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A factor that the article doesn't emphasize enough is the extent to which schedule pressure contributed to the bugginess of the released rifle.

The Kalashnikov had been designed in 1947, (hence, AK-47), but it took more than a decade before a bug-free version (the AKM) was considered reliable enough to make standard-issue. (When this article refers to "AK-47s", most of the actual weapons involved were actually AKMs.)

The US, by contrast, had spent the decades since WWII resisting the assault rifle concept, so that when Vietnam rolled around their fantastically rich and well-funded military found its infantry outgunned by peasant militias wielding second-hand Soviet rifles. So the rifle went from initial acceptance, including these kinds of stupid last-minute design changes that are common in any project, to large-scale combat deployment within a year; normally, there would have been years of incremental usage to catch these bugs, but the rifle was so desperately needed that it was rushed to the front.

A book I've recommended in another thread, which gives a great introduction to the history and impact of the Kalashnikov in particular and assault rifles in general, is C.J. Chivers's "The Gun" (https://www.amazon.com/Gun-C-J-Chivers/dp/0743271734), or this shorter-form article he wrote in response to recent msas shootings (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/world/ak-47-mass-sh...)




If the article is correct, the schedule pressure was entirely manufactured: In the AR-15, the US had a reliable, production-ready assault rifle, that those in the infantry who had tested it were enthusiastic about, but the ordnance board delayed and eventually stopped its adoption with dogma-driven design changes that led to the M-16 also being unreliable as well as late.


"Deadlines are always arbitrary. Deadlines are a tool used by managers to control costs. That is their only purpose. Often, managers try to justify deadlines by citing other dependent deadlines, but those deadlines are always just as arbitrary." - Alan Cooper


Perhaps this is a useful exaggeration to make a point, but taken at face value it's simply nuts.


That is actually true. And very very applicable to software development.


Chris Voss' book "Never Split the Difference" goes into this.

He posits that bad deals come from people being strict about artificial deadlines... and it's better to have no deal than a rushed deal. Try it next time someone tells you there's a hard deadline... just tell them you'll deliver when it's done.


> just tell them you'll deliver when it's done

Not trying to be facetious here: I'd love to have this level of freedom from deadlines, but the grim reality is that it'll remain fantasy for most people at most stages in their careers.

Me: "I'll deliver when it's done."

High school teacher: "Suit yourself. You'll lose 10% of your final grade for every day it's late."

Government: "We've assessed a late fine because you missed our entirely arbitrarily set tax filing deadline."

Grad school supervisor: "You submitted the final copy of your dissertation four days after the administrative deadline, so you're stuck paying another semester's tuition."

Boss: "You're fired."


The book doesn't say to defy deadlines... it just states that almost every negotiation has the deadline being an arbitrary thing being chosen at random.


IMO, that kind of last-minute top-down bikeshedding is something that needs to be accounted for in the project scheduling process. The rifle was on-schedule for an idealized process, but didn't have enough time to go through all the usual BS.


> The Kalashnikov had been designed in 1947

1944 actually, there were examples in trials by 1946. 1947 was the year of adoption of a developed version but it was only ever called AK in Soviet documents.

Something else the article gets wrong is use of a hyphen in M14, M16 etc. A minor point but immediately shows a lack of familiarity or research with the subject. It's like reading a 2019 article that talks about the i-Phone.


1946 was the first design that was submitted to the trials. And it was almost completely redesigned after it failed in those trials. For one example, the AK-46 prototype was short-stroke piston. Take a look:

http://fb.ru/misc/i/gallery/12424/2098509.jpg


> Something else the article gets wrong is use of a hyphen in M14, M16 etc. A minor point but immediately shows a lack of familiarity or research with the subject. It's like reading a 2019 article that talks about the i-Phone.

I'm not sure how much to read into that. There are programmers who talk about JAVA and "C" and nobody seems to call them on their typographical oddities. In fact, most people seem unwilling to even see them fnord fnord fnord.


