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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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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.

My point is simply that few armies in few wars find themselves equipped with all the right weapons. It is a measure of America’s characteristic belief in its exceptionalism to display outrage when some of its own equipment fails to measure up. The Soviet Union did well, on its own terms, to create the Kalashnikov assault rifle, and it has been the instrument of untold mayhem and death in the world. But just as the Germans fought some of their World War II campaigns very well, yet made war incredibly badly, so the Russians produced some remarkable weapons, but since 1917 have failed abysmally in their ideological and nationalistic purposes. Even the Stalinist triumphalism generated by victory in 1945 proved hollow because the vast, bloated military machine created to destroy Hitler eventually overreached, particularly in Afghanistan, bringing down the Soviet system. Communist military victory in Vietnam proved far less significant and durable than the world supposed in 1975.

But Chivers’s book touches upon something important about the West’s dealings with relatively primitive societies, and strongly demonstrated in Afghanistan today. We show ourselves consistently incapable of connecting with peoples who live on a different technological plane from ourselves. In my view, our current purposes in Afghanistan are honorable not only from our own perspective, but with respect to the interests of the Afghan people. I nonetheless believe that we shall fail there, in some degree because the AK-47, which every fighting tribesman loves, is a true manifestation of his society, however uneducated and primitive, while the Hellfire missile, the Chinook helicopter, and the Drone are not.

Mikhail Kalashnikov forged a weapon that perfectly accords with the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people around the world who reject Western values, which is why his gun is interesting and important philosophically as well as militarily. Chivers has written the best book so far about what is probably the most influential weapons system of our times.

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