Founded in 1807 in the Ural Mountains city of Izhevsk, on orders of Tsar Alexander I, Izhmash was to become Russia’s largest small-arms manufacturer. Though you’ve likely never heard of the company, you’re almost certainly familiar with its most famous product: the AK-47 assault rifle. A mechanic named Mikhail Kalashnikov began designing it during the Second World War. “AK” stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova; “47” is the year Izhmash began supplying it to the Red Army. Since then the AK-47 and its variants have unleashed a torrent of tears and spent shell casings the world over.
Simplicity is the secret of the AK-47’s success. It can be mass-produced with rudimentary skills and materials. Yet it’s rugged, seldom jams and demands minimal training. And it’ll empty its 30-round magazine in three seconds flat. “It’s so cheap that you can send children into combat with it,” says journalist Larry Kahaner, author of the book AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War. “In some sub-Saharan countries, you can literally trade an AK for a bag of corn.”
An estimated 50 million to 100 million have been made, more than all other assault rifles combined. But Izhmash actually didn’t produce most of these weapons. Rather, the Soviet government handed out manufacturing licences like candy to client states during the Cold War. Dozens of countries now churn out AK-47s, including Albania, Israel, Germany and China.
This proliferation of knock-offs, coupled with the AK-47’s long service life, contributed to the company’s decline. In late September, a flurry of reports declared that an arbitration court had accepted a bankruptcy lawsuit against Izhmash by a creditor. Details were sketchy, and Izhmash didn’t respond to inquiries. However, its rifle factory has been idle nearly the entire year, for want of orders. Asked what impact its demise might have on the global small-arms market, Kahaner replied: “Probably nothing.