on October 31, 2010
"The Gun" provides some very interesting insights into the history of machine guns and modern arms trade, yet it is not a complete book, but rather a series of separate articles. It is hard to find a leading idea that would join the separate stories conveyed in "The Gun".
The book starts with an excellent historical account of developments of the machine gun and goes on to describe the invention of AK-47 and M-16 in this way. But then it stops - for no apparent reason. I would very much like to read about what were the developments in assault rifle design since 1960's, but the historical account stops there.
A very interesting chapter describes all the problems with the adoption of M-16 by the US armed forces. But the description is tiresome and definetely too detailed. For no good reason the author delves into who-said-what-to-whom-and-when and tries to figure out who deserves the blame for US Marines' deaths in Vietnam. It is an interesting story, but a different one from the historical account in other chapters. And just when I hoped that the author would describe a similar problems with a botched implementation of UK's SA80 rifle - the story shifts again.
Third topic covered in this book is terrorism and warfare in third world countries. But since the first part of the book was taken up by other subjects, this one is also covered in a partial fashion - with no real background or details. This part of the book reads more like a collection of trivia - from strange beliefs of African rebels, through partial retelling of terrorist attack during the Munich Olympics, to description of one person's gunshot injuries - with no clear train of thought to connect it.
There is also a discussion of morals and life story of M. Kalashnikov, which could be a nice study of lifestyle choices in a totalitarian state, but - when jammed between three other subjects - is just too brief and disjointed.
Despite those problems, the book is a fine read, interesting and engaging, but it feels like a "bait and switch" - starting on one topic for just long enough to instill curiosity, and then switching to different matters.
Don't buy the Kindle version. It is too expensive and full of bugs - simply an inferior product, and with no text-to-speech. (The bugs include: bad typesetting, typos, errors in format conversion, notes that are in wrong order, special formatting - i.e. bold text, chapter titles' emphasis - that is only visible when you use "next page" function and not when you skip directly to some chapter, the illustrations at the end are not listed in the table of contents and can be easily missed).
on October 15, 2010
Chris Chivers knows how to tell a story that has historical significance, depth and insight. The Gun explains how one rifle changed the face of war in the late 20th Century. Formerly the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, Chivers takes the reader behind the scenes inside the Soviet industrial and propaganda machine, laying out a fascinating narrative of how the regime plotted and schemed to engineer myth while designing the automatic rifle that was the most significant technical factor in the North Vietnamese victory over the south. Chivers wraps his deep understanding about military history inside a refreshing compendium of characters - heroes, inventors, knaves and entrepreneurs. He knows the secret of story-tellling; the reader finishes each page by asking, and then what happened? - Bing West, Newport, RI
The AK-47 and its numerous variants and successors are ubiquitous instruments of destruction currently appearing in all troubled regions of the globe. The rifle, known for its quadruple attributes of extreme design simplicity, rugged durability, ease of use and tremendous destructive capacity has achieved legendary status. Of course, this is all well known and has been thoroughly discussed and written about. After all, the AK series are instantly recognizable to military, police, criminals, terrorists and the general public as the seminal firearms of the 20th Century.
C.J. Chivers of "The New York Times" and late of the USMC has, in "The Gun" provided, through the history of the AK series, a lucid exposition of the development of automatic weapons from their inception to the present time. Additionally and more importantly, "The Gun" explores a hitherto largely uninvestigated dimension of the modern assault weapon. He asks, "What is its role as a socio-political instrument of state and how did it achieve this goal?"
As might be expected, the originator of the eponymous weapon, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has become a mythical figure. It well-served the propaganda purposes of the Soviet Union to extol the virtues of a genuine, nearly unlettered proletarian who, enjoying the Benefits of the Worker's Paradise, arose from a humble and unassuming background to the pinnacle of firearms design. By legend, he proceeded virtually unaided and motivated primarily by Love of the Fatherland.
