The VVA Veteran® Online

March/April 2015

National Archives and Records Administration
“AK47: Grunts Love Simple Stuff”


Grunts like things simple. Generals love to plan and complicate matters. Generals seldom go to reunions. I’m sure it’s because the grunts would tell them their plans were no good.

Mikhail Kalashnikov died in December of 2013. This man liked things simple. He fought in World War II. A little guy, he fit in a Russian tank. Mikhail was severely wounded but made it to a hospital. While there, he listened to fellow patients wonder why their weapons were not better made. The idea of a better battle rifle was born. Heart and soul, this was a fighting man who had seen battle close up and knew what a grunt needed.

Growing up, our parents scared us saying, “Eat your vegetables; folks are starving all around the world and it could be you.” The nuns did a better job; their terror stories turned the boogie man into a harmless punk. The religious folks made sure that fighting the devil or your country’s battles was not only right, but would help save you from temptation. My terror meter was installed early and polished to perfection before I ever saw my first drill sergeant.

Mikhail’s AK47 lost out to the SKS rifle. The AK47 battle rifle and the SKS rifle both fired the same cartridge, 762 x 39. I eventually met both of these weapons being used by some highly skilled folks in a far-off land. I joined the Army in 1968. The recruiter in Buffalo lied to me: 11 Bravo was not a cool military occupation skill to have. Basic training had some good points. For instance, on the rifle range I was always selected to fire up the extra ammo. “Where’s that 11 Bravo? Give him some more practice.” Hey, I was able to fire expert with the M14.

National Archives and Records AdministrationPouring coffee for drill sergeants during KP, I first heard “Kalashnikov” and “AK47.” While running around in Georgia, my buddies and I just knew that the drill sergeants were lying to us, making us carry all that gear on our backs. We had to double-time all the way to the post theater and pay a quarter to watch John Wayne in the Green Beret movie. You guessed it: The green beanie recruiter was sitting right outside the theater promising Smoke Bomb Hill and Ft. Bragg for anybody interested in being just like John Wayne. I almost signed up until he said I would be a medic. By the time I was done with my training, the war would be over.

Standing in line at the replacement center in Vietnam, I realized that the Army was out of control. “11 Bravos to the front of the line. Line up before your initial on those poles.” That’s when I heard my first real war talk: “Electric Strawberry lost 60 yesterday, send ’em 50; 1st Cav got in the shit, send ’em 110. They need door gunners, too; they don’t last long.”

My turn finally came, and I was checked off the list and given a piece of paper that said 199th Light Infantry Brigade. Since it was the middle of the night, we were shoved off to the mess hall in the pouring rain for a paper plate of green eggs and burnt toast. I asked everybody where and what is the 199th? A dirty KP asked for a smoke and a light, laughed, and said, “Oh yeah, those guys are called Redcatchers; they’re guarding the Navy and even get weekends off.” I almost skipped out of the mess hall thinking about my first letter home and telling my dad I was guarding the Navy.

Two weeks later I didn’t believe anything. The jungle was hot, wet, and dark. The NVA and VC had no television; their entertainment was us. Several guys in the platoon, not just me, had sunglasses. Never wear sunglasses in the jungle. You walk into things, you fall down, you hurt yourself, and your cool blue square John Lennon sunglasses get thrown away. You’re resupplied every three days; c-rats for sure, clean dry socks if you’re lucky. We had humped to a road, and trucks were on the way. We were hoping for mail, not more bullets.

I saw my first Green Berets in action. A beat-up Jeep came flying to a stop and two buck sergeants jumped out looking for our CO. The sergeants showed the captain their map and borrowed twenty bucks. They were on their way to Xuan Loc. They promised to bring back cold beer. The coolest thing for us grunts was that the two were wearing .45 pistols and carrying AK47s. It was my first up-close look at what the enemy was using. Our Platoon Daddy, Fast Eddy, told us those guys were showboats and liars. We didn’t believe him until resupply was over and we were humping back into the jungle; the Jeep had not returned with cold beer.

