Comrade Kalashnikov’s Deadly Invention

November 18, 2010

C. J. Chivers, a Pulitzer-winning writer for The New York Times, served as a Marine infantry officer during the first Gulf War. He went on to run the Times’s Moscow bureau, then covered the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

So he’s the right man to chronicle the history of the AK-47.

In The Gun, Chivers fills more than 400 pages with gritty, globe-girding tales of the weapon’s origins, its use by nations and terrorists, how the American military-industrial complex reacted to it, and the many ways the AK-47 lives on well beyond the Cold War.

Even the most knowledgeable firearm enthusiast will be impressed by The Gun’s exhaustive depiction of the design, operation, manufacture, and capabilities of the Avtomat Kalashnikova. Chivers is quick to address nitpickers. For the purposes of his book, he notes, “the Kalashnikov series includes the original forms and common descendants of the AK-47, including the AKM, the AKS, the Chinese Type 56 and North Korean Type 58, the Type 68, the East German MPiK, the Hungarian AMD, the Polish PMKM, the Egyptian Misr and Iraqi Tabuk, the Yugoslav M70, the AK-74, and a host of other derivatives and copycats.”

Before describing Mikhail Kalashnikov’s winning entry in the Soviet Union’s late-1940s contest to field a new infantry weapon, Chivers devotes fully a third of The Gun to 19th century attempts at “more efficient slaughter.” Early efforts to produce sustained firing, such as Richard Gatling’s hand-cranker, were heavy, cumbersome, and unreliable. Most military leaders passed. Resistance crumbled, at least in Europe, when Hiram Maxim fathered a jam-resistant, lighter alternative to Gatling’s contraption. (The British Empire found it useful for massacring Zulus and Dervishes.)

Maxim’s progeny would butcher the soldiers of the great powers in two world wars, but as Chivers explains, even those conflicts failed to “develop a reliable and lightweight automatic rifle, a firearm that could fire at the rate of a Maxim gun out to typical combat ranges and yet be managed by a single man.”

In early 1948, Soviet authorities picked the prototype of Kalashnikov, a man with no formal training as a gunsmith, to be used by “legions of socialist workers and peasants.” Production commenced almost immediately.

How could Marxists make a light, durable, reliable, accurate-enough assault rifle? Chivers acknowledges the irony. The Soviet Union couldn’t “design a good toilet, elevator, or camera, or produce large crops of wheat and potatoes, or provide its citizens with decent toothpaste and bars of soap.” But in a planned economy, “when the plan worked, the nation got what its planners ordered.”

After production came proliferation. All the nations of the Warsaw Pact adopted the AK-47, and the USSR found it to be an effective tool to curry favor with Third World thugs. The American government learned of its existence, but focused on other things -- e.g., the fictitious “bomber gap” and “missile gap” -- thus remaining unforgivably unaware of the weapon’s superiority. Brutal reality set in when LBJ sent soldiers to Vietnam.

Of all the horror recounted in The Gun, it’s the chilling story of the cluelessness of Robert McNamara’s system-analyzing “whiz kids” that is sure to shock readers the most. The bungling of the M-16, deeply flawed and rushed into production to counter the AK-47, got an unknown number of American grunts killed. Chivers quotes a ballistics expert’s withering contempt for the men who selected an assault rifle not yet ready for battle: “Their qualifications consisted of, and apparently were limited to, advanced academic degrees, supreme confidence in their own intellectual superiority, virtually absolute authority as designated representatives of [the Office of Secretary of Defense], and a degree of arrogance such as I have never seen before or since.”

Vietnam was the AK-47’s debut on the world stage. Many performances followed. Terrorists used Kalashnikovs to kill Israeli Olympians in Munich. Castro gave one to Chile’s Salvador Allende, who employed it to end his life amid the CIA’s coup. At a Cairo military parade, Anwar Sadat was assassinated with AK-47s. Both sides used the weapon during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Toppled Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceauşescu was killed by AK-47-wielding rebels. Sub-Saharan Africa’s worst hellholes are awash in the guns. And a Kalashnikov is never far from Osama bin Laden’s side.

Sturdy and easy to use, manufactured by the millions, and distributed to every part of the planet by governments and arms dealers, the AK-47 outlived the nation that created it. What Chivers calls the “Kalashnikov Era,” isn’t over, and it won’t be anytime soon.

D. Dowd Muska ( writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska. He lives in Broad Brook, Connecticut.

# # # # #