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'The Gun': How AK-47s Changed The Nature Of War

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A rebel soldier holds an AK-47 assault rifle. i

A rebel soldier holds an AK-47 assault rifle in the Ivory Coast city of Bouake in 2002. Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images
A rebel soldier holds an AK-47 assault rifle.

A rebel soldier holds an AK-47 assault rifle in the Ivory Coast city of Bouake in 2002.

Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images
The Gun
The Gun
By C.J. Chivers
Hardcover, 496 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $28

Read An Excerpt

C.J. Chivers i

C.J. Chivers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent for The New York Times. Tyler Hicks hide caption

toggle caption Tyler Hicks
C.J. Chivers

C.J. Chivers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent for The New York Times.

Tyler Hicks

The image is iconic: the stubby barrel, the inverted arc of the banana clip. Osama bin Laden included one in his video after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Saddam Hussein had a pair with him when he was captured. It appears on the flag of Mozambique and Hezbollah.

The AK-47 — or versions of it — can be found in every major conflict of the past 50 years. In his new book, The Gun, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter C.J. Chivers traces the history of the lethal firearm.

Chivers, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, tells NPR's Audie Cornish the gun is one of the principle weapons of insurgents in Afghanistan, where he's been reporting.

"It's been in circulation in the country for several decades," he says, "to the point of which it's one of the most common sights out in the Afghan countryside."

Chivers says the weapon has changed the nature of warfare over the past 50 years because of its availability and ease of use.

AK-47s don't have a lot of recoil, don't jam, and are easy to assemble and disassemble. The gun was produced by the tens of millions, Chivers says, "often by countries that eventually lost custody of them."

Once the guns got into the hands of insurgents, it made the insurgents more effective.

"It let them — for the first time really in history — fight the most powerful nations on the earth, and fight them effectively," he says, "fight them to a standstill even."

Chivers says he thinks the gun's availability and durability has made some conflicts much harder to fight.

"I routinely find [AK-47s] here in Afghanistan from the 1950's — these weapons are six decades old and they're still working quite well," he says.

Chivers says he's not hopeful that much can be done about the proliferation of AK-47s.

"Longer term, I think, you can affect future supply by securing and destroying some of the weapons in the Eastern European, Russian and Chinese stockpiles," he says. "The rifles that are already out, they're out to stay; they have to be collected literally one at a time, and there's not much more that I can think of, that's more costly than that."

More With C.J. Chivers

Excerpt: 'The Gun'

The Gun
The Gun
By C.J. Chivers
Hardcover, 496 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $28

The Birth of Machine Guns

Richard J. Gatling was seeking business. In the meticulous penmanship of a man born to a land-owning Southern family, he began a letter to President Abraham Lincoln.

It was February 18, 1864, late in the American Civil War and an extraordinary period in the evolution of firearms: dawn in the age of the machine gun and yet a time when officers still roamed battlefields with swords. At forty-five, Gatling was a medical-school graduate who had never practiced medicine, opting instead to turn his stern father's sideline as an inventor into a career. For twenty years he had mainly designed agricultural devices. Dr. Gatling, as he liked to be called, came from a North Carolina family that owned as many as twenty slaves. But he had moved north to Indiana for business and marriage, and when the war began in 1861 he did not align himself with the secessionists who formed the Confederacy. He knew men on both sides. Far from his place of birth and away from the battlefields, he had taken to viewing the contents of the caskets returning to the railroad depot in Indianapolis. Inside were the remains of Union soldiers, many felled by trauma but most by infection or disease. Seeing these gruesome sights, Gatling shifted attention from farm devices to firearms, and to the ambition of designing a rapid-fire weapon, a pursuit that since the fourteenth century had attracted and eluded gunsmiths around the world. "I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead," he wrote. "It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine — a gun — that would by its rapidity of fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished."

Gatling did not fit any caricature of an arms profiteer. By the available accounts, he carried himself as a neat and finely dressed gentleman. He was kindhearted to his family and associates, soft-spoken at home, and self-conscious enough that he wore a beard to hide the smallpox scars that peppered his face. He made for a curious figure: an earnest and competitive showboat when promoting his weapon, but restrained and modest on the subject of himself. He was, his son-in-law said, "an exception to the rule that no man is great to his valet." One interviewer noted that he professed to feel "that if he could invent a gun which would do the work of 100 men, the other ninety and nine could remain at home and be saved to the country." He repeated this point throughout his life, explaining a sentiment that he insisted rose from seeing firsthand the ruined remains of young men lost in a fratricidal war. His records make clear that he was driven by profits. He never ceased claiming that compassion urged him on at the start.

Gatling was neither a military nor a social visionary. But he was a gifted tinkerer and an unrelenting salesman, and he found good help. His plans proceeded swiftly. Though there is no record of his having prior experience with weapon design, by late 1862, after viewing rival guns, drawing on his knowledge of agricultural machinery, and enlisting the mechanical assistance of Otis Frink, a local machinist, he had received a patent for a prototype he called the "battery gun." "The object of this invention," he told the U.S. Patent Office, "is to obtain a simple, compact, durable, and efficient firearm for war purposes, to be used either in attack or defence, one that is light when compared with ordinary field artillery, that is easily transported, that may be rapidly fired, and that can be operated by few men."

Gatling's battery gun, while imperfect in its early forms, was a breakthrough in a field that had frustrated everyone who had tried before. Since medieval times, the pursuit of a single weapon that could mass musket fire had confounded generations of military-minded gunsmiths and engineers. Gunsmiths had long ago learned to place barrels side by side on frames to create firearms capable of discharging projectiles in rapid succession. These unwieldy devices, known as volley guns, were capable in theory of blasting a hole in a line of advancing soldiers. They had limitations in practice, among them slow reload times and difficulties in adjusting fire toward moving targets and their flanks. Ammunition was a problem, too, as was the poor state of metallurgy, although this did not discourage everyone, and the lethal possibilities of a machine that could concentrate gunfire attracted would-be inventors of many stripes. One of the few highly detailed accounts of the early models suggests an inauspicious start. In 1835, Giuseppe Fieschi, a Corsican, rented an apartment on Boulevard du Temple in Paris. In a room overlooking the street he secretly constructed a frame of thick oak posts and attached twenty-five rifle barrels, all in a space of roughly a meter square. Each barrel was packed with multiple musket balls and a heavy charge of powder, then aligned to aim together at a point on the street below. Fieschi waited. On July 28, his intended victim appeared: King Louis-Philippe. Fieschi fired his makeshift device, and a volley flew from the apartment window and slammed into the king's entourage. In the technical sense, the "infernal machine," as his device came to be known in Europe, was both a success and a failure. It had a terrible effect. A piece of lead grazed Louis-Philippe's skull, just above his face, and others cut down his company, killing eighteen people. But an examination of the gun later suggested that while it worked well enough as a tool for assassination or terror, it was hardly ready for the battlefield. Four barrels had failed to fire. Four others had ruptured. Two of these had exploded, scattering lead inside the assassin's rented room and gravely injuring Fieschi, who was captured and saved from his injuries by the French authorities, to be executed later by guillotine.

Excerpt from The Gun by C.J. Chivers. Copyright 2010 by CJ Chivers. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster.

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