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.
When I first started getting serious about rifles 10-15 years ago, the AK was still very much the red headed stepchild of American gun culture. But the way it was designed for someone with next to no training to be able to pick up and use effectively, and to run reliably in austere conditions, that grabbed my attention. As a young pastor with a growing family and limited time and funds to devote to shooting the AK was my “one gun”. Though my collection has grown over the years and my brain has led me to set up a red dot equipped AR for serious home defense, when there’s a bump in the night my heart will always yearn to reach for the AK, a chicom chest rig loaded with mags older than I am and a tomahawk.
That is wonderful stuff.
By the by, I used a moment of google-fu and tracked down the book with that essay. It’s called “The American Indian” by Raymond Friday Locke, page 225. Looks like it’s on archive.org and pretty cheap on the used market!
Well hot damn! I might have to run that down. What a trip it would be to read that again.
Paul McNamee says
Great read. Thanks.
Brian H. says
Regarding Osama’s last rifle, curious that while Russian made had “counterfeit” PRC marks. Was that to disguise the source? Common gun runner tactics? A black powder buddy once told me “The AK is the Northwest Trade gun of the 20th century. I might add “on steroids” or something akin.
Equivalent of the Northwest Trade Gun is right on the money, I think. The Chinese markings are a curious feature — probably as you say to disguise the actual source.
Brian H. says
Geezo, realizing the “typo” with the names. Wasn’t intentional , ha.
Woopsy there… I didn’t catch that. Fixed.
I usually don’t comment on gun posts because people here know a lot more about guns then I do. (The only gun I own is a hunting rifle my grandfather left me.) But I found the comparison of the AK47 and the AR-15 interesting. I’m aware of the debate on which is better with some people getting really emotional on it for some reason. It seems that it is more complex than one being absolutely better.
It does not surprise me that bin Laden kept safe in a bunker while other people did the fighting and dying. I remember reading that a lot of suicide bombers were people told simply to drive a van to certain location and then the van is detonated remotely without the driver being aware it is even a bomb.
lane batot says
Every time I hear the term “Kalashnikov”, I get this weird image of ballet dancers in tights and tutus dancing around to classical music while brandishing machine guns. I bet such would be a Big Hit, were it ever made into an actual ballet…….
It has probably been done already. A version of Macbeth set in S. America was staged a few years back.
The images included of tribesmen sporting AKs truly illustrate how reliable and adaptable the 75-year-old design is. I’ve never shouldered one, but everyone I’ve met who fought in the Vietnam conflict has a grudging respect for the rifle’s resilience.
Quixotic Mainer says
The Hungarian fella in the hard top hat looks like the European shade of El Chivato.
Cool article, the pictures of the tribesmen with their blasters is really striking.
SQUIRE RUSTICUS says
In the late 80’s and early 90’s I purchased a handful of Norinco and Polytech AK and MAK variants, finding them a lot more reliable, easier to keep maintained, and a lot less picky on ammo then the first AR’s I had (Colt and the start of the aftermarket AR’s). Sold the AR’s I’d originally bought within 3 years and refused to purchase another for 20 years. But I had M1A’s, etc… and AK’s so I was not missing out.
I’d shot M-16’s (Vietnam Era) from weapons Armories when in ROTC at National Guard Armories, and Army Bases during my years of training and had learned to disdain the M-16 as it was then. At one armory I drew a H&R Vietnam aftermarket Contract rifle, as my personal weapon that was the biggest piece of rattling junk, I could not believe it was kept. Then again in the ARMY build up of the 80’s much of the equipment was Vietnam Era.
When I finally got around to purchasing the AK’s and AR’s (1987-88) I definitely preferred the AK. The AK ate anything (ammo), never failed to fire, was apart in seconds, didn’t have to be cautious with charging handle, etc….. My original Colt AR-15 (looked just like Vietnam Era M-16), was very picky with ammo, jammed, hated too much oiling, or not enough, it had to be just right. I’ve always kept my firearms clean and well serviced, but had seen that the old M-16 was picky also when it came to too much oil, unlike current AR’s.
Current AR’s are wonderful, far superior to what they use to be. Sadly I got rid of my AK’s except one. I had a girlfriend that kept me broke. I was going to purchase another AK last year, but found those offered seemed to be of a quality less then the old ChiCom arms. Some of the companies have a rough finish to the firearm like the old Bulgarian rifles. If you compare a Russian Makarov to a Bulgarian made pistol you will see what I mean. The gun stores did have modern plastic, upgraded tactical AK’s at about the price of a Springfield M1A, but I’m more of a traditional wood type guy and I’d rather purchase other types rifles at that cost.
As a side note:
My Grandfather’s body guard-driver (a Marine) Jim Presley, mentioned the couple years he was with my grandfather, they both preferred to carry AK’s (1965-67). He mentioned that when Lou got stuck taking Super GS’s from the Cookie Factory on dog and pony shows they were suppose to take them to perfect hamlets, outpost, villages, camps, down secure roads. Lou would arrange for them to get a taste of the “Real War”, going into dangerous areas. Lou loved his M1 carbines from his OSS days, liked his SMG’s (except Sten guns), and used the M-16, but I guess at the time some of the CIA hands carried AK’s. I’d probably picked a Swedish K, but I wasn’t there.
I can see why the 3rd World has found the AK the perfect weapon. It will operate anywhere, anytime, with any kind of care, by the most ignorant insurgent, terrorist, poacher, or soldier. Also they can put down a lot of firepower, by an untrained soldier, where accurate aiming is more of a hope or dream then reality. Training a 3rd World Insurgent can be accomplished in short order with an AK, as it is simple, uncomplicated, can take punishment.
Great stuff. Thank you.
SQUIRE RUSTICUS says
I like the comment about the AK being like a Trade Gun. The trade gun was the backbone of the fur trade, offered in one form or another for like close to 300 years. If I remember right, Hudson Bay Company offered them in the catalog until 1932.
I have a North Star West put together as a kit, by a friend, from when Curly owned the place. Mine is a 24 gauge with mitten trigger guard.
Like the AK they were not too picky, takes ball, buck and ball, shot….About the only problem was overcharging it with the ball not seated (buffalo runners). They were not as accurate as the long rifle, trade rifle, plains rifle, but they got the job done.