by C. J. Chivers
Reviewed by John Foyston
Firearm enthusiasts relax: C.J. Chivers surely knows the difference between a rifle and a gun. Even though he calls his book about the world's most plentiful assault rifle The Gun, Chivers was a Marine Corps infantry officer before he was an award-winning journalist for The New York Times.
Enthusiasts are understandably gun-shy of writers who've never fired a round. They're only too ready to be assaulted by misused terms -- "bullet" or "shell" where "cartridge" or "round" is the wanted word; "automatic" where the writer is referring to a semiautomatic handgun -- mistakes that grate the way a misused "like" or a misplaced "only" clangs in a careful reader's ear.
Chivers had several hundred opportunities to get it wrong in the 496 highly technical but eminently readable pages of The Gun, but he doesn't. Instead, he paints a context-rich picture of how a Soviet assault rifle has become the most widespread implement of war in the world; of how it has changed the way wars are waged by making automatic weapons so simple, reliable and portable that they are no longer the province of governments and highly trained soldiers, but can be used by untrained irregulars, by terrorists -- even by children such as the boy soldiers of Africa.
"Machine guns ... remained almost exclusively the instruments of the state," he writes. "The Soviet Union was changing all this. It had created the circumstances for a crossover arm, the weapon that would let automatic rifle fire jump from institutional control. The AK-47 was small ... it was accurate enough ... its ammunition was lightweight. Almost anyone of teenaged years or beyond could carry a few hundred rounds."
It could fire single shots or blaze through all 30 rounds in its distinctive, curved magazine with one squeeze of the trigger. "All of the things that could be done with bullets at the distances of typical small-arms engagements could now be done with one weapon that almost anyone could carry and use; the evolution of automatic arms had reached its most successful form."
Evolution is a key word, because legends cloud the story of the Avtomat Kalashnikova or automatic Kalashnikov design of 1947, and designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, who was an army sergeant when he entered a design in a state-sponsored contest for the army's new battle rifle. Chivers winnows through legend and propaganda to piece together the rifle's origins after World War II, when it was designed around a new Soviet cartridge based on a medium-powered rifle round used in German assault rifles.
"The AK-47 did not result from an epiphany at the workbench of an intent Russian sergeant," Chivers writes. "Heroism in the classic sense was nonexistent here. Spontaneity ... played almost no role. The automatic Kalashnikov was the result of state process and collective work, the output not of a man but of committees."
None of which denies that the AK is a supremely well-designed tool, though U.S. ordnance experts judged it to be crude, with its visible milling marks and stamped steel parts. The American establishment believed in marksmen firing big, heavy, well-made rifles with finely machined parts and long-range cartridges that could kill a man 500 yards out. They dismissed the AK as a submachine gun (it's not: a submachine gun fires a smaller pistol cartridge) suitable only for Soviet conscripts who couldn't shoot well and needed full automatic fire.
They ignored the fact that the loose fit of its parts and its oversized operating system meant it could fire thousands of rounds without jamming, no matter how indifferently it was maintained or how many swamps it was dragged through. By failing to create a design to counter the AK, the ordnance establishment condemned hundreds of U.S. Marines and soldiers to being wounded or killed in Vietnam when their new, untried M-16s jammed and wouldn't fire due to incorrect ammunition, inadequate corrosion protection and tight clearances that tolerated no dirt.
The Americans had ignored the crucial lesson of the early Cold War period, Chivers writes. "To compete with this new Soviet weapon, combatants soon faced a choice: Either use the Kalashnikov, or come up with a rifle that could match it in a fight. War as it was known reorganized around Stalin's gun. The Kalashnikov Era had arrived.
"We are living in it still."
The Kalashnikov era might well persist for another century or more, Chivers writes, because of the AK's sheer ubiquity. Records don't exist to tally how many AK-47s and variants were made during the last six decades in 20 or more Soviet-bloc countries, but estimates range as high as 100 million. By any reckoning, it is the most prevalent firearm in the world, and among the most simple and durable.
The AK is so robust that rifles were sometimes cached in Uganda by being buried for as long as four years after being coated in oil and ash and wrapped in tarps. Chivers talked to a former African boy soldier who unearthed a cache. He worked on nearly 900 AKs, test-firing and then reburying the rifles.
Every one of them fired, he said.