Allen Lane, £25, 481pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War, By CJ Chivers
If the Kalashnikov had not been unique, the Soviet Union would rule the world. If its cars, its televisions, its fridges and its furniture had been as fit for purpose as its assault rifles, and as abundant, the USSR could have fulfilled its boasts about burying the West. But the AK-47 family of guns was the one truly competitive range of mass-produced items ever to emerge from the Soviet system, making the Kalashnikov the USSR's one true global brand. Millions of AK rifles around the world are the Soviet dragon's teeth, still biting though the beast has long since expired.
It was as if the whole Soviet production system, operated by command and obsessed with force, was built to make these weapons. The point was made with trenchancy and pathos in a joke, which CJ Chivers quotes, about workers in a Soviet bed factory. Unable to buy beds themselves, they try to acquire the products of their labour by pilfering the components one piece at a time. No matter how they assemble the parts, they always end up with AK-47s.
The world as a whole may have ended up with 100 million AK-47s and their descendants, thanks to an archipelago of arms factories from China to Albania. As Chivers emphasises, the guns' pandemic spread was based on overproduction by command economies, war-geared down to their smallest cogs and levers, feeding politically-motivated exports. But it also depended upon the character of the weapons, medium-sized rifles that could fire ten rounds in a second, and their reliability. Although Kalashnikovs did not at first have to compete in open markets, they competed successfully in combat. Nowadays they hold their own in the marketplace, with prices ranging from around $200 to $1000.
In doing so, they complete a process that began in the middle of the 19th century and has turned rapid-fire guns from curiosities for artillerymen to default tools of conflict, used not just by regular troops but by youths in urban gangs and children forced to fight. Automatic weapons have shaken off states' monopolies on violence and have become commodities. The AK-47, the people's gun of communist propaganda, is simple, reliable and small enough to be anybody's gun – even a child's.
The lethal advantages of rapid fire now seem only too obvious, but it took half a century for the great powers' armies to grasp what machine guns were for. By the late 19th century, automatic mechanisms had replaced the hand-cranked artillery pieces that had made their debut in the American Civil War. The Maxim guns of British colonial forces piled up the corpses of African fighters in heaps. Yet when it came to Flanders, the British army drilled its men to fix bayonets to their rifles, reinventing the spear, and march towards the machine guns.
By the end of the First World War, hand-held machine guns were beginning to appear. The Thompson submachine gun was conceived in response to the new conditions, as a "trench broom" – and adopted by gangsters as a street sweeper. It was not until well into the Second World War, however, that changing perceptions of combat produced the assault rifle, first carried by German troops. Most infantry fire was at medium range, intense rather than precisely aimed. The assault rifle was shorter than traditional rifles and could fire like a submachine gun. It simplified shooting and multiplied killing power.
In the AK-47, Mikhail Kalashnikov's team brought a distinctive practicality to the concept. Its parts were engineered to fit loosely, and its hefty plumbing returned pulses of gas from the detonated cartridges powerful enough to flush out dirt as well as make sure the spent cases were ejected. Twenty years after the AK-47's birth, American soldiers in Vietnam were struggling to poke rods down their jammed M-16 rifles while under sustained Kalashnikov fire.
Chivers describes this episode, one of a series in the book that ranges from Sudan through Hungary to Uganda and Iraqq, with vividness, consideration and detail. Every page is absorbing and clear. Yet the very clarity of the narrative draws attention to absences and prompts questions.
We see what the inadequacies of the M-16 meant to the Americans, but what did the AK-47 mean to the North Vietnamese, or to other combatants in what they saw as liberation struggles? How did military understanding of automatic weapons develop as the Second World War gestated? Yes, the AK-47's debut against Hungarians resisting Moscow in 1956 was the start of a long career in the repression of civilians, but why omit to mention the pioneering use of machine-guns against strikers in Colorado decades before? The oddly general title of the book suggests a degree of uncertainty about its scope.
Uncertainty, however, is the proper condition of a study that carefully explores terrain distorted by secrecy, myth and selective attention to suffering. Appropriately, though to the author's evident frustration, it surrounds the life and work of Mikhail Kalashnikov himself. One thing is sure: like his guns, he has proved durable. Kalashnikov's 91st birthday falls on 10 November; and the AK-47 will probably have at least as long a lifespan, with inversely proportional effects on life expectancy everywhere. The dragon's teeth have been sown.
Marek Kohn's latest book is 'Turned Out Nice' (Faber & Faber)
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