The hyphenation is probably the result of an editor determined to adhere precisely to The Atlantic's style guide.


"The US, by contrast, had spent the decades since WWII resisting the assault rifle concept, so that when Vietnam rolled around their fantastically rich and well-funded military found its infantry outgunned by peasant militias wielding second-hand Soviet rifles."

They would have had M14's in the beginning of the war, with 7.62MM rounds and 20 round magazines. The M16 was lighter, since the M14 had a wooden stock, but the 5.56MM rounds were smaller, and the initial models also had 20 round magazines.

So, I'm struggling with how the M16 would have been even a paper improvement over being "outgunned". I suspect it was more about being lighter and carrying around more rounds of the smaller lighter ammo.


>So, I'm struggling with how the M16 would have been even a paper improvement over being "outgunned".

The round it fires is more suited for the reality of combat, which is that 90% of combat takes place within 100 meters and the last 9% happens within 300 meters of the enemy. In fact, you can't even see a normal target with non-magnified sights at 300m, much less a target that's trying its hardest to hide from you.

The M14 is designed to be effective at 600-800 meters. And the cost to being effective at that extended distance is that you have to dump lots of energy into the projectile, which means that the shooter has to deal with a large recoil impulse. If you are taking a shot at 100m with an M14, your sight picture will be completely gone after you fire once.

With the M16, however, the recoil impulse is roughly 1/3rd of the M14's (mainly due to the cartridge; the AK-47 uses a similar one energy-wise). Your point of aim doesn't meaningfully change from shot to shot, so if your first shot misses you now have the ability to try again multiple times (and can fire bursts effectively if needed). Maybe there's a slight chance you need to hit your enemy multiple times, but the cartridge makes getting that first shot significantly easier and you can carry more ammunition anyway.


This is incorrect on a couple accounts.

First, one can easily see a normal target at 300m with unmagnified iron sights. US soldiers have to qualify on drab green pop-up targets at 300m on a semi-forested range and they routinely hit them. At 100m, the target is just a head and shoulders. Easy to do with an M-16 given a little practice.

Second, the AK-47 is quite poor at preserving point of aim across successive shots due to its design. This is because the reciprocating mass (i.e. the piston) is far out-of-line relative to the point of shoulder contact, creating torque that pulls the barrel away from the point of aim even with a relatively low-energy cartridge. The M-16 action, by contrast, has an almost perfectly inline reciprocating mass that produces little torque, among the very best of all common assault weapons, which makes it unusually easy to control point of aim during rapid fire.


For "normal infantry use" AK is still a massive improvement over anything firing a full power rifle cartridge. Sure the AR platform makes for a better shooter's rifle but that wasn't a high priority design goal of the AK.

No matter how short your shorts are (I hope nobody here gets that reference) trying to lay down full auto suppressing fire with a FAL is going to be less effective than with an with an AK and its intermediate cartridge.


Your first point is trivial. Shooting a fixed point target from a fixed position is very different from shooting a moving target with an unknown position from an unknown position. The rifle qualification exists to establish that soldiers know how to aim the rifle, not to establish that they can hit a real target.


The rifle qualification for the USMC is 500 yards from a fixed point, Soldiers and Marines are generally expected to hit a man sized target from a supported position at 500-600 yards and non-supported at 200-300.


Being forced yearly to shoot at a target 300m away with non-magnifying sights: what makes you think that you cannot see such a target?

FWIW: 17 out of 20 rounds have to hit the roughly torso-sized target to pass.


In real combat targets are not standing still in the open wearing white clothes with concentric black circles?

And yes, any infantryman in any army on the planet should be capable of hitting a roughly torso-sizes target with decent probability at 300m.


> In real combat targets are not standing still in the open wearing white clothes with concentric black circles?

Neither are normal US military rifle range targets; they are drab green popup targets with límites exposure time on a semi forested range.


