The Soviet Union was re­spon­si­ble for the most iconic and ubiq­ui­tous ri­fle in the world, in­tro­duc­ing the Av­tomat Kalash­nikova in the late 1940s. While the Soviet Union is no more, in Rus­sia, the Kalash­nikov Con­cern car­ries on the le­gacy of its name­sake.

Ear­lier this year, Larry Vick­ers and I trav­eled to Rus­sia to fin­ish pho­tog­ra­phy for our new­est book re­lease in the Vick­ers Guide se­ries. Our goal was to see not only cur­rent small arms of­fer­ings in Rus­sia but also to doc­u­ment his­toric Kalash­nikov-type ri­fles dat­ing back to just af­ter the Se­cond World War. This jux­ta­po­si­tion of old and new would be a theme through­out our en­tire time in Rus­sia.

Maxim Popenker greeted us when we ar­rived in Moscow. A na­tive of St. Peters­burg (“Peter” to the lo­cals), Maxim cre­ated the well-known World Guns web­site (world.guns. ru), now op­er­at­ing as Be­fore Wikipedia be­came such a thor­ough, al­beit er­ror-prone, repos­i­tory for firearms in­for­ma­tion, World Guns was of­ten the first des­ti­na­tion for In­ter­net searches on guns — frankly it still should be.

Maxim showed us around Moscow, first tak­ing us to the new mon­u­ment to Mikhail Kalash­nikov, the fa­ther of the AK-47, in the cen­ter of Moscow. Un­veiled in Septem­ber 2017, the mon­u­ment fea­tures a larger-thanlife statue to the sto­ried de­signer and a metal plaque de­pict­ing some of his cre­ations. The orig­i­nal plaque in­cluded a sculp­ture of an ex­ploded view of the Ger­man MKb42(H), a pre­de­ces­sor of the leg­endary Stur­mgewehr as­sault ri­fle. Os­ten­si­bly, it had been in­tended by the un­in­formed sculp­tor to be an il­lus­tra­tion of an AK-47, yet the mis­take high­lighted long­stand­ing de­bate about the Stur­mgewehr’s in­flu­ence on the AK’s devel­op­ment. The er­ro­neous por­tion was at the edge of the plaque and was sub­se­quently cut off, leav­ing some vis­i­ble traces of the orig­i­nal. In fact, the worker do­ing these “re­pairs” was ini­tially ar­rested by lo­cal po­lice for de­fac­ing a pub­lic mon­u­ment!

Just two hours by plane east of Moscow is the city of Izhevsk. Sit­u­ated on the Izh River, Izhevsk has been a sig­nif­i­cant met­al­works

town since the 1700s. Dur­ing the Napoleonic era, Izhevsk be­came an ar­mory city, man­u­fac­tur­ing firearms for Rus­sian Im­pe­rial troops. Its lo­ca­tion fairly deep in­side Rus­sian ter­ri­tory has been key to its con­tin­ued im­por­tance as an arms pro­ducer for the mil­i­tary, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the Se­cond World War as Ger­man troops ad­vanced across the Soviet fron­tier.

For fans of Rus­sian and Soviet small arms, Izhevsk is no­table as the home of one of the three most widely known ar­se­nals in Rus­sia — Izhevsk Ma­chine En­gi­neer­ing Plant, Fac­tory #74, more com­monly known as “IZHMASH.”

Along with Tula and Molot, the other two mem­bers of this tri­fecta, IZHMASH was a ma­jor pro­ducer of Kalash­nikov ri­fle vari­ants — notably the orig­i­nal AK-47 ri­fle and sub­se­quent AK, AKM, AK-74, AK-100 se­ries, and more. Mikhail Kalash­nikov lived and worked here once the AK-47 was to be pre­pared for se­rial pro­duc­tion.

We pho­tographed some of the old­est Kalash­nikovs in ex­is­tence — AK-47 ri­fles from the ini­tial mil­i­tary tri­als in 1947 and 1948. These “tri­als guns” can be iden­ti­fied by their

pro­to­type com­bi­na­tion muz­zle brake/ front sight assem­bly — dis­carded be­fore large-scale pro­duc­tion be­gan in 1949. Tech­ni­cally, only the orig­i­nal ex­per­i­men­tal ri­fles that won army tri­als in 1947 and the ap­prox­i­mately 1,500 ri­fles pro­duced in Izhevsk in 1948 for mil­i­tary field tri­als are prop­erly des­ig­nated “AK-47” ri­fles. What Amer­i­cans typ­i­cally re­fer to as the “Type 1, 2, or 3 AK-47” is sim­ply des­ig­nated “Av­tomat Kalash­nikova” (or “AK”) in of­fi­cial Soviet doc­u­ments.

