Top Gun

How the AK-47 changed the world.

In late 1945, Sergeant Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov entered an office contest more pressing than even the most rabid of Fantasy Footballers could fathom. Joseph Stalin wanted a new gun, and the Soviet leader tasked his army with selecting the best design. Kalashnikov, an under-schooled former tank gunner working in a secret armaments research lab outside of Moscow, sketched the contours for a revolutionary assault rifle: It would fire both automatically and single-shot, have minimal recoil or “kick,” be simple to maintain, and feature a banana-shaped ammunition clip. He won. Two years later, prototypes of the new gun came off the production line bearing his name: Avtomat Kalashnikov. It is better known today as the AK-47.

The Kalashnikov went on to become the most lethal weapon in modern times. During the 1990s, small arms were the primary weapon in 46 of 49 major conflicts documented by the United Nations. By some estimates, as many as 100 million Kalashnikovs exist worldwide, or about one per 70 people. It is the weapon of choice for dozens of national militaries; Taliban fighters and child soldiers in Africa carry them, too. (Since 1947, myriad variations of the original Kalashnikov have been manufactured. Though not all of them are AK-47s, Chivers points out, they can be collectively called Kalashnikovs.) But the Kalashnikov stands for more than just a firearm. It is a symbol of anti-Americanism in pop culture. It appears on national flags, political party banners, and jihadi propaganda videos. And it’s Russia’s most widely recognized export.

How did such a “stubbornly mediocre arm,” as C.J. Chivers of the New York Times characterizes a weapon that has hardly evolved beyond its sturdy wartime design, become ubiquitous in armed conflict—and the public imagination—today? In answering this question in his fascinating book, The Gun, Chivers offers a compelling perspective on 20th-century warfare as he traces the rise of the Kalashnikov. At the same time, he offers some intriguing clues about what kind of weapon might turn out to be the Kalashnikov’s successor in the 21st century.

The triumph of the Kalashnikov was not a story of market-drive success sparked by a bold innovator. That was hardly the Soviet way, after all. Instead, the Kalashnikov was a case of the right tool in the right place at the right time. “The AK-47 was not to break out globally because it was well conceived and well made, or because it pushed Soviet small-arms development ahead of the West,” writes Chivers. “Technical qualities did not drive socialist arms production. It was the other way around. Soviet military policies mixed with Kremlin foreign-policy decisions to propel the output that made the AK-47 and its knock-offs available almost anywhere.” With Khrushchev in charge after Stalin died in 1953, and the Warsaw Pact established two years later, Moscow’s foreign policy had a new top-down goal: to distribute weapons to its satellite states. Factories in the Soviet Union cranked out Kalashnikovs. By 1956, Chinese plants were manufacturing their own variant. Khrushchev later formalized weapons deals with Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

The Kalashnikov was originally touted as a weapon to resist imperialism, capitalism—in short, the United States. But Cold War advertising rarely aligned with reality. The rifle’s operational debut came in 1956, when the Red Army rolled into Hungary to crush a popular uprising in the streets of Budapest. Two events in Budapest that autumn foreshadowed the Kalashnikov’s future. First, in the process of ruthlessly suppressing the revolution, the Kalashnikov emerged as “repression’s chosen gun, the rifle of the occupier and the police state.” More important, it quickly fell into the hands of rebels who deciphered the gun’s simple mechanics and used it against Soviet-backed soldiers, even executing one lieutenant in broad daylight. Here was a weapon anyone could use—and use over and over. The Kalashnikov was “so reliable, even when soaked in bog water and coated with sand,” Chivers writes, “that its Soviet testers had trouble making it jam.”

But the Kalashnikov’s even greater asset is that its lethality hardly depends on the skill of its marksman. Whether a teenager in Uganda or a Lashkar-e-Tayyab militant in the streets of Mumbai is wielding it, the Kalashnikov is almost equally effective in its brutal way. Chivers vividly describes how its bullets “snap and shatter human bone” and how the “knifelike shards of bullet jackets and ruptured bone intermingle and radiate outward, cutting more tissues as they scatter.”

The Kalashnikov’s accessibility to street gangs, bumpkins, and tribal malcontents has reshaped guerilla movements, urban combat, and insurgencies—the sort of conflicts that have dominated warfare during the past several decades. The Pentagon categorizes them all under the rubric of “asymmetric warfare,” or battle between lopsided armies. It’s a term that became trendy in military circles after America’s massively funded forces were harried by ragtag bands of young men in Iraq and Afghanistan often armed with little more than rusting Kalashnikovs. But it covers a widespread phenomenon: The resilience of the FARC under assault by Colombian helicopters, of Chechen militants faced with Russia tanks, and of Kurdish insurgents confronting Turkish warplanes can all be chalked up largely to abundant stores of Kalashnikovs.

The Kalashnikov’s spread didn’t occur in a vacuum. While rifles were being stockpiled in Soviet warehouses and then shipped to Warsaw Pact armies, the Pentagon, focused primarily on the nuclear arms race and the prospect of a tank battle against a Soviet incursion into Germany “misjudge[d] the meaning and significance of the AK-47’s arrival.” The result, Chivers concludes, was the loss of “one of the most important but least-chronicled arms races of the Cold War.” (By comparison, there are fewer than 10 million M-16s in circulation today.) But innovation in the arms industry guarantees that at some point the Kalashnikov’s already outdated technology will at last render it obsolete, unable to pierce the newest body armor. The Gun documents how the Kalashnikov influenced warfare over the past 50 years, but what about the 50 years to come? What might be today’s game-changer? And will it be anything like the Kalashnikov, or a radical departure?

Some analysts believe that the rapidly increasing use of Predator drones in the years since 9/11 represents a substantive evolution in war-fighting. A Wilson Quarterly article last year quoted an unnamed Air Force lieutenant general projecting that “given the growth trends, it is not unreasonable to postulate future conflicts involving tens of thousands” of them. Since November 2002, when a missile fired from a Predator killed a Yemeni terrorist accused of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, targeting him as he drove across the Yemeni countryside, drones have become an integral component of America’s arsenal against al-Qaida. Last month alone there were at least 22 drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the most ever in a single month. More than 40 other countries are now working to develop technologies for their own unmanned aerial vehicles.

Without a doubt, the combination of precision and relatively low risk makes Predators and their kin appealing weapons for well-financed national armed forces. Drones certainly make war easier for the United States. But it’s difficult to imagine them ever becoming an “everyman” sort of weapon or one that alters cultures and societies. In Africa, the AK-47 has undermined long-standing power dynamics; a child is only a child—innocent, naive, harmless—until he or she is pointing a Kalashnikov in your face. Similarly, protesters are simply disgruntled folks until they have their hands on cheap weapons.

If there’s one contemporary weapon that blends the battlefield advantages and subversive power of the Kalashnikov, it just might be the suicide bomb. A “martial leveler”? Check. Inexpensive, effective, and democratic in its ease of use? Check. A weapon that’s changing commonly accepted “rules” of war? Check, check. The comparison isn’t perfect, of course, but that only confirms Chivers’ very point about the Kalashnikov’s uniqueness. It’s quite possible that when they’re gone, there won’t be “the next” Kalashnikov. There may, in fact, never be another gun like it—one so resistant to obsolescence, so reliable in the field, and so revolutionary in its impact.

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