C.J. Chivers' The Gun explains how the AK-47 changed the world.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 1 2010 6:46 AM

Top Gun

How the AK-47 changed the world.

"The Gun" by C.J. Chivers.

In late 1945, Sergeant Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov entered an office contest more pressing than even the most rabid of Fantasy Footballers could fathom. Joseph Stalin wanted a new gun, and the Soviet leader tasked his army with selecting the best design. Kalashnikov, an under-schooled former tank gunner working in a secret armaments research lab outside of Moscow, sketched the contours for a revolutionary assault rifle: It would fire both automatically and single-shot, have minimal recoil or "kick," be simple to maintain, and feature a banana-shaped ammunition clip. He won. Two years later, prototypes of the new gun came off the production line bearing his name: Avtomat Kalashnikov. It is better known today as the AK-47.

The Kalashnikov went on to become the most lethal weapon in modern times. During the 1990s, small arms were the primary weapon in 46 of 49 major conflicts documented by the United Nations. By some estimates, as many as 100 million Kalashnikovs exist worldwide, or about one per 70 people. It is the weapon of choice for dozens of national militaries; Taliban fighters and child soldiers in Africa carry them, too. (Since 1947, myriad variations of the original Kalashnikov have been manufactured. Though not all of them are AK-47s, Chivers points out, they can be collectively called Kalashnikovs.) But the Kalashnikov stands for more than just a firearm. It is a symbol of anti-Americanism in pop culture. It appears on national flags, political party banners, and jihadi propaganda videos. And it's Russia's most widely recognized export.

How did such a "stubbornly mediocre arm," as C.J. Chivers of the New York Times characterizes a weapon that has hardly evolved beyond its sturdy wartime design, become ubiquitous in armed conflict—and the public imagination—today? In answering this question in his fascinating book, The Gun, Chivers offers a compelling perspective on 20th-century warfare as he traces the rise of the Kalashnikov. At the same time, he offers some intriguing clues about what kind of weapon might turn out to be the Kalashnikov's successor in the 21st century.

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The triumph of the Kalashnikov was not a story of market-drive success sparked by a bold innovator. That was hardly the Soviet way, after all. Instead, the Kalashnikov was a case of the right tool in the right place at the right time. "The AK-47 was not to break out globally because it was well conceived and well made, or because it pushed Soviet small-arms development ahead of the West," writes Chivers. "Technical qualities did not drive socialist arms production. It was the other way around. Soviet military policies mixed with Kremlin foreign-policy decisions to propel the output that made the AK-47 and its knock-offs available almost anywhere." With Khrushchev in charge after Stalin died in 1953, and the Warsaw Pact established two years later, Moscow's foreign policy had a new top-down goal: to distribute weapons to its satellite states. Factories in the Soviet Union cranked out Kalashnikovs. By 1956, Chinese plants were manufacturing their own variant. Khrushchev later formalized weapons deals with Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

The Kalashnikov was originally touted as a weapon to resist imperialism, capitalism—in short, the United States. But Cold War advertising rarely aligned with reality. The rifle's operational debut came in 1956, when the Red Army rolled into Hungary to crush a popular uprising in the streets of Budapest. Two events in Budapest that autumn foreshadowed the Kalashnikov's future. First, in the process of ruthlessly suppressing the revolution, the Kalashnikov emerged as "repression's chosen gun, the rifle of the occupier and the police state." More important, it quickly fell into the hands of rebels who deciphered the gun's simple mechanics and used it against Soviet-backed soldiers, even executing one lieutenant in broad daylight. Here was a weapon anyone could use—and use over and over. The Kalashnikov was "so reliable, even when soaked in bog water and coated with sand," Chivers writes, "that its Soviet testers had trouble making it jam."

But the Kalashnikov's even greater asset is that its lethality hardly depends on the skill of its marksman. Whether a teenager in Uganda or a Lashkar-e-Tayyab militant in the streets of Mumbai is wielding it, the Kalashnikov is almost equally effective in its brutal way. Chivers vividly describes how its bullets "snap and shatter human bone" and how the "knifelike shards of bullet jackets and ruptured bone intermingle and radiate outward, cutting more tissues as they scatter."

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