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The Most Influential Weapon of Our Time

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Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images
An Afghan fighter with a Kalashnikov near the Tora Bora front line, December 2001

Kalashnikov’s early prototype was one of the weapons selected in 1946 for trials with the M-1943 7.92mm cartridge copied from the Germans. It was less lethal than a Western rifle bullet, but was much lighter and could still penetrate almost three inches of pine board at six hundred meters. Even after the Red Army selected the Kalashnikov for development, further work on the gun continued for the next two years. The designer received important assistance from various Soviet ordnance experts, and worked closely with an engineer named Aleksandr Zaitsev. Chivers speculates that Hugo Schmeisser, who was working in the same armaments complex as a prisoner, might also have contributed something to the version that was eventually produced.

In the course of the gun’s evolution, its barrel was shortened, its trigger modified, and its working parts simplified, among several other changes. After advanced testing, the ejector was modified, the return spring thickened. Kalashnikov was, says the author, “an aggressive borrower.” But the essence of his design, and of his claim to nudge genius, was his use of loose working parts that clanked and rattled in a fashion that might dismay Western precision engineers but that rendered the gun capable of operation even after it was subjected to extremes of temperature, water, sand, fouling, and rough treatment.

Critics later identified various failings in the weapon: its clumsy change-lever, lack of accuracy, and the fact that it locked closed after firing instead of cocking open (like most Western automatic weapons), so that its user could not instantly see when a magazine was empty. But these were minor defects in a gun that in 1949 began to be issued as the standard small arm of the Red Army, and thereafter of almost every Communist state in the world.

Chivers goes on to describe the lethal achievements of the AK-47, starting with its role in the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. These passages for me are the least interesting in the book, and distract from its main theme: they properly form part of the history of the Warsaw Pact, Middle East conflicts, Muslim terrorism, and African turmoil. Once we know how superbly well Kalashnikov’s gun worked, whom it killed became an issue of politics.

The gripping part of this tale, for most readers, is that in which the author addresses what he calls “one of the most important but least-chronicled arms races of the Cold War.” After describing the ascent of the Kalashnikov, he turns to the abject failure of the United States, the most technologically advanced society on earth, to equip its soldiers with a worthy match for the Russian gun, above all on the battlefields of Indochina.

The M-1 carbine was a popular American innovation in World War II, light and easily handled. But instead of pursuing this technology after 1945, US ordnance specialists were asked to create a successor for the more cumbersome Garand rifle. The British developed a good .280 round and favored exploiting this to introduce an assault rifle system to rival the AK-47. But the Americans dismissed the lessons of Kalashnikov, and insisted on imposing NATO standardization based on a 7.62mm-caliber rifle bullet. For several decades thereafter, European armies were armed with variations of the Belgian FN.

The US Army had issued the M-14 rifle, an unembarrassed scion of the Garand, when Robert McNamara, as secretary of defense, made one of his baleful and historic personal interventions. He heard that the ArmaLite company of California had created a superior new weapon that used a .223 cartridge and was being produced by Colt. In 1962, some extraordinarily ghoulish tests were carried out to explore the ArmaLite’s lethality, using live Angora goats and gel-filled human skulls imported from India.

The army’s deputy chief of staff warned against disclosure of these tests

in view of the sensitivity and potential sensationalism with the use of human cadavers from India. Although this is not the first use of elements of the human cadaver for this purpose, I consider such use to be extremely sensitive.

The ArmaLite produced impressively hideous wounds, because its high-velocity rounds often impacted in the messy fashion of a dum-dum, causing some officers to question their acceptability under international law.

In June 1962, a Ranger unit using the ArmaLite in Vietnam produced a vivid report of its effects on a party of ambushed Vietcong:

Back wound, which caused thoracic cavity to explode. 2. Stomach wound, which caused the abdominal cavity to explode. 3. Buttock wound, which destroyed all of the tissue of both buttocks. 4. Chest wound from right to left, destroyed the thoracic cavity. 5. Heel wound, the projectile entered the bottom of the right foot causing the leg to split from the foot to the hip.

All this was music to the Pentagon’s ears. Chivers says that the manic security of the cold war era militated against open and imaginative debate about the merits and defects of the ArmaLite, much to the detriment of the national interest. Trials were conducted and key decisions made by people with little or no practical field experience. The US Army concluded that both the M-14 and newly designated M-16 ArmaLite were superior to the AK-47.

