Top Gun

How the Kalashnikov conquered the world

The Gun | By C. J. Chivers | Simon & Schuster | 496 pages, $28

Oh, to imagine the world without the AK-47. Anyone who has lived through (or reported on) a conflict over the past half century has probably encountered some version of the Russian basic assault rifle.

Avtomat Kalashnikova 47—the automatic rifle said to have been designed by Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov and first manufactured in 1947—is the most common sophisticated weapon on earth. Between the original gun and its variants, there are thought to be one hundred million in circulation. Fifty armies and most rebel movements use them. Durable, and light enough for a child to use, the AK almost never fails.

“In their march from secrecy to ubiquity,” writes C. J. Chivers in The Gun, “Kalashnikovs have become more than weapons. They have become symbols—first of the success of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the socialist way, later of popular insurrection, armed liberation, and gangland stature, more recently of jihad. A Kalashnikov can be appropriated for most any cause.”

Even those who have not experienced it firsthand have probably spotted the distinctive banana-shaped clip on television. The Kalashnikov epitomizes revolutionary chic. Every self-respecting militant from Yasir Arafat to Osama Bin Laden has posed with one. The iconic silhouette decorates the flags of Mozambique and various armed groups, including Hezbollah.

C. J. Chivers sets out to explore how this deceptively simple rifle became the most popular firearm ever used, and changed the nature of warfare. Because of its size and reliability, the AK-47 has served as the midwife of small armies and guerrilla forces operating in rough terrain. The Taliban and Colombia’s FARC rebels are only two of its more recent beneficiaries. It is the perfect tool for combatants who rely on ambushes against less mobile forces. According to the United Nations, most of the forty-nine conflicts fought in the 1990s were waged with small arms, which collectively killed four million people. Chivers is right to assume that most of the rifles were AK-47s.

A senior writer for The New York Times and former Marine who served in the first gulf war, Chivers is one of the most expert chroniclers of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. Like his journalism, The Gun crackles with eloquence and authority, and the author excels at showing the human cost of war. (His story for Esquire about the 2004 Beslan school hostage siege is one of best articles I’ve ever read on the senseless depravity of violence.)

Yet the title is somewhat of a misnomer. Chivers devotes more space to the precursors of the Kalashnikov, and to its American derivative, the M-16, than he does to the nominal star of the show. This is especially true of the first third of the book, in which Chivers discusses the miniaturization of rapid firearms that preceded the AK-47.

That fascinating story begins in 1862, when American inventor Richard J. Gatling designed the bulky weapon that bears his own name. This behemoth weighed a ton, and had to be dragged on wheels. Yet it could fire continuously, and first saw action toward the end of the Civil War.

Next came the first self-powered machine gun, which the American-born Hiram Maxim developed in 1884. The weapon’s repeated fire facilitated European colonization of lightly protected Africans. By the time World War I rolled around, machine guns operating from trenches rendered bayonet charges obsolete. Germany immediately set to work designing even more transportable weapons, which served them well in the next global conflict—itself the ultimate advertisement for greater firepower and mobility. The Soviet Union learned this lesson well. The crushing humiliation of the 1941 Nazi invasion convinced the Kremlin to develop a widely issued and easily carried basic automatic.

With the development of the AK-47 itself, the narrative really hits its stride. Chivers debunks the Soviet fable about the weapon’s inventor. According to the official line, Kalashnikov, the humble tank sergeant, dreamed up the perfect fighting tool after being wounded by German forces. Sitting in a hospital bed, he sketched the basic design, without any formal engineering training, which he later presented to the industrial arms complex, where it ultimately won a competition. Kalashnikov was hailed as a proletariat hero, an unlettered farm boy who saved the country. He was swiftly promoted to general and presented with a dacha, at a time when most citizens were scrambling to find the basic necessities.

In fact, as Chivers painstakingly reconstructs from interviews and archival sources, Soviet propagandists manipulated the story. They neglected to mention the inconvenient fact that their champion actually had lived in Siberian exile as a boy, after his family was blacklisted during Stalin’s collectivization campaign. Kalashnikov himself nervously guarded this secret, lest he lose his coveted privileges. More to the point, he did not spontaneously come up with his famous prototype. As Chivers shows, he was a simply a cog in the team effort to mass-produce a defensive rifle, and one whose early work was deemed of little promise.

