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Chechen rebels regard it as a home appliance, and the people of Mozambique picked it as a symbol for their national flag. However, neither will be represented among the hundreds of bureaucrats and industry managers who flock to the Urals city of Izhevsk this week to celebrate the 55th anniversary of one of the best-known and deadliest of Russian products, the Kalashnikov. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the father of the world's most popular assault rifle, will personally welcome guests such as Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to celebrations Friday at the Izhmash plant, which has churned out millions of Kalashnikovs under his watchful eye since 1947. Kalashnikov will also host a conference on how his weapon influenced the development of contemporary firearms. The idea for the assault rifle was born in 1941, when Kalashnikov, shell-shocked and wounded after a fierce battle with Nazis near the city of Bryansk, was being treated in a hospital. He overheard infantrymen complain that their aged rifles were no match for the Germans' Schmeisser submachine guns and began thinking about how he could help. Kalashnikov, who served as a tank driver, had already invented several modifications for pistols and tank guns. After the hospital stay, he was sent to recuperate in Matai, Kazakhstan, and he quickly produced his first rifle at a local train depot workshop. Fine-tuning the experimental model took five years, and in 1946 it passed the last of a series of firing tests with flying colors.
"I was told that when Stalin was shown the AK-47 for the first time, he took it in his hand and didn't put it down while walking around his Kremlin office for the rest of the day," Kalashnikov wrote in his memoirs. The Soviet government ordered that the AK-47 go into mass production in February 1947. In 1949, the weapon was adopted by the Soviet Army and Sergeant Kalashnikov, then 30, was awarded the Stalin Prize. Some 70 million to 100 million Kalashnikovs have been built worldwide since then, according to the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategic and Technologies, or CAST. In comparison, about 7 million M-16 assault rifles have been made. The M-16 is the Kalashnikov's main Western rival. More than a dozen modifications have been developed for the Kalashnikov, including one with a curved barrel allowing tank crews to shoot around corners. That particular modification never went into mass production. The AK and its derivatives are used to this day by an assortment of armed forces, guerrilla groups, terrorists and common thugs in 55 countries. Lebanon-based Hezbollah Islamic radicals regard the gun as a symbol of their struggle against the "infidels." The Kalashnikov, which has a vodka and even a song named in its honor, is produced in at least 19 countries, including Egypt, Bulgaria, Israel, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, South Africa and India, according to Izhmash. The plant got a patent for the weapon only in 1997 and hired a Swiss-based law firm to sue foreign manufacturers for royalties. China, Turkey and Slovenia have agreed to pay royalties, but Izhmash is still having trouble collecting from countries such as Romania, which makes a modified version that it claims cannot be copyrighted by Izhmash, said Maxim Pyadushkin, a small-arms expert with CAST. Izhmash said in 1999 that a Kalashnikov production license costs between $6 million and $10 million. It remains unclear whether inventor Kalashnikov, 83, gets any part of the royalties paid to Izhmash. Mozambique, which does not produce Kalashnikovs, put the gun on its national flag in 1975 when the FRELIMO Mozambique Liberation Front came to power after an 11-year independence war with Portugal. The gun on the flag symbolizes defense, officials at the Mozambique Embassy in Moscow said. In 1999, the Mozambique government declared a public contest for a new national flag but all of the submissions were rejected, embassy officials said. The weapon is depicted on the emblems of the rebel Chechen government and Burkina Faso in Africa. In recent years, several rivals have emerged to compete against the Kalashnikov for domestic orders. Perhaps the strongest competitor is the Abakan, an assault rifle commissioned by the Defense Ministry in 1997. The Abakan is more precise than the Kalashnikov and easier to learn to use, but it can only be disassembled with the aid of a screwdriver, Pyadushkin said. In comparison, blindfolded high school students could break apart the Kalashnikov with their bare hands in less than 30 seconds in Soviet times, he said. The Defense Ministry has unsuccessfully tried to get the elite airborne troops to switch from Kalashnikovs to Abakans. "There is a psychological factor here," Pyadushkin said. The Federal Security Service's elite Alpha and Vympel units and Interior Ministry commandos have abandoned Kalashnikovs for newer makes including the Val, Klin, Kedr and Bison. These weapons could soon be surpassed by another submachine gun, also named after Kalashnikov, Pyadushkin said. Kalashnikov has been replaced as Izhmash's chief designer by his son Viktor but continues to act as a consultant at the plant. The AK-107 and AK-108 assault rifles boast a special balancing system that prevents them from swaying sideways when being fired, thus allowing greater precision. A similar system is in the works in the United States, Pyadushkin said. "Our generals think that there is no rush in abandoning the good old Kalashnikovs, but once the U.S. begins to switch to this new system, we will follow suit," Pyadushkin said.