Monday, June 11, 2012

Firearms history: is the AK-47 a copy of the StG 44?

Short answer: absolutely not.

This is a fairly contentious issue, but people have allowed their national biases to cloud their judgement. There are generally two things you will hear on the matter: either that the AK is a shitty clone of the StG, or that Mikhail Kalashnikov just happened to come up with the same idea as the Germans at around the same time (the official, and obviously a little embellished, Soviet perspective). Both are incorrect.

Kalashnikov began developing what would become the AK-47 during WWII, after being wounded in battle. He was a tank crewman, and wanted to design a weapon that could be used by tank crews and infantry alike - a truly universal one. Initial designs were for a submachine gun, but it wasn't until the MKb 42 (H) and StG 44 were encountered that the AK took its form as a rifle - almost certainly, he was inspired by its success. This is about as far as the 'copy' theory holds any truth whatsoever. Let's look at why...

Outward Appearance

There is no denial that the two rifles look very similar in profile. They share the same general layout - 30-round magazine ahead of the trigger guard, pistol grip configuration, short sighting radius with raised front and rear sights, gas system tapped from the top of the barrel - but this is about where the similarities end. The AK's mag release is a typical Russian paddle between the mag and trigger guard, versus the left-side push-button on the StG (an upscaled carry-over from the MP 40). The AK's fire selector and safety are the same thing, and take the form of a large dustcover on the right side which serves as a three-position switch. The StG has a push-button fire selector above the trigger and a  switch-type safety above the grip - two separate controls, compared to the AK's one.

The StG's dust cover is the sprung door type later used on most LMGs and the M16 family of rifles, serving no other function than to simply keep dust out of the weapon. The StG's cocking handle is on the left hand side, the AK's on the right. Both reciprocate. The StG is constructed mostly of stamped steel; early AK-47s are milled, with stamped variants only coming into major use later (and of much simplified construction compared to the StG, although it is worth noting that the Soviets did employ some of the German weapons manufacturers involved in the MP 40 and StG 44 for their knowledge of working with stamped steel for firearms construction).


The AK disassembles by pressing a thumblatch attached to the recoil spring guide, which releases the top cover. The gas block is removed by means of a simple latch. The StG's stock is removed by driving out a pin, and it comes free along with the recoil spring. The receiver splits into upper and lower parts on a hinge - similarly to the PPSh-41 and most Western rifles since, including the FN FAL and M16 - and the cocking handle must be removed in order to remove the bolt carrier group. Clearly, the two rifles disassemble in a completely different manner.

Operating Principles

Both rifles fire from a closed bolt, and rely on gas tapped from the barrel to cycle the action. The Soviets had operational piston-type gas systems before the Germans brought them into service - in fact the Germans copied the entire SVT-40 gas system to create the G/K 43 as the annular gas trap (or "bang" system) on the G 41 had proven extremely unsatisfactory, becoming easily clogged, easily damaged, and prone to short strokes (it was also mechanically overcomplicated and costly to produce).

Both rifles are select-fire, but the way in which their FCGs operate is totally different. In fact, the AK has more in common with two American rifles than it does the StG; Kalashnikov was heavily inspired by the Remington Model 8, an early self-loading rifle which featured the same dust cover safey and general receiver layout as the AK. The FCG was based on that of the M1 Garand.

The AK has a rotating bolt, the StG a tilting bolt - the later FN FAL shared this, along with many other features. The SVT-40 also had a titlting bolt, so you could actually argue that its gas system wasn't the only thing the Germans were impressed by.

In short - the operating mechanisms of these two rifles are about as separated as it is possible for two weapons of the same class to be.

The Magazine

Curved magazines are a simple way to increase capacity while decreasing size, and the arrival by almost all parties at the conclusion that 30 rounds is the ideal magazine size is no coincidence. It is a nice, round number which balances the need for firepower with the need for portability.

The Sights

Both rifles use pretty standard sights for their time, there is no question of one copying the other as this was simply the go-to sight layout in the late 1940s (unless you hailed from America, where aperture-based sights have always been more popular).

