Towards the end of World War 2, when the Red Army had effectively thrust Hitler's war machine back across Poland and into Germany itself, the Soviets were regularly coming face-to-face with the latest in German military developments. One such development was the StG44 (Sturmgewehr 44 = "Storm Rifle") which was, in essence, the first truly successful and quantitatively-deployed weapon of its kind - a weapon now categorized as an "assault rifle". The assault rifle breed was shorter in length the standard-issue service rifles found within many armies of the time and could fire a similar cartridge while possessing the automatic firepower capabilities of a machine gun. Such firepower allowed a soldier to provide suppression effects and heavy fire at range without the need for a dedicated, multi-person machine gun crew toting around its heavy weapons system.
StG44 (also known as the "MP43/MP44" for "Machinenpistole") engineers accomplished the feat by developing a shorter cartridge that, while less lethal at longer ranges, was perfect for the close ranges intended for a "storm", or "assault", rifle, allowing for controlled automatic fire to be achieved from a rather compact weapon. The initiative gave birth to the intermediate "7.92x33 Kurz" cartridge. The StG44 made use of a gas-operated, tilting bolt firing action and managed 30-rounds from a spring-loaded curved detachable box magazine. The gas cylinder was set along the top of the barrel while a fixed, solid shoulder stock provided recoil support. The forend served as a forward grip for a firm two-hand hold and complete three-point control (including support from the shoulder stock). The weapon could achieve a rate-of-fire equal to 600 rounds-per-minute and some 425,000 examples were produced before the end of the war - some even seeing service in the years after. The StG44 was filling the role of assault weapon rather successfully since its inception along the Eastern Front beginning in September of 1943 and went on to be studied heavily by the Allies after the end of the war.
Soviet Mikhail Kalashnikov was conscripted into the Red Army in 1938 and served as a tank driver when he was injured during the Battle of Bryansk in 1941. During his time at the hospital, he began work on a firearm design specifically to fulfill the requirements to a gun competition being held for the new 7.62x41mm cartridge. Despite losing the competition, Kalashnikov - now part of a team - sought to fulfill a new Soviet Red Army need for an assault weapon chambered to fire the new 7.62x39mm M1943 cartridge. While the war ended in 1945, developments of new automatic weapons continued. The Kalashnikov design (the prototype known as the "AK-46") was successfully tested in 1946 and a revised, more reliable form appeared in 1947 for additional testing. The Red Army liked the robust qualities of the new weapon and formally accepted the type as the "AK-47" in 1949 (AK = "Avtomat Kalashnikova").
Outwardly, it is easy to appreciate the AK-47 as a highly modified StG44 but it invariably takes on its own form thanks to the recognizable Kalashnikov styling. The AK-47 is, in fact, a very clean design and superbly functional for its unceremonious battlefield role. The original form sported much wooden furniture that made the series instantly recognizable to any observer. The weapon was fitted with a solid wooden buttstock as well as a wood-covered pistol grip and forend. The receiver was very much slab-sided and relatively featureless save for the large charging handle and ejection port along the right side of the body. The rear sight was actually set well-forward along the upper portion of the receiver, near the forend area at the gas cylinder. The forward sight was installed just aft of the muzzle. The pistol grip was unobstructed and integrated into the slim, curved trigger unit, the trigger itself sitting within a thin guard with a magazine catch noticeable just ahead. One of the most telling features of the AK-47 series was its metallic curved detachable box magazine which held 30 rounds of ammunition. Another telling feature was the over-barrel positioning of the gas cylinder which - combined with the wooden furniture and curved magazine - gave the AK-47 its highly identifiable appearance to even the most casual of observers. The forward end of the gas cylinder was clamped to the mid portion of the barrel. The AK-47 used a gas-operated, rotating polished steel bolt system in which the gas piston was permanently affixed to the bolt carrier itself. Chromium was used to line the barrel, firing chamber and gas cylinder and this served to combat general operational abuse. The AK-47 was further designed as a select-fire weapon meaning that, by default, it fired in semi-automatic fashion (one cartridge fired for every trigger pull). A full-automatic mode (continuous firing of available cartridges per a single trigger pull) was available through management of the included selector switch. All told, the weapon was a highly utilitarian though robust assault system that seemed to hold a certain mysterious beauty about her (just ask any AK-47 owner/user).
