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The Most Influential Weapon of Our Time

The Gun

by C. J. Chivers
Simon and Schuster, 481 pp., $28.00
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Hungarian National Museum
József Tibor Fejes, a young Hungarian identified by C. J. Chivers in The Gun as ‘the first known insurgent to carry an AK-47.’ According to Chivers, ‘Fejes obtained his prize after Soviet soldiers dropped their rifles during their attack on revolutionaries in Budapest in 1956…. The Hungarian Revolution marked the AK-47’s true battlefield debut.’

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 the world. My only regret about his work is that he has superimposed upon the history of the contest between the AK-47 and M-16 a wider examination of the history of machine guns, which seems an unnecessary diversion.

He starts with Richard Gatling, the former slave-owning Southern gentleman who wrote to Abraham Lincoln in 1864 offering to the federal cause a revolutionary design for a repeating rifle, a “battery gun” as his 1862 patent designated it. “I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded,” he told the President at the height of the Civil War.

It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—that would by its rapidity of fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.

Things did not quite work out that way, of course, but Gatling had staked his claims as a philanthropist. There is no record that Lincoln responded to his proposal, though the President had already attended firing tests of a rival design, the Union repeating gun. Only in 1866 did the US Army purchase its first hundred Gatlings, which swiftly gained popularity abroad. The British, Russians, and others found them ideal for silencing the objections of native tribesmen to imperial rule. They did much execution, for instance among Zulus at the 1879 Battle of Ulundi; it is suggested that the Little Big Horn might have ended differently had not Colonel George Custer been in too much of a hurry to meet the Indians to take his Gatlings.

The French deployed their own mitrailleurs in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, but were distressed to find the King of Prussia’s armies smashing them with Krupp quick-firers from outside their own guns’ effective range. Another early machine gun, the Gardner, damaged its brand image by failing at a critical moment of the 1884 Battle of Abu Klea, as a British relief column sought to fight its way across the Bayuda Desert to rescue General Charles Gordon from the Dervishes.

Unreliability was a chronic problem with all the first-generation repeating weapons. It was irksome for white soldiers, sent to massacre natives armed with swords and spears, to find themselves frustrated by breakdowns of their superior technology. Sir Henry Newbolt’s 1897 line about a frontier clash—“The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead”—was murmured ironically by British officers in tight corners through the following century.

Everything changed, however, after the introduction of Hiram Maxim’s revolutionary gun, which Archduke William of Austria declared to be “the most dreadful instrument I have ever seen or imagined,” after witnessing a demonstration in 1885. Maxim was born in Maine in 1840, emigrated to Britain, and made his life there. More reliable ammunition, coupled to his water-cooled, belt-fed, recoil-operated design, transformed machine-gunnery. “Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not,” as a Victorian versifier observed with ironic complacency about Britain’s advantages over “lesser breeds without the law.”

Where the Gatling multibarreled system required a carriage like an artillery piece and weighed one and a half tons, the Maxim and its tripod weighed only 150 pounds, after British officers suggested some modifications to improve portability. Variations and refinements of the gun served in many of the world’s armies until the 1960s; it was renamed for Vickers, the company that had bought the patents in 1897. Maxim himself was knighted by a grateful British government in 1901, but in German hands his technology killed British soldiers by the hundreds of thousands when World War I came.

C.J. Chivers is bemused by the dogged reluctance of most European soldiers to address the tactical implications of machine guns in the years before World War I. An analysis of 65,000 Prussian casualties in the 1870 war showed that only six had been killed with swords, yet these continued to be issued to cavalry and all officers, and were brandished on the battlefields of 1914. Just 0.4 percent of losses in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 were attributed to bayonet wounds, but most infantrymen carried bayonets until 1945 and beyond.

The British Army mistrusted machine guns as wasteful of ammunition, and even after the early World War I campaigns in Flanders was slow to order them in adequate numbers. The willingness of all the rival armies to commit large infantry forces to attack their enemies in the face of obstacles—notably barbed wire—covered by machine guns and in daylight remained one of the more remarkable aspects of the conflict until 1918.

From [the German] trenches came the ‘tac-tac-tac’ of the guns as they traversed to and fro along the endless lines of advancing men,” wrote an eyewitness of the Somme slaughter on July 1, 1916. “Whole waves were swept over by the fire. The dead lay in long rows where they had fallen, the wounded lay with them, pretending to be dead.”

American dominance of the technology of mass slaughter persisted during the war and beyond. Colt manufactured a Browning design for a gas-operated gun, which harnessed the energy generated by the explosion in the barrel to eject a spent cartridge and recock the working parts. While submachine guns used Maxim’s “blowback” principle through the 1940s, many heavier weapons in the twentieth century exploited gas. When the US Army showed no interest in the Lewis, the first plausible light machine gun weighing less than thirty pounds, the British set about making it in quantity. The .45 Thompson submachine gun, an American invention, was resisted by British officers in the 1920s as a “gangster weapon,” but became widely used in World War II.

The most significant original German contribution to the World War I small arms race was that of Hugo Schmeisser, who designed the MP-18, the first true submachine carbine, deemed by the Allies so potent that it was included in the list of weapons that postwar Germany was forbidden to possess under the Versailles Treaty. Schmeisser went on to create an assault rifle that only entered service late in 1944 but proved the forerunner of an entire new class of small arms, which plays a critical part on the battlefield to this day.

And so to the AK-47, named for Senior Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov, a “small and intent man” with “twinkling charm” born in 1919, who spent his childhood in Siberian exile enforced upon his kulak father, and went on to become one of the Soviet Union’s foremost “proletarian heroes.” Chivers asserts, assuredly rightly, that much about Kalashnikov’s life and achievements remains shrouded in doubt, because his biography and indeed autobiography were recast to fit the requirements of Soviet propaganda. He is alleged to have been wounded while serving as a tank soldier in 1941, and thereafter to have produced an early prototype of his new gun as a personal, highly individualistic venture in the workshops of an obliging engineering cooperative.

Chivers says that much about Kalashnikov himself remains speculative, but his gun “was a product of Stalin’s state, not of a single man…, and one of the truest symbols of itself.” He declares the AK-47 to be “an apt emblem of the Soviet legacy, a wood-and-metal symbol of what the socialist experiment came to be about.” This seems just. It is remarkable, as Chivers says, that the Soviet Union produced some superb weapons systems and led the way into space, while remaining incapable of manufacturing a toilet, elevator, camera, or even cake of soap that any Western consumer would want. That continues to be the case to this day: our respect for Russia derives partly from admiration for its pre-Bolshevik cultural heritage and partly from fear of the trouble it is capable of causing in the world, rather than from any admiration for its institutions or its accomplishments in industrial design, which remain pathetic by Western standards.

Hitler coined the term “assault rifle,” calling Schmeisser’s last creation a Sturmgewehr. The Russians picked up where the Germans left off. The Red Army had become the dominant military force in the war by exploiting massed artillery and tanks accompanied by infantry liberally equipped with pistol-caliber submachine guns. Its commanders concluded that the Western preoccupation with rifles capable of high accuracy at long ranges was mistaken. Modern infantrymen needed a gun that delivered a high rate of fire at close quarters, used a small bullet that a man could carry in larger numbers than the traditional long rifle round, and was reliable even in poor conditions and clumsy hands.

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