I just finished reading C.J. Chivers’ The Gun – The story of the AK-47. . The book is history, not a gun primer. Chivers spends little time discussion the variants of the AK, how it works (some diagrams would have been helpful) or comparisons with other guns apart from the US M16. Instead he charts a history of where the AK came from, and how it became the symbol it is today. It’s well researched, and despite occasionally jumping around topics is well written.
He starts with Gatling’s first manually operated gun which was followed by Hiram Maxim’s fully automatic one, the first real “machine gun”. Maxim happily sold guns, plans and manufacturing rights to all the powers before 1914. Unfortunately most of them didn’t realise what they had, and they hadn’t much updated tactics which dated from the Napoleonic era.
It’s not like they wouldn’t have known any better. There had been several battles, in colonial Africa and the Russo-Japanese war which had shown how effective machine guns could be. Huge formations of natives were cut down when taking on western Armies in pitched battles in the open. The similarity between a spear waving Zulu and a bayonet wielding Tommy seems to have evaded many first world war Generals.
The middle of the book focuses on the development of the AK-47 and it’s famous inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov. Chivers admits a combination of Soviet secrecy, Kalashnikov’s unreliability (he has told different versions of the story in at least 4 different biographies) and the passage of time means the full story of the world’s most common small arm will never really be known. He is pretty clear the legend of the sole genius overlooks the contributions of many others.
Chivers does take a chapter to look at how the US responded to the AK47 with their M16. He is scathing about how a rushed process, greed, lies from salesmen and a cover-up created a gun that wasn’t ready when it was given to soldiers fighting in Vietnam. And as a result a lot of them died when it failed in action.
The final third of the book describes how the AK47 became the icon that it is. A central plank of Soviet military standardisation, it was shipped all around the world. Simple and reliable, some of the ones being used in Afghanistan today came from the original production runs in the early 1950′s! The fact that the gun was supplied to insurgents like the Viet Cong, who then went up against ill-equipped US troops meant that in 100 years there was a flip. Now the peasants and hicks were the ones equipped with equal or greater fire power than the western nation. That made the AK a leveller.
The huge numbers produced and handed out means that it has ended up in the hands of criminals, terrorists, and dubious “liberation” movements. A problem became a catastrophe when the Soviet union collapsed. Vast stocks of guns held for a war in Europe ended up sold across the globe, stoking conflict throughout the developing world. An average cost in an arms bazaar today is about $200. The UN estimates small arms (of which the AK is the most common with over 100m of the 600m in existence) killed most of the people in 46 of the 49 wars fought since 1990. There have been over 4m dead, and 90% of those were civilians.
To bring it down to human terms Chivers tells the story of one man, Karzan Mahmoud, a Kurdish body guard maimed and nearly killed by an AK. Mahmoud asked how can Kalashnikov live with himself knowing what he has created, and the horrors it has lead to. In his book Chivers answers that question, and tells that Kalashnikov himself says:
“The constructor is not the owner of the weapon-it is the state… they spread the weapon not because I wanted them to… I made it to protect the Motherland, then it… began to walk on its own in directions that I did not want”
Kalashnikov says he sleeps soundly.
P.S. I wanted to add links to to videos from The Lord of War. But YouTube or the film makers won’t allow them to be embedded. So instead: