Allen Lane £25

The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War, By CJ Chivers

Introduced to the world in 1947, the Kalashnikov automatic rifle changed the course of warfare

Few guns achieve iconic status. One of those that undoubtedly has is the AK-47, the Kalashnikov. Simply engineered, reliable and easy to use, it is now ubiquitous, with an estimated 100 million in circulation. Instantly recognisable the world over, it is the weapon of choice for freedom fighters, terrorists and jihadis. It has become "the people's gun".

With the book market teeming with micro-histories of everything from cod to sugar, it was perhaps inevitable someone would tackle the AK-47. Yet CJ Chivers' book does more than retrace the story of the weapon's development and deployment. It is an icon, he claims, that has changed the very nature of warfare, and even altered history itself.

It is certainly a remarkable story. According to Soviet mythology, the gun's inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov – the son of an exiled kulak – was the original proletarian hero: a man whose patriotism and class consciousness, fired by his service during the Second World War, led him to design single-handedly the most successful weapon of all time.

According to Chivers, however, the truth is rather more prosaic: the gun, he says, was a hybrid of existing rifle technology, and the product of more minds than one. Thus, while Kalashnikov certainly played a key role in its development, there were some who later questioned whether his name should have been appended to the weapon at all.

The gun's large-scale debut would be in Vietnam, where it was pitted against its US counterpart, the M16, with wide-ranging connotations: communist versus capitalist, peasant versus professional soldier. The AK-47 won hands down. More reliable, more hardy and cheaper to produce, it won many plaudits, even being preferred by some US Marines to their standard-issue weapon. Not for the last time, the Kalashnikov would be the bane of the West.

Chivers writes very well – as one would expect of a Pulitzer winner – and is adept at set-pieces, such as an attempted assassination or a jungle fire-fight. He also works hard to disentangle the mythology surrounding the weapon's development, and is admirably clear when explaining technological matters. Yet there are a couple of caveats. For one thing, the book is overlong. For another, Chivers never makes his overarching argument about the Kalashnikov's wider significance quite coherently or explicitly enough.

Yet these quibbles should not detract from a formidable feat of research and writing. The story of the Kalashnikov is a fascinating one, which encompasses both the darkest days of the Cold War and the asymmetric warfare of the early 21st century. In telling it, Chivers adds a number of illuminating asides on technological developments and wider strategic concerns. In marshalling these myriad sources, he has produced surely the final word on one of the most iconic weapons of our times.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week