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Sunday Book Review: The Gun

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This is the fourth of an eight part series on the 2011 Patterson Summer Reading List.

  1. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  2. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  3. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  4. CJ Chivers, The Gun

The Gun is the second book in four years on the topic of the AK-47. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Larry Kahaner’s AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, but readers and reviewers generally seem to prefer Chivers account. Although billed as a book about the AK-47, The Gun is really more of a history of automatic weapons, with particular attention paid to the Kalashnikov and its design process.

Chivers story effectively begins with the development of a series of different models of automatic weapon in the US Civil War.  The US Army (usually for good reason) was unwilling to entertain adopting most of these weapons, although the Gatling Gun would become part of the official US inventory at the end of the war (several early models had found their way into unofficial use).  Gatling’s crank system then found its way into other armies, including British and French colonial forces and Russian Far East and Caucausus units.  Chivers describes the (sometimes painfully) slow realization by major armies of the utility of the weapon, but then relates how effective the crank automatic became in colonial fighting.  Later, the smaller and more reliable Maxim gun would give colonial forces an insurmountable advantage over subjugated populations,whether in Africa, Central Asia, or the Americas.  The machine gun pushed its way into continental European warfare with a false start in the Franco-Prussian War, and then with full maturity by the First World War. Chivers gives a fantastic account of how individual lines of automatic weapons matured across the industrial production process.  The first Gatling guns were startling effective, but also quite troublesome; even if the US Army had been more visionary regarding their use, it would have faced the teething troubles associated with immature weapon systems.  The same issues would face the Maxim gun, the AK-47, and eventually the M-16.

Chivers places the AK-47 firmly within the context of the Soviet military-industrial complex.  In doing so, he tries to dispel many of the myths that have developed (and been constructed) around Mikhail Kalashnikov, the most important member of the design team that created the rifle.  Kalashnikov has become a legendary figure, treated in some accounts a an isolated genius discarded by a system uninterested in individual achievement.  Chivers shows that this picture is wrong, although he sometimes veers close to the building and burning of strawmen regarding the legend of Kalashnikov.  Towards the end of  World War II, the Red Army recognized the promise of a weapon with characteristics broadly along the lines of the AK-47, combining the characteristics of an infantry rifle with a submachine gun. Various teams were invited to compete to submit designs, with Kalashnikov leading the team that eventually won.  The AK-47 differed from many (but not all) in its durability, ease of construction, and ease of use, characteristics which helped it win the competition.  Kalashnikov’s team freely borrowed innovations from other designs, a practice that was both extremely productive and completely in line with Soviet industrial practice. The initial production models provide the foundation for what we now know as the AK-47 family of rifles.

Chivers is also careful to place the spread of the AK-47 in the context of Soviet foreign and industrial policy.  The Soviet economy, as we now, was exceedingly adept at certain tasks and very bad at others.  For example, it was good at building lots of simple machine equipment, and bad at assessing market demand.  Consequently, the USSR would dramatically overproduce the AK-47 and its brethren over the course of the Cold War. It would export the technology to build AK-47s to many foreign countries, many of which would also overproduce the gun. The USSR would use the AK-47 as a foreign policy chit, exporting it to whichever countries or rebel groups were willing to pay lip service to Soviet foreign policy goals.  Consequently, the AK-47 became the weapon of choice across a vast family of countries, rebel groups, and terrorist organizations.  Chivers makes clear that this development was the result of Soviet foreign and industrial policy, rather than a “market driven” process; as an independent entrepreneur, Kalashnikov could not have invented, produced, or exported the rifle on anything approaching the scale that has been seen since 1950. The collapse of the Soviet bloc made a tremendous number of rifles available, swamping the market (although, Chivers carefully points out, never to the extent that you could trade a Kalashnikov for a chicken).

As I suggest earlier, there’s an element of anti-hagiography to Chivers’ discussion of Kalashnikov.  Chivers points out the considerable ambiguity regarding both Kalashnikov’s biography and his contribution to the weapon.  Kalashnikov himself tells many different stories of his origins, and his account of the development of the AK-47 differs in key details from those of others present in the process.  Nevertheless, even in Chivers’ account it’s hard for me to see how anyone (besides perhaps Stalin) has more of a claim to be the “father” of the AK-47 than Mikhail Kalashnikov.  Chivers points out that Kalashnikov’s work has hardly gone unrewarded; he was the Soviet equivalent of a star celebrity, and now lives a comfortable retirement on the pension of a lieutenant general.  Given that Kalashnikov grew up in Stalin’s USSR, I’m willing to cut him more than a little slack on honesty issues.

For the sake of comparison, Chivers gives an account of the M-16, arguing that both the American weapon (at least in its first decade) and the American process of procurement were inferior to their Soviet counterparts. The US Army was slow to recognize the threat and promise of an effective assault rifle, then leapt to the M-16 almost in a panic when it recognized the vulnerability created by the AK.  The selection of the M-16 was also affected by private economic interest, as well as a series of misunderstandings about technology within the McNamara Pentagon. Consequently, the United States entered the most intense parts of the Vietnam War with a weapon that simply wasn’t ready for prime time.  Over time the M-16 improved, just as later models of the AK improved on early defects and manufacturing issues.

Chivers also has an interesting story to tell regarding American and Russian understandings of military technology.  His account conforms broadly with that set forth in Dima Adamsky’s The Culture of Military Innovation; the US military-industrial complex has been particularly adept at perfecting technologies within a specific understanding of how military force can be used.  The Russians (then the Soviets, then the Russians again) are better at realizing the potentially revolutionary aspects of particular weapon technologies than they are at developing the advanced technologies themselves.  Indeed, it could be argued that the most effective Soviet weapon systems (the AK, the T-34, the MiG-21) were the fruits of integrating relatively mature technologies guided by a clear vision of the military and political impact of the weapon.

Near the end of the book Chivers has an interesting aside on the question of how and why the AK-47 will become “obsolete.”  He points out that even the AK deteriorates over time; although fighters in Afghanistan are still using weapons built in the 1950s, the parts don’t last forever, and we can envision a world (perhaps some fifty years after the last AK has been built) when the last AK will be fired in anger.  I wonder, though, what factors could motivate an “end” to the AK-47.  It’s not a perfect weapon, but then no gun can be.  It’s difficult to imagine what could replace the AK, and in so doing make the AK no longer useful, in the sense that a sword is no longer a useful weapon of war.  The invention of cheap, portable phasers? Or perhaps this is the wrong way to think about it; the end of the AK-47 will be brought about not by a change in technology, but rather by a change in the political and social factors that made it such a useful tool in the first place.

The Gun isn’t perfect.  Chivers includes some discussion of the impact of the AK-47 in wars, brushfire or no, across the world, but doesn’t bring the same satisfying level of detail that he provides regarding the production and design of the weapon.  Indeed, he gives a tighter account of the effect of machine guns in the trenches in World War I than of the AK in the jungles of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. Those seeking a technical account of the AK and its various models will be, Chivers is careful to assure the reader, disappointed.  Nevertheless, The Gun is an excellent, useful account of the development of automatic weapons, and in particular of the most commonly employed automatic weapon of the past fifty years.

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