Mikhail Kalashnikov, who has died aged 94, invented the AK47 assault rifle which bears his name and became the weapon of choice for guerrillas, freedom fighters and terrorists the world over.
The automatic machine gun which Kalashnikov, then a young army sergeant, developed towards the end of the Second World War went into production and became standard issue for the Red Army while Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union. Its longevity was remarkable, and it was the Soviets' decision to license manufacture to the nations of the Eastern bloc, and to China, which led to its extraordinary proliferation.
The heyday of the Kalashnikov rifle was during the Cold War, when – thanks to Soviet and Chinese sponsorship of anti-colonial movements — it became a potent symbol of anti-imperialist struggle. It has figured on gable ends in Republican Belfast, in designs on Afghan carpets, on statues in Nicaragua and on the visa stamps of Burkina Faso. A popular song in Sudan ran: "Can't get no cash? / You're trash without a Kalash"; while in Vietnam, it was not unknown for American soldiers to cast aside their US-made carbines in favour of captured Vietcong AK47s.
Its inventor remained agnostic about the uses to which his rifle was put, regarding himself simply as a firearms engineer. He lived modestly in the Urals, and received virtually no royalties on his design.
After the collapse of communism, Kalashnikov was permitted to travel, and visited the West on several occasions. And in 2003 he formed a relationship with a small German company that wanted to attach his name to a range of ordinary consumer goods including snowboards, pocket-knives and energy drinks.
Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born on a collective farm in western Siberia on November 10, 1919, and had only a basic secondary education. As a boy he was fascinated by firearms, and aged 10 he manufactured a small pistol.
His first job was as a railway station booking clerk, but he studied mechanical design by night until, in 1938, he was drafted into the army as a tank driver, seeing action on the Eastern Front. In 1941 he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Brynsk.
It was while convalescing that Kalashnikov began to think about designing a new weapon: "Courage was not enough. The Nazis had superior armoury. I wanted to redress the balance."
The submachine gun which he sketched in the sanatorium went into production in 1942, but was not a great success; his next project, a carbine which went into service in 1944, was also unremarkable.
Only after he had been passed a captured German MP/SG44, made by Schmeisser, did Kalashnikov come up with his superlative assault rifle. Closely modelled on the German weapon, it was refashioned to accept the 7.62mm Soviet bullet and its magazine enlarged to hold 30 rounds. His greatest achievement, however, was to improve its reliability — the AK47 continues to fire even when wet, dirty or unoiled.
The prototype went into full production in 1947 — hence its name (standing for Automat Kalashnikova '47). It was lightweight, had an effective range of 400 metres, and was capable of discharging its magazine either as single shots or on automatic at a rate of 10 rounds per second.
Kalashnikov was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1949, and became a member of the Communist Party in 1953 (though this was more a matter of career advancement than ideological zeal). By then, his rifle was standard issue for all the Soviet armed forces.
The Soviet authorities were quick to grant franchises on production to the countries of the Warsaw Pact and other "fraternal" or satellite regimes. Thus, there have been Bulgarian, Romanian, Polish, Yugoslav, Chinese, North Korean and even Egyptian models of the AK47.
The relative stability in Europe during the Cold War saw to it that, paradoxically, the weapon's most lasting impact has been in the innumerable post-war conflicts in the developing world. The AK47 made instant soldiers out of peasants because it was so easy to use and maintain, and required almost no training or skills in marksmanship to be lethal. The other reason for its ubiquity was its value to the Soviet Union as a source of hard currency. Over several decades the Soviets were the biggest arms exporter in the world, and the AK47 was a bestseller. The original weapon was updated, first with the lighter AKM, and then with the 5.45mm AK74. Later, however, cuts in military expenditure and thriving black markets took their toll on the arms manufacturers.
Kalashnikov continued to work well into old age, designing hunting rifles and shotguns — hunting was among his hobbies. "I am sometimes deeply upset to see how my guns are used in international wars," he once said, "but that is no excuse not to produce them. If we do not produce machine guns, someone else will."
Kalashnikov was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1964, and appointed a Hero of Socialist Labour in 1958 and 1976. President Boris Yeltsin appointed him to the Order of St Vladimir.
Kalashnikov's wife, Yekaterina, whom he married in 1943, died in 1977. They had four daughters.