The Carl Gustav Recoilless Rifle and the AK-47
Why do some weapons remain genius to this day?
The Kalashnikov or AK-47 is the world’s ubiquitous assault rifle; it first entered military service in 1948 and over the last 65 years AK-type rifles have been produced in greater quantities than all other assault rifles combined. Likewise, the Carl Gustav Recoilless Rifle also entered service in 1948 and has spent the last 65 years in the armed forces of some 40 nations; it remains in active combat use to this day. Both of these cases are exceptional: militaries do often opt for “tried and true” equipment, but these weapons were designed before guided missiles, before helicopters and arguably before the existence of ‘modern’ warfare. So what is their secret? Were they so advanced and ahead of their time that modern designs struggle to compete? Or are they used for such niche purposes that it is not worth the time and effort to develop more modern replacements? The answer is perhaps, unsurprising.
There are more effective modern weapons on offer to fill both the assault rifle and anti-armor/anti-bunker roles, but the reliability and cost effectiveness of the Gustav and the AK-47 is what sets them apart from the pack. This is not to say that these weapons are ineffective, far from it. The United States would certainly not be employing the Carl Gustav if did not perform. In terms of cost a Gustav weighs in at around 17,000 U.S dollars whilst the modern Javelin anti-tank missile costs closer to 80,000 U.S dollars. An AK-47 can cost from 150-160 U.S dollars for a government to manufacture, the M16 costs around 670 (these prices are both subject to fluctuation based on the variant and the place of manufacture). An asking price less than a quarter of the direct competition is very attractive to even the most well-funded military.
And this cost effectiveness is combined with an almost legendary reliability. The Kalashnikov was designed for use in the artic by soldiers wearing thick gloves while the Gustav’s rifled barrel minimizes the need for expensive or convoluted ammunition. When soldiers drag either of these weapons through mud, sand, snow or water the weapons are more likely to fire then their competitors (actually functioning is a somewhat key facet of any weapon).
Thus these two weapons are perfect for countries without high levels of military funding, and for countries with large well-funded militaries which are operating in difficult conditions. Both the United States and Sierra Leone still actively use the Carl Gustav in combat. After 65 years these weapons still aren’t going anywhere.