Guns don't kill people. People kill people...
This is a book about the history of the AK-47 assault rifle. But it is also a book, as any good book is, about much more. An author can't really tell the story of the AK-47 without also telling the history of modern warfare. So Chivers does just that. In four fascinating chapters he quickly and thoroughly took you over the bloody fields of the American Civil War where Gatling guns were first used, then through the insanity of World War One where Maxim machine guns shocked the world with their grim efficiency, and past the battlefields of WWII where assault rifles were born. After this history lesson, Chivers launches into a masterful and painstakingly detailed chronicle of the life of the most recognizable gun on Earth.
C.J. Chivers is a war correspondent for the New York Times, but before that he was a Marine who served in the first Gulf War in Iraq. He has reported for the Times from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Libya. You are convinced that Chivers, along with people like Simon Klingert and Richard Engel, is one of the finest war correspondents in the business. The man knows war and he writes like he does. It came as no surprise to you that the prologue for "The Gun" was written in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
This is a book written by an unflinching warrior about modern warfare. Chivers pulls no punches nor does he hide from hard truths. War is Hell, and the AK-47 made war even more hellacious.
After hundreds of thousands of young men were sent marching abreast into the certain death of barrages of machine gun fire in World War One (21,000 British men died in one day in the battle of The Somme), modern military tactics were forced to change. WWII saw those tactics mature into what you think of as modern warfare today, soldiers in camouflage using available cover and terrain to advance under a blanket of supporting heavy machine gun fire in order to eliminate enemy positions from fairly close range. Most of the soldiers in WWII were perfecting these tactics using either single shot long-range rifles or submachine guns firing short-range pistol rounds. Towards the end of the war the Germans developed a machine gun that combined the automatic fire of the submachine gun with the range and stopping power of the rifle. The sturmgewehr (or "assault rifle") was born. Individual soldiers now had the possibility of pouring accurate heavy-caliber fire onto targets at ranges of a few hundred yards. Germany lost the war (even though they had much better weapons than the Allies) and Russian soldiers brought home examples of this sturmgewehr. Recognizing the potential of such weapons in the inevitable future conflicts with Western nations, Russian arms makers began a contest to develop their own assault rifle.
Two years after the Great Patriotic War ended (you've always loved what Russians call WWII) a design was chosen. It was 1947, and the automatic rifle's designer was named Kalashnikov. The gun was designated the Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic by Kalashnikov. Thus, the name AK-47 was born. It was sturdy, easy to use, and extraordinarily reliable. The oversize parts of the machinery fit together loosely (as opposed to the tight, technical fit of Western weapons) and this loose fit helped the gun to effectively knock dirt and carbon build up out of the chamber as it fired. The AK-47 is almost a self-cleaning weapon. The Soviet Union immediately put the Kalashnikov into mass production.
Everything in the book after this moment reminded you of the story of The Golem of Prague. Jewish tradition tells of a rabbi who created a simple, mindless creature from clay to defend the Jews of Prague from attacks by the Holy Roman Emperor. The rabbi unleashed the Golem on the world and it destroyed the enemies of the Jews only to turn on them and eventually its own creator. This is the same story repeated again and again in human culture. It is the story of Frankenstein's monster terrorizing the population, of Darth Vader turning on The Emperor, of Sauron being defeated by the Ring of Power. It is a warning. It is the story of the AK-47.
Kalashnikov believed that he and his colleagues were creating a weapon that would be used to defend the Soviet Union, the Motherland; a weapon that peasants could use to rise up against the bourgeoisie, a weapon that an untrained farmer could use to overthrow his capitalist oppressor, a weapon that would sweep the imperialistic western world into the ash heap of history. He had created a powerful tool, and one of the most reliable guns in modern history. He could never have dreamed that his invention would be used against his own countrymen as often as it would be used by them. He could never have imagined a world where children took up his weapon to murder children at the whim of mad-men-turned-warlords in the jungles of Africa.