So really, if you give it some thought, implying the AK was copied from the StG is like saying the M16 was copied from the FAL. It's ridiculous. However, the AK was almost certainly inspired by the StG... as many other weapons have been inspired by the AK. That's how firearms design works, folks; you take something that's good, and you see if you can make it better.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RO2 got an update (finally); time for me to update my griping!

Tripwire finally got around to releasing the most recent patch for RO2, the one adding the two new game modes, Mamayev Kurgan, and various tweaks to the UI and gameplay.

...Except by TWI's own words, it is a "content pack". They are touting the fact that this "content pack" is not DLC, but a free update for everyone with the game. Well done, Tripwire, at least you realise that about the only way my opinion of you could drop any further is if you were to charge us for the necessary fixes to the game.

As with all RO2 news, this starts with a bungle. Somehow, TWI thought it would be a good idea to make a 'beta' version that installed over the regular game on Steam. At this time, it meant there were three versions of the game in circulation - Red Orchestra 2 proper, the beta patch, and the original RO2 beta (which had been used as a test platform for the patch before its release). Three separate, totally incompatible versions of a game which had a seriously ailing community. Incredible. For a company that is more concerned about profit now than actually making a worthwhile product, Tripwire seem remarkably close to accidentally driving away all their players by splitting the already-small community into tiny, meaningless fragments.

This situation persisted until the patch dropped in preparation for a free weekend. I still distinctly remember the free weekends in Ostfront, and while they did bring in some legitimately good new players, mostly they were a complete mess of mainstream gamers whining endlessly about everything being too hard. Well, this time they would be happy - 'Action' mode was introduced, which removes freeaim, reduces weapon damage, increases the speed of pretty much everything, and adds a crosshair. Essentially it turns the game into some kind of class-based Call of Duty 2 with artillery. TWI's rationale for making this a thing was that they had 'a huge number of clans contact [them], saying they wished to enter the community but their members were finding the game too inaccessible'. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant either way; looking at the server browser, the action servers are largely empty, most longtime Red Orchestra players either avoiding playing it or actively deriding it. I belong to the latter camp, and any of you who have subjected yourself to my rants would know why - it goes against everything I stand for, trying to cater to everybody at once and making the overall product worse as a result.

So, that's 'Action' out of the way, and we'll see how long it lasts before the servers start going down through lack of use. Let's now move onto 'Classic', TWI's big sugar pill that was supposed to placate the 'hardcore Ostfront fans'. You know, the fans TWI has been making offensive jibes towards ever since the complaints began (around the time that it became clear the MKb was not going to be as rare as TWI suggested). 'Classic' mode's stated purpose is to make the game feel as much like the original as possible, thus pretty much proving that Tripwire don't know why the game was popular - rather than using it as a basis on which to improve, like everyone thought they would with RO2, they are now going straight back to it and dropping many of the things that they did get right with the new game.

'Classic' is not just a homage to the first game. It is, in fact, little more than a direct port of it to the new engine. The weapon loadout for each side, touted by community rep Yoshiro as 'historically accurate', is anything but; what it is is a direct counterpart to Ostfront's loadouts. They opted for the PU-scoped 91/30 sniper - which was entering service around the time of Stalingrad but was not really seen in meaningful numbers until later - over the historically correct PEM on a side mount, which is seen in every photo of snipers from the Don and Stalingrad areas that I have ever seen, including stars such as Zaytsev and Chekhov. While this may seem like a minor goof, it is telling that they chose the rifle featured in Ostfront over the one that actually belongs in the game. It also puts Soviet snipers at a mechanical disadvantage to the Germans, as the PU has slightly less (3.5x vs. 4x) magnification than the PEM and a much smaller field of view, while the German Zeiss ZF 39 is comparable to the PEM in magnification power and the ingame field of view is similar.

