AK-47: A Pop Cultural Icon.

1. Introduction

The AK-47: the world’s most ubiquitous assault rifle. The iconic rifle has been immortalized on the flag of Mozambique, tattooed on the faces of rappers, and in the artwork of thousands of pretentious hipsters. The weapon can be seen in video games, movies, and television shows. Over 30 countries manufacture variations of the rifle, including in caves. Over 72 million rifles exist in global circulation. The AK-47 has maintained a permanent fixture in popular culture for over 40 years and for good reason. The rifle is cheap and easy to manufacture. AKs have seen the inside of more brains than a neurosurgeon. However, it may surprise you that what you think is an AK-47 may not be an AK-47. So, what is an AK-47? What’s an AK-74? Well, let’s start at the beginning, with a young Soviet Russian tank commander by the name of Mikhail Kalashnikov.

AK-47 with a ruler for scale.
AK-47 rifle – Note the rectangular lightening cut above where the magazine would be, is a quick identifier that this is an AK-47. (Source)

2. Origins

The year is 1942 and Mikhail Kalashnikov is in a military hospital after being injured in World War II. Kalashnikov overhears fellow soldiers complaining about the inefficiency of their Mosin Nagant bolt action rifles and decides to get to work. In 1947 Kalashnikov finished designing the AK-47.

2.1. Key Features

  • Select fire.
  • Long stroke gas piston operating system.
  • Rotating bolt.
  • Chambered in 7.62x39mm.
  • Fed by 30 round box magazines.

2.2. Adoption

The rifle is revolutionary for the time due to its compact size, light weight, and utilization of an intermediate cartridge which sacrifices maximum effective range for ammunition capacity. In 1949 the Soviet Union officially adopted the AK-47 as its primary infantry weapon. Variants of the AK-47 such as the AKS-47 would see the inclusion of a folding stock. The original AK-47 was designed to use a receiver milled out of a solid chunk of steel. This process is expensive, time consuming, and requires skilled laborers to manufacture it.

3. The Upgrade

By 1959 the Soviet Union realized that the manufacturing process for the AK-47 needed to be updated and began producing the AKM. The AKM traded out the milled receiver for a stamped steel one with the internal geometry being spot welded into place. This made the rifle even lighter, cheaper, and easier to manufacture. And thus, the worlds most prevalent weapon was born. When you think of an AK you’re probably picturing this rifle.

AKM rifle pictured from both sides.
AKM rifle – note the small oval dimple above the magazine easily identifies a stamped AKM. (Source)

4. Upgrading the Upgrade

The AKM series of rifles saw many iterative upgrades as well as variants in the design.

  • AKMS – Swapped out the fixed wooden stock for an under-folding metal one.
  • AKML – Added a modular rail interface to the left-hand side of the receiver. The rail’s original purpose was to mount a night vision optical device but would eventually be used to mount a variety of optical sighting systems such as scopes and red dot sights.
  • AKMP – Added tritium inserts to the front and rear sight for shooting in the dark. Tritium is a radioactive substance that irradiates light. The Trijicon ACOG used by the US military also uses this technology.

5. Enter the AK-74

Eventually the Soviet Union would develop the lighter 5.45x39mm round which increased the maximum effective range of the rifles and provided better terminal ballistics. The Soviets would also upgrade their rifles alongside the change in cartridge. This new rifle would be known as the AK-74 and would see its first use in the Soviet-Afghan War. Very little changed functionally between the AKM and AK-74 rifles.

5.1. Notable Changes

  • Lighter cartridge.
  • Switch to a synthetic Bakelite magazine.
  • Change in the angle of the gas block (from 45° to 90°).
  • Standardized inclusion of an optics rail.
  • Change from a slanted muzzle brake to a ported compensator muzzle device (significantly reduces the felt recoil of the firearm).
AK-74 with wooden furniture.
AK-74 rifle – Note the reduced curvature of the magazine, the more vertical gas block, and the compensator muzzle device. (Source)

6. The AK today

By this point the AK had already expanded into a family of rifles, but the growth was far from over. In 1991 the AK-74 would evolve into the AK-74M. The most notable change in this integration was the switch from wooden furniture to more modern polymer components. Additionally, a folding stock became standard on all rifles.