Whatever its provenance, the gun performed better than anything before it. The genius of the design was a loose fit and big parts, which made it less likely to get stuck when dirty. The bore and chamber were chromed to reduce corrosion. During testing, models were dunked in water and buried in sand. The AK held up. It quickly became standard issue for the Red Army and was exported or licensed for knockoffs in the Warsaw Pact countries. Plants producing the AK were subsidized in Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Romania.

Eager to expand its influence in the East-West rivalry, the Kremlin later shared blueprints with other friendly countries, such as China, North Korea, and Egypt. Iraq and Cuba acquired licenses for variants.

Chivers damningly chronicles how the Pentagon failed to keep pace with the Russians. While Washington focused on containing the Kremlin’s nuclear capability, Moscow was churning out what would become a far more lethal weapon. Meanwhile, the American brass was slow to recognize the Kalashnikov’s potential and dismissed it as a primitive submachine gun.

Washington learned its mistake in Indochina, where the Viet Cong showed how guerrillas armed with AKs could wreak havoc on a conventional army. This was a tactical turning point, as well as an object lesson for insurgent groups around the globe. Thanks in part to the Kalashnikov clones provided by China, small VC units could effectively strike the American Goliath and then melt back into the jungle.

Americans responded with the hastily conceived M-16 assault rifle, which was rushed into soldiers’ hands too soon and could not hold its own against its hardier nemesis. The M-16 jammed and corroded in the damp jungle. Pinned-down grunts were reduced to brandishing their useless firearms like clubs. Chivers recounts one sickening battle where a quarter of a company was unable to fight back. “It was 1967, the age of the nuclear power aircraft carrier, the B-52 Stratofortress and the submarine-launched Polaris ballistic missile,” he notes ruefully. “A Marine Corps company commander was preparing his men to wield their rifles like lances, swords, and spears.”

So unreliable was the American weapon that some servicemen opted to use captured AKs, despite the risk of being fired on by compatriots because of the rifle’s distinctive sound. Eventually the M-16 was upgraded.

Meanwhile, transfers of AK rifles to Arab countries were under way, and the weapon ended up the hands of hostage-takers and militants in the Middle East. At this point, with proliferation no longer in their interest, the Soviets began to lose control of their Frankenstein. Arms smuggling and the gun’s relatively low price meant that almost anybody could afford it. The buyers included, paradoxically, Washington’s proxies in Africa and Latin America. And the weapon acquired such cachet in some parts of Africa and Afghanistan that obtaining one became a rite of passage for young men. Partygoers would shoot AKs in the air in celebration, or give them away as presents.

The book’s final chapters deal with this spread and its lethal consequences. Global circulation soared after the cold war, when stockpiles in the Eastern bloc and newly independent countries like Ukraine were offloaded by traffickers or officials eager for a buck.

Chivers covers the basics with his customary fluency, but the research here is more broad-brush than in earlier parts of the book. He could have delved deeper, for instance, into how the illicit gun trade increased criminality and weakened democratic institutions around the world. For this I would recommend Larry Kahaner’s AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War, which came out in 2006. Kahaner does a fine job of describing how the rifles were recycled from conflict to conflict, and became a form of currency that fomented global trade in narcotics and “blood” diamonds. For example, Kalashnikovs that armed Mozambique’s leftist government migrated to South Africa, where they were used to man roadblocks and hijack cars. Mexican drug thugs have inherited some of their guns from Central American insurgencies of the 1980s.

Chivers concludes that the durability of the AK-47 will guarantee its preeminence for years to come. Suicide bombers and homemade explosives may get more attention in the media, but the AK-47 continues to kill more people, he argues. I would agree, having seen the farcical “demobilization” of insurgents in southern Africa. At the end of so many decades of conflict, millions of weapons remained in circulation or ended up in bazaars in nearby countries. U.N. peacekeepers will never succeed in decommissioning them all. They are too sturdy and commonplace.

And what of the weapon’s nominal creator? In recent years, Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov has lamented the bloody legacy of the creation that carries his name. But when he turned ninety last November, he seemed at peace with the past, if one is to believe the government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazetta. “I feel a happy man,” Kalashnikov reportedly said. “As with any person, I have things to regret. . . . But I can say one thing: I would not live my life again differently if I had the chance.”

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Judith Matloff teaches at Columbia School of Journalism. She is a veteran foreign correspondent. Her third book, No Friends But the Mountains, about impoverished mountain people, will be published next March. She is also the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.