Platoons rotate walking point. Second platoon had point, and we were looking for a stream and the bunker complex that was supposed to be along it. I was fighting a leech that was stuck behind my ear when everyone around me disappeared. The noise was terrific. I forgot the leech; everyone was yelling, “Get down, asshole!” I buddied up next to a large tree and fired a magazine on full auto into the shadows. I stuck my head up to see what I had hit and three distinct cracks went right by my ear.

I was pissed and turned further around. “Smithy, you’re shooting at me, asshole!” He laughed and slammed another magazine into his M16. “Oh, no, I’m not—that’s Charlie.” My terror meter went into orbit, my brain bucket fell off, and I started yelling and firing magazines as fast as I could. Somebody kicked my ass—I think it was Fast Eddy—and told us to cease fire. Nobody was hit, and we drained canteens listening to the artillery come in.

National Archives and Records AdministrationGrunts never exaggerate, so I thought Smithy was a little low in his estimate of the hundred or so that we had killed. “Too low,” Tupelo and Smithy both told me. “Oh yeah, we saw the muzzle flash; another inch or two and Charlie would have blown your head clean off. We got ’em as soon as the arty stops. We’ll show ya.”

I had to keep shaking my head to get my hearing working the way it should. I picked up six empty magazines; I didn’t remember firing so many. I did not want to go out and police up bodies; I wanted to go home. We had to get in line and move forward. Fast Eddy slapped me on the back. “Good job, newbie!” My terror meter dropped a little.

Of the hundreds we killed, we found no trace—not even a blood trail. We did find a sandal, an empty sardine can, lots of fired up brass, and two AK47s. A side effect of this firefight was that the punk was scared right out of me. We air-mobiled into the nearest firebase and got a hot meal. It was then I finally got my hands on Mikhail’s product.

Grunts love simple stuff, and the AK47 was all of that and more. In minutes, I had that rifle apart without a manual; it was designed that way. As I was putting it back together, Fast Eddy walked by and I asked if I could trade in my M16 and carry the AK. He stopped eating from his paper plate and told me I would be too dangerous. Grunts never understand lifers.

There was plenty of ammo lying around, so I filled all three magazines. They were thirty-round magazines; we only had the twenty-round magazines for our M16. Too Low and Smithy sat down and explained that the NVA never cleaned their rifles. “Nope, they just dip them in diesel and oil, shake them off, and they’re ready to go. God’s honest truth.” 

I had taken it apart but hadn’t cleaned it, so I went over to the Cavalry guys working on an APC and dipped the AK into the vat of diesel they were using to clean parts. The damn stuff stinks, and I was glad I did not have my shirt on and have to walk around with that stench on me.

National Archives and Records Administration

Up on the berm of the firebase I yelled, “Fire in the hole!” and loaded a full magazine into the weapon. Dripping diesel and oil, on single shot, the AK was hitting everything I aimed at. The rifle was warmed up, and I loaded the second magazine, looked over my shoulder, and warned my buddies, “I’m going full auto, so watch this.” I did it John Wayne style from the hip. The AK47 on full auto rides up and to the right; your target needs to be close if you want to hit anything. Hot oil and diesel stick to your skin, and they make your hair smoke if you’re not wearing your helmet. Its a very fast firing rifle; it continues to smoke even when empty and dropped—and so does the grunt.

I had never entertained a crowd before. This is the only time in my Army career that I ever saw my Platoon Daddy laugh. In fact, the El Tee was crying, but he asked nicely if I could do it again. My respect for what the enemy was using was high. Now I knew this was no game; the enemy had good stuff. Kalashnikov designed a kick-ass, simple rifle that is still in use today. Our troops from Iraq to the Stan and beyond face this rifle every day. The experts all agree: Bury your AK47 and some ammo, and ten thousand years from now it will still work.

