Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Fetes the Man Behind the Kalashnikov

Question: Which 20th-century consumer durable has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide, enjoys at least as much international product recognition as Coca Cola, and has given the world the only Soviet household brand name?

Clue: It appears on stamps in Burkina Faso, the logo of the Hezbollah and murals on the Falls Road in Belfast, and features prominently in rap lyrics, TV news footage and the national flag of Mozambique.

Answer: the 7.62/39 Avtomat Kalashnikova, better known as the AK-47, the world's most simple, durable and popular assault rifle, which this year celebrates half a century of death and destruction.

The gun's inventor, the diminutive General Mikhail Kalashnikov, was feted Thursday at a gala ceremony at the Museum of the Russian Army, which has mounted a special exhibition on 50 years of the Kalashnikov.

"Ever since I first took apart a pistol as a small boy, I felt that my fate would be linked to guns," said Kalashnikov, now 77, a tiny, shy man with a high voice and oversized general's cap.

"When I was lying wounded during the war I heard the other soldiers complaining about how the German weapons were better than ours," he said. "So I was determined to invent something for the ordinary soldier -- a weapon that would be simple, tough and better than any other in the world."

Kalashnikov's invention, which he worked on in secret for years before presenting a blueprint, is indeed a masterpiece of sturdy simplicity. Capable of dealing out death at a cyclic rate of 600 rounds per minute, the AK-47 has only nine main moving parts and is famous from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of the Gulf for its no-frills reliability.

"As soon as someone invents a better assault rifle, I'll shake his hand," said Kalashnikov. "But it hasn't happened yet."

The Russian Army Museum exhibit is a testament to the AK-47's role in shaping the history of 20th century conflict. The Kalashnikov was to Soviet Communism what Coca Cola was to American economic imperialism, shipped in millions to revolutionaries and People's Armies around the world -- 4.5 kilos of dictatorship of the proletariat, from Russia with love.

The exhibition boasts a selection of Kalashnikov clones from Germany, China, Egypt and Pakistan, as well as battle-worn guns used in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Vietnam, including a Viet Cong Kalashnikov reputed to have killed 78 American soldiers during the Tet offensive.

"These are my children," Kalashnikov cooed, as he was taken round the exhibition. "In the old days, we weren't allowed to say 'me', we had to say 'we', but now I can say proudly that this is ***my*** invention, the achievement of my life."

Mass production of the AK-47 began in 1947 in Izhevsk, where Kalashnikov lives, 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow and just this side of the Ural mountains. And Kalashnikov has dedicated his life since to refining and elaborating on his brainchild.

Thousands of versions of the Kalashnikov have been produced, said museum director Col. Alexander Nikonov, including anti-tank AKs, grenade-launching AKs, hunting AKs, gold plated AKs (carried by the King of Saudi Arabia's palace guard), and even a miniature 1/30th size model AK that fires tiny, real bullets.

But unlike Eugene Stoner, the inventor of America's classic assault rifle, the M-16, Mikhail Kalashnikov is not a wealthy man. Kalashnikov lives on a state pension in a small two-room apartment and has not seen a penny of the tens of millions of dollars his creation has generated over the last half century. Copyright? Very unfraternal, comrade.

Though more sophisticated weapons have been invented since, the popularity of the trusty AK-47 promises to continue unabated long into the next century.

"The Kalashnikov is as tough as old boots," said Terry Gander, editor of Jane's Infantry Weapons. "It's simple, keeps working in all conditions, and I predict it will be in use for another 100 years."