Satisfied that the M-16 was the better of the two American guns, chiefly on the basis of its accuracy and lethality, the ordnance chiefs failed to ask themselves, before committing themselves to issue the M-16 for field use, whether a conceptually different rifle was needed. No tests were conducted on the vital matter of its vulnerability to corrosion. In December 1963, the first 104,000 M-16s were ordered, heedless of the different 7.62mm-caliber standardization the US had imposed on NATO.

Much of the rest of Chivers’s narrative describes what followed on the battlefield in Vietnam: the M-16 proved one of the most disastrously unreliable weapons issued to a Western army in the twentieth century, while the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were armed with Kalashnikovs. The Marine Corps, which bore the brunt of the early Indochina campaigns, suffered grievously from M-16 technical failures, which were soon costing the lives of men. “Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle,” an outraged young Marine wrote to his hometown newspaper after an action near Khe Sanh in April and May 1967: “Before we left Okinawa, we were all issued the new rifle, the M-16. Practically everyone of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.”

Another Marine wrote home:

Like you said, Dad, we are all complaining about the M-16. When it works you can’t beat it but it jams so goddamn easy…. And when they jam the only thing you can do is poke a cleaning rod down the bore and punch out the empty shell. Borey had the only cleaning rod in our group and he was running up and down the line punching out the bores. I knew he was going to get it and I think he did too…. As he was running a goddamn VC bullet hit [him] in the back.

By 1967, the M-16’s defects had become a major scandal back home, but the response of the administration and the US Army to this, as to so many other troubles, was to suppress the bad news. A divisional information officer described how he received orders that “the M16 was not a topic for discussion. Newsmen were not to question soldiers about the weapon. No stories about the rifle jamming or malfunctioning were to be written.” This line was held even after a congressional subcommittee visited Vietnam: while its members were themselves testing the gun, it jammed repeatedly.

A Marine officer, First Lieutenant Michael Chervenak, dispatched a letter for publication in The Washington Post, denouncing the M-16:

During a recent fight on the 21st of July, no fewer than 40 men in my company reported to me that their rifles had malfunctioned because of failure to extract…. Lack of sufficient firepower also caused us great difficulty in getting our casualties out…. I think that this problem has been overlooked too long….

Still, Colt sought to sustain the position that the weapon was fine, its failures attributable to poor personal handling practices by soldiers, notably inadequate cleaning. In this the company was supported by most of the army’s top brass, which had invested so much credibility in the gun. Modifications were eventually made that rendered the M-16 an acceptable weapon, though never one to match the robust characteristics of the AK-47. Chivers cites the example of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Claude Elrod, who insisted on carrying an AK-47 for most of his tour of duty in Vietnam. When challenged by his colonel about why he did so, Elrod said stubbornly: “Because it works.”

That phrase represents the highest testimonial to Senior Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov’s achievement. Throughout the world to this day, men who are fighting, rather than training or parading, choose to carry his gun “because it works.” In jungles and deserts, in tropical rivers and on icy mountains, it can be counted upon to fire its bullets whenever a man—or often a child soldier—presses the trigger.

It can be purchased in most countries for four hundred dollars or less. I recently heard an informed estimate that in Kenya alone there are 200,000 AK-47s in unauthorized hands, many of them held by Somalis who are filtering southward, a plague bacillus threatening to infect large parts of Africa with the violence that is their only trade, their sole marketable asset.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban armory remains dominated by the Kalashnikov, while US infantry use M-4 carbines, still firing the 5.56mm bullet, and still subject to some criticism for its lack of stopping power. But grenade-launchers and heavier automatic weapons give a rifle section much greater firepower than its Vietnam-generation predecessor. NATO forces today outgun their enemies in any firefight; but the problem persists that primitive weapons—notably in Afghanistan the improvised explosive device—still pose a tough challenge for sophisticated Western armies.

C.J. Chivers is a good journalist who explores some interesting and important themes in this book. He might have done a little more to tell the M-16 and AK-47 stories in the wider setting of armament procurement problems, which have dogged almost every nation at war. The World War II German Army had some superb weapons, but poor mechanical reliability crippled the early battlefield performance of Tiger and Panther tanks as assuredly as it did that of the M-16. Conversely, the Sherman tank was wonderfully reliable, but suffered terribly on the battlefield because it was underarmored and outgunned.

The British won their little Falklands war in 1982 despite asking six thousand men to march across frozen, peat-sodden islands in boots that fell to pieces. They sent a division to the first Gulf war in 1991 armed with the SA-80 assault rifle, which was as unreliable as the early M-16s and represented a similar scandal. The Israelis found themselves outgunned by many of the Russian-built Arab weapons deployed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

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