The Timeless, Ubiquitous AK-47 [TIME]

In History, Technology, World News on March 24, 2010 at 12:00 am

As anyone who frequents aplaceforpeace knows, I absolutely love’s photo essays. They’re a quick way to glean some history and the photographs are usually pretty amazing. This essay is no different and in fact has got some quite stunning photographs that I think really force us to reconsider our stereotypical ideas of the kinds of people we think carry, and use, guns.

(p.s. gotta love that the ethiopian villageman accessorized his AK! #swagup!)



A brief survey of the cheap and reliable gun of choice for both terrorists and freedom fighters.


Prague, 1968
Designed by a young Russian tank commander named Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK-47 assault rifle has attained iconic martial status all over the world. In the photo above, Soviet-led forces, armed with the rifle, crush a reform movement in Czechoslovakia.


Zagros Mountains, Northern Iraq, 1979
Kalashnikov’s design won a state competition in 1947 (thus the name AK-47) and went into mass production two years later. During the deep freeze of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began pouring the guns and its manufacturing know-how into almost 20 spheres of influence, including Iraq. Here, a Kurdish girl in northern Iraq uses the gun to protect her family from an attack by the Iraqi military.


Wounded Knee, South Dakota, U.S., 1973
Known for their high quality, the guns have functioned perfectly even after being dug out of mud. As word spread, more than 10 other countries began making unauthorized clones, and the guns started to appear all over the world. This man, a member of the American Indian Movement, waves his AK-47 during the siege of Wounded Knee.


Abadan, Iran, 1980
Over the years, Bulgaria, once a respected supplier of weapons to the Soviet Union, sank into unscrupulous business practices. During the Iran-Iraq war, shown above, during which an estimated half a million people were killed, Bulgaria sold AK-47s to both sides. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria sold the guns to rebels in Congo, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and the Hutu militia, which was responsible for the Rwandan genocide.


Western Cambodia, 1981
A Khmer Rouge soldier poses with her weapon in the jungle. This radical Marxist movement killed more than 1.5 million Cambodians in the late 1970s.


Bucharest, Romania, 1989
In an example of acute historical irony, this anticommunist civilian uses an AK-47 to hunt down secret police during the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s oppressive communist dictator.


Solentiname Islands, Nicaragua, 1984
A woman and child in socialist Nicaragua train with a local defense militia to fight against the invading contras, the U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries who sought to remove the left-wing government.


Kabul, 1992
The U.S. government has been a significant purchaser of AK-47s — or at least guns that look similar to them — for decades. During the 1980s, it supplied Chinese and Egyptian rip-off Kalashnikovs to anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan. In the above photo, a Shi’ite Muslim fighter guards a checkpoint in Kabul.


Izhevsk, Russia, 2002
Although the manufacturers of the AK-47 are proud that America likes the gun enough to support its piracy, they are outraged at the loss of profit. The flood of knockoffs, some selling at a quarter of the price of the real thing, makes it next to impossible to do business. The gun lines in Izhevsk, shown above, employed some 12,000 people in 1991 but support only 7,000 now. Analysts estimate total world output of these guns at between 70 million and 105 million.


Hamer Village, Ethiopia, 2009
An Ethiopian man shows off his weapon.


Basra, Iraq, 2004
The U.S. provided more than 165,000 Kalashnikovs to Iraqi security forces from 2003 to 2006, a significant number of which wound up on the black market. Indeed, Iraq’s recent history is clearly reflected in the changing price of the gun on the street. Just after the invasion, as soldiers laid down their weapons, looters raided armories and optimism briefly overtook the country, weapons prices dropped. In the summer of 2003, as multiple customers entered the market, from recently released common criminals to Sunni insurgents to Shi’ite paramilitary units, prices rose again. Here, an armed member of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army stands guard over the Central Sunni mosque, where Friday prayers are being performed.


Bar Kambar Khel, Pakistan, 2008
Pakistani Taliban fighters jump out of a truck in the tribal area near the border of Afghanistan. The leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, once challenged U.S. President Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair to a duel with AK-47s. The U.S. government has again made bulk shipments of faux Kalashnikovs to Afghan forces, this time to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban.


Dhushamareb, Somalia, 2009
A Sufi Muslim fighter attends an outdoor religion class. Traditionally nonviolent and tolerant, Sufis in Somalia have only recently picked up guns in response to attacks from al-Shabab, a hard-line Islamist group that has subjected the country’s south to a reign of terror. So far, these moderates control an area in the center of the country, enjoy popular support and have fended off incursions.

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