Sheer numbers have made the AK-47 the world’s primary tool for killing
The AK-47 is the most numerous and widely distributed weapon in history, with a name and appearance that are instantly recognized worldwide. Designed in the late 1940s for the Soviet Army, the Avtomat Kalashnikova 47 (“Automatic of Kalashnikov 1947”) became the universal weapon by the late 20th century, used by armies, militias and terrorists in practically every armed conflict, and by all sides in most of them. Even the United States has purchased mass quantities of AK-47s for friendly forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the armed services and the State Department train U.S. military and civilian personnel to handle and fire AK-47s in emergencies as part of their training for deployment to the war zones.
How did the AK-47 became as fundamental to contemporary warfare as Microsoft operating systems are to corporate computing? C.J. Chivers sets out to tell the story in “The Gun.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times and a former infantry officer in the Marine Corps, he has seen the AK-47 in action while covering wars from Iraq and Afghanistan to Chechnya and Central Asia, and his experiences enhance his account.
The world’s most popular gun in a model with a side-folding stock
The AK-47’s origins are shrouded in the sort of mystery familiar to any historian researching Cold War issues in Russia. The Soviet state built up myths around its chosen heroes, and the man credited with the creation of the AK-47 was one of the leading figures in the pantheon. Mikhail Kalashnikov (born 1919) received not only the Soviet Union’s highest honors but also a suitable official story: a sergeant of modest origins wounded in battle against the Germans in 1941, who during months spent recovering in a hospital turns his previously unrecognized creative genius to designing a weapon that would better defend his homeland. The post-communist Russian government has kept up the accolades—the nonagenarian Mr. Kalashikov is now a lieutenant general—and Mr. Chivers received little cooperation in his search for authoritative information on the development of the AK-47.
What Mr. Chivers can relate with certainty is the weapon’s place in the evolution of warfare and its ongoing impact on the world. He presents the AK-47 as a final stage in the development of automatic weapons—a compact, simple to manufacture, easily handled and almost indestructible rapid-firing rifle—tracing its story from the first attempts to create machine guns a century earlier. He describes at length Richard Gatling’s invention of hand-cranked rapid-fire weapons during the Civil War. The Gatling gun was little used during that conflict, and the U.S. Army was slow to adopt it afterward, but European armies used Gatling guns to devastating effect in colonial wars. Then Hiram Maxim’s fully automatic machine gun appeared in the 1880s. Capable of firing 600 rounds per minute with the press of a trigger, the Maxim gun in its many derivations (the German Spandau, the British Vickers, the Russian Sokolov, and others) created the dense walls of fire that defined the trench warfare of World War I.
But the Maxim was unwieldy for use by solitary soldiers, and even before the war ended the search for an effective one-man automatic weapon was underway. Germany introduced the MP18, a nine-pound submachine gun designed by Hugo Schmeisser. By using low-powered pistol ammunition, Schmeisser had made a small and portable weapon, but one with a severely limited effective range. Interest in such weapons dwindled after 1918, and the first practical automatic rifle did not appear until late in World War II. The StG44—also designed by Schmeisser and dubbed the “assault rifle” (Sturmgewehr) by Hitler himself—appeared too late for wide distribution during the war. But as Mr. Chivers notes, the StG44 may have had a direct influence on the AK-47.
The Soviet Union began trying to design an automatic rifle just after World War II ended. Mr. Kalashnikov was an obscure 26-year-old sergeant with little formal education and only a few years of experience designing weapons. He headed one of several teams of engineers competing to win the contest to design the automatic rifle, most of them led by established arms designers who had won high honors for their work during the war. After two years of competitive tests and design modifications, the AK-47 emerged the winner.
Mr. Chivers emphasizes that competition between teams of designers and a long back-and-forth process of modification and improvement under army supervision—not the individual brilliance of one man—created the AK-47. Borrowing from the StG44 may have occurred as well. The two weapons share many distinctive design features: the gas piston above the barrel that powers the rifle’s action, the curved 30-round magazine, the stock meant for controlling the weapon when firing on full automatic. Suspicions that the AK-47 was based on the StG44 are reinforced by the fact that Hugo Schmeisser was captured by the Soviet Army in 1945 and spent years in the city of Izhevsk, the main center of AK-47 production to this day.
Regardless of the details of its origins, the AK-47 brought the spread of automatic firepower to its logical conclusion. Like the StG44, the AK-47 used an intermediate-size cartridge scaled down from the rifle rounds of the two world wars which gave it sufficient range for any realistic battlefield target but the minimal recoil to make possible automatic fire from a one-man, hand-held weapon.
The Soviet Army was also obsessed with simplicity and ruggedness in its weapons and so the winning design used a minimum of parts, was built far more strongly than necessary and was constructed with a relatively loose fit between its major moving parts, allowing the AK-47 to continue firing even when clogged with powder residue and dirt.
The result: a practically foolproof weapon that works in the most extreme conditions despite neglect and abuse. Mass production of the AK-47 began by 1950, 15 years before the U.S. introduced its own automatic rifle, the M-16. In addition to cranking out AK-47s by the millions, the Soviet Union set up factories to produce them in Warsaw Pact countries and the People’s Republic of China, and eventually in states such as Egypt and Iraq, where the Soviets sought influence. The outpouring of AK-47s is estimated at more than 100 million and still rising—one for every 70 people in the world and more than 10 times the number of M-16s produced. Mr. Chivers notes that this vast supply of AK-47s has made them widely and cheaply available—readily purchased for less than $200 (including delivery by air) in the international arms market.
Mr. Chivers’s efforts to put the AK-47 in a broad historical context are both the great strength and great weakness of “The Gun.” He devotes the first several chapters to the history of the machine gun and biographies of Gatling and Maxim; the book’s longest chapter concerns the M-16’s origins and its early problems during the Vietnam War. The reader spends fully half of the book not reading about the AK-47 at all. Yet the digressive chapters are the more interesting, displaying impressive research—of a kind not possible on the AK-47 and Mikhail Kalashnikov—and deft descriptions of individuals and their experiences.
The author shows equal skill in discussing how lives were changed by the AK-47. He writes about a Hungarian who during the 1956 Soviet invasion became one of the first insurgents to use the AK-47; East Germans shot trying to escape over the Berlin Wall; American soldiers under fire in Vietnam; Israeli athletes murdered in the Munich Olympic Village in 1972; child soldiers in Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army; and a Kurdish bodyguard wounded during an attempted assassination in northern Iraq in 2002. Mr. Chivers reminds the reader constantly of the human consequences of the firepower that the AK-47 has made cheap and widely available.
Sheer numbers have made the AK-47 the world’s primary tool for killing—an “everyman’s gun,” Mr. Chivers calls it. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has for decades been a primary U.S. and international concern, and much press attention in recent years has been focused on the fashionable campaign against landmines. Mr. Chivers focuses our attention on an ordinary item that has been vastly more destructive and done more to define the character of warfare today than any other weapon.
Mr. Kim, a lawyer, recently returned from a year in Iraq working for the U.S. Treasury Department.
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