Saturday 13 July 2019

Kalashnikov's Debut

If you ask a foreigner words he associated with Russia, "Kalashnikov" is likely going to be one of them. The famous assault rifle became one of the symbols of not only Russia and the USSR, but the 20th Century. The assault rifle's designer, Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, also got a share of the glory. As it often happens, this glory was rather one-sided and often subjective. Let's try to get through the other creations of the designer who was defined by his best known work.

A failed tank designer

Many who mention Kalashnikov only talk about his assault rifle. Even the Kalashnikov Machinegun is overshadowed by its predecessor, although creating a general purpose machinegun with a rimmed cartridge was a much more difficult task.

Other works by Kalashnikov, the ones that were not accepted into service, are mentioned even more rarely. Of course, these works were not as good, but it is because of this lack of information that the myth of an illiterate sergeant that appeared out of nowhere with blueprints for the best assault rifle in the world was born. In reality, Kalashnikov's road to victory in the post-war assault rifle race was long and costly, and the future AK was far from the lead until the very end.

The young designer at work. He is wearing an Order of the Red Star and shoulderboards of a Senior Sergeant of tank forces.

However, it is worth starting the tale of Kalashnikov's inventions from an earlier time, back when it had to do not with small arms, but with tanks. Not even a sergeant, but a simple Red Armyman, Kalashnikov designed a meter for a tank's engine lifespan in 1940. This could have been the start of Kalashnikov's rise to fame. Mechanic-driver Kalashnikov received an engraved watch from G.K. Zhukov, the commander of the Kiev Military District, and was sent to factory #174 in Leningrad to assist in putting the meter into production. It could have so happened that the world would have never heard of Kalashnikov assault riles, and T-74 tanks would have been known throughout the world instead.

Fortunately or not, Mikhail Timofeevich did not become a tank designer. His meter was released in a small batch, but then war broke out, and it was forgotten along with the T-50 tank, which was supposed to become factory #174's main product. The factory was evacuated east, and Kalashnikov went west, to the front lines. He only decided to return to design in 1942, after receiving time off to recover from a wound.

A submachinegun for tankers?

The story of designing the submachinegun, carbine, and light machinegun is described in a number of publications, as well as Kalashnikov's own memoirs. It is more interesting to look at the prototypes themselves and see what people thought of them at the time when the recovering tanker was far removed from notoriety. To be specific, Mikhail Timofeevich was one of the few inventors who was not just an "idea man" like a great many people during the war, but managed to build his ideas in metal. Most similar "inventors" didn't bother with such details as small arms, and instead decided to draft grandiose plans about smashing Hitler's armies in a span of two weeks.

And so, Kalashnikov ended up at the Small Arms Scientific Research Proving Grounds (NIPSVO) with his submachinegun, a second prototype. The design was polished in the workshops of the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), evacuated to Alma-Ata. Specialists and equipment available at MAI positively influenced the prototype, and perhaps Kalashnikov's fate as a whole.

Prototypes of submachineguns were regularly tested at the proving grounds, both with their designers and without. High priority work to select a new machinegun for the requirements announced by the GAU was going on for all of 1942. Several dozen variants from various designers were tested that year. In addition to prototypes that took part in the contest, there were other initiative works that came from anywhere from the workshops of the Karelian Front to the Stalingrad Ship Repair Factory.

Kalashnikov Submachinegun model 1942 with stock extended.

Most of these prototypes, even those created at specialized small arms workshops, were dropped at the preliminary stage if they demonstrated obvious issues with their operation. The very fact that Kalashnikov's design made it past this stage and was permitted to take part in the trials means a lot. Even this prototype had to be tuned by Kalashnikov at the proving grounds. The submachinegun received a new barrel taken from a PPSh, a new charging handle, disconnector, and other parts.