During my last rifle qualification, I was able to hit 10/10 rounds on the 19" silhouette at 500m - USMC trains at a further distance. I've done this with iron sights and optics. It's not very difficult.


> what makes you think that you cannot see such a target?

It's night, in the Vietnamese jungle, and they're popping up from the concealed tunnel entrance twenty feet away you just walked over.


The smaller bullet is the point. A 7.62mm bullet is overkill if you're aiming at a person less than half a kilometer away. The essence of the assault rifle concept is to throw away that excess individual bullet power in order to gain volume of fire.

The magazine size alone is not a good indicator of practical rate of fire; that has more to do with recoil, which the M16 reduces by using a smaller bullet.

For an understanding of the assault rifle concept, I recommend reading the history of the first assault rifle, the Sturmgewehr 44 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StG_44#History):

====================================================

In the late 19th century, small-arms cartridges had become able to fire accurately at long distances. Jacketed bullets propelled by smokeless powder were lethal out to 2,000 metres (2,200 yd). This was beyond the range a shooter could engage a target with open sights, as at that range a man-sized target would be completely blocked by the front sight blade. Only units of riflemen firing by volley could hit grouped targets at those ranges. That fighting style was taken over by the widespread introduction of machine guns, which made use of these powerful cartridges to suppress the enemy at long range. Rifles remained the primary infantry weapon, but in some forces were seen as a secondary or support weapon, backing up the machine guns.

This left a large gap in performance; the rifle was not effective at the ranges it could theoretically reach while being much larger and more powerful than needed for close combat.

<snip>

In the spring of 1918, Hauptmann (Captain) Piderit, part of the Gewehrprüfungskommission (Small Arms Proofing Committee) of the German General Staff in Berlin, submitted a paper arguing for the introduction of an intermediate round in the German Army with a suitable firearm. He pointed out that firefights rarely took place beyond 800 metres (870 yd), about half the 2 km (1.2 mi) sight line range of the 7.92×57mm round from a Mauser Gewehr 98 rifle or less for MG 08 machine gun. A smaller, shorter, and less powerful round would save materials, allow soldiers to carry more ammunition, and increase firepower. Less recoil would allow semi-automatic or even fully automatic select-fire rifles, although in his paper he called it a Maschinenpistole (submachine gun).


I don't think recoil was the primary driver, actually. Weight was. This becomes readily apparent when you shoot a Kalashnikov side by side with AR15 (a civilian semi-auto variant of select fire M16). A loaded mag for a Kalashnikov is over twice the weight of a loaded M16 mag. And you do need to carry a lot of ammo if you don't want to run out, especially for the AK which is much less accurate.

Whoever designed the M16 realized that killing the enemy wasn't really necessary. Heavily wounded enemy is as good as dead.


These do not contradict each other. They noted that for the same weight in ammo, it's better to hit the target with a burst three lighter bullets than with a single heavier one. But you also need lower recoil for that burst to be accurate, and M16 is very much designed around that (straight stock etc).

The idea that smaller caliber was deliberately less effective on the basis that wounding is just as good as killing is a much later invention, and it only came about back when they switched from M193 to M855, which traded lethality for better armor penetration, and even then as retroactive justification. There's no evidence that this was ever a part of the design spec for any of the M16/M4 series, though, or any official military doctrine. Neither did Soviets consider it when designing AK74.

In any case, when 5.56 ammo fragments - as the original mil-spec ammo was designed to, and recently redesigned to do again with M855A1 - it produces wounds far worse than mil-spec 7.62 NATO that preceded it:

http://www.rkba.org/research/fackler/figure3.gif

http://www.rkba.org/research/fackler/figure2.gif


A Kalashnikov is already an assault rifle - it uses a smaller and lower-recoil bullet than the full-powered rifle cartridges that came before it. An American design that only copied the assault rifle concept would have probably had a similar-weight round to an AK.

