Book of the week: The Gun by C.J. Chivers

Chivers traces the history of the AK-47 automatic assault rifle from its development by a Red Army sergeant to its status as the preferred weapon of soldiers and revolutionaries worldwide.

(Simon & Schuster, 481 pages, $28)

The Soviet Union’s greatest engineering triumph may have been the “development of the world’s most ubiquitous firearm,” said Max Boot in The New York Times. In his new book, war correspondent and former Marine C.J. Chivers traces the 60-year proliferation of the AK-47 automatic assault rifle from its development by a lowly Red Army sergeant to its current status as the preferred weapon of soldiers and revolutionaries worldwide. Weighing in at about 10 pounds and practically impossible to jam, Mikhail Kalashnikov’s rifle changed the nature of modern warfare across the globe, Chivers argues, by virtue of the fact that it could be operated by almost anyone. “The mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained”—even child soldiers—suddenly became one-man armies capable of “pushing out blistering fire for the length of two or three football fields.”

Though short on accuracy, the AK-47 turned out to be “the right tool in the right place at the right time,” said Nicholas Schmidle in Slate.com. Commissioned by Stalin, the rifle was pushed into heavy production in 1953 when Nikita Khrushchev decided that he needed to arm Soviet satellite states against the threat of Western imperialism. Gradually, beginning with Hungary’s 1956 uprising, the AK-47 appeared in the hands of anti-Soviet rebels who had easily deciphered “the gun’s simple mechanics” and turned the weapon against the Soviet army and its allies. Later, the gun’s mystique would grow on the strength of its performance in places such as Vietnam, where the Viet Cong enjoyed a decided advantage against American soldiers armed with jam-prone M16s.

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“Chivers’ efforts to put the AK-47 in a broad historical context” is both a strength and a weakness of the book, said Robert Kim in The Wall Street Journal. He spends a great deal of space—nearly half the book—tracing the development of previous machine guns, from the hand-cranked Gatling gun, introduced near the end of the American Civil War, through the German-made StG44, from which Kalashnikov borrowed heavily. But Chivers’ main point, that the AK-47 stands apart as “the world’s primary tool for killing,” is hard to deny. Estimates put the number of AK-47s currently in circulation at roughly one for every 70 people on the planet. While the danger of nuclear proliferation rightly gets much high-level attention, Kalashnikov’s rifle has done more than any other weapon to “define the character” of the wars that nations actually fight

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