When World War II ended, combatants returned to their barracks and weapons were packed back into armories. Yet as the fog of war cleared from the battlefields of Europe, engineers, politicians and warriors in the Soviet Union were already planning for the next war. And the next generation of warrior would need a new weapon and they would turn to a former tank sergeant to design the ubiquitous small arm of the 20th century, the AK-47.
C.J. Chivers, magazine and newspaper journalist and former Marine, ambitiously grapples the development not only of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s rifle but the creation of automatic weapons and their effect on the course of history. Kalishnikov, still alive and revered in Russia as a hero, could only get to the point of designing the rifle that would become the AK-47 after generations of weapons designs and wars that would reshape small arms future.
Chivers expertly retraces the history of Dr. Richard Gatling, father to the hand-cranked mutli-barreled gun, and Hiram Maxim, Mainer and creator of history’s first effective sustained fire machine gun. These two character portraits, especially riveting that of the sarcastic, rough and ruthless Maxim, lead to the closing days of World War II and the birth of the AK-47.
From the slaughters of British colonial wars to the killing grounds of the Somme, Chivers finds pivotal moments in warfare directly reshaped by a fusillade of fire. Chivers shows the AK-47 as a mechanism of change, in the hands of soldiers, guerrillas and freedom fighters alike.
Shrouded in secrecy and with most information heavily doctored by wistful recollection or calculated misdirection, Chivers manages to smartly render in words the design and refinement of the AK-47. It’s loose fit, simplicity of construction and resulting reductions in accuracy were the antithesis of the ‘rifelman’ culture of Western armies. But, when a weapon could double the ammunition and killing ability of one man, its few shortcomings were rendered moot on the battlefield.
Chivers demonstrates the meticulous changes in Kalishnikov’s design, borrowed from other designers, his own ideas and previous weapons, show levels of refinement that eventually create the roughest, most reliable weapon fielded in battle.
Importantly, Chivers does not treat the reader as a complete novice when it comes to the mechanical or tactical aspects of small arms in The Gun. Now for those unfamiliar with firearms and their methods of operation. The Gun is clear enough to inform, but not so simplistic that those familiar with the subject will be bored to tears.
Throughout The Gun, Chivers hops back and forth between war and the weapon being wielded. He also devotes considerable time detailing the comical and tragic history of America’s entry into late 20th century small-arms development in the M-16. His description of the M-16, unreliable at its creation and forced into service by politics, counter balances the rough and singular minded simplicity of the AK-47 entry to the battlefield.
Smartly, Chivers does not delve into the at times puerile debate gun enthusiasts engage in. No foot-stomping arguments for or against calibers, methods of operation or even aesthetic. Nor does he make The Gun an indictment nor endorsement of gun rights domestically. The Gun is clear, it is a book about a man and his creation and its dizzying variants, effects and impacts on everything from war planning to nation states and even yes, vodka.
As others have written books about cod, salt and cotton, Chivers has crafted the singular general history of modern man’s most plentiful and efficient killing machine.
The Gun by C.J. Chivers was received for free as a review copy by Boston Book Bums