More telling still is the decision to include the G 41 with ZF 4 as the German semi-automatic sniper rifle. I have been over this before, but a brief recap - the ZF 4 was not in service until well after Stalingrad ended, was never mounted on the G 41 by the German military, and the mount shown ingame is a swept Kar98k mount introduced in 1944 and used only on a very specific group of those rifles. The setup as shown ingame would simply not work, as the scope is mounted too far forwards - about twice its eye relief distance - meaning the sniper would see approximately 'shit all' through it. Any of you who have used a rifle scope know what I mean. For those who don't, think of the way a magnifying glass will blur things if you are too close or too far from it; now imagine that instead of blurring, it simply blacks out your image. So yeah, good luck actually making that work. Tripwire have so far ignored calls from myself and a couple of others to remove or at least review it, no surprises there. Why was this fairytale weapon included? Because the 4x ZF 4 is the same scope used on the G 43 sniper rifle in Ostfront. Again, they choose something similar to the first game, rather than something which makes sense.

As you cannot detach or affix your bayonet at will in the game - a feature of Ostfront that TWI have excused themselves from adding because 'it is very difficult in the new engine and will take a lot of time and effort' - you are stuck with them permanently fixed to both sides' bolt-action rifles and semiautos. Complaining about this is mostly me being a giant history nerd (the Soviets almost always had bayonets fixed, the Germans were the opposite), but also somewhat disappointed in the removal of player choice. Oh, because that's a thing, by the way - in Classic, you cannot alter your loadout beyond selecting weapon type. While this removes bullshit like the MP 40-II and ensures everyone with a PPSh-41 has the period-correct drum magazine, it also means you can't select the historically correct 91/30 PEM or even take a rifle without a bayonet.

To sum up a number of the other steps drunken lurches backwards that Classic takes:

  • Run speed and stamina are now similar to Ostfront levels. Which would be fine... if the maps were still strewn with craters and debris. Too bad they aren't, so crossing from one piece of cover to the next is now suicide. This was done with the intent of stopping people from whining about run-and-gun, twitch-like gameplay, but anyone with sense would surely realise that was the fault of the lack of player momentum and the tiny maps, rather than the sprint speed and stamina the game released with. Thanks to this change, the game is even more static than before, with many people opting to simply sit somewhere and try to pixel-snipe rather than risk being hit while advancing, since it takes forever to get anywhere.
  • Spawn on squad leader is gone. This was great for keeping squads together, maintaining momentum during an attack, and simply avoiding having to sprint half the length of the map to get to the action - which, of course, now takes several times as long because of the sprint changes. Thanks to the removal of SL spawning, attacks slow and falter with alarming regularity as recently-spawned reinforcements trickle back in dribs and drabs and are generally mown down by MGs as they slow-jog to the front.
  • Rather than actually rebalancing other classes or - heaven forbid - allowing class loadouts to be changed by the mapper rather than hard code, TWI opted for removing all assault classes from many maps and replacing them with Elite Assault. That's three MKbs/AVTs per team, since these exceptionally rare, irrelevant, and generally questionable weapons are still included in 'Classic' mode. We're back to square one.
  • Hero classes can no longer spawn in with enemy weapons. While I was against allowing all classes on both teams to do this, as it led to a rather immersion-breaking proliferation of German weapons in the hands of Soviet troops and the DP becoming an endangered species - allowing the German team a PPSh or SVT-40 or two is entirely realistic and a perfectly fair choice for experienced players to have. Most German players seem to still prefer the MP 40, but I personally chose the PPSh every time. Not any longer, it seems.
  • Hero classes have no distinction from others except for their appearance. All the class bonuses are gone, rendering Heroes essentially worthless except for flavour (and even in that regard, they are not particularly useful). Remember TWI's statements about the Hero system, the game's titular feature, their new and interesting twist on the franchise? Yep.
  • The compass from Ostfront makes a return, except (as far as I can tell) there is no way to turn it off. Enjoy having a fairly large and obtrusive compass in the bottom right corner of your screen - oh, it also tells you exactly which grid square you're in on the map, just in case you had any crazy ideas about having to navigate for yourself - which is largely useless. The only maps in the game in which a compass has a single iota of worth are Mamayev and Gumrak. Every other map has a very distinct N/S or E/W distinction, so even if you aren't familiar enough with Stalingrad's geography to know which direction the Volga (and therefore east) is, there is no possible way a functional human being could get directionally confused on them. The compass doesn't have actual bearings marked, just little tickmarks, so it's not even useful for shooting bearings to objectives or targets. It just sits there twiddling around aimlessly.
  • Kill messages default to instant, removing the tension of RO2's delayed ones - a feature that was so popular the Darkest Hour mod team included it in their mod.
There are likely other things I am forgetting, but the list is already far too long, so let's move on. 'Realism', which is all that remains of vanilla RO2, is the final game mode. It's essentially the same except for some tweaks to movement, sway, and other little improvements. Oh, except the minimap seems to default to 'on', appearing when you tap T to open your tactical view. I can't remember if this was the case before as I seldom bother with the tac display, but I don't think it was. Either way, the need for a minimap is questionable at best when the maps are so small and the normal map is easy to use.

