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.
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