The USSR was eager to share the new technology with its allies throughout Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Soon Kalashnikov factories were spouting up all over the world. The weapon was on track to proliferate like no other gun in human history.
Almost as soon as the AK-47 was used in combat it was adopted by revolutionaries and enemies of the USSR. The day after a failed attempt by Russian forces to put down a growing rebellion in Hungary in 1956, photographers snapped pictures of rebels on the streets of Budapest brandishing the now iconic assault rifles. The rebels had taken the Kalashnikov's from the bodies of slain soldiers or had picked them up when surprised troops had dropped them in a mad dash to retreat to safety. One day after its introduction to warfare, the Kalashnikov had already become the symbol of the revolutionary, of the insurgent. Even though these particular revolutionaries were eventually defeated, a powerful symbol was born.
Kalashnikov had dreamed that his gun would be used to bolster the freedom movements of people throughout the world, but on the streets of Budapest, rather than being a tool for liberation "It made its debut smashing freedom movements." And in putting down the popular national uprising in Hungary in '56, the AK-47 might have made the difference. Had it not been for the soviet soldiers' new massed fire capabilities, it is conceivable that the rebels could have held out and a symbol of resistance to the mighty USSR might have been ignited a mere decade after the Cold War began. But they couldn't answer the new increase in firepower, the Russians were just too well armed. The Kalashnikov was beginning to change modern warfare. As the Soviet emissaries reported back to Moscow, "To (the rebels') solitary shots we replied with salvos."
Thirty five years after that day, the USSR would no longer exist, but the world would be awash in millions of AK-47's. The mentality of the Cold War and the war machine of the Soviet Union ensured that this weapon would be produced in quantities numbering in the millions and in dozens of countries across the globe, from China to Cuba. Caches of thousands of Kalashnikov's were stored throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East in preparation for a Third World War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, these caches were raided and the guns were spread to every corner of every hot spot and armed dispute on Earth.
Ironically, the United States soon became the number one purchaser of the Kalashnikov as it struggled to arm freedom fighters in Afghanistan. Most ironically, in the Soviet Union's last days, it was kicked out of Afghanistan by these religious militant freedom fighters wielding none other than Kalashnikov's assault rifles.
AK's are found in every conflict around the globe, often on both side of the battlefield. They are used in crimes, and insurgencies, and revolutions. Kalashnikov's are reliable, easy to use, and pack a serious punch. As Chivers says at the beginning of the book, "When Kalashnikovs show up in the hands of mobs, it is time to leave." Because AK-47's do one thing and they do it very well: They kill people. In fact, if you count up all of the people killed by all of the high-tech aircraft and submarines and nuclear missiles the USSR went bankrupt building, the number looks puny compared to how many humans have had their lives ended by the most recognizable weapon in the world.
The lesson was clear to you as you read "The Gun". Beware the things you create and let loose in the world. Like the Golem, they tend to free themselves from your control. And all too often, they turn on their masters.
One story haunted you the most from the book's last pages. Karzan Mahmoud was the driver for the Prime Minister of Iraq in 2002. He was gunned down and crippled by would-be assassins wielding AK-47's. In a letter to the author he mused what he would ask Mr. Kalashnikov if they ever met, "Why did you make this machine? You don't like living people? Why not make something to help people, not make them dead? I'm wondering... how about if you tried it on yourself, one bullet into your feet before sending it out to the market. Might that have changed your mind?"
You wished that all those who wage wars, and design weapons, far from the front lines would take Mahmoud's advice. "Why not make something to help people?"
On to the next book!
But first... a chart! The AK-47 is the one at the top. All of the others are variations on Kalashnikov's original design:
Milled receiver AKS, stock folded · Original stamped receiver AK47 · Milled receiver AK47 · AKMS · AK74 · SVD sniper rifle · Hungarian AMD65 · Yugoslavian M70B · East German MPIK.M · Yugoslavian M85 "Krinkov" SMG · South African R4 · Finnish Valmet M76