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60 Years Later, Everyone's Still Loving the AK-47

Designed for soldiers wearing gloves in arctic cold, 60 years later the AK-47 is the brand of choice in deserts, the tropics, and urban jungles, too.

User-centered performance, over and over and over again

It's one of the best tools ever manufactured, a masterpiece of the Industrial Age. My nephew, just back from a tour with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan, tells me you can back a truck over one, then pick it up and use it.

Mikhail Kalashnikov, son of a woman who bore 19 children, started designing it in 1944 and "sold" the prototype in 1947. On November 10, his 90th birthday, President Dmitry Medvedev made him a Hero of the Russian Federation. And last week Stephen Colbert pulled the gun from under his desk and gave it a tip of his hat.

I decided to go to a local gun show to see what the fuss was about.

A gun show, if you've never been to one, is a football field of guns. A Costco with one product. I exaggerate, but just to set the scene. Only the occasional flash of color breaks up the pall of gunmetal grey.

At one stall there were trays full of Brass Knuckle Paperweights. This is a way to round the concealed weapon law. A great franchise idea for Burglary Swag Paperweights, and Pound of Cocaine Paperweights, I thought.

On my way to the AK-47 signs hung high in the hall, I saw beautifully designed things—antiques, concealment holsters, knives. Also some things better not contemplated—plastic hand-to-hand combat devices apparently used by special forces. Brilliant in their design, pennies to produce, banned by the Geneva Conventions.

Then I met someone I'll call AK Dealer #1.

This was a man in love with his subject. "Mikhail Kalashnikov?" he said, and then whipped me through history. From the inspiration—the German "storm rifle," the revered MP 44—to the current Serbian and Bulgarian pulp knock-offs.

"Feel it," he said, handing me the Serbian with the folding stock. "Can I buy one?" I asked. "Sure," he said, "just a quick computer check." I said, "OK with a Green Card?" A flicker passed his face, but only like caffeine on a night shift. "Proof of residency for the last 90 days?"

His T-shirt read AMMO: THE CURRENCY OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM. In the month after Obama became president, Americans bought 1,529,635,000 rounds of ammunition. A run on the currency, fearing a change in the law. Lead is the new gold.

"Does this AK make my ass look big? As if!"

Next I met AK dealer #2.

"This is a Buick AK. We make it right here in town. There are Cadillac AKs and there are Yugo AKs. But this"—plastic grip, plastic stock, $999—"is a Buick. We machine the parts in Bulgaria." He field-stripped it to show me. In the 20 minutes we were talking, a man bought one of the Cadillacs ($1200), and left with the box under his arm.

dave cathay
Dave, Cathay

I headed out, carrying my two purchases—the First Aid For Soldiers field manual ($7.95), and a bottle of Dave's Insanity Gourmet Hot Sauce ($5).

Passing a rack of NOBAMA and PALIN 2012 T-shirts, I stopped at a stall selling Cathay Dolls: ultra-feminine Victorian porcelain figurines. And I wondered whether this was the crying side of Cordite-and-Diesel Man peeking through.

More likely they were for sniper practice.

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Graham Button is a writer from London who worked in advertising for more than twenty years. He took the scenic route to Genesis, passing through agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto, and finally New York, where he was a creative director and executive vice president at Grey Worldwide. He has created advertising in most media for every kind of brand and all sorts of companies, including Diageo, Kaiser Permanente, Molson Breweries, GM, and South China Morning Post Newspapers. Beaver Creek, one of the Vail Resorts brands, chose to follow him to Genesis from Grey. Work he originated as a copywriter or championed as a creative director has been recognized in awards shows in Los Angeles, Toronto, New York, London, Cannes, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney and has been featured on America's Funniest Videos and Larry King Live.