The gun that changed the world
Last Updated: 5:08 AM, December 12, 2010
Posted: 12:33 AM, December 12, 2010
In 1980s Afghanistan, a Tajik commander attended the funeral of a soldier who’d been killed in their war against the Soviet Union.
At one point, he picked up the dead man’s Kalashnikov rifle and presented it to his younger brother. With a ceremonial flair, he asked the man, “Do you want to be a mujahid?” The man took the gun and replied, “I am going to take my brother’s weapon. I am going to be with you.”
The importance of the weapon was more than simple ceremony. Later, when elements of the mujahideen evolved into al Qaeda, the first class taken by new recruits was a lesson on the Kalashnikov.
The Kalashnikov, or AK-47, is the gun that assassinated Sadat, armed the PLO and allowed Idi Amin to become the devil of Uganda. A favorite of both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the AK-47 and its offshoots are by far the most plentiful guns on Earth, with over 100 million in circulation — one for every 70 people on the planet.
In his fascinating book, “The Gun” (Simon & Schuster), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist C.J. Chivers shows how the world was forever altered by the pursuit of automatic weapons and especially the invention of the Kalashnikov — an easy-to-use automatic rifle that allowed any one man to possess the firepower of an army.
By the time the AK appeared, of course, military men already were enamored with the machine gun. In the 1860s, North Carolina’s Dr. Richard Gatling invented “the first reasonably effective rapid-fire arm” in the Gatling gun, which weighed about a ton and was operated by a bulky hand crank.
The Gatling gun proved effective in battle, although many rejected it for its size, fearing that it would slow an army’s movement. (Before the Battle of Little Bighorn, Lt. Col. George Custer was offered Gatling guns but opted for single-shot rifles instead, likely leading to his massacre.)
The world got a taste of the Gatling’s power in 1879, when the British faced down 20,000 Zulus. Outnumbered four to one, the Brits started shooting, and Zulu lines “began to melt away.” The Zulu’s were conquered in a half-hour, with only 11 British casualties.
The next advance came via New Englander Hiram Maxim, who sought to design a weapon with a trigger instead of a hand crank. Realizing that the energy from a gun’s recoil could be used to power the crank’s tasks, he created the Maxim gun, which weighed less than 150 pounds and became the world’s first truly automatic weapon.
With the Maxim, the British showed how easy killing had become. In 1893’s Matabele War in South Africa, they killed 1,500 natives without suffering a single casualty. In another battle, four dozen policemen with four Maxims reportedly killed 3,000 Africans.
Despite — or sometimes because of — their clear success as killing machines, the global verdict on automatic weapons remained divided.
Theodore Roosevelt, who had been a colonel in the Spanish-American War, wrote of hearing a particular sound in battle.
“I leaped to my feet and called, ‘It’s the Gatlings, men! It’s our Gatlings!’ Immediately the men began to cheer lustily, for the sound was most inspiring.”
But the ease and brutality of murder inspired opposition as well. In 1898, 23-year-old British journalist Winston Churchill watched his countrymen kill somewhere between 10,000-20,000 Sudanese in one day — all before noon, in fact — while losing only 48 of their own men.
Churchill wrote of seeing men “destroyed, not conquered, by machinery.”
“At such sights,” he wrote, “the triumph of victory faded on the mind, and a mournful feeling of disgust grew stronger.”
Certain governments were too entrenched in tradition to truly embrace the leap forward. The US was still enamored by the romance of the frontier rifleman, and through World War I, the British — despite their own experiences — made bayonet training the priority for new soldiers, even though they caused only 0.5% of casualties in that war.
With Germany issuing 16 machine guns to their infantry battalions while the British offered only two, the Brits’ hesitation would have devastating consequences.
In one 1916 battle, the British marched in formation, equipped with bayonets, against a German army with machine guns. In the first hour, 30,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded.
One German soldier later said that, “The English came walking, as though they were going to the theatre or on a parade ground. We felt they were mad.”
While rifles changed little during World War II, the Soviets held a secret contest among their designers during the conflict, challenging them to create a light, compact, reliable gun that was made from few parts and easy to assemble and use.
Sgt. Mikhail Kalashnikov led the team that ultimately created the weapon that bears his name, and which became a much-touted tool for Soviet propaganda. The exact details of the weapon’s creation, though, are impossible to discern, due to the secrecy and lies of Josef Stalin’s government. It was surely more of a socialist team effort — possibly assisted by captured German weapons and designers — than the Kremlin ever let on.
The Kalashnikov’s critical feature was that, unlike most automatic weapons, its parts were designed to be loose fitting, which drastically reduced instances of jamming. It also consisted of very few parts, making it so easy to use that Soviet schoolboys — who were trained in these matters — could dissemble and reassemble the guns in 30 seconds flat.
Reliability and ease of use combined with two other factors to make the AK-47 the world’s most popular gun: Stalin relied on manufacturing the weapon to boost the Soviet economy, which led to eventual overproduction; and Nikita Khrushchev’s use of it as political currency, as he regularly sent arms to smaller nations in order to curry favor.
In 1955, the Soviets included in the Warsaw Pact the condition that all Eastern Bloc nations use the guns supplied by the Soviets. Many of those nations then set up their own factories for the production and export of the weapons, laying the groundwork for global saturation.
In September of that year, Khrushchev made a massive arms deal with Egypt that delivered the guns to the Middle East, and which soon lead to deals with Syria, Iran, and Iraq.
By the time of Vietnam, the US had failed to keep pace in the world of small arms development.