The M16's even lighter round was the result of a separate American innovation, the Small Caliber High Velocity bullet, which trades bullet size for propellant size. Even smaller bullet than the AK, but a flatter trajectory (hence the improved accuracy, helped along by the M16's interesting operating mechanism), and even lighter weight than first-generation assault rifles.


I have heard that part of the rationale for a lower caliber round was that it was more likely to wound than to kill outright - and a wounded soldier would be more of a burden than a dead one.


Yes. Imagine if one of your teammates is wounded. You and your friends will attempt to drag him out of harm's way, treat his wounds, protect him. You'll call a helo for medevac, etc. Now imagine that your same teammate is dead. You can continue the fight without consuming resources and energy on him until the fight is over.


The real motivation is that wounding is at least as good as killing, and wars are won (or lost) mainly by logistics.


> The smaller bullet is the point. A 7.62mm bullet is overkill if you're aiming at a person less than half a kilometer away.

Some time ago there was some drama wrt 5.56 being too ineffective, as well as having poor ballistics at longer ranges, and there were a bunch of intermediate calibers designed such as 6.8 SPC and 6.5 Grendel. Did anything ever come out of this (or, was it always just an internet gun nut dream?), or was the 855A1 improvement enough that the headache and cost of a caliber change was discarded?


The US military currently has one or more requests out there for companies to submit 6.8mm rifles for trials, so it could potentially still happen. Also, according to Wikipedia, Serbia is adopting a rifle in 6.5 Grendel as its primary service rifle. I don't see the US moving towards 6.5 Grendel, except on the civilian market - I took a deer with a 6.5 Grendel last year, and my cousin has taken several as well as a black bear.


Part of the issue is that those assumptions of relatively short ranges were reached in an environment of actual fighting in jungle environments in Vietnam, and prospective fighting in built-up or forested environments in Europe. In arid regions, battle rifles with their longer ranges and lower volume of fire are arguably a better tradeoff. See, for example, the use of early-20th-century British battle rifles by the Taliban (https://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/taliban-gun-locke...), resulting from terrain like the title photo at (https://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/19/a-firsthand-look-...)

(Their use is deterred by other factors, namely ammunition availability and concealability.)


The new round has much better terminal ballistics, and better stability at range. It's better, but not perfect for the ranges of Afghanistan. Hopefully we won't have to worry about that for much longer.

The Army is still looking at a larger caliber for their Next Generation Squad Weapon program, and that experimental round may wind up being lighter weight as well due to its polymer casing.


Mostly resolved using heavier bullet weights. There are a bunch of different bullets out there (MK262 is the standard as I recall), and I think the 6.5/6.8 are unlikely to be adopted as supply chain logistics says to remain with 5.56.


I read a few articles on weapon magazines in 80s about this.

1) while 5.56 is lighter, when it impacts with the human body the bullet will often impart the so-called "tumbling effect" (i.e. instead of keeping its straight course it basically tumbles around inside your flesh - and may create secondary shrapnel if it hits a bone, causing a lot of damage and hydroshock). So yes, if you want to hit someone behind light cover, like a wooden door, 7.62 is more effective, but if you hit directly the resulting damage is equivalent.

2) yes, the bullets are lighter/smaller - this means your average infantryman can carry more magazines as part of his load, so you may be able to fight a bit longer than you opponent packing 7.62.

EDIT: added some words to clarify the tumbling effect.


Tumbling and fragmentation are both highly dependent on terminal velocity and the underlying stability of the round. For instance M855 will not fragment reliably unless it hits ~2700FPS, which out of a 14.5" barrel gives you under 100 meters.

In Mogadishu, M855 poked neat little holes, rather than tumbling or fragmenting, in Somali fighters with very little body fat.

M193, which is obsolete for military usage but still the most popular bulk round on the civilian market, almost never tumbles in gel tests as it is overstabilized by the 1:7 twist, 16" barrels predominant in civilian ARs.


556 round was originally designed to be fired from a barrel with a different twist, which would allow tumbling more easily.


