Mikhail Kalashnikov, the primary inventor of the AK-47, died yesterday in Russia. His invention is possibly the most popular weapon ever made, as the design has been reused and modified to make more than 100 million weapons (an estimate, as no one really knows how many there are).
I’m not a fan of guns, nor of the unavoidable ethical challenges in designing for killing. However there are still lessons any designer can learn from the AK-47’s unusual story of success.
- Simplicity can win. The AK-47 is not the best at any particular task rifles are asked to perform: there are rifles with better accuracy and lighter weight. However its simple, reliable, cheap to produce design has driven its popularity.
- Focus on the common frustrations. The iconic curved metal design of the the AK-47 magazine both reduced jams and improved reliability (its heavy case is harder to damage). It’s a strange aesthetic for a weapon to have one element facing the opposite direction and it makes a good example of Sullivan’s adage form follows function. Many similarly motivated design adjustments, often at the expense of total weight and even accuracy, reduced common frustrations found in other weapons, or reduced the need for training to use, repair and construct the weapon.
- Small markets can provoke designs that do well in large markets. The history of OXO Good Grips is they were trying to design kitchen tools for people with arthritis and other co-ordination issues. They discovered later their designs were valuable to everyone. The AK-47 was not designed with a plan for worldwide use. It was designed after WWII as a the basic service rifle for the Soviet Union. Because it was cheap to make and copy (in part because of failures to license the product successfully) the design was adopted by many other countries, and modified for dozens of different purposes. The Soviet Union used the AK-47 as its standard issue for arming allies, which helps explain the long history of the rifle’s success.
- Dominant design matters. For many poorly funded armies the AK-47 has become the dominant design. Even when better rifles are introduced the switching costs of learning how to use, repair and construct can seem prohibitive, as it requires losing some of the major advantages of the AK-47. Much like the QWERTY keyboard or English measurements, some designs once adopted are hard to replace even when better alternatives exist as the psychological and economic costs to switch outweigh the perceived improvement.