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Will The New AK-47 Be As Popular As The Original?

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The Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47, is one of the most dangerous and widely used weapons in the world. For more than 60 years, nations, rebels, gangsters and child soldiers have wielded the gun.

And now, Russian officials say it's outdated. As part of a $700 billion army modernization program, the country has announced a redesign of the rifle.

New York Times foreign correspondent C.J. Chivers — who also wrote The Gun, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Kalashnikov — tells NPR's Audie Cornish that the updates are mostly cosmetic.

The plan is to add external features that would allow the use of accessories like flashlights and laser rangefinders. According to Chivers, at its core, the new Kalashnikov is basically the same rifle. The only change is that it seems to be targeting a new market.

"This new product, called the AK-12, is really going to be designed for traditional military customers," he says. "They're making this for police forces and military forces."

But Chivers doubts they'll have much luck reaching those customers. He says the market is already fully saturated with Kalashnikovs made not only in Russia, but also in Iraq, North Korea and China, to name a few places.

"There's a glut out there already of these rifles for the people who need them in short order, say, to go to war in Libya or to go to war in Syria or to go to war most anywhere else," he says.

That glut can be attributed to the gun's incredible staying power.

Designed in 1945 by former Russian tank gunner Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK-47 was the first gun to bridge the gap between submachine guns and long, heavy rifles. It was a simple, reliable, lightweight weapon that almost anyone could use. And once it was put into mass production, it was available to almost everyone.

Saving 'Russia's Coca-Cola'

More likely, Chivers says, the redesign is motivated by a desire to help save "the Detroit of the modern rifle world."

"The main Kalashnikov plant for the Russian Federation is the same as the main Kalashnikov plant during the Soviet Union's time," Chivers says, "and that's located out in the Ural Mountains in a city called Izhevsk."

The fortunes of Izhevsk have risen and fallen with the popularity of the Kalashnikov. Today, it can be characterized as a struggling factory town, but orders for new Kalashnikovs could help change that.

A second likely motivation Chivers cites is national pride.

"The Kalashnikov is in many ways Russia's Coca-Cola. It's their brand. It's the one thing that they made that we all know of and that has had global saturation," he says. "And to have it sort of catch up to what's been going on in Western rifles — the ability to carry all these additional features — and to have it going forward as a legitimate brand and not a legacy product, I think that's driving some of this, too."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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