AUDIE CORNISH, host:
The image is iconic: the stubby barrel, the inverted arc of the banana clip. Bin Laden put one in his post-9/11 video. Saddam had a pair with him upon capture. It appears on the flags of Mozambique and Hezbollah.
The Kalashnikov rifle, or AK-47, can be found in every major conflict of the past 50 years. C.J. Chivers, a Pulitzer Prize winner for the New York Times, has written a book tracing the history of this lethal firearm, and he joins me on the line from Zhari in southern Afghanistan, where he's reporting for the Times.
Chris Chivers, welcome to the show.
Mr. C.J. CHIVERS (Journalist, The New York Times; Author, "The Gun"): Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So Chris, it's actually pretty fitting that we've reached you in Afghanistan because the Kalashnikov has played such a large role in the fighting there over the years.
Mr. CHIVERS: Yeah, the Kalashnikov is certainly one of the principal instruments of the insurgence here, and it's been in circulation in the country for several decades - to the point of which it's one of the most common sights out in the Afghan countryside.
CORNISH: What is it about this weapon that's changed the nature of warfare over the past 50 years?
Mr. CHIVERS: There's two things. The first is, the weapon is quite easy to use. It's not especially powerful; it doesn't have a lot of recoil; it's very easy to assemble and disassemble; it doesn't jam.
So once this weapon got into the hands of insurgents and the guerrillas and the like, it made them more effective than they ever been. It let them, for the first time, really, in history, fight the most powerful nations on the earth and fight them, you know, effectively in rifle fights - fight them to a standstill, even.
Now the second thing that makes it what it has become has been its sheer numbers. This was produced by the tens of millions, often by countries that eventually lost custody of them. And so one of the reasons it's so popular today is because it's so available.
CORNISH: Now this - the AK-47 was developed after World War II. Why were people looking for this kind of weapon?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, the Soviet Union had faced Germany on its western flank during the Great Patriotic War, and the Germans had fielded an assault rifle - a weapon that was sort of midway in power between pistols and the traditional rifles of the time, and could be fired automatically.
Now the Soviet Union, having faced this - you know - in the hands of its adversaries, realized it was a breakthrough. And they wanted to copy it.
CORNISH: You also write that in the U.S., defense leaders didn't seem to take this idea seriously - or take this weapon very seriously. Where was the focus of the U.S. then, and why not on this particular style of weapon?
Mr. CHIVERS: The United States took its rifle program very seriously, but that's the key way to understand this - the word rifle. They didn't think, when the Kalashnikov came along, that it was even a rifle. They classified it as a submachine gun. They thought that it was too small and not powerful enough to be a rifle.
And so sort of by definition, they didn't consider it to be worthy of their own soldiers. And they were invested in a larger, heavier rifle that fired a more powerful round. And this was something they took very seriously - but it turned out, would not be as well-suited for the war that was coming in Vietnam.
CORNISH: Can the AK-47 - can it be blamed for making certain conflicts last longer, making certain conflicts bloodier? Can this particular weapon be blamed for making things worse - for better or worse - when it comes to war?
Mr. CHIVERS: Well, I would say that the weapon has two qualities that certainly make things worse. One is the durability of the weapon. It lasts a long time. I routinely find them here in Afghanistan from the 1950s. These weapons are six decades old; they're still working quite well. We don't know how long a Kalashnikov takes to die.
And so once a country gets armed up with Kalashnikovs, it's very, very hard for that country to disarm. Now, the other quality is the sheer numbers of these weapons. They're so readily available in many conflict zones. And so I would say that these two things - the durability of the weapon and this, you know, this outsized production and availability of the weapon - certainly have made some wars much harder to fight.
CORNISH: And lastly, Chris, is there anything that can be done, then, about the proliferation of Kalashnikovs?
Mr. CHIVERS: I would say that you shouldn't put me in the hopeful box there. The weapons that are out in the field are very, very hard to collect. Now, longer term, I think that you can affect future supply by securing or destroying some of the weapons in the Eastern European and Russian and Chinese stockpiles. 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.
CORNISH: C.J. Chivers is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. His new book is "The Gun."
Chris Chivers, thank you for joining me. And be careful out there.
Mr. CHIVERS: Thanks, Audie. I really appreciate it.