Hagiography aside, Kalashnikov (and the state-supported teams of machinists, engineers, industrialists, ballistics experts and legions of others) served a realpolitik purpose: they built a foundational weapon in accord with pragmatic considerations of state defense and did so expediently, logically, methodically and cheaply. The AK is a model of the axiom, "Form follows function." Its presence over 60 years after its inception is a testament to that, just as the Colt M1911, Browning Hi-Power, Bren, MG42 and their successors enjoy similar prominence in their own niches.
Chivers traces the history of the Gatling and Maxim guns; the prototype of the assault rifle, the German machinenpistole 43/sturmgewehr 44; the role of ammunition in the genesis of the military rifle, beginning again with WW-II German advances in the form of the 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge, evolving to the M1943 Soviet round that powered the AK; the introduction and dissemination of AK rifles according to Soviet policy and, of course, the introduction of the ArmaLite AR-15 rifle, soon to become the standard US arm in the form of the M-16 series. In doing so, he acknowledges the role of the PPSh-41 submachine gun (a Soviet WW-II era arm featuring metal stamping, chromed barrel lining and a blowback action) but, in my estimation, underplays its contribution. Like the AK, this weapon was extremely simple, very robust, easily manufactured (millions were made in factories and small Russian machine shops during the war) and murderously effective at usual combat ranges. Also like the AK, it turned up in many subsequent conflicts, ranging from Korea to Vietnam. A curious omission from the history was the fallschirmjagergewehr-42(FG42)which also featured a gas-operated mechanism, a plastic stock (initially), a 20 round magazine and a selector for semiautomatic and full automatic fire. In other words, the FG42 was also a legitimate precursor to the modern assault rifle. Of course, the Thompson M1921, the "Chicago Piano", makes its necessary appearance. Despite its minor role in the civilian arena, the fearsome performance of this weapon in gangster-era criminal activities gave it a larger-than-life role in the American conscience and lead to laws banning the private ownership of automatic weapons in the US, laws which Chivers notes were not generally implemented outside Western Europe and North America...with devastating consequences.
As Chivers notes, no history of the AK series would be complete without a recounting of the follies and foibles surrounding its US counterpart, the M16. Initially, the US military assumed a dismissive attitude toward the concept of the assault rifle, despite emerging evidence of its deadly utility. Rather than simply stealing the design and reverse-engineering an American version of an obviously successful weapon, ideological blinkers initially prevented development of a comparable US combat arm. The M14 (successor to the M1 Garand) was heavy and cumbersome. It fired a round that was ill-suited to modern combat. By the time an alliance of arms manufacturers and unscrupulous agents convinced influential elements of the American military hierarchy of the need to purchase an American version of the assault rifle (which just happened to be on hand in the form of the Colt's AR-15), the AK was routinely arming the current adversary: the Viet Cong. The AR was rushed into action, despite known problems with the ammunition propellant and the propensity of the weapon to jam in use. Soon, it was discovered that the weapon was prone to rust and the gas-operated bolt assembly to fouling. No matter: a cover-up was in order and, despite losses to American personnel from misfiring in combat, perpetuated. While the modern version (the M4 carbine) is better, it is still suboptimal in comparison to its Russian counterpart in the author's estimation and as noted in a separate chapter at the book's end.
Arms sales and transfers have become a standard form of political influence. The USSR, as a centrally-controlled, "non-market" economy, manufactured, stockpiled, licensed and exported AK weapons to satellite nations and client states. With the collapse of the system, enormous weapons and ammunition stocks became available. Private arms dealers, corrupt government officials and simple thievery resulted in the appearance of AK variants in every "hot zone" on the planet. Chivers acerbically notes that, at present, the largest purchaser of AK weapons is...the US. We send them to regimes we are hoping to influence and whose loyalties we wish to secure worldwide and to proxies. Not surprisingly, other nations do that as well. So, Chivers reports that, with a humble small arm, the AK, weapons systems producers (US, Russia, France, China, Israel and others) have become major arms merchants, themselves; this is the socio-political connection which was not begun by, but seems to have been cemented into convention, by the AK-47. Chivers does well to remind the reader of the modern engine of this phenomenon.
