The Kalashnikov question: a biographic angle

Mikhail Kalashnikov’s contribution to the development of AK-47, relative to the role of other Soviet Russian designers, will probably remain an open question in the foreseeable future. Likewise, the contribution of the German weapons designers and engineers, including but not limited to Hugo Schmeisser, will continue to be discussed.

I have no comment on the technical side of this, but I’m going to put in my two cents from another angle. Speaking of the prominent Soviet designers of Kalashnikov’s generation and their mentors from Imperial Russia, I think one can safely claim that each of them came up with a successful new design after at least a decade of apprenticeship and practical work or study. Those who rose from the peasantry or the urban working classes typically left school early and entered some kind of work-study program at 14-17. Later on, a technical college and work under the guidance of an experienced designer. By their late 20s, they were competent enough in their trade to start developing their own designs.

Take Nikolay Makarov, the principal designer of the PM pistol. He was born and went to school in the small town of Sasovo, 114 miles southwest of Ryazan. His father was a train driver. In 1929, aged fifteen, Nikolay went to an industrial school (FZU) in Ryazan. At seventeen, he returned to Sasovo to work as a fitter at the locomotive depot. After five years as a locomotive repairman, in 1936, he was accepted to a polytechnic (“mechanical institute”) in Tula, the city famous for its guns, samovars, and gingerbread. The German invasion began just before his scheduled graduation in summer 1941. Makarov was transferred to a weapons factory, where he worked under the supervision of Georgy Shpagin, the designer of the widely used submachine gun, PPSh-41.

Makarov was posted back to Tula in 1943 and graduated in 1944. His graduation project was a submachine gun design, which won him the highest grade but was not accepted for practical use. He went on to work on an improved pistol design and completed in 1949. This time, his proposal was the winner, and the PM handgun became the standard police weapon and peacetime army side pistol in 1951.

Makarov was only 29 or 30 when he submitted his first SMG design, and 35 when his PM proposal was accepted for mass production. However young he seems, his training started at 15, he had lots of hand-on experience and a college-level engineering education. Plus, as he explained later, his team spent more hours at the design office, the workshop and the shooting range than its competitors – twelve hours per day for several years – so there’s nothing miraculous about his success with the PM. (This is not to say that political intrigue and the whims of Stalinist functionaries played no role; but it was not a case of some half-literate autodidact who came out of nowhere with a great design.)

For comparison, consider the life of Alexey Sudayev, who died in 1946 at 34 but left behind the Sudayev submachine gun, PPS-42 and PPS-43. Like Makarov, he was born in a small town, Alatyr’, in what is now the Chuvash Republic. Sudaeyev’s father, a telegraph mechanic, died when the boy was twelve. Alexey finished an industrial school at 17 and started working as a fitter. He went on to a technical college, graduating at 20 and working as a railroad technician in the Urals. At 21, he received his first patent, for a pneumatic platform tipper.

Two years in the army – in the railway forces, mostly as a technician; another patent. After the army, in 1936, at twenty-four, Sudayev entered the Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky) “industrial institute,” more or less a polytechnic; in 1938, he transferred to the artillery academy in Moscow to specialize in weapons design. His graduation design, which also was an automatic pistol, received the highest grade, and Sudayev was posted to a weapons research center to work on an improved SMG. He was 29 when his PPS-42 was adopted by the army. By all signs, Sudayev was a gifted young man who progressed fast through all the required stages. That’s unusual but hardly preternatural.

Igor Stechkin, the developer of the mighty automatic pistol, APS, stood apart from other young designers of his time. Born in Aleksin, near Tula, in 1922, he finished regular school at 18 and, rejected for army service because of poor eyesight, was admitted in 1941 to the same Tula polytechnic where Makarov was scheduled to graduate that year. As in Makarov’s case, the war delayed Stechkin’s graduation. However, his 1948 graduation project (partly under Makarov’s supervision) was out of the ordinary. Stechkin was defending his design for a semi-automatic pistol before a commission of engineering professors. One of them, looking at the technical drawings, skeptically remarked that such a pistol could not, would not fire, ever. The young man, however, already had in his pocket a sample gun made to his design. He drew it and fired three blank shots.

Stechkin went on to work on an automatic pistol; his APS adopted by the army in 1951, ten years after he entered college. This is obviously impressive, but one should probably measure this success against the achievements of other Stechkins. The gun designer was a scion of a family remarkable for creativity and perseverance (in addition to its ancient pedigree). His father Yakov, a doctor, graduated from the Moscow University in 1914 and started working in Tula and then Aleksin in 1919-20, amidst the Civil War, hunger and raging epidemics. Later on, especially during and after WWII, Yakov Stechkin earned a reputation as an outstanding surgeon. (There is perhaps a bitter irony in the fact that the son of a surgeon who spent WWII operating in a military hospital devoted his life to developing new weapons.) Yakov’s brother Boris – Igor’s uncle – was a prominent aircraft engine designer; Boris’ son Sergei was an accomplished mathematician. Nikolay Zhukovsky (the Joukowski transform or mapping was named after him) was also a relative.

Having said all this, I suggest taking another look at Mikhail Kalashnikov’s biography, especially up to around 1950. The post is getting quite long, so part 3 is to follow.

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