The Gun, by C. J. Chivers
Simon & Schuster, 2010. 496 pages.
If you’ve any doubt a biography of a firearm is worthwhile, Chivers will shortly banish it. The Gun tells the story of the rise of the AK-47* and its enduring role in global events. Chivers provides a broad context for his subject, detailing the history of machine guns in general leading to the Soviet need for a reliable automatic rifle.
It’s a tribute to Chivers’ ability as a writer that even technical discussions of, for example, bullet calibers, do not slow the pace. He takes you from Richard Gatling, who thought the gun which bore his name would end wars quickly, in fact working as a peace-making tool, to Hiram Maxim, who explicitly designed his weapon for maximum carnage. Machine guns not only changed the way war was fought, but how also it was understood in the modern mind. Also invaluable are Chivers’ discussions of the machine gun’s role in 19th century European colonialism, and of the USA’s development of its own automatic rifle, the M-16, in the context of the Vietnam War.
From Gatling’s invention in the twilight of the civil war to the present day, The Gun offers an excellent perspective on globalization, discussions of which seldom focus on the tools of war. From Soviet Russia to the Union’s satellite countries to countries in the market for cheap guns, the Kalashnikov and its progeny enjoy ubiquity in world conflicts. Chivers makes it clear that the AK-47’s full history will not be able to be written for, conceivably, another 50-100 years. The rifle is extremely durable. Original 1947 models are still in perfect working order, and are entirely unaccounted for (due to poor records and the legacy of Soviet secrecy there is no way to estimate how many Kalashnikovs have been produced and distributed), making this rifle perhaps one of the biggest hurdles in global disarmament.
*The acronym AK-47 stands for “Avtomat Kalashnikova – 47,” or “The automatic of Kalashnikov, 1947 (the year of its development)”.
C. J. Chivers on All Things Considered (Link contains book excerpt)
C. J. Chivers on Fresh Air (Link contains book excerpt)