When I was a frontier-obsessed youth I had a book that was full of non-fiction essays on American Indian topics. I can’t remember the title, but I remember one of the essays, titled Is Geronimo Alive & Well In The South Vietnamese Central Highlands? The thesis was that Americans faced the same kind of elusive guerrillas in Vietnam that we had faced in the desert Southwest in the 1880s. I must have re-read it a dozen times or more. The article spoke of the bronco Apaches who retreated into the Sierra Madre and never surrendered. They’re still out there, the article posited — reinforcing the claim with a depiction of an Apache warrior in 1880s attire — but leveling a Kalashnikov AK-47.
That image seared itself indelibly into my psyche. I’ve scoured the internet looking for it, to no avail, but I can see it in my mind’s eye. For 10-year-old me, the notion that there were Apaches “still out there” was thrilling. An early imprint of Continuity & Persistence. This was probably the first time I’d seen an image of an AK-47 — certainly the first that I remember. The illustrator was exploiting a reality: The Kalashnikov Rifle was the signature weapon of insurgents everywhere, even, at least potentially, remnant Apaches in the Sierra Madre.
I recently ran across a tranche of images that took me back to that Apache story — images featuring AKs in the hands of traditional tribal people of Ethiopia.
Several shots are from Jimmy Nelson’s Homage To Humanity, which I wrote about in 2018. They, too, depict Mursi tribesmen.
There’s always been something totemic about the rifle invented by Soviet tank man Mikhail Kalashnikov. Its distinctive silhouette can be found on national flags, like that of Mozambique:
According to Marine veteran and combat journalist C.J. Chivers in his masterful book The Gun, the first known insurgent to pick up a war-trophy Kalashnikov and be photographed with it was — ironically — a young member of the Hungarian resistance that rose against the Soviets in 1956.
“József Tibor Fejes was the first of the world’s Kalashnikov-toting characters, a member of a pantheon’s inaugural class.”
Today, there is an echo of that early resistance movement, as Ukrainian civilians take up the AK-47 to take on Russian invaders.
The rifles of the Kalashnikov family — the original AK-47 chambered in 7.62×39; the AK-74 chambered in 5.45x 39 — are ubiquitous. Chivers notes:
“Kalashnikovs are not just tools for the battlefield. They guard South American coca plantations and cocaine-processing labs. In Los Angeles they have served bank robbers and urban gangs; in the northwestern United States survivalists squirrel them away in anticipation of the worst. African poachers use them to thin wildlife populations and defend their illegal trade against antipoaching patrols, which carry Kalashnikovs, too. In the western pacific, the aboriginal Chukti people fire kalashnikovs at migrating gray whales, the post-Soviet manifestation of an ancient hunt the Chukti call traditional, even as they slap magazines into place and click their infantry arms off safe. Given that the Kalashnikov was conceived with the intention of shooting 160-pound capitalists, its use against 30-ton marine mammals would seem ill-advised. But the rifle at hand is the rifle that gets used. Kalashnikovs are regularly at hand.”
One of the reasons that the AK-47 and its variants are “regularly at hand” in the wilder hinterlands of the world is that the rifle is exceptionally rugged and durable for an autoloader — famously “soldier-proof” and requiring minimal maintenance. The AR-15 family of rifles is better-handling, more accurate, especially at longer ranges, more readily set up with enhanced sighting systems and is, in general a “better” rifle — but it’s not as rugged, and that matters.
Some folks really like ’em; I’m not one of them. My time on the semi-auto version of the AK-47 is limited, but I can definitely say I prefer the AR-15.
From Vietnam to the sandbox, the Kalashnikov has usually been the weapon of our enemies, including the outlaw warlords. Chivers notes that:
“By the time Saddam Hussein was pulled from a hole in Ad Dawr, in late 2003, the fugitive president had distilled his possessions down to a modern outlaw’s basic needs: two AK-47s and a crate of American cash. (He also had a pistol, a 9-millimeter Glock).”
Osama bin Laden used a stubby AKS-74U as a symbol of his status as a warrior. It was featured by his side in numerous interviews, and became part of the terrorist’s “brand.”
The AKS-74U was issued to Soviet tankers and paratroopers and others who benefitted from its compactness, with its super-short barrel and folding stock. It was nicknamed the Krinkov by Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s.
It acquired a new nickname after 2001. Chivers:
“This weapon had by then picked up a regional nickname that gave it jihadist cachet: ‘the Osama.’ Bin Laden’s selection of the design (it is less than 20 inches long and weighs not quite six pounds) was on technical merits a strange endorsement. An AKS-74U is inaccurate and fires rounds with less muzzle velocity than an AK-74, making it potentially less useful and lethal than many available choices. But people who regard themselves as warriors inhabit worlds in which symbols matters. And in the particular history of bin Laden’s martial surroundings — western Pakistan and Afghanistan of the last three decades — a short-barreled Kalashnikov emanated a trophy’s distinction. Relatively new, the AKS-74U had been carried in the Soviet-Afghan War by specialized soldiers, including helicopter and armored crews, for whom a smaller weapon was useful in the confines of their transit. For an Afghan fighter, possession of one of these rifles signified bravery and action. It implied that the holder had participated in destroying an armored vehicle or aircraft; the rifle was akin to a scalp. By choosing it, bin Laden silently signaled to his followers: I am authentic, even if his actual combat experience was not what the prop suggested.”
Interestingly, the weapon recovered when SEAL Team 6 took Osama bin Laden out was not his iconic Krink; it was a rather conventional folding stock AK-47. “Mark Owen,” an operator in the Abbottabad Raid says that the rifle was on a shelf, cleared and safe. His couriers and his sons died resisting, but the terror chieftain never picked up his weapon, which now resides in the CIA’s private museum.
With all of its practical capabilities and its totemic power, the Kalashnikov is one of the iconic firearms in the history and the folklore of the Frontier Partisans.