That tumbling effect sales pitch is the most baffling part of this whole story to me. It is great in a lab with ballistic gel on an uncovered target, but hardly the reality out there.

I think sooner than later this whole fiasco will be in the past once the move to 6mm cartridges become a thing.


When I joined the Territorial Army here in the UK back in the 90s, some smart arse said to the instructor some thing like "but isn't the 5.56 and lighter round and doesn't hit as hard as the 7.62", to which he replied "that may be so son but if someone shoots you up the arse with it, it won't half make your eyes water".


>I suspect it was more about being lighter and carrying around more rounds of the smaller lighter ammo.

And viable automatic fire. Yeah, technically you can have a full auto M14 but 5.56mm and 7.62x29mm are really in another league compared to 7.62x51mm when it comes to controllability.


Having shot a full auto M1A/M14... yea, there is a good reason the M16 came about instead.


1/4 of the linked article deal on how the smaller munition is more lethal


At short distances, the relative power of the M14 was no advantage and carried with it the disadvantage of heavy recoil.

The natural extension of this is submachine guns which have even less powerful bullets, effective at even shorter ranges.


So the rifle went from initial acceptance, including these kinds of stupid last-minute design changes that are common in any project, to large-scale combat deployment within a year; normally, there would have been years of incremental usage to catch these bugs

Large organization needs to roll out a new model on an accelerated timescale. Cost cutting and time saving decisions are made, which have disastrous synergistic effects in the field.

Sounds very familiar.

EDIT: In order to understand the design genius of the AR-15/M-16 rifle, hold 50 rounds of 9mm pistol ammunition in your hand, then 50 rounds of 5.56 ammo. It varies by the particular kinds of ammunition, but on average, they weigh around the same. Yet the rifle is many times more powerful. How is this so?

1) More propellant weighs a lot less than more lead. 2) Energy goes up by the square of velocity.


Everything you said, but also 3) a longer barrel means you get more of the energy of the propellant into the bullet instead of into the surrounding air.


3) is in the service of 2) more velocity. Lately, I've been thinking, why have a pistol as a backup sidearm at all? Why not something like a Kel-Tec Sub2000, just slightly smaller, perhaps with a 10" barrel, but also shoulder-able?


Usually at that weight range militaries prefer to issue submachine guns or Personal Defence Weapons.


I said something like a Sub2000, not exactly a Sub2000. I bet a 10" short barrel rifle of the same general layout could be made to weigh well under 3 pounds.


This is an oversimplification. The AK-47 and AKM both fired a full-size 7.62mm rifle cartridge. The US battle rifle going into Vietnam was the M-14, a full-auto iteration on the venerable M1 Garand rifle that also fired a full-size 7.62mm rifle cartridge.

The key innovation was to instead use an intermediate-sized 5.56mm cartridge, which the Soviets didn't do until the AK-74 in 1974, a full decade after the M16 went into service.

The US had been circling around the "assault rifle" concept for some time prior to encountering the Kalashnikov in the field. In 1945, just as WWII ended, the M2 Carbine went into service. Like modern assault rifles, the M2 Carbine had select-fire capability and fired an intermediate-size cartridge. In this case, it fired the .30 Carbine cartridge popularized by its predecessor the M1 Carbine. (In this respect it was similar to the German StG 44, which was chambered in a "short" 7.92 mm cartridge instead of the 7.92 Mauser cartridge used by the Karabiner 98k.)

In Korea, the .30 Carbine cartridge noticeably underperformed, which motivated a migration back to full-size rifle cartridges--in this case, the 7.62 NATO, a more compact ballistic near-equivalent to the .30-06. (The Chinese and Koreans, like most countries in WWII, tended to stick to either submachine guns or bolt-action rifles which were still outgunned by the Garand.) Select-fire capability was reintroduced with the M-14 in 1959, which was also intended to replace the venerable WWI-era Browning Automatic Rifle.

