The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, last year captivated BBC radio audiences by delivering one hundred broadcasts about one hundred artifacts that have changed the world. A range of people were invited to nominate one that MacGregor had missed. I incurred some allegations of philistinism by suggesting the AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Yet it is an obvious truth that many game-changing creations are neither beautiful nor benign. C.J. Chivers opens his book about this gun of guns by describing the August 1949 test detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon, and contrasting it with the AK-47, which entered mass production at Izhevsk shortly afterward. Unlike the bomb, it could be used; it became, in Chivers’s words, “the most lethal instrument of the Cold War.”
And afterward: the United Nations calculates that small arms, notably including the AK-47, were the principal weapons employed in forty-six out of forty-nine of the major conflicts of the 1990s, in which four million people died. Although all estimates are unreliable, it is thought that at least 100 million AK-47s have been manufactured in the Soviet Union and China, and by a host of former Soviet satellites and licensees. They are extraordinarily durable, and some of those built in the 1950s are still shooting people in Afghanistan and many other places.
The image of revolutionaries and terrorists brandishing the Kalashnikov aloft has become familiar all over the world during the past half-century. It generates aesthetic excitement as the supreme proletarian weapon, a symbol of defiance toward Western and capitalist values. Chivers calls it “a ready equalizer against morally or materially superior foes.” One of the central themes of his book is the failure of the United States in the 1960s to design a gun, or even to identify the need for one, capable of matching the AK-47’s technical merits.
The US Army bet its soldiers’ lives on the chronically unreliable Colt M-16, with significant battlefield consequences in Vietnam. For at least two decades many special forces soldiers around the world—who are customarily permitted to choose their own weapons—armed themselves with a gun built by their Soviet enemy rather than in the factories of America or Western Europe. For years Israel’s Sayeret Matkal unit used AK-47s in preference to the M-16 or their own homegrown Galil.
This is a fascinating story, and Chivers, a New York Times writer, tells it very well. He exploits his firearms expertise and combat experience as a Marine officer and later war correspondent to explain how the arcane science of ballistics and weapons design has impacted on the battlefields of…
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