In a world dominated by cutting-edge military technology and rapid advancements in weaponry, it is surprising to witness the enduring presence of the AK-47 assault rifle on the battlefields of Africa in the year 2024. While sleeker, more sophisticated firearms have emerged, why do many African militaries rely on this iconic Soviet-era weapon? The answer lies in a complex interplay of historical, geopolitical, economic, and practical factors that cemented the AK-47’s status as the weapon of choice across the continent.
Table of Contents:
BRIEF BACKGROUND OF THE ASSAULT RIFLE
1.1. Introduction to the AK-47
1.2. Design and Features of the AK-47
1.3. Functioning of the AK-47’s Gas-Operated Mechanism
1.4. Magazine and Weight Specifications
WHY THE AK-47 IS PREDOMINANT IN AFRICAN MILITARIES EVEN WITH THE ADVENT OF NEW GUN MODIFICATIONS
2.1. Historical Legacy and Symbolism
2.2. Affordability and Accessibility
2.3. Durability and Adaptability in Challenging Environments
2.4. Regional and Geopolitical Dynamics
2.5. Other Intervening Factors: Cost of Production, Mass Production, and Availability
2.6. Resilience, Repair, and Assembly
2.7. Ease of Use and Familiarity
3.1. Summary of Factors Contributing to the AK-47’s Popularity in Africa
Brief Background of the Assault Rifle
Image Source: AK-47 – Wikipedia
The AK-47 was designed by Soviet military engineer Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov in 1947. The AK-47 derived its name from its feature and its maker, AK, meaning Avtomat Kalashnikov, translated as “Kalashnikov’s automatic [rifle]” in English, and 47 came from its year of adoption in the Soviet military. On its adoption in 1949, the AK-47 was widely regarded as straightforward to use, tough, dependable under challenging circumstances, die-hard, reliable, and suitable for mass production.
How the Assault Rifle Works
The AK-47 is an iconic and well-known weapon throughout history. For over 70 years, it has endured essentially untouched. But what makes it so great?
It was designed to shoot a 7.62 mm bullet with a muzzle velocity of around 700 m/s, had a cyclic rate of 600 rounds per minute, and could fire semi-automatically and automatically. In addition, a secondary gas-return tube above the barrel included a piston pulled back upon fire to engage the gears that ejected the expended cartridge and cocked the hammer for the following round.
Its purpose is to harness the high-pressure gas and convert it into mechanical energy that cycles the rifle’s action. As the gas pressure increases, it drives the gas piston rearward, pushing against the bolt carrier group. By incorporating the secondary gas-return tube, the AK-47 design effectively harnesses the power of gas-operated cycling, allowing for a reliable and relatively simple mechanism that can function in adverse conditions.
A long, curved box magazine carried 30 rounds. Although the traditional AK was not designed to be a sophisticated high-power rifle, it was considered a replacement for traditional machine guns, which were too heavy and generally required two operators to manage. The idea was that a soldier would unleash the same firepower in the same manner as a machine gunner would but with a less heavy and easy-to-use gun. The AK-47 weighs 4.3 kg (9.5 lb) when empty and 4.78 kg (10.5 lb) when loaded with a 30-round magazine.
The Soviet military considered the AK-47 to have problems with accuracy, mainly because of recoil forces generated by the powerful 7.62-mm round, but despite its flaw, the AK-47 has excellent penetration when shooting through heavy foliage, walls, or a common vehicle’s metal body and into an opponent attempting to use these things as cover.
Why is the Ak-47 Predominant in African Militaries Even With the Advent of New Gun Modifications?
Image Source: Military.com
From 1947 till this day, there have been many developments and improvements in the gun industry. Assault rifles improved, like The AK family, which evolved from AK-47 to AKM to AK-74 to AK-12, and the latest in the Avtomat Kalashnikov family, the AK-203.
Despite these new developments and modifications in assault rifles, why is the AK-47 still widely used by many African militaries?
Some key factors that have influenced the continued use of AK-47 to date are:
Historical Legacy: The AK-47 gained prominence during decolonization when many African countries fought for independence. It symbolized resistance against colonial powers and represented the spirit of liberation. This historical legacy has fostered a deep cultural attachment to the AK-47, perpetuating its use even in post-independence times.
Affordability and Accessibility: The AK-47 is relatively affordable and widely available in the global arms market. This accessibility makes it an attractive option for cash-strapped African nations that face budgetary constraints. Its simplicity in design also means that it can be manufactured locally or acquired through illicit arms channels, further enhancing its accessibility.
Durability and Adaptability: Africa’s diverse and challenging environments, including harsh climates and rugged terrains, require weapons that can withstand demanding conditions. The AK-47’s robust construction and reliability make it well-suited for these environments, where maintenance and spare parts may be scarce. Additionally, its adaptability to various ammunition types is advantageous in regions with limited supply chains.
Regional and Geopolitical Dynamics: Arms trafficking, proxy wars, and regional conflicts have played a role in the proliferation and sustained use of the AK-47. In some cases, neighboring countries that have experienced conflicts may supply surplus AK-47s to their neighbors, contributing to its prevalence. Geopolitical factors and alliances also influence the availability and flow of weapons, making the AK-47 a common choice due to its widespread use.
Other intervening factors that have promoted the continued use of the AK-47 by African militaries are stated below:
Image Source: Punch NG
- Cost of production: The AK-47 is one of the strongest rifles with the cheapest cost of production ever made. It required minimal materials to produce, which adds a huge advantage to the economic welfare of the military (A state can’t exhaust all its finances just because It wants to fight insurgency or go to war. There is still life after battle).
- Mass-produced: The AK-47 was mass-produced after world war 2. Cold War urgency pressed Soviet engineers to improve the AK-47 and its follow-on arms and rush them to mass production. Production was linked to the state’s strength, even survival. (Chivers, 2010)
- Availability: The AK-47 has been produced in large quantities and widely distributed worldwide since its introduction. Its availability on the global arms market makes it easier for African countries to acquire the weapon through legal or illegal channels.
- Resilience, repair, and assembly: The AK-47 can withstand harsh weather and poor handling. It is Easy to use, easy to assemble, and easy to repair. In 2021 the DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency) in Nigeria reported that blacksmiths in Nigeria now have the expertise to manufacture assault weapons such as AK-47, a representative of the DIA said, “In recent times, blacksmiths have advanced their skills and now possess the capability to manufacture assorted and sophisticated rifles such as AK-47, revolvers, pistols, improvise explosive devices, among others”.(Baiyewu, 2021)
- Ease of use and familiarity: The design of the AK-47 is relatively simple, with fewer moving parts than other rifles. This simplicity makes operating, cleaning, and maintaining easier, even with minimal training. This is particularly important in countries where the level of training and education among soldiers may vary. The AK-47 has been used for several decades, and its design has remained largely unchanged. Many militaries have a long history of using AK-47 rifles, and their soldiers are already familiar with its operation and maintenance. This familiarity can simplify logistical support and training.
These socio-political, cultural, and economic factors collectively shape the landscape in which the AK-47 remains a dominant firearm in African militaries. While efforts are being made to modernize and diversify weapons arsenals, the enduring legacy and practical advantages of the AK-47 continue to make it a prominent choice in many African militaries.
In conclusion, four words summarize the reason behind the popularity and abundance of the AK-47 in Africa—widespread, Availability, Reputation, and Reliability.