I like to take my old rifles to the range. It’s a great way to meet other veterans. You fire that AK47 or your SKS and the next thing you know you’re talking to folks who say things like, “Oh man, the last time I heard that sound was at Quang Tri, Khe Sahn, the Mekong Delta, Baghdad, Somalia, the Stan.” The Colt made everyone equal, but Mikhail Kalashnikov with his AK47 got the advantage and respect. I’ll just bet that when Mikhail got to Valhalla, Patton shook his hand and said, “Good job.” When my life is over, I can only hope for the same.

VVA’s John McDonald is the author of a series of novels on the misadventures during the Vietnam War of a hapless-but-clever grunt everyman. For an excerpt from the first volume, Here, Piggy!, see our May/June 2011 issue, or visit McDonald’s website,

“The M16 vs. the AK47”


The M16 versus the AK47. Could there be a better metaphor for the Vietnam War itself?

One was innovative and sophisticated, ergonomic and lightweight, manufactured of space-age materials for space-age warriors. The other, a perfect peasant’s weapon: utilitarian and crude, assembled from stamped metal and wood, simple to use and “accurate enough,” with loose tolerances that made it unbelievably rugged.

Each a stark symbol for the forces that fielded it.

Conceived inside the mind of Soviet World War II veteran Mikhail Kalashnikov while still recovering from severe wounds he received in the Battle of Bryansk in 1941, the AK47 was designed around the mantra of reliability. Kalashnikov was motivated by complaints from fellow wounded soldiers about weapons that had failed when they were needed most. The rifle he was inspired to design would become legendary for its reliability. After nearly seven decades of service across the globe, the AK47 remains the most popular and widely used assault rifle in the world for precisely that reason.

Battle tested under the harshest conditions and in virtually every geographic region of the world, more than 100 million Kalashnikovs—or variants of it—have been produced to date. The rifle has become emblematic of revolution and insurgency; it can be seen on the flags of Mozambique and Hezbollah, the coats-of-arms of East Timor and Burkina Faso, and on untold pieces of propaganda around the world.

In February of 1943, as the fortunes of World War II began to shift, agents of the Red Army received captured examples of an innovative new German automatic rifle: the StG-44 Sturmgewehr. Studies performed by the German Waffen Amt (Armament Office) had determined that—contrary to the commonly held beliefs of the time—most firefights actually occurred at distances of less than 400 meters. This meant that contemporary rifles were, in reality, both over-powered and needlessly accurate.

As a result, the StG-44 employed the 7.92 x 33 mm Kurz, a new intermediate cartridge that balanced the rate of fire of a submachine gun with the range and accuracy of a rifle. In July 1943, after thorough examination of this new German weapon, the Soviet Commissariat for Armaments ordered the production of an intermediate cartridge of their own (7.62 x 39 mm), followed by a call for design submissions for a new range of weapons to fire it.

Initially Kalashnikov elected not to even submit an entry in the fully automatic rifle category. The original specifications stipulated a seemingly impossible combination of both a long 500 mm barrel and a folding bipod—all while weighing no more than 5 kilograms (11 lbs.). He instead submitted a design for a semiautomatic carbine reminiscent of the American M1 Garand, only to lose that competition to the Simonov SKS-45. As fate would have it, the competition for the fully automatic rifle dragged on without promise, and the commissariat conceded the need for a new competition, one with more reasonable criteria.

Kalashnikov scrambled to submit his entry: a 4.78 kilogram, gas-operated rifle with a breech mechanism similar to his carbine, but with a 30-round magazine. His submission proved to be simple, “soldier-proof,” and reliable under a stunningly wide range of weather conditions. Production of the first models began in 1948, with the newly designated Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 integrated fully into the Red Army’s inventory by 1949, with most other Warsaw Pact armies quickly following suit.

Nothing about Kalashnikov’s creation was especially new. “The AK is really just a hybrid of previous rifle designs,” explains William Atwater, former director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum. The trigger mechanism, double-locking lugs, and long-stroke piston mimic the M1 Garand. The safety mechanism is essentially one John Browning designed for Remington fifty years earlier, and the gas system is straight from those captured Sturmgewehr-44s, only running along the top of the barrel instead of underneath.

