Of Russian origin: AK-47 combat rifle
Generally the Russian language is very liberal. One of its unique features is the use of the same words in different circumstances when this particular word may have many different meanings. Examples? They are plenty… The word “kozel” or “goat” may mean a mammal when you openly name an animal pointing at it in the Moscow Zoo, or - a traffic police officer (in Russian “gaishnik”), who just gave you a speeding ticket, and you’re mumbling this word while paying your fine.
The word “avtomat,” which initially meant a machine that can operate without human interference, can be easily misunderstood when used inappropriately or without proper clarification. For example, “Prachechnaya – avtomat” stands for “Laundromat,” while “Kafe-avtomat,” may turn out as a vending machine selling sandwiches; both share the same word - “avtomat.”
Moreover, this A-word may have another, and, literally, more dangerous meaning. Some say it happened in 1949. That’s the year the Soviet Army received the AK-47, the famous assault rifle by Mikhail Kalashnikov. Yet one more child of the Cold War, this “avtomat” made another revolution in the Soviet Union. For the first time the full-auto weapon was made the basic weapon of the Red Army. The inventor was given awards, medals, ranks, fame and, on top of it - the USSR State Prize. The simple, reliable, tough and deadly piece of machinery quickly gained popularity after the veil of secrecy had been removed. On postcards, stamps, army posters and in movies the image of AK became known as the symbol of Soviet military might. By the way, do you know where and when the AK became a movie star? No idea of that maiden appearance? No, it was not one of these “Rambo” stories. It happened in 1955 – and it was the Soviet movie “Maksim Perepelitsa.”
Children (and I still remember it – being a “Cold War child” myself) played with metal, plastic and wooden scaled-down copies of the famous assault rifle and this toy was - in a way - precious. (Interestingly, the best toy AKs came from East Germany, or DDR, in the 70s, and they had a very “impressive” price tag for a toy – around 20 Soviet rubles.) Outside the Communist bloc countries “avtomat” was a rival of the “Black rifle” – or Eugene Stoner’s M-16. The two foes, M-16 & AK, finally, met in Vietnam.
Legend has it (believe it or not) that American soldiers while caught in jungle dog-fights with Viet Cong or NVA often switched to AKs – its heavy “7.62 mike-mike” bullets offered a better stopping power than the M-16’s 5.56 mm smaller projectiles. Yes, American rifles were accurate, even precise, far-reaching and effective, and - perhaps to some extent were even better than “Russki avtomats.”
But can you imagine - humid, dirty jungles somewhere near the Ho Chi Minh trail, days after days of close-range battles and shootouts with extensive ammo-spending and careless handling with no gun-cleaning kits and all those nice rust-prevention liquids or barrel-cleaning solvents… Mud in your rifle? Powder residue all over your gas chamber? Dirt in the receiver? Cartridge jammed? Then you’re dead, soldier!
So, the Russian “avtomat” (in given circumstances) with its unchallenged simplicity and almost unlimited reliability became the only life-saving device for an average “GI Joe.”
Thankfully, these times are gone.
The “Avtomat Kalashnikova,” has many relatives. They are AKM, AK-74, 74M, AKSU, AK-100, 102 & 105 in Russia. What about other countries? Yes, there are many clones of the famous “avtomat” - Bulgarian, Romanian, Czech, Hungarian, Yugoslav, Iraqi, Chinese… Even Finland was producing AK-type “Valmet assault rifles” under Russian license. But the majority of “avtomat copies” were not covered by any official licenses. Soviet weapons designers were victimized by the failed practice of “international help” as the technical schemes and charts were handed over to (then) friendly regimes, starting their own production lines. Certainly, these guns had not a single attribution to the “original product maker.” For known reasons, in the 21st century, we may say these “avtomats” were counterfeit and illegal. Fakes, literally. Millions of them.
So, “avtomat” is widespread, popular and instantly recognizable. Almost like a Coca-Cola logo or a bottle. Some nations even put an “avtomat” silhouette on their state emblems and flags. Cry “Foul play!”? Say “Soviet propaganda”? No. The natural choice of democracy. The “avtomat” helped these nations in their fights for independence. To understand how strong and desperate a nation can be in that strive - just have a look at American constitution with it’s opening words “We, the people…” and then imagine a Kentucky rifle – the “gun of choice” in the 18th century. In some countries children are named “Kalash” – although definitely, not “Avtomat”.
Finally, “avtomat” is a “Guinness World Record Book” record holder: more than 100,000,000 copies made worldwide. No match for any other gun, even the M-16 with its “miniscule” (in comparison) seven million copies.
Now tell me – do you understand the real meaning of “avtomat”? Be careful with words – at least while hunting for souvenirs in Moscow. In some shops dealing with military items, sales managers can easily misinterpret your “Avtomat, please?” and offer you a de-activated copy of an AK-assault rifle instead of showing you the way to the nearest bank cash-machine.
Note: This entry was written by a Cold War child and participant (Soviet side), AK assault rifle-user, devoted gun-addict and a true “Peacemaker.”