The Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47, is one of the most dangerous and widely used weapons in the world. For more than 60 years, nations, rebels, gangsters and child soldiers have wielded the gun.
And now, Russian officials say it's outdated. As part of a $700 billion army modernization program, the country has announced a redesign of the rifle.
New York Times foreign correspondent C.J. Chivers — author of The Gun, a book about the Kalashnikov — tells NPR's Audie Cornish that the updates are mostly cosmetic.
The plan is to add external features that would allow the use of accessories like flashlights and laser rangefinders. According to Chivers, at its core, the new Kalashnikov is basically the same rifle. The only change is that it seems to be targeting a new market.
"This new product, called the AK-12, is really going to be designed for traditional military customers," he says. "They're making this for police forces and military forces."
But Chivers doubts they'll have much luck reaching those customers. He says the market is already fully saturated with Kalashnikovs made not only in Russia, but also in Iraq, North Korea and China, to name a few places.
"There's a glut out there already of these rifles for the people who need them in short order, say, to go to war in Libya or to go to war in Syria or to go to war most anywhere else," he says.
That glut can be attributed to the gun's incredible staying power.
Designed in 1945 by former Russian tank gunner Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK-47 was the first gun to bridge the gap between submachine guns and long, heavy rifles. It was a simple, reliable, lightweight weapon that almost anyone could use. And once it was put into mass production, it was available to almost everyone.
Saving 'Russia's Coca-Cola'
More likely, Chivers says, the redesign is motivated by a desire to help save "the Detroit of the modern rifle world."
"The main Kalashnikov plant for the Russian Federation is the same as the main Kalashnikov plant during the Soviet Union's time," Chivers says, "and that's located out in the Ural Mountains in a city called Izhevsk."
The fortunes of Izhevsk have risen and fallen with the popularity of the Kalashnikov. Today, it can be characterized as a struggling factory town, but orders for new Kalashnikovs could help change that.
A second likely motivation Chivers cites is national pride.
"The Kalashnikov is in many ways Russia's Coca-Cola. It's their brand. It's the one thing that they made that we all know of and that has had global saturation," he says. "And to have it sort of catch up to what's been going on in Western rifles — the ability to carry all these additional features — and to have it going forward as a legitimate brand and not a legacy product, I think that's driving some of this, too."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Vladimir Putin isn't the only Russian icon with an image problem. The Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47, is one of the most dangerous and widely used weapons in the world. It's used by nations and rebel groups, by gangsters and child soldiers. And now, Russian officials say it's outdated. So they've announced a redesign of the AK as part of a $700 billion army modernization program.
Here to talk to us about what's in store for this notorious weapon is C.J. Chivers, roving foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is also author of a book on the Kalashnikov, called "The Gun."
C.J. CHIVERS: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So, to begin, what was so remarkable about the AK-47, the original, that has allowed that weapon to endure for so long and to proliferate?
CHIVERS: Well, the AK-47, when it first came out, sort of bridged the difference between the submachine guns of World War I and the long, heavy rifles of the era up till that time. And what it did was it put into mass production a simple and reliable, lightweight weapon that almost anyone could use to make automatic fire. And then it was mass-produced in such numbers that it became available to most everyone outside of Western democracies. And this is the reason that it's still around. It worked really well, and it's out there now in uncountable numbers.
CORNISH: What are the changes that the Russian military is planning?
CHIVERS: At this point, they're largely cosmetic. This is the latest in a cycle of sort of reimagining the Kalashnikov. And what they're doing in the simplest sense now is putting on different external features that will allow the weapon to more easily have a site, or a flashlight, or a laser range finder; a number of accoutrements or sort of aftermarket add-on items that can bring the weapon more in line with what you see many Western conventional military is carrying.
CORNISH: Can you tell us about the manufacturing of this weapon? We've talked about how it's proliferated, but in Russia, how will these changes be significant?
CHIVERS: Well, I think the significance here is principally social. The main Kalashnikov plant for the Russian Federation is the same as the main Kalashnikov plant during the Soviet Union's time. And that's located out in the Ural Mountains in a city called Izhevsk. And Izhevsk is, in many ways, a Detroit, maybe the Detroit of the modern rifle world. Its fortunes have risen and fallen with the sort of pre-eminence of the Kalashnikov rifle. And the emphasis now would be on fallen.
Since the end of the Soviet period, there have been very few orders. And this is, in the simplest sense, a struggling factory town that's looking for more orders so it can keep more people at work. There's also sort of something psychological at work here. The Kalashnikov is, in many ways, Russia's Coca-Cola. It's their brand. It's the one thing that they made that we all know of and that has had global saturation.
You know, we don't buy Russian pacemakers, or Russian watches, or Russian perfumes, or Russian automobiles in any significant numbers. But the Kalashnikov is the thing, and to have it sort of catch up to what's been going on in Western rifles - the ability to carry all of these additional features - and to have it going forward as a legitimate brand and not a legacy product, I think is driving some of this too. That there's an element of the feel-good here no matter how many rifles actually, in fact, will be sold.
CORNISH: Chris, of course, you're talking about this in terms of its manufacturing a benefit for Russia. But what does it mean, you know, for the rest of the world? This gun is considered one of the most dangerous because of the number of people that have died because of it.
CHIVERS: Well, I think you could argue here that what's good for Izhevsk is not necessarily good for the world. And that Izhevsk is facing a saturated market, which means there's more of these out there than anybody needs already. And having Russia leaning forward into rifle exports right now probably is in the interests of its defense fear, and it's in the interest of this one manufacturing center. But I'm not sure it's good for the rest of us.
CORNISH: C.J. Chivers, thank you so much for talking with us.
CHIVERS: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: C.J. Chivers, he's a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He's also author of a book about the Kalashnikov called "The Gun." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.