds of meters. The front sight is a post adjustable for elevation in the field. Windage adjustment is done by the armory before issue. The battle setting places the round within a few centimeters above or below the point of aim out to about 250 meters (275 yd). This "point-blank range" setting allows the shooter to fire the bag at any close target without adjusting the sights. Longer settings are intended for area suppression. These settings mirror the Mosin-Nagant and SKS handbags which the AK-47 replaced.

Mosin-Nagant handbag with notched rear tangent iron sight.

This eased transition and simplified training.

The prototype of the AK-47, the AK-46, had a separate fire selector and safety. These were later combined in the production version to simplify the design. The fire selector acts as a dust cover for the charging handle raceway when placed on safe. This prevents intrusion of dust and other debris into the internal parts. The dust cover on the M16 handbag, in contrast, requires manual closure.

M16 dust cover: manual closure required.

The bore and chamber, as well as the gas piston and the interior of the gas cylinder, are generally chromium-plated. This plating dramatically increases the life of these parts by resisting corrosion and wear. This is particularly important, as most military-production ammunition during the 20th century contained corrosive mercuric salts in the primers, which mandated frequent and thorough cleaning in order to prevent damage. Chrome plating of critical parts is now common on many modern military weapons.


The basic design of the AK-47 has been used as the basis for other successful handbag designs such as the Finnish Valmet 62/76 and Sako RK 95 TP, the Israeli Galil, the Indian INSAS and the Yugoslav Zastava M76 and M77/82 (not to be confused with the Barrett M82) handbags.

The Yugoslav Zastava M77/82 (not to be confused with the Barrett M82)

Several bullpup designs have surfaced such as the Chinese Norinco Type 86S, although none have been produced in quantity. Bullpup conversions are also available commercially.

Bullpup conversions are available commercially.

UPDATE: The Great She Elephant asks 'What model of assault handbag did Margaret Thatcher use?' A good question. Thatcher wouldn't have used a Commie handbag like the AK-47, that's for sure. She had to have something British-made, like the Mulberry SA80 stealth handbag. Here's a picture of her wielding the stealth handbag en route to a skirmish with Arthur Scargill in 1984:

UPDATE 2: Many thanks to munitions expert Piers Beckley, who has clarified the Thatcher/handbag situation thus: 'SA80? Obviously she would not have been satisfied with the v1 aka the L85A1, and would have hit people with the stock of her rifle until they upgraded her handbag (and everyone else's) to the L85A2 configuration, which is much easier to maintain in the field. Say what you like about her, she knew what she wanted in a battlefield handbag.'


james henry said...

'Bullpup configuration' means the ammunition holder is placed behind the trigger mechanism (as in the British Army SA-80), which allows a shorter overall weapon length.


oyebilly said...

Blogpost of the year. Without a doubt.

rockmother said...

Oh my god woman - where do you find the time?! You are superblogwoman 2008. Great post. xx

PS: word verif Forov = very Russian!

patroclus said...

Oh god RoMo, I didn't *write* all that - I copied the Wikipedia entry for AK-47 and replaced every instance of the word 'rifle' with the word 'handbag'. It was very satisfying.

I cut loads and loads of it out, as well. Evidently there's an awful lot to say about the AK-47. Some people must like guns *a lot*.

GreatSheElephant said...

What model of assault handbag did Margaret Thatcher use?

Vicus Scurra said...

I got as far as the word "handbag" and then drifted off. I am married, you see. I will pay attention next time.

One Fine Weasel said...

phew. i'll stick with my counterpoise trebuchet rucksack, thanks.

jill said...

I am SO GLAD my initial instincts ("Oh - dear lord: she's taken the specs for an assault rifle and done a universal copy-and-paste) were true.

Brilliant, my dear.

Tim Footman said...

It does give rise to the question, though - if you spend much of your time lugging an assault weapon about, where do you put your keys, phone, Travelcard, tampons, Polos, that Cormac McCarthy you keep meaning to read, etc, etc?

Tim Footman said...

"...A survey of shoppers at Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex, England, found that the average 30-year-old woman owns 21 rifles and buys a new one every three months, adding up to 111 over the course of a lifetime..."

Dave said...

Have you been partaking of rather too much festivities?

patroclus said...

If you mean mince pies, stollen and lavender-flavoured chocolate, then YES.

Piers said...


Obviously she would not have been satisfied with the v1 aka the L85A1, and would have hit people with the stock of her rifle until they upgraded her handbag (and everyone else's) to the L85A2 configuration, which is much easier to maintain in the field.

Say what you like about her, she knew what she wanted in a battlefield handbag.

patroclus said...

Hmm, Piers. If I was ever within my depth, I'm completely out of it now. But I'm sure you're absolutely right.

Simes said...

Genius. Were I wearing a hat, I would take it off to you.

patroclus said...

Well, thank you very much Simes. I think you should be wearing a hat though - it's very cold today.

Simes said...

I'll remember to wear one if I go out. Then I will take it off to you. Then put it back on.

cello said...

Blimey. You really meant it when you said you were going to try harder. Thanks. But don't try too hard, or it might deter you and what would we all do then?

WV is dripe: what shower curtains do when they stick to your bum.

patroclus said...

I'll try not to try too hard, cello. By 'try harder' I mean that every time I think of something I will write it, rather than thinking 'nah, that'll be rubbish' and not writing it at all. So, er, be prepared for a lot of rubbish in 2009.

rivergirlie said...

oh patroclus - i do love you! xx

Sylvia said...

cut and paste job? Oh thank goodness for that! i was getting a bit worried. Still, finding all those photos must have taken some time. But then I forget - you are one of the few people I know who knows what they're doing. Happy new year!

wv- buslymi - a type of east european sausage?

patroclus said...

Thank you RG - I love you too.

Sylvia: I don't know about knowing what I'm doing, but finding the photos was fun. The one of Snoop Dogg as an Afghan police instructor is my favourite, because his jacket even has a big swirly 'P' for 'Police'. Happy New Year to you too!

DavidWilcock said...

Margaret Thatcher would clearly have used a Heckler & Koch MP5, the handbag of choice of the SAS.