Early production AK-47s were broken down into two distinct batch types - the version from 1948 and the version succeeding these from 1952. However, the early forms - with their stamped sheet metal receivers - proved inherently flawed, mainly due to the sheet-metal stamping technology found in throughout Russia at the time leading many production AK-47s to be rejected right at the factory. This inevitably forced the use of a machined receiver (from solid steel) instead and delayed large-scale entry of the assault rifle until the mid-1950s. The machined process covered AK-47 production from 1951 to 1959 and led to an increase in overall weight of the weapon. However, this method of manufacture itself was proving to be too expensive in the realm of Soviet mass production efforts and, thusly, forced a revision of the AK-47 family. The resulting effort went on to become the AKM (M= "Modernized") which reverted construction of the assault rifle back to its stamped steel roots - the process refined after much study of German wartime methods - producing a decidedly cheaper and lighter rifle. A new muzzle installment (with a noted slant) was introduced to combat muzzle climb. Several other subtle modifications were also introduced and the AKM was further branched to become the AKMS which introduced a folding metal buttstock - a compact feature respected by paratroopers and vehicle crews alike. One identifying feature of the AKM series versus the AK-47 was its shortened "dimple" imprint above the magazine feed - the AK-47 sported a longer dimple there. Overall AK-47 production spanned from 1949 to 1975 with involved facilities (among others) being the famed Izhevsk and Tula state arsenals.
The RPK was a modified light machine gun development that was completed with a longer barrel assembly and bipod fixture and could serve at the squad-level role for suppression effect and heavy automatic fire. The AKS was given a downward folding metal stock for compactness (similar to the AKMS) and also intended for vehicle crews and paratroopers. A major redesign of the series occurred in 1974 with the introduction of the AK-74, this version being chambered to fire the 5.45x39mm cartridge - the Kalashnikov pattern remained the same however. More modernized AK-47s (within the last few decades) have included the AK-101/102, AK-103/104, AK-105 and AK-107/108 - all taking advantage of weight-saving, cost-effective plastics and polymers in their construction. The AK-101 became an export-friendly version chambered for the widely-accepted 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge while the AK-102 represented its shortened "carbine" form. The AKM was modernized in the AK-103 while the AK-104 was its carbine form. The AK-105 was the carbine version of the AK-74M model (a modernized AK-74 appearing in 1991). The AK-107 introduced a new gas system which changed the "AK" meaning from "Avtomat Kalashnikova" to "Alexandrov/Kalashnikov" after the system's developer - Youriy Alexandrov. The AK-108 was simply the AK-107 chambered for the popular 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge. Other Kalashnikov-pattern weapons include semi-automatic rifle and shotgun designs.
To date, the new "AK-200" is the latest AK-47 derivative and the series's official successor. It was debuted in 2010 and entered production with Izhmash in 2011, manufacture ongoing as of this writing (2012). This particular entry is, again, gas-operated with a rotating bolt firing action but can be chambered to fire the 5.45x39mm, 5.56x45mm NATO and 7.62x39mm cartridges from detachable box magazines, a "casket" type magazine or an RPK-74-style drum magazine. Additionally, support for Picatinny rail accessories has been added and construction streamlined for the most discerning of shoppers.
The AK-47 itself has been license-produced (or outright illegally copied) in a plethora of forms within a plethora of countries worldwide. The weapon type went on to prove quite popular in many places of the world, particularly former Soviet satellite states and allied nations where the 7.62x39mm cartridge also reigned supreme. China produced a copy of the system as the Type 56 beginning in 1956. Hungary modified their AK-47s to become the AKM-63, AMD-65 and AK-63 assault rifle forms. The Israeli Galil sported the Kalashnikov styling and came in 5.56mm and 7.62mm flavors while being based on the Finnish RK 62, itself based on the AK-47. In 1982, South Africa introduced the Kalashnikov-like R4 assault rifle in 5.56mm chambering, a licensed-copy of the Israeli Galil series. Yugoslavia developed their Zastava M76, M77 and M82 rifle lines (among several other notable forms) from the Kalashnikov pattern. The Type 86S of Chinese origin is based on the AKM though reworked into a "bullpup" configuration in which the magazine feed is located aft of the pistol and trigger unit.
It is believed that between 50 and 75 million AK-47s have been produced since the weapon's inception. Additionally, a further 100 million units owing influence to the AK-47 have been produced from derivative developments making the AK family series one of the most successful firearms of all time. If the AK-47 displayed any limitations in its design, it was in its accuracy beyond 1,000 feet as well as lacking any indicator of an empty magazine (the bolt did not hold open after the last cartridge was fired). Regardless, the broad reach, ease-of-use and low-maintenance requirements of the AK-47 have proven hugely popular with both established armies and ad-hoc organizations looking to propel their movements and instill fear into the general populace.