By Larry Kahaner
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Extra info for AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War
Unbeknownst to Kalashnikov and Soviet arms designers, the Germans were already working on just such a weapon, and the key to its success was not the gun but a new kind of ammunition. In many instances, the arcane and minute design elements of ammunition are much more complex and controversial among ballistic engineers than the weapons that fire them. Changing a bullet’s weight by a few grams, altering its shape from sharp-pointed to blunt, or using a few grains more or less of powder in the cartridge case can offer a soldier a vastly different fighting tool irrespective of the gun.
In the quest for a rifle to fire the new round, the government established a contest among designers. A who’s who of venerable Soviet designers entered, including Alexei Sudayev and Sergei Simonov, people virtually unknown in the West but who were household names among Soviets, on a par with legends Samuel Colt and Smith & Wesson. There was also an unknown designer who humbly threw his hat in the ring, Mikhail Kalashnikov, now only in his twenties. By the time Kalashnikov began work on a rifle to use the new cartridge, the war was winding down and his dream of being the one to produce a weapon to drive out the Germans was dashed.
The Luftwaffe had bombed Bryansk and its surrounding area in July in preparation for a ground attack. Thousands of Soviets evacuated the area. Factories were moved to more secure eastern locations. The inhabitants dug antitank trenches around the town. All of these preparations proved useless. The Nazis destroyed about 90 percent of the town’s housing and killed more than eighty thousand people. About two hundred thousand were forced into slave camps where most of them later died from starvation or torture.