The AK-47 was designed above all else to be a simple, reliable automatic rifle that conformed with a Soviet military philosophy that regards weapons as nothing more than tools and, therefore, disposable. It could be manufactured quickly and cheaply, using mass production methods that were well within the somewhat limited manufacturing capabilities of the postwar Soviet Union.

The rifle’s oversized gas piston, “generous” clearances between moving parts, and robust magazine design all allow the gun to tolerate large amounts of dirt and foreign matter in the mechanism without failures. “But, as with anything, there is a trade-off. The AK’s reliability comes at the expense of control,” Atwater explains. “It’s a compromise: Looser tolerances are going to affect accuracy.”

The AK’s easy-to-produce stamped steel receiver has considerable flexibility, resulting in less chance of metal fatigue under heavy use. This makes a more rugged weapon than one with the more rigid milled or forged receiver, which flexes much less during firing but doesn’t sacrifice accuracy.

Add to this the physics of the firing motion itself. “You have a really big chunk of metal coming back fast,” explains Atwater. “And on top of that, it’s slightly off center. So by the time you’ve gone through one cycle, you’ve encountered three very violent motions. And that’s really going to affect controllability.”

The AK’s 30-round magazine featured the now-iconic banana curve that encouraged smooth feeding of ammunition into the chamber. Its heavy steel construction, combined with robust “feed-lips” (the surfaces at the top of the magazine that control the angle at which the cartridge enters the chamber), make the magazines almost impossible to damage. They are so strong that troops are known to routinely use them as hammers and even bottle openers. But soldiers pay a significant price in weight with such a heavily built magazine filled with the heavier Soviet round.

With weight being so important to soldiers traveling primarily on foot, the average American infantryman could carry far more of the lighter 5.56 ? 45 mm NATO round than his smaller North Vietnamese counterpart, who often opted to sacrifice other provisions in favor of ammunition.

But the rifle’s heavy wood-and-iron construction did have one other advantage in battle: It made an effective clubbing weapon in close quarters—something not advisable with the M16’s fiberglass stock.

The decision-makers at the Pentagon, who were still firmly entrenched in their “one shot, one kill” doctrine, dismissed the AK47 for its lack of accuracy. Clinging tightly to the concept of an infantry comprised of “gravel-bellied” marksmen firing disciplined, well-aimed shots, their initial assessment of the AK47 in the 1950s deemed it to be “stubbornly mediocre.” But battles are not fought on a rifle range. And in Vietnam, the enemy—as they did in so many ways—adjusted tactics accordingly.

How does one neutralize the considerable advantage U.S. forces had with their more accurate, better-ranged M16? Avoid anything but close-quarters combat.

“Their standard tactic was what they referred to as ‘holding onto the belt buckle,’ ” says Atwater, who commanded a rifle platoon in Que Son with the 1st Marines from 1969-70. “They would wait to get as close to us as possible to achieve fire superiority so we couldn’t use the advantages of our weapons. Believe me, they were real good at it. Real good.”

With its simple construction and rock-bottom cost of production, the AK47 and its variants were produced in dozens of countries, with American forces facing mostly the Chinese Type 56 copy fielded by North Vietnamese regulars.

Armchair debates over which was the better weapon, the M16 or the AK47, have become popular in recent years. But what is more enlightening is how the fundamental differences between the two rifles serve as a near-perfect metaphor for the forces who carried them and the type of war they came to fight. The AK47 didn’t win the war for the North Vietnamese, but its low-tech, no-nonsense operation complemented the way in which they chose to wage their war against the Americans and the ARVN. It was a brutal weapon for a brutal place. In the hot, dirty, and wet conditions of Southeast Asia, technical superiority simply wasn’t always enough.

“If I’m going to war tomorrow with a hundred illiterate peasant kids, I’m giving them the AK47,” remarks Atwater. “If I have a week to train them, I’m choosing the M16. But the AK is just about the simplest thing you’ve ever seen—and it’ll do its job for you from the first time you pull the trigger.”

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