The book concludes with some horrible vignettes dealing with the effects of assault weaponry in the Third World: the murderous Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, the attack on an official in the Kurdish region of Iraq being two of them. Chivers readily acknowledges that "small wars" will be with us forever, AK or no AK. Its just that the tremendous destructive potential of the modern assault rifle magnifies the carnage. Despite the experiences of child soldiers; despite the combat experiences of literally millions of veterans worldwide; despite the adoption of RPGs and AK type weaponry by terrorists, wars will persist for all the reasons they always have. Perhaps, aside from the pragmatic and ideological attractions of armed conflict, there is another and more elemental aspect of combat. It was Homer in "The Odyssey" who wrote, "Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin"; true then and true now.
on December 18, 2010
C.J. Chivers has an exceptional gift for story telling. His writing style is breezy; his mastery of the subject of the AK-47 and its derivatives is complete.
His work for The New York Times has won several prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize; especially notable is his work on their At War blog, which often features discussions of captured AK-47s.
But The Gun simply does not deliver on much it promises, and it has significant structural flaws, due in large part to biting off too much to chew and in some part to poor editing.
Chivers begins by describing the development and initial world deployment of the Gatling and Maxim guns.
There's no new scholarship here. Chivers argues that the Gatling gun aided the British Empire in overcoming massive, but ill-equipped, native colonial uprisings. He also notes how Russia's Gatlings inflicted substantial casualties on regular Japanese troops during the seige of Port Arthur in 1904-05.
Chivers agrees with the conventional argument, that tactics were not in tune with technology -- namely, the Maxim gun and its derivatives -- during World War I.
Perhaps the most valuable insights we gain from these examinations are exceptionally entertaining and informative biographies of Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim, each fascinating for completely divergent reasons.
It is not until Chivers begins discussing Mikhail Kalashnikov that the serious problems begin.
Significant effort is spent in debunking the myth that Kalashnikov alone was responsible for development of the AK-47, as well as devolving the official state history of the man.
At times, it feels as though Chivers has an ax to grind; indeed, near the end of the book, where Chivers discusses the role of the AK-47 and its derivatives in political strife, he seems to all but blame Kalashnikov for causing all the trouble in the world.
Some of this may be the product of his writing style, which lends itself to the aforementioned structural problems in the book.
Specifically, Chivers repeats himself a great deal, usually at the predictable pace of every 6 pages or so per chapter. This is especially notable in the first half of the book.
This may be the product of his U.S. Marines background; the military is fond of the instructional format, "tell them what you're going to say; then say it; then tell them what you said." It could be the product of his journalism background; perhaps the book was written as essays, and too much reliance was placed on an editor to sew column-length sections into chapters.
Whatever the case, it comes off as pedantic at best, and sometimes as déjà vu.
In any event, Chivers leans quite a bit on "we'll never know," not only in addressing the many open questions about the truths and state fictions in Kalashnikov's life, but also in far more important parts of his books -- such as how, specifically, certain AK-47s found their way into given hands.
Admittedly, it's true that records on specific Soviet bloc arms transfers probably aren't available; certainly, such records don't exist in the cases of looting and black markets, in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
But had Chivers devoted as much effort and attention to examining the case of Leonid Minin, the Ukranian arms dealer whom he does name, as he did to debunking the myth of Kalashnikov, we might well have seen the promised picture of how guns made their way from state arsenals to armed insurrections. As it is, we hear primarily about the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, which was armed by the Sudan government.
At about 400 actual pages of narrative, it seems odd to say that this book sought to do too much in too little a space, but that's the impression it leaves.
It is, effectively, three books: a history of the automatic rifle, a biography of Mikhail Kalashnikov, and an essay of the effects of Soviet overproduction of light arms on political stability in the Third World.
As is, The Gun adequately addresses the first; flogs the second past death; and but scratches the surface of the third.
The lament isn't that this book has defects; it's that Chivers is capable of so much more, and confined his effort to the wrong space.
on October 27, 2010
Chivers' book, The Gun, is a masterpiece on many levels. Using the history of this weapon as a lens through which to analyze recent history is brilliant. The battle scenes are riveting and heartwrenching, and the characters are rendered with charisma.