IZHMASH is es­sen­tially a city within a city, com­pletely en­com­pass­ing nu­mer­ous blocks with rows of fac­to­ries — some old, some quite mod­ern. It op­er­ates to­day un­der new own­er­ship and un­der the “Kalash­nikov Con­cern” brand. Kalash­nikov Con­cern ini­ti­ated a mul­ti­year mod­ern­iza­tion pro­gram to im­prove prof­itabil­ity, stream­line pro­duc­tion, and up­grade prod­uct of­fer­ings. While they con­tinue to pro­duce some of the le­gacy IZHMASH prod­ucts, they’ve launched nu­mer­ous ex­cit­ing new ones.

The AK-12 and AK-15 (5.45x39mm and 7.62x39mm, re­spec­tively) mod­ern­ized Kalash­nikov-type ri­fles went through the “Rat­nik” tri­als held by the Rus­sian Army in 2013, as part of a di­verse mod­ern­iza­tion pro­gram for sol­diers. They’ve been re­designed to im­prove ac­cu­racy and op­tics mount­ing op­tions, with a non­re­mov­able gas tube and a re­mov­able gas plug for main­te­nance, com­bi­na­tion front sight/gas block (sim­i­lar to the AK-104), newly de­signed pis­tol grip with in­ter­nal stor­age, and a new ten­sioned top cover de­sign with in­te­gral rail for op­tics. Aris­ing out of the AK-12 is the new RPK-16, in­tended as a RPK-74 re­place­ment. Other in­ter­est­ing prod­ucts are the SVCh (pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor to the SVD), SR-1 ri­fle in 5.56x45mm with coun­ter­bal­anced re­coil sys­tem, AM-17 com­pact ri­fle with poly­mer lower in 5.45x39mm, and the com­pact AMB-17 sup­pressed ri­fle with the sub­sonic 9x39mm car­tridge (.300BLK’s Rus­sian cousin). Un­for­tu­nately, none are avail­able state­side due to ex­ist­ing sanc­tions im­posed on Kalash­nikov Con­cern by our gov­ern­ment in July 2014.

Many fac­tors de­ter­mine what makes any given com­pany suc­cess­ful and for how long, but one couldn’t help but think that Kalash­nikov Con­cern rep­re­sents the fu­ture of firearms devel­op­ment. It’s not just the mod­ern-day suc­ces­sor to Mikhail Kalash­nikov’s lin­eage; dur­ing our stay, it felt much like the Ap­ple Inc. of the firearms world. Its head­quar­ters are lo­cated in the beau­ti­fully ren­o­vated Vsevolozh­sky Manor, an 18th cen­tury build­ing in an up­scale neigh­bor­hood of Moscow. In­ter­est­ingly, it’s one of the few wooden struc­tures in Moscow that sur­vived the Fire of 1812 dur­ing Napoleon’s oc­cu­pa­tion. And just next door is the cor­po­rate cam­pus of Yan­dex, Rus­sia’s Google. The Kalash­nikov Con­cern of­fices are clean and mod­ern with con­tem­po­rary fa­cil­i­ties.

Em­ploy­ees are out­go­ing, charis­matic, and warm, with ev­ery­one from

man­age­ment to fac­tory work­ers treat­ing us with great friend­li­ness, kind­ness, and in­ter­est. They know firearms, and they know mar­ket­ing. In fact, they have a depart­ment called “tech­ni­cal mar­ket­ing,” dis­tinct from tra­di­tional mar­ket­ing. These folks bridge the needs of end users, en­gi­neers, and tra­di­tional mar­keters. They’re largely “Al­pha” vet­er­ans, coun­tert­er­ror­ism spe­cial­ists akin to Delta in the United States, with all the knowl­edge and skill that you’d ex­pect.

Rus­sia should be an oblig­a­tory stop on any firearm en­thu­si­ast’s pil­grim­age list. There are nu­mer­ous hur­dles to over­come, not least the com­plex­i­ties of travel visas and lan­guage is­sues. But the mu­se­ums are ex­cel­lent, and you can’t help but come back with a more com­plete ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the Kalash­nikov af­ter walk­ing through Red Square and trav­el­ing to an ar­mory city or two out­side of Moscow.

The AK-15 was mod­ern­ized to im­prove ac­cu­racy and op­tions for mount­ing op­tics. Note the com­bined front sight/gas block and ten­sioned top cover de­sign with an in­te­gral rail. An AK-47 “tri­als gun,”one of the old­est Kalash­nikovs in the world. From the ini­tial mil­i­tary tri­als in 1947 and 1948, it fea­tures a com­bi­na­tion muz­zle brake and front sight.

Kalash­nikov Con­cern’s cor­po­rate of­fices in the 18th cen­tury Vsevolozh­sky Manor in Moscow.

At IZHMASH in Izhevsk, in front of a sign com­mem­o­rat­ing Mikhail Kalash­nikov.Photo by: Valery Moroz

Larry Vick­ers and Maxim Popenker at the Mikhail Kalash­nikov mon­u­ment in Moscow

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