6.1. AK-100

By 1994 Russia released the AK-100 series of five rifles which applied the upgrades of the AK-74M to a new family of rifles.

  • Five new rifles produced: two standard variants and three short barrel variants.
  • A standard and shorter barreled variant is produced for each cartridge: 7.62x39mm, 5.45x39mm, and 5.56x45mm .
  • The AK-74M is still considered to be a part of this family because it is where the rifles are derived but did not receive a “100” series designation.
  • The two 5.56x45mm NATO variants would be produced primarily for export sales.

AK-102 carbine with black polymer furniture.
AK-102 – Note the reduced barrel length and integrated front sight/gas block. (Source)

6.2. AK-12

The most recent variant of the AK is the AK-12 which is an attempt to bring the AK into the modern era and is a large departure from the original AK design.

  • Longer sight radius – rear sight is moved to the back of the receiver and top cover is modified to retain zero.
  • Picatinny rail sections across the rifle.
  • Produced in the same calibers as the AK-100 series.

AK-12 rifle with stock extended.
AK-12 rifle – Note the rail interface along the top of the rifle and sides/bottom of the handguard.

7. Other AKs

Multiple spin offs of the AK have been seen throughout the years designed to fill a specific niche but the designs retain the basic controls of AK pattern rifles.

  • AKS-74U
    • Designed for use by vehicle crews and rear echelon troops.
    • Can also been seen in use by special operations teams.
    • Features a shorter barrel, folding stock, an altered rear sight/hinged top cover, and a flash hider/muzzle booster (increases back pressure to cycle reliably).
  • RPK series
    • Developed in 1961 as light support weapon variant of the AKM. Analogous in use to the USMC’s M27 IAR.
    • Typically fed from an extended 45rnd box magazine or 75rn drum magazine.
    • The RPK has been upgraded in parallel with the AK, the most current is the RPK-74M.
    • Features a longer barrel, bipod, reinforced receiver, and altered stock.
  • PP-19 Series
    • Submachinegun variant of the AK chambered in 9x19mm
    • Developed by Mikhail’s son, Victor and the son of the creator of the SVD-63 Dragunov.
    • Originally produced as the Bizon (Bison), which fed from a 53/64rnd helical magazine.
    • The Vityaz (Knight) was an iterative development of the Bizon and feeds from 30rnd box magazines.
    • Note: the PP-19 uses a gas blowback operating mechanism rather than long stroke gas piston.

RPK light support weapon with a drum magazine.
RPK – Note the bipod legs, longer barrel, and altered stock geometry. (Source)
VariantCartridgeBarrel LengthMax effective rangeYear Adopted
AK-477.62x39mm415mm350m1949
AKM7.62x39mm415mm350m1959
AK-745.45x39mm415mm500m1974
AK-74M5.45x39mm415mm500m1991
AK-1015.56x45mm415mm500mN/A
AK-1025.56x45mm314mm450mN/A
AK-1037.62x39mm415mm350m2001
AK-1047.62x39mm314mm300m2001
AK-1055.56x45mm314mm300m2001
AK-125.45x39mm415mm500m2018
AK-157.62x39mm415mm350m2018
AK-195.56x45mm415mm500mN/A
AKS-74U5.45x39mm314mm300m1979
RPK7.62x39mm590mm500m1961
RPK-745.45x39mm590mm600m1974
PP-199x19mm237.5mm200m2008
AKS-74U carbine.
AKS-74U – Note the shorter overall length, modified rear sight assembly, and muzzle booster. (Photo credit: Gusbenz)

8. AKs in Global Conflict

The AK family of weapons have seen combat on almost every continent on the planet. Factories manufactured AKMS in astronomical quantities due to the ease of manufacture. The Soviet Union licensed the AK-47s and AKM’s technical data packages to almost every country it was allied with. AKMs were produced in almost every country in the Warsaw Pact all with unique attributes depending on the country of origin.

