Are Kalashnikov’s reversible digits the result of simple bureaucratic coincidence or was the bloody god of war fooled by a numerical pun?
In my (upcoming) thriller The Atlas Fracture, the bad guys are armed with assault rifles. And since they are bad guys, it’s appropriate that they carry that icon of revolution, strife and chaos: the AK-47. Well known to Hollywood directors, military buffs, gun aficionados and banditos the world over as the high-powered, badass lingua franca of armed conflict, the AK-47 is instantly recognizable with its wooden stock, banana clip and wolfish, back-slanted gas tube assembly above the barrel. More of these assault rifes have been manufactured than any other model of killing machine. One estimate puts the total at more than 75 million AKs.
The designer of the AK-47 was Mikhail Kalashnikov, a tank driver in the 12th Soviet Tank Division. He was wounded in the WWII Battle of Bryansk in October 1941 during a period when the Soviet Army was reeling backward under the Nazi onslaught. While recovering, Kalashnikov heard Soviet soldiers complaining about their standard issue rifles. So he decided to design a new assault rifle. Kalashnikov’s eventual post-World War II design was accepted by the Soviet Red Army and was designated the AK-47. It became a communist and third world legend.
Assault rifle design continued to evolve, however, and by the late 1960s the Soviets decided they needed a replacement for the AK-47. The 47 was tough, would fire even when slathered with mud and it had massive hitting power. But it wasn’t tremendously accurate. So Kalashnikov designed a newer rifle with a smaller caliber bullet that could be put on target with more precision. And the designation for the new rifle? It was named the AK-74. A mirror name to the earlier AK-47 design. The two guns even looked the same.
Was there some reason for this mirror-image name?
Well, when he was a young man before he entered the army, Mikhail Kalashnikov loved to write poetry. He wanted to be a poet when he grew up. But “The Great Patriotic War” intervened. Given Mikhail’s poetic leanings, did a silly sense of word play enter into the mirror names for Kalashnikov’s deadly offspring? Only the now defunct Soviet Red Army Office of Weapons Procurement will ever know for sure.