The politics are head spinning, chiefly because most of us don't look at the world this way and I think we don't appreciate how much battle tactics reflect times, politics and ideologies. It's an important book with extraordinary analysis, but full of swashbuckling tales.
on November 11, 2010
It is scary how many people recognize the silhouette of the AK: the distinct banana clip, stubby barrel, and steep sight post. I realized this when my wife (perhaps due to my unfortunate influence) properly identified it in a book club discussion. As the author points out it has become the primary firearm of the world - "a weapon that rearranged the rules". It is carried by more than fifty national armies, hoisted by passionate guerillas, provided by dictators, used for intimidation and more by criminals, and wielded by child soldiers.
Seldom jamming, easy to maintain, simplistic in components and design, and lightweight with incredible firepower, the AK has been massed produced, "licensed" for production, and knocked off with impunity. If there was an accurate count on casualties inflicted by the AK since its inception, it may well be the leader far ahead of any single conventional weapon. The author notes, "The United Nations convened a conference in 2001 by noting that small arms were principal weapons in forty-six of the forty-nine major conflicts in the 1990s, in which 4 million people died." The AK has proved to be the perfect instrument for the proxy conflicts of the Cold War which eased itself smoothly into the terrorist weapon of choice.
The book covers Avtomat Kalashnikova and the propaganda surrounding the AK's development, includes a history of small arms weapon development covering Gatling, Maxim, Spandau, Thompson, and Schmeisser, features an examination of the differences in the process of development which leads to an overly long comparison with the US's M16, along with historic uses of the AK including Sadat's assassination and the Munich Olympics. And this is where Chivers may have gone wrong with this effort - it was just too long. However. it is now the new standard on the subject surpassing Kahaner's AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, Cutshaw's Legends and Reality of the AK, Burrows Trigger Issues: Kalashnikov AK47, and Iannamico's AK-47 The Grim Reaper (along with many other efforts).
Samuel Cummings, a noted and colorful arms dealer, called the flow of arms "an index of the world's folly." The AK may well be the primary factor in that index. For those interested in a similar type of exploratory, look to Patrick Wright's "Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine".
on February 2, 2011
Sudan/2002 & 2007-08;Uganda/2008 & 2011;Afghanistan/2003;Iraq/2005;Bosnia/1996-98
The book provides a unique insight to one of the world's most famous (and perhaps the most reliable) weapon made to date. What was particularly troublesome was the background of the early days of the introduction of the M-16 which was supposed to be the answer to the AK-47's use in Vietnam. The bottom line is that the USG sought to introduce a weapons which was far inferior to the AK-47..in part, due to the malfunction of the weapon because of design and manufacturing deficiencies.
Military history of years 1965 through late 1967 in Vietnam tell of horrific stories of Marines and Soldiers found dead with their weapons broken down in an effort to clear a jam. The dead as a direct result of the in-efficiencies of product development and testing are not well documented...but, only in the visual context of those who say their buddies dead...with the weapon close-by. Or, in the course of the close quarters battle with NVA or VC, the M-16 was used a club rather than a weapon.
Frankly, our government at that time failed us..in an effort to field a weapon to compete with the AK-47, so many decisive faults occurred with the Army procurement system..and as a direct result, many of our Soldiers and Marines died needlessly. Even after almost 50 years, we use the M4 which is a modified version of the original M-16 weapon with the basic design unchanged.
As this is written (02 Feb 2011), according to the Army Times, the Army will be testing new weapons to replace the M4 and M-16. (Note: Most of the Reserves/Guard called to active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan were deployed with the M-16A2..and not the modified M4).
Having spend alot of time in both Sudan and Uganda..the AK is the weapon of absolute choice. Virtually everyone carries an AK-47; and yet, in Sudan with the SPLA or in Uganda with the UPDF..I have never seen (emphasis added) a cleaning kit, nor seen anyone cleaning a weapon.
