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The AK-47: 'The Gun' That Changed The Battlefield

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Hezbollah flag i

The flag of Hezbollah features a fist holding an AK-47. The gun has become a symbol worldwide, says author C.J. Chivers. Stringer/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Stringer/Getty Images
Hezbollah flag

The flag of Hezbollah features a fist holding an AK-47. The gun has become a symbol worldwide, says author C.J. Chivers.

Stringer/Getty Images

The AK-47 was designed after World War II by the Soviets, who issued the guns to the communist army's conscripted forces. In the past few decades, the AK-47 has become one of the weapons of choice for many groups — and one of the most commonly smuggled weapons in the world.

One of the first true assault rifles, the AK-47, or Kalashnikov, was designed for soldiers who have to endure terrible conditions on the battlefield: It's light, it can carry a lot of ammunition, and it can withstand harsh weather and poor handling. The gun's design and ubiquity also have made it popular among small-arms dealers — as well as insurgents, terrorists and child soldiers.

C.J. Chivers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent for The New York Times, has encountered the Kalashnikov while reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq. His new book, The Gun, traces the migration of the AK-47 across the world, detailing the consequences of its spread.

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

Read An Excerpt

"It's pretty hard in many parts of the world, particularly in Afghanistan, to go [into] territory under insurgent control, and not be ambushed by Kalashnikovs," says Chivers. "Their numbers are so outsized that this is quite a common experience."

One estimate by the World Bank suggests that 100 million of the 500 million total firearms available worldwide are variations of the Kalashnikov.

"There's a lot of measures of a weapon, and one of them is how they work against a conventional foe, like the United States military," he says. "That's not the best measure. The best measure is how they work against a larger set of victims: how they work against civilians, how they work at checkpoints [and] how they work in the commission of crimes for all of these things. It's a [terribly effective] weapon."

Chivers has covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya and served as the Times' Moscow correspondent from June 2004 through mid-2008. He also served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps from 1988 to 1994. He received the Livingston Award for International Journalism for his coverage of the collapse of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic and shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

C.J. Chivers i

C.J. Chivers is a war correspondent for The New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 as part of a team of reporters and photographers reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tyler Hicks hide caption

toggle caption Tyler Hicks
C.J. Chivers

C.J. Chivers is a war correspondent for The New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 as part of a team of reporters and photographers reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Tyler Hicks

Interview Highlights

On why child soldiers favor them

"It's out there. And the weapon that's out there is the weapon that tends to get used. But the other reason is the design. It's very, very simple. It's almost intuitive. You can take it apart very quickly and put it back together just as quickly. It's simple to clean. It's simple to maintain. Most of the Kalashnikovs out there are very well made for the actual conditions of war. It has an excellent protective finish. It's chromed on the inside of its barrel and its chamber. All of these things mean that if you're not particularly attentive in caring for it, it's still going to last and it's still going to work."

On the invention of the AK-47

"It was a weapon that was designed to be issued to the communist conscripted forces. It was going to be the standard shoulder firearm. And the Soviet Union was really quite brilliant at copying its enemies' patterns. ... The AK-47 was basically a conceptual knockoff — a copy of a German idea, which was to take a cartridge midway in size between those used by pistols and those used by the traditional rifles of the time and to take this medium-powered intermediate cartridge and build a weapon around it. And this brought several technical advantages. With a lighter-weight cartridge, you could carry more ammunition, which meant each solider could be more effective and could last longer in a fight because he would have more ammunition in his pack or kit."

On the AK-47's range

"The other thing it tells you ... is that, in some ways, it's a mediocre weapon. It's not especially accurate and it's used often by people who are often not especially skilled. I'm one of them, but there's many, many more [people] who have been ambushed by Kalashnikovs and not been shot. Because they miss you. And there's reasons they miss you that are rooted in the weapon's own design and also in the training of the people that carry them."

"The weapon is designed with a relatively short barrel and it's designed with a relatively loose fit of its parts and it's got a heavy operating system and it shoots a medium-powered ammunition. At longer ranges, it's actually not incredibly effective. At shorter ranges, it's a terrible weapon. But at longer ranges — which is pretty common in the arid regions such as Afghanistan and Iraq where there's not a lot of vegetation — they often miss."

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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