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Shots that Ring Across the World

bedside_gun.jpgSomehow I missed this interesting review by Max Boot of C.J. Chivers’ book on the Kalashnikov rifle, the only gun in history to be included on a country’s flag (Mozambique) and even home furnishings.

What made the Kalashnikov the winner in a global arms race that has been going on for more than 60 years was how it performed in the field. The very fact that its parts were “loose fitting, rather than snug” meant that it was “less likely to jam when dirty, inadequately lubricated or clogged with carbon from heavy firing.” “It was so reliable,” Chivers writes, that even when it was “soaked in bog water and coated with sand” its Soviet testers “had trouble making it jam.”


Not only was the AK-47 utterly reliable in the kind of adverseconditions that soldiers encounter in battle, but it was also easy tooperate. Its simplicity meant, Chivers writes, that it could be employedby “the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted andthe untrained.” Practically anyone, even child soldiers, could use thiscompact marvel, less than three feet long and weighing about 10 pounds,which “could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or threefootball fields.”

Thus the AK-47 emerged as the Model T of assault rifles. With as many as100 million copies in circulation (no one knows the exact figure), itis the best-selling gun of all time. The distant runner-up is the M-16and its descendants, which have been reproduced fewer than 10 milliontimes. Chivers explains how this unusual success for Soviet industrycame about. The 47 in the gun’s name refers to the year it was invented –1947. The AK stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova — “the automaticby Kalashnikov.” That would be Senior Sgt. Mikhail TimofeyevichKalashnikov, who in 1947 was just 28 years old and had no formaltraining in metallurgy, engineering or any other technical discipline.As might be expected, the Soviet state built a formidable myth aroundthis proletarian hero.