And lastly, while in Afghanistan in 2003..and on the road in those Toyota HyLux trucks bumping around Paktia, Khost and Ghazni Provinces, I decided to field a short stock (hand grip only) AK-47 while in the vehicle. Easy to access, plenty of take down power, very easy to clean (yep, I cleaned it every night..about 30 or less seconds to break down)..and I knew absolutely it would not fail. (Note: I fired full auto several times to test the weapon prior to implementation).
Checking the barrel stamp after procuring the weapon courtesy of the OGA compound nearby...the date stamp indicated my AK-47 was manufactured in the year 1969. Enough said...
Emphasis on the new weapon to replace the M4 and M-16A2 should exclude political emphasis..or other which detracts from the objective to provide our military the absolute best weapon..as we now move into the 10th year in Afghanistan.
Chivers provides in-depth insight to some of the comments above as his experience in the Marines and an award winning journalist reinforces the historical context of the AK-47 and other infantry weapons. Many like Chivers remain active in the field in Afghanistan and earlier in Iraq providing a proof source to the comments supported directly from thos "trigger pullers" who walk the walk..everyday in arms way.
on December 7, 2011
New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers has written a thoroughly researched and well written history of repeating small arms with particular emphasis on the development of the Kalashnikov family of AK-47s and their variations. Starting with the Civil War era Gatling gun, the author examines both the guns themselves and their inventors in considerable detail and provides insights as to how different countries incorporated machine guns into their armies and how some militaries clung to the romantic ideal of soldiers on horses brandishing swords for years after their time had past.
The largest section of the book details how the Russians approached the quest for an automatic rifle that would fire a cartridge less powerful that the ones used by the bolt action rifles that predominated from the 19th century forward, but more powerful than the pistol rounds used by most submachine guns of the day. There was an extensive design competition with rational objectives and Kalashnikov's design was finally chosen. The result was an automatic rifle that had a limited range, but was easy to manufacture, use and maintain. There is also considerable detail on the foreign policy ramifications of the wide availability of the AK-47.
The thoroughness of the Russian design process is contrasted with the headlong rush of the United States to field a new rifle for Vietman and other foreign adventures. The hastily designed and cheaply built M-16 was rushed into production with substandard ammunition over the objections of its critics and the resulting failures resulted in many needless casualties among our troops in Vietnam.
While the AK-47 is the focus of the book, it delves into the personalities and politics of firearm design and military procurement. A must read for anyone who is interested in firearms and the politics of the military/industrial complex that President Eisenhower famously warned the country about 50 years ago.
on March 5, 2014
Let me start by saying that I am not a historian, nor do I have an in depth knowledge of the history of firearms development.
I thought this book was good at giving you a base knowledge on the development of machine guns for uses in war since the Civil War. He doesn't give great details on every machine gun developed since then, but gives you a brief history about the development on the most popular machine guns since the Civil War, and also talks about who and where they were manufactured.
The only downside to this book for me was how long the chapters were. I think the chapters could have been shorter, but I was so interested in the topic that it didn't slow me down. I can see how some people might lose interest with the long chapters. This is the only reason why I gave it a 4 star rating instead of 5.
I am sure there are historians out there who think this book is not worth your time, but like I said if you do not have any knowledge on this subject and you want an entry level book to teach you a few things then this book will suit you just fine.
on October 22, 2015
This book is a great source of information, and gives a good, well rounded view on the history of rapid fire and how it changed modern warfare. It is not just about development of the AK-47, but it does focus a good amount on the Kalash and its variants as well as the life and times of Mikhail Kalashnikov. There is a surprising amount dedicated to other weapons that led to the need for the Kalashnikov rifle as well as the subsequent scramble of the United States military to compete when other rifles were falling short in the battlefields of Vietnam. This might all seem to be superfluous until one realizes that warfare is an ever changing reality in our world. With each new advance in technology or change in environment the methods and weapons adapt out of necessity. My only beef with the book is toward the end, where Chivers seems to lean slightly toward an implication that the designer might be somewhat to blame for the use or influence of his weapon in war, which I find to be a bit of an unfair judgement. Guns are and always will be tools, with the moral responsibility resting on those who use them, and in war particularly, the leaders who send young men and women to die for their political and financial reasons.