Converse's Reviews > The Gun
by C.J. Chivers
bookshelves: history, warfare, technology, politics
The Gun by the New York Times journalist C. J. Chivers is mainly about the development of the AK-47 (and related weapons) by the Soviet Union, its spread, and the effects of that wide distribution. The AK-47 is an assault rifle, a weapon capable of both single shot and full automatic fire, with a round propelled at a speed greater than that of pistol ammunition but slower than the bolt action rifles used by militaries before assault rifeles became the dominant small arm. About 100 million weapons of the AK-47 family seem to have been produced, compared with the 10 million of the American M-16 family. These weapons are the most widely distributed rifles ever. Many other nations, such as Finland and Israel, have developed rifles that are similar to the AK-47.
Although focused on the AK-47 family, the first 140 pages of The Gun deal with the development of automatic weapons before the AK-47. Chivers starts with Dr. Gatling and his gun. Chivers sees a pattern in this history that converged on the concept of the assault rife, as the machines guns developed before the First World War got smaller (the Gatling gun in its original form with its carriage weighed about a ton) and as submachine guns using pistol ammunition were developed during the First World War.
The AK-47 was not the first assault rife. The German army during the Second World War developed a similar weapon, the extent of whose influence on the development of the AK-47 is unclear. The AK-47 was developed in the years just after the Second World War. Also unclear is the extent of Mihail T. Kalashnikov's control over the design of his eponymous rifle. Mr. Kalashnikov was certainly an important designer of this weapon; however other Russian sources, often by those who claim to have contributed to the design process, have emerged suggesting that some of the design elements of the final weapon were not originally conceived of by Kalashnikov. Roughly three different rounds of design occured to come up with the most common variant, the AKM. In the 1970s a variant called the AK-74, was developed using ammunition of a caliber similar to the M-16.
The Soviet Union helped set up factories to produce the AK-47 in China, Poland, East Germany, and other nations. Some nations, such as Albania, received help in setting up factories from those nations that were aided by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and China also provided arms to many nations such as Vietnam and Cuba, that did not manufacture the weapons. This spread of the weapon, combined with the illicit selling of stockpiled weaopons after the fall of the Soviet Union and its east European satellite governments, allowed the weapon to be widely available.
The author also describes the sorry history of how the United States entered the Vietnam conflict without a suitable assault rifle and its panicky and ill-planned distribution of the M-16 to make up for this failure. Unlike many other nations, procurement officials in the United States did not take the development of assault rifes in the late 1940s and 1950s very seriously. They did not want to adopt a weapon with a less powerful and lower range round than their traditional rifles and saw the AK-47 as a mere submachine gun. Unfortunately, most soldiers cannot use an assault rife with the larger caliber and higher velocity rounds traditional among military rifles. These larger, heavier rounds also limit the number of rounds a soldier can carry, and it is arguable that the number of rounds Iand thus volume of fire) is more important than a round that is lethal at a distance beyond what combat usually occurs at. The M-14 was planned as weapon capable of fully-automatic fire with a traditional round, but most of those issued to the troops had a lock on them that prevented them from use as automatic weapons; they were restricted to semi-automatic fire. This feature, combined with the larger size of weapon needed for a larger round, made the weapon not the best for Vietnam (and probably most combat circumstances). Unfortunately, the M-16 in its original form was rushed into use without enough development and with a round whose propellent made the problems with the weapon more severe. Basically, in its original form the M-16 lacked sufficient corrosion resistance, its plastic parts broke too easily, the barrel was easily fouled, and worst of all it freqently jammed in combat. These problems, gradually fixed, were accompained by a sorry public relations campaign by the senior military and defense officials denying that there were any problems.
The spread of the AK-47 has made the problems of poorly governed areas worse. When a despotic government is in place, the AK-47 is an excellent weapon of repression. When conditions of civil war exist, the AK-47, with its ease of use, tremendous reliability, wide availability, and tremendous fire power has allowed one side or other to keep on fighting in circumstances where it would have been defeated but for these weapons. Thus misery persists.