  • Yugoslavia produced the M70 with variants with the capability to launch rifle grenades built into the muzzle and gas system.
  • Hungary produced the most unique AKM variant in terms of appearance, the AMD-63.
  • China and North Korea both produced variants of the AK-47 and AKM. 

As a result, AKs of various origins can be seen in use all over the world. The AK-74M is the primary weapon of the Russian military and the AK-100 series can be seen in use by Russian special operations groups like Zaslon. Due to the rifle’s use by groups such as the Mujahadeen, the weapon would begin to develop a reputation as the freedom fighter’s weapon of choice. The rifle would soon be considered a counterculture alternative to NATO’s M16/M4 pattern rifles and there is nothing Western media and pop culture loves more than counter cultural icons.

Hungarian AK variant with folding stock and foregrip.
Hungarian AMD-65 – note the shortened barrel, muzzle brake, and forward grip. (Photo credit: Zukagrad)

The AK series of rifles have become pop culture icons over the past 70 years. As a result, there is no weapon more easily identifiable than the AK. The weapon has become synonymous with evil, with gang culture, and with freedom fighters. The AK can be seen on the covers of hip-hop albums and sitting behind Usama bin Laden. In the hands of rebel groups across the globe. Americans love the rebel, the concept of gangsters, and the freedom. The AK’s mass production and simple design made it cheap and readily available. When groups or individuals needed to arm themselves, AKs were the obvious choice. As a result, the AK became associated with these groups and the association with all these groups helped to catapult the rifle to international fame and recognition. The weapon has transcended its original purpose and become ingrained into the zeitgeist of the 21st century.

Rapper Ice Cube holding a rifle.
American rapper Ice Cube with an AKMS pattern rifle – Note the use of an AK by Ice Cube typically indicates a bad day. (Source)

9.1. Hollywooooodddd

Movies are likely the biggest contributor to the AK’s rise to fame. In 1962 the iconic rifle had its Hollywood debut in the film Escape from East Berlin. The rifle would go on to be featured in classic films like Red Dawn, Apocalypse Now, Black Hawk Down, and countless others.

9.2. Ta Ting Go Skrra

The AK has had a significant impact on the hip-hop genre as well. The AK is referenced by artists such as Ice Cube in his song Good Day. Artists like Future and Migos often use the term “draco”. Draco refers to the name given to a Romanian short barreled AKM variant imported for American firearms enthusiasts.

9.3. Wow, this sooo deep

The weapon has also had a large impact on modern protest art. Due to the rifle’s association with rebellion and counterculture it features heavily in the protest art scene. AK47 is the nom de plume of Andy Link, the leader of a street protests art collective known as “Art Kieda”.

9.4. Ramirez, LAST MAG!

I would be remised if I didn’t mention the AK’s importance to video games. As long as there have been shooter style video games, designers have included the AK. The AK can be used by the player in games like Call of Duty and Escape from Tarkov. Pop culture references to the AK are uncountable. The rifle can be seen in every media format imaginable.

Female Kurdish YPG fighter aiming a rifle.
Kurdish YPG fighter with an AKM pattern rifle (Credit: Kurdishstruggle)

10. Conclusion

While the information presented here is by no means a comprehensive history of the rifle nor its derivatives, it does provide rough outline of its iterative development and the impact it has had in popular culture. What began as a simple tank commander’s idea has likely had a greater impact on world history than any other single design. The rifle has helped shape the outcomes of military conflicts. It has had a monumental impact on our popular culture and is referenced in all forms of media. One thing is for sure: the AK is here to stay and its highly likely that AKs will still be fighting in wars and staring in mass media 100 years from now.

Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan is currently working on his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is majoring in International Politics with a concentration in Security Studies and a minor in Russian language.

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