Curiously, a predecessor of the M16 was the AR-10, which also fired the 7.62 NATO cartridge and competed in the 1956 trials where the M-14 design was ultimately selected. Despite the high performance and accuracy of the AR-10, the design was not yet reliable and mature, leading the military to make the conservative choice of adopting the M-14 instead. When the military decided to transition to an intermediate-size cartridge later on, the AR-10 was adapted into the AR-15, which is the basis design today for the M16 rifle, M4 carbine, and (with significant modifications!) the M27 IAR.


The pre-74 AKs fired a full-caliber, but half-length, intermediate cartridge, the 7.62x39mm. This was easier to manufacture on existing pistol round tooling than a SCHV round.

The 7.62mm NATO cartridge you're thinking of is 7.62x51mm, and fires a 25% heavier bullet at 18% higher velocity, for 66% more total kinetic energy than the early AK round. And the Soviet full-power round that the 7.62x39 replaced, the 7.62x54mmR, is even larger.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/7.62×39mm

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/7.62×51mm_NATO


"The Kalashnikov had been designed in 1947, (hence, AK-47), but it took more than a decade before a bug-free version (the AKM) was considered reliable enough to make standard-issue."

Lost history fact. The "AK-47" saw combat in world war 2 as the German "StG_44" [1]. The StG_44 was a large round, automatic, large capacity, no belt, replaceable clip, death machine.

Once the Russians captured a StG_44 they quickly modified it, and designed the AK-47, which was an even better version.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StG_44


I've not found a reference anywhere that the AK-47 is a copy of StG-44. The outward look is kinda pointless. What matters in a rifle are all of the inner components. However, I can find only anecdotal references like https://www.forgottenweapons.com/ak-and-stg-kissing-cousins/


That's just plain wrong. If the AK shares anything with another weapon, it's actually the M1 Garand and its bolt.

https://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2016/10/22/no-germans-di...


Haha. The StG-44 looks very similar to the AK47. What a coincidence!!!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StG_44

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AK-47

Did you read the article you posted?

My favorite line from the article you posted:

"This isn’t to say that the sturmgewehr StG-44 didn’t make an impression on the Soviets: It’s difficult to imagine an enemy small arm that had as much impact on Soviet small arms design as the StG-44, but put into context the weapon represents more the proving out of a pre-existing idea than the introduction of something completely new."

Hilarious.


They look similar, but the operating principle is significantly different. The STG-44 did have a huge impact on the Soviets, they learned a lot from it but operationally but not technically. Mikhail Kalashnikov took the concept, but the AK is not a modification of the STG-44 mechanically. That's a common misconception.


It's literally just a coincidence. The AK uses a totally different operating mechanism. The only similarity is the banana mag but that's just the reality of the cartridge dimensions.

Had a little known designer ripped off the STG44 the Soviets would not have adopted it in 1947. They would have laughed at it.


> totally different operating mechanism

Not really. The bolt locks differently, but it uses a bolt carrier, gas piston, and buffer spring like an AK.

That said, the easiest way to dismiss the idea that an AK47 is a copy of the STG44 is to look at some of the gas operated rifles that preceded it in the Soviet Union, like the SKS, SVT-38, and AVS-36. Except the rotating bolt, they already had all the features of the AK in the 30's, and the rotating bolt is the one thing the STG44 doesn't have.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/AVS-36


A Lee Enfield Looks Similar to the Gwer 98


Your snark isn't doing your point any favors.


> The "AK-47" saw combat in world war 2 as the German "StG_44"

The StG 44 was a different rifle with a different design.

> The StG_44 was a large round, automatic, large capacity, no belt, replaceable clip, death machine.

The StG 44's round was only slightly larger than the Soviets' AK round; the only reason for their slight difference is that each country decided to make their new intermediate round by taking the same caliber as their respective full-power rounds and making them shorter. (For ease of manufacturing.)

> Once the Russians captured a StG_44 they quickly modified it, and designed the AK-47

They copied the concept (using a smaller round to shed weight and gain volume of fire), but the actual weapon design was new.




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