The American military — which dismissed the AK as being of “limited value” — had long been addicted to heavy ammunition, and larger ammo required larger guns. In the 1950s, they developed the 12-pound, 4-foot-long M-14, thereby committing themselves to a big weapon for their next war. But by that point, modern warfare relied more on rapid fire than precise fire. That required bullets to be smaller.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the AR-15 — later the M-16 — finally was rushed into production to address the new reality of war.
Chivers’ section on the subsequent development of the M-16 is enough to make any American’s blood boil. While today the world’s second-most prominent automatic weapon, the M-16 was far from combat ready when it was made standard issue for soldiers in Vietnam. It was shockingly susceptible to rust and, worse, jammed with alarming and deadly frequency.
Developed in a non-competitive environment — the AR-15 was chosen because it was the only automatic rifle available — the gun was tested with different ammo than it used in the field, and decisions about it were made by systems analysts who had no experience in weaponry or combat, and who failed to test it for possible rusting.
Politics also played an odd role in saddling our soldiers with the weapon. An arms dealer working with Colt’s Firearms Division, the AR-15’s manufacturer, arranged for the Air Force vice chief of staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, to sample the gun at an outdoor party.
Three watermelons were set up as targets, and when struck, the first two “exploded in vivid red splashes,” leaving the general so impressed that he didn’t bother shooting the third, which was eaten instead. LeMay was promoted to chief in 1961, and in 1962 the Air Force bought 8,500 AR-15s from Colt.
In 1966, soldiers arriving overseas found their rifles “hard to clean, fussy and prone to untimely stoppages.” Inspectors from Colt later reported that the weapons were in such bad shape that they were “literally rotting in troops hands.”
By the summer of 1967, the Viet Cong were killing 800 US servicemen per month, with the majority of deaths coming from small-arms fire: the VC’s far-more-reliable AK-47s.
Chivers lays out numerous scenes in which trapped American soldiers faced enemy fire while trying to revive jammed weapons.
In one, a gunner with no counter fire to cover him is shot in the head. As the assistant gunner moves to take his place, he’s hit as well. Another company sees 40 rifles jam during one battle, leaving a quarter of them unable to return fire.
Increasingly, as Marines faced enemy bullets, they needed to “thread together several sections of narrow metal pipe . . . and plunge the rod down the barrel” to dislodge trapped shell cases — the same movement, Chivers notes, that “Revolutionary War soldiers had to do to reload muskets nearly 200 years before.”
Marines began to develop cuts on their hands from using their M-16s as clubs.
The situation got so bad that healthy Marines would walk among the wounded, asking if their guns still worked so they could trade. Others bought black market M-14s from rear echelon and aviation units. One platoon commander, conceding to the M-16’s ineffectiveness, ordered his company to “fix bayonets” before advancing on the enemy.
Chivers quotes a soldier, in an interview with the Asbury Park Evening Press, saying, “You know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Practically every one of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.”
Meanwhile, the AK-47 continued to spread around the world, as Eastern Bloc countries, now with massive stockpiles, sold off some and simply lost track of many others. When Palestinian terrorists took the Israeli Olympic team hostage with AKs in 1972, the world got its first horrifying look at the automatic weapon’s next fans.
In the ensuing years, the Kalashnikov became the weapon of choice for Middle Eastern terrorists and African despots, with AK coming to mean “Africa Killer” as African nations increasingly found themselves embroiled in brutal, oppressive and nightmarish civil wars.
Chivers includes a blood-curdling section on Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which not only terrorized the nation through the arming of soldiers as young as 9 — who had no trouble mastering the simple-to-use AKs — but had these children intimidate villages by choosing citizens at random and slicing off their noses and lips as a warning to others.
In 2001, the UN did a study that found that small arms had been the main weapons in 46 of the 49 major conflicts in the 1990s, in which 4 million people were killed — 90% of them civilians.
Toward the end of the book, Chivers includes a horrifying seven-page scene detailing an assassination attempt in Iraq in 2002 that — at a time when more than 50 nations and countless terrorist groups rely on the weapon to further their causes — illustrates the Kalashnikov’s human cost from a victim’s point of view.
Chivers says that today, the AK has achieved a point of full saturation, with even the American military, understanding that their soldiers will have to face it in battle, training their people in its use.
As with nukes and land mines, the reduction of automatic rifles is hoped for, but ultimately futile. With some of the first AK-47s ever made still in service in Afghanistan, it’s a gun that has altered global politics for multiple generations.
There is only one factor, Chivers says, that will bring about the end of the AK: time. Perhaps a century from now, when enough rifles have been backed over by trucks, exploded in war zones, or simply erode with time, only then will the violent legacy of the Soviet Union’s most lasting accomplishment finally come to an end.
YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION?
The proliferation of the cheap, dangerous AK-47 has contributed to Third World instability. Got four grand? You have a militia.
Troops: In the Congo, 4 million have been killed in ongoing wars between the army and local warlords. A regular government soldier makes only $10 a month, double that (with the promise of spoils) and you have a happy mercenary. Get a dozen. Initial cost: $240
Transportation: Your choice here will be a Toyota Hilux pickup truck, popular for being indestructible and big enough to carry all your men. (There was even a conflict named after them, the Toyota War between Libya and Chad). Doesn’t matter if it’s 20 years old, it will still run. Cost: $1,000
Weapons: Prices vary, with some (likely apocryphal) reports saying an AK can be bought for $30 in parts of Africa. But one reliable figure is that when US troops seized the hard drive of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, it showed that he planned on arming 2,000 fighters with AKs at a cost of $202 per. Cost: $2,424
Dress: A good scarf, bandana or keffiyeh protects soldiers from dust, obscures identities and generally instills fear. Cost: negligible.