Top 5 Weapons of the Cold War
AK-47 Assault Rifle
Quick: Name a great consumer product made by the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the closest they came is the AK-47, perhaps the classic symbol of the Cold War since it entered wide service in 1948. Officially the “Automat Kalashnikova,” after its developer Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK (affectionately called “Kalash” in Russian) proved a capable automatic weapon. Gas-operated with select fire weapon, the rifle has a maximum effective range of about 400 meters.
But the success of the AK lies not in its accuracy, but in its sturdy, reliable and easy to manufacture design. It fires a relatively heavy 7.62mm round rapidly with acceptable accuracy in close combat. The sights even have a “point blank” setting. This put automatic fire power in the hands of guerrillas (and terrorists) around the world.
Manufactured by a host of Soviet allies, the AK has seen action in most Cold War proxy battles. It’s even become a popular weapon for American gun owners and gotten its own museum in Russia.
Stinger Anti-Aircraft Missile
The US Stinger MANPAD (man-portable air-defense weapon) entered service in the 1980s. The missile — which weights just 34 pounds with its launcher — can be fired by one man and knock down anything from a helicopter to a passenger jet.
But it was not American GIs who brought the Stinger to prominence in the Cold War — it was Afghans fighting the Soviet Union after it occupied the country in 1979. Stingers provided by the CIA proved effective at downing the feared Soviet attack helicopters and other aircraft, forcing the Soviets to fight more on the ground, where the Afghans possessed great capabilities.
Many observers believe the Stinger helped turn the tide of war against the Soviets, which in turn contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. For more on this, see our page on the end of the Cold War.
The missile remains in the US inventory and some are still unaccounted for from Afghanistan, contributing to fears that one day a MANPAD will down a commercial jet.
Nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)
Atomic weapons were first used in World War II and the United States maintained its monopoly on the technology until 1949, when the Soviets successfully tested an atomic bomb built with the help of intelligence from American traitors.
In the early days of the Cold War, bombers were the preferred means of delivering nuclear weapons. They were relatively slow and also offered the adversary opportunities to shoot them down. They in theory could also be recalled in the event of a mistake.
The “hair trigger” we associate with the nuclear threat of the Cold War came into being with the ICBMs, which either side could “fire and forget,” and against which neither side had effective defenses. This created the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) Doctrine that ruled much of the Cold War. Each side knew the other would destroy it if nuclear weapons were used.
Despite some tense moments, nuclear ICBMs were never used during the Cold War, but they (including the Soviet SS-19 pictured above) still remain on guard in the US, Russia and other countries
M-16 Assault Rifle
The answer to the Soviet’s hit AK-47 was America’s M-16, the uniquely-shaped assault rifle that has identified GIs for decades, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, the M-16 is a more complicated weapon than the AK, which in its early days was not a good thing. US servicemen in Vietnam reported a jamming problem and tales of GIs found killed next to their jammed rifles spread through the military.
While the bad reputation lingered, the most serious problems with the M-16 were fixed over the years. Many soldiers appreciated its smaller size and weight. Critically, its ammo was also lighter, allowing American units to bring more bullets to their gunfights than adversaries carrying AK-47s.
By the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest version of the M-16 was drawing good reviews from the troops. Like the AK, a civilian version of the weapon has proven popular with US gun owners and become the target of gun control advocates.
Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – “Star Wars”
Unlike the other top weapons of the Cold War, the SDI was more of a research and development program than practical weapon. President Ronald Reagan proposed the SDI in 1983, suggesting that American should defend itself from Soviet ICBMs by placing high-tech defenses in space.
The strategy spurred criticism by Reagan’s political opponents and the media, who dubbed the program “Star Wars.” The Soviets paid more respectful attention, especially since the SDI concept threatened to overturn the MAD Doctrine. In theory, if SDI worked America could defend itself from Soviet missiles, dramatically reducing the USSR’s nuclear threat.
While the full vision of SDI was never realized, the program showcased America’s technological edge over the Soviets. Some analysts note the Soviet Union increased its military spending, at the expense of consumer products, during this period. They assert (against contrarian voices) that the SDI’s impact on Soviet budgets and strategy helped contribute to the collapse of the USSR.
Elements of the SDI have flowed into America’s current anti-ballistic missile programs, which are now focused more on rogue states such as North Korea and Iran.