I read recently a small news item that was published a few months ago on a foreign news website. The Chief of Staff of the Russian army, General Nikolai Makarov, announced that after 65 years, the Russian army will stop procuring the Kalashnikov assault rifle, known around the world as the AK-47. The army has more rifles than it needed in its storage depots, said the general, and it will now await the development of a new assault rifle, which is to be completed soon.
The first time I saw and touched a Kalashnikov rifle was in summer 1967, immediately after the Six Days War. A father of a school friend returned from the battles in the Sinai and brought with him a brand new Kalashnikov that looked as if it was just taken out of the wooden case in which it had arrived from the factory. Late one afternoon, the father took us to an improvised shooting range in the sand dunes of what was then a remote area distant from towns and villages, and which is today covered by high rising buildings, shopping malls and cinemas. I was a thin and small boy then who was not yet fourteen years old. My experience with weapons till then was limited to the sporadic shooting of an air rifle belonging to one of the village boys, and to a few 0.22 rounds that the instructors allowed me to fire when I sneaked, well before my age, into a pre-military training range.
A few years passed. I joined the IDF. During my training as an officer, the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out. After the war, the stories started coming in from the different battle zones. One of them, which became etched into my mind, was the story of the battle against the Egyptian forces that were manning the Chinese Farm site in the western Sinai Desert and that were holding back the IDF from crossing the Suez Canal to the west. Tank crews that had to abandon their damaged armour, and paratroopers who went out to clear the area from Egyptian commandos, fought Egyptian soldiers armed with Kalashnikov rifles with short range and inaccurate Uzi submachine guns. During the battles that lasted a couple of days and nights, the IDF suffered many casualties. I remembered the massive power of the rifle which I experienced as a boy and my heart went out to the fighters who found themselves in such an inferior position at such a desperate battle. I also heard that many soldiers swapped there and then their Uzis with Kalashnikov rifles they removed from Egyptians who were taken prisoners or were killed.
After the war I completed my officer’s training and was posted to a unit where the Kalashnikov was the standard personal weapon. The rifle I received was old and battered and saw a lot of previous use. Like its predecessor, this rifle also had a wooden butt, but the left hand grip was made of brown plastic. I noticed that this grip had a dip with a small tear in it but did not assign any significance to it. This rifle was my personal weapon till 1978 when we were told that our Kalashnikov rifles were to be replaced by short M-16s. With a few of my friends, we sat down in the sun on the veranda of one of our base’s buildings to clean and oil the rifles before returning them to the armoury. My friend Gal, who was a curious and inquisitive fellow, noticed the small tear in the plastic grip, took the rifle and as he turned it this way and that in the sunlight noticed a reddish metallic glint inside the crack. He pulled out a long thin screwdriver and after a few minutes of burrowing extricated out of the grip a squashed 9mm Uzi submachine gun bullet. We looked at length at the bullet and at each other. Although a few years had passed, we had no doubt as to where the Kalashnikov rifle and the bullet lodged in it came from – the Chinese Farm. What was the fate of the two soldiers, the Israeli and the Egyptian, who were holding these weapons and found themselves facing each other at short range – only God knows. I would like to hope that these days, they are both the happy grandfathers of two large families, each in his own country.
The news about the Russian army ceasing procurement of the rifle is, by the way, being kept from its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, now 91. “We do not want to take it upon ourselves to tell him” a member of his family said, adding, perhaps seriously, perhaps ironically “It might kill him.”