So far, 'Classic' seems to have flopped somewhat. Most people are still playing 'Realism' servers, and several of the 'Classic' servers have tweaked their server settings somewhat to try and make it more palatable. It seems to have placated some, but as far as I am concerned, both it and 'Action' should be abolished so TWI can focus on making the default mode what it should be. Of course, this isn't going to happen. If I wanted to play Ostfront, I'd... well, I'd go play Ostfront.

Oh, we finally have officially-supported clientside hit detection. I'd imagine John Gibson had to be dragged kicking and screaming on this one, given his attitude towards Mekhazzio's original mutator. Server owners have an option between the original serverside detection and the new clientside system. I am not sure if the latter is actually an official adoption and release of Mekhazzio's mutator or something done in-house, but I would certainly like to know whether it includes an option for the advanced ballistics behaviour that Mekhazzio put together, which improved weapon function drastically. Knowing Tripwire, probably not.

Various changes were made to the UI, making it easier to read. A welcome improvement, but it still has that really cheesy Hollywood feel to it - stereotypical 'Russian' fonts and heavily stylised icons rather than using the actual Soviet crest and some kind of official Wehrmacht icon (presumably not a Reichsadler, since TWI didn't bother to make a separate, censored version of the game for countries where the Swastika is banned this time). Whatever, at least reading the scoreboard isn't a complete headache now. Weapon kill icons and selection screen pictures were added for those that were missing them, as well as the upgraded variants. Personally, the UI is the one area I would be glad if TWI copied directly from the first game.

Also somewhat tied to the UI is the ability to select weapon level. Notice I said weapon level, not weapon attachments, because they aren't the same thing. You cannot select a level 50 91/30 sniper for the side-mounted PEM, but without the bayonet. You get both upgrades or you get neither, your choice!

This game has a hell of a long way to go before I will even consider trusting its developers again, and the way they seem so confident in themselves in the dev diary released with the patch doesn't help. John Gibson himself makes an apology, but entirely misses the point of what he should be apologising for - rather than apologising for misrepresenting the game to prospective buyers to net those preorder dollars, or apologising for TWI's horrible attitude towards their previously fiercely loyal fans, or apologising for taking the game in a direction nobody who actually plays it wants - he was apologising for being overambitious. Not even in the sense that they tried to appeal to too broad an audience, oh heavens no! They simply tried to make the game too good. By dropping features the first game had, right? He then goes on to promote the new game modes as if they are some wondrous device that will solve all the game's problems at a stroke. It is arrogant and rather offensive that he seems to think simply throwing out 'Classic' mode to the hardcore realism fans is a suitable solution to all their many and varied complaints, rather than working on the core game.

Of course, I wouldn't expect any different. Tripwire today is not the same Tripwire that openly mocked the idea of adding crosshairs, unlocks, or gamey HUD mainstays like minimaps to the game.