The AK-47: 50 years old and still going strong.

Author:Vesely, Milan

No combat weapon is better known or has achieved the same cult status as the ubiquitous AK-47. In the 50 years since it first rolled off the production line in Russia, the AK-47 has been at the centre of all violent political upheavals in Africa. But what exactly is its appeal? Milan Vesely takes a closer look at the 'people's weapon'.

The AK-47 assault rifle - five kilos of deadly mayhem - has changed the political landscape of Africa. Because of it's firepower, Rhodesia gave way to Zimbabwe, apartheid ceased to exist, Mobutu Sese Seko's dynasty crashed and the Somali nation disintegrated; on the other hand, also because of the AK-47, millions have lost their lives, children have become hardened soldiers and the gunman has become king even in the remotest regions of the continent.

The Automat Kalashnikova 1947 (AK-47) is 50-years-old and still continues to exert an influence far greater than any other combat weapon.

From the drought plagued scrublands of the Sudan to the concrete jungle of South Africa, the banana-magazine Kalashnikov is the weapon of choice. It has become the standard issue for regular army professionals, fuzzy chinned boy guerrillas and hardened urban-cowboy gangsters. Nothing beats it for settling political or personal disputes.

There are an estimated 20m AK-47s on the continent. At an average cost of $50 a gun, this represents a staggering $1bn of 7.62mm firepower. And more of the cheap and highly efficient Weapons keep coming in. African defence spending in 1998 is up by 3%, much of it for small arms and ammunition, most of it for Mr Kalashnikov's familiar hardware.

The AK-47 was born in Izhevsk, Udmertiya Republic in the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Designed by a wounded, self-trained 23-year-old sergeant, Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK-47 went into production in 1949. Produced for a hard pressed Soviet army, the lightweight assault rifle fundamentally changed the way men kill.

It's effect on Africa has been of seismic proportions. In one quantum leap, liberation movements jumped from the Mau Mau's single shot Enfield.303 to SWAPO's and Umkhonto we Sizwe's 36-round rapid fire Kalashnikov. More than any other single weapon, the AK-47 destroyed the myth of white colonial power.

In the blunt words of Chairman Mao Tse Tung, power truly came from the barrel of the gun - the AK-47 in particular.

Its rapid rise is easy to understand: it rarely malfunctions, is easy to use, and has a blurring 100 round-per-minute...

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