Kalashnikov SMG
Sudayev SGM
PPSh (model 1941)
Weight without magazine, kg
Weight with empty magazine, kg
Weight with full magazine, kg
Length with extended stock, mm
Magazine capacity
*Value used in the original document. The mass of a PPSh with an empty magazine matches the mass of a 35 round box magazine, while the mass of a fully loaded one matches the mass of a 71 round drum magazine.

Kalashnikov SMG model 1942 with stock folded.

Based on the table data, Kalashnikov focused on the compactness of his SMG. This was an important issue at the time. PPD and PPSh submachineguns with their fixed stocks and massive drum magazines were ill-suited for tank crews. It was hard to place a PPSh in a cramped tank in such a way that it both was easy to reach and did not result in constant bruises.

Escaping from the tank quickly with the SMG was also not easy. It is not surprising that the GABTU bombarded small arms organizations with requests to built a light and compact gun after the start of the Great Patriotic War, often times directly indicating that it should be like the German MP-40.

The originality of Kalashnikov's SMG was noticed by the testers. Most SMGs, both prototypes and production variants, were based on a blowback mechanism, as a simple and cheap solution. Kalashnikov's first SMG built in Alma-Ata was this type of gun, but the second prototype that he brought to NIPSVO had a delayed blowback mechanism. The reasons for this change were trials in Alma-Ata, which showed that the light SMG resulted in a high rate of fire and poor precision.

Kalashnikov SMG model 1942 in a museum.

Even the introduction of an original and complex bolt delay mechanism did not resolve the issue. Kalashnikov's prototype had twice as much dispersion as the PPSh or PPS, the victor of the 1942 SMG race. If would be possible for the designer to correct this issue by choosing a proper compensator or by other means, but the main obstacle in his way was the complicated design. It took 12 hours for a technician 7th grade at the NIPSVO mechanical lab to build only one part, the spiral bolt case. This component then needed additional finishing. This kind of complexity was not acceptable in mass production.

Set up for failure

Even though development of the SMG ceased, the GAU decided to not lose sight of Kalashnikov, especially since Mikhail Timofeevich reported about his work on a light machinegun. The GAU was very interested in a machinegun at the time. The army was in desperate need of such a weapon, and the GAU decided that even some nameless sergeant could contribute something of value.

Kalashnikov light machinegun model 1943.

Kalashnikov returned to the Middle Asia Military District, but this time with a direct order from the GAU to design a light machinegun. Kalashnikov himself recalled this reluctantly.
"Three different machineguns were proposed: Degtyaryev's, Simonov's, and mine. They reached the final stage of the contest. I won't talk about all the details, but suffice it to say that my prototype did not pass trials. The commission judged that it had no advantages over weapons currently in production. The light machinegun also went to a museum."
To be fair to the young designer, the objective he was given was a difficult one. Even Degtyaryev, Simonov, Shpagin, Vladimirov, and Kalashnikov's future rival, Bulkin, designers with much more experience, could not solve the problem given to them.

The biggest cause for this failure was heritage left over from the Tsar, the 7.62x54r rimmed rifle cartridge. Its shape made it difficult to feed, resulting in reduced reliability even in regular conditions. Dirt, lack of oil, etc. was nearly guaranteed to result in stoppages. By Kalashnikov's entry into the contest, the 10 round magazine for the SVT was more or less satisfactory, but this was not enough for a machinegun. A 20 round magazine with acceptable reliability was only ready by 1944. The rim also meant that a regular belt could not have straight-through feed, a two-stage feeding process was required. This also made the mechanism more complicated and heavier.

A nomination for Kalashnikov's first award, the Order of the Red Star. The document briefly and objectively summarizes the designer's achievements as of October 1945. This proposal was approved by the Commander of Red Army Artillery, Marshal N.N. Voronov, on February 13th, 1946.

It is not surprising that the USSR did not accept a new light machinegun into service during WWII. Nevertheless, a second failure did not prevent Kalashnikov from continuing on his chosen path, although he recalls that there were those who tried to convince him of doing so. A weapon chambered in the model 1943 intermediate cartridge appeared on the proving grounds not too long after, but it was still not an assault rifle...

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