Correction to This Article
This review of the book "The Gun" by C.J. Chivers misstated the century in which the Gatling gun gave Europeans a distinct advantage over indigenous people around the world. It was the 19th century, not the 18th.

A history of the AK-47, the gun that made history

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By Mark A. Keefe, IV
Friday, October 29, 2010; 9:56 PM

THE GUN

By C.J. Chivers

Simon & Schuster. 481 pp. $28

It is indisputably the most produced and iconic firearm design in history. Its distinctive curved magazine and pistol grip are recognized even by those with little knowledge of guns. It is the Avtomat Kalashnikova designed in 1947 - the AK-47.

Although it bears Mikhail Kalashnikov's name, the AK's ubiquitous presence on the world stage more than six decades after its adoption as the standard Soviet-issue rifle can be squarely laid at the feet of Joseph Stalin, and its spread pinned on his successors. Although Cold War secrecy will prevent us from ever knowing the true number of AK-47-based rifles produced, some estimates put it at more than 100 million.

In "The Gun," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, former Marine officer and Persian Gulf War veteran C.J. Chivers sets out to "lift the Kalashnikov out of the simplistic and manipulated distillations of its history." He succeeds admirably by putting the gun into its social, historical and technological context in an evocative narrative. He chronicles the evolution and employment of fully automatic firearms, the development of the Kalashnikov and how the rifle redefined modern warfare from its use in Hungary in 1956 to Afghanistan today. Chivers doesn't descend into a technical description of the numerous AK makes, models and manufacturing variations, nor does he engage in a debate on domestic firearms legislation.

Chronicling the early quest for handheld firepower, Chivers concentrates first on two American inventors - Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim - and their designs. The Gatling was a manually operated, artillery-size, multibarrel gun capable of a huge rate of fire, allowing small groups of late 18th-century Europeans to subjugate indigenous peoples throughout the world - so long as the guns worked. Weighing about a ton, the Gatling had little battlefield mobility, had to be cranked by hand and was not very reliable. When the Gatlings went down, often so did the small groups of European soldiers.

It was Maxim who harnessed the excess energy of a fired cartridge to devise an absolutely reliable smaller machine that loaded and fired itself and would do so as long as ammunition was fed and the trigger pulled. Used in British colonial conflicts, such as the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, the Maxim performed even better than advertised, putting Gatling out of business. Summing up the advantage, Chivers quotes the French writer Hilaire Belloc in his 1898 narrative poem "The Modern Traveler": "Whatever happens, we have got/the Maxim gun and they have not." Ironically, it is those "have nots" with Kalashnikovs who are the source of much instability in the world today.

When the major European powers turned the Maxims on one another during World War I, the business of killing entered the industrial age, and the "devil's paintbrush" decimated a generation. The leap from the ponderous Maxim to the AK is great, and Chivers necessarily covers many significant weapons only briefly. Gatling sought to "invent a gun which would do the work of 100 men," but it was the Kalashnikov that placed such power in the hands of one man.

Although preceded by the German Sturmgewehr and its 7.92mm Kurz cartridge, the AK-47 marked the maturation of the assault rifle concept: a rifle with high magazine capacity and selective fire that allowed one shot to fly with each pull of the trigger or, with the flip of a switch, ammunition to be discharged in fully automatic mode. The chambering, neither an overpowered full-size rifle nor a smaller submachine cartridge but somewhere in between, was the M-1943 - later the 7.62x39mm. The intermediate-size M-1943 cartridge allowed that handheld firepower to be controllable.

The full story of the AK's design and development is opaque, contradictory and will probably never be fully sorted out. A former Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, Chivers had access to official sources in post-perestroika Russia and a deep understanding of the nature of the Soviet system, and he is a seasoned enough journalist not to swallow the party line on the AK-47 or anything else.

Kalashnikov did not design the gun in a vacuum; he had the full resources of the Soviet Union behind him. He had access to previous arms designs, and the end result was a brilliant amalgamation of their best features in one robust, reliable, simple-to-understand-and-operate rifle. It worked in any environment, was easy to manufacture, and could be assembled and disassembled with little guidance.

The same state that devoted a large proportion of its gross domestic product to the manufacture of firearms both blurred and then overinflated the genius of Kalashnikov - not only to protect the motherland but also to project its national will and export its ideology. Through Soviet assistance programs and the construction of factories all over the world, the AK became the genie let out of the bottle. It went from a tool of Soviet state power to a tool of repression, terrorism, insurgency and crime. It became, as ably put by Chivers, "Everyman's gun." But it wasn't limited to men only - it also became a tool of violence and mayhem used by child soldiers.

The AK caught Western ordnance officials asleep at the switch, technologically and tactically. After samples of the AK became available, they missed the point of the gun. Because of a series of missteps - well described by Chivers - the United States fielded a rifle initially inferior in reliability to the AK, resulting in needless American deaths in Vietnam. It was so bad that some, such as Marine Gunnery Sgt. Claude Elrod, carried an AK-47 instead of an M-16 in combat. Several wars later, the M-16A2 and M-4 are reliable systems.

Stalin's totalitarian state crumbled, but his assault rifle soldiers on.

Mark A. Keefe IV is editor in chief of American Rifleman, a journal of the National Rifle Association.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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