Tim Heffernan, at Esquire, interviews C.J. Chivers about Chivers’ new history of the AK-47, The Gun:
TIM HEFFERNAN: Would you call the AK-47 a great invention?
C. J. CHIVERS: Without question the AK-47 was a remarkable invention, and not just because it works so well, or because it changed how wars are fought, or because it proved to be one of the most important products of the 20th century. The very circumstances of its creation were fascinating. The rifle is essentially a conceptual knock-off of a German weapon that had been developed by Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the 1930s and 1940s, and it came together through not only the climate of paranoia and urgency in Stalin’s USSR, but also via the ability of the Soviet intelligence and Red Army to grasp the significance of an enemy’s weapon and willingness to replicate it through a large investment of the state’s manpower, money and time. It was a characteristically Soviet process, and an example where centralized decision-making and the planned economy actually combined to design and churn out an eminently well-designed product. We spend a lot of time denigrating the centralized economy, for good reason. But it just so happened that what the centralized economy of a police state really wanted, it got. It couldn’t make a decent elevator, toilet, refrigerator, or pair of boots. But the guns? Another story altogether.
TH: Is it the signature weapon of the 20th century? The 21st? Will the AK still be killing in 2110?
CJC: The Kalashnikov was the most important firearm of the last 60-plus years, so much so that there really is no second place. It is not going to be unseated from its place any time soon, certainly not in our lives.
TH: What’s memorable about being shot at by AKs — what makes it different from, say, being shot at by a sniper? What does an AK bullet sound like when it goes past your ear? When it hits the wall you’re crouched behind?
CJC: Actually, in a lot of circumstances, the Kalashnikov is poorly used by people who are not especially good shots, or who are outright bad shots. In these cases, the rifle’s weaknesses emerge. As far as accuracy goes, the Kalashnikov is stubbornly mediocre, and the ease with which it can be fired on automatic means that many people fire it on automatic when they would be better served firing a single, aimed shot. These factors combine in a phenomenon many people who have been shot at by Kalashnikovs have come to be grateful for — a burst of bullets cracking by high overhead. There have been many times when we have shaken our heads in relief and gratitude that the nitwits with Kalashnikovs on the other side of a field don’t quite know how to use the weapon in their hands. Getting shot at by a sniper is a much different experience, and far more frightening. But either experience is, to borrow your word, memorable. These memories are pretty much all bad.
Neither hardware nor military history are in my wheelhouse, but this sounds more like the tongue-in-cheek definition of economics: “It’s the study of who eats… and who gets eaten.” I’m going to look for this issue of Esquire when it hits the newstands, and I may have to buy the book, although goddess knows I don’t need any more additions to the unread stacks.
I do happen to read quite a bit about weapons, so this will go in my “to get” list.
terri gross interviewed the author of this book. it was really good. track number 8.
Via Ritholtz, here’s a catchy title that might interest some: Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America. No prizes for guessing the author correctly.
Fascinating. I too am unschooled in military history, so I had never heard that the M16 had so many problems in the Vietnam era.
I really liked Chivers’ response here:
Anyway, thanks, this looks like a good read.
Culture of Truth
if steve jobs made a gun it would be way cool
When the unread “stack” is in the kindle, the word takes on a slightly different meaning.
Geek joke. Sorry, but I had to.
I know what an AK sounds like. So did my great uncle in Vietnam. That’s a product with staying power. For the foreseeabble future, all US combat troops will be getting the same treatment.
Also, and because I am like this, it must be pointed out that the term “ak-47” is very misleading. It’s a specific model, but the more modern versions look very similar.
@Culture of Truth: iKal
Paul in KY
@Cris: I’d want an AK-47 either way. The sand will make the M4 jam.
Chivers is a great contributor to the NYT blog ‘At War,’ as well.
...now I try to be amused
Kalashnikov took a German weapon (the MP-44) and made it cheap, simple, and robust. The MP-44 was none of these. It was definitely designed for “spray and pray”, though, which is all you can expect from a poorly trained soldier. The Soviet Army recognized this and assigned specialized snipers to their rifle units.
The AK-47 might be the most important weapon of the 20th century, but I’d rank the RPG-7 rocket launcher a close second. Third World soldiers are much more dangerous with both weapons than with AKs alone.
@Culture of Truth:
And way overpriced.
@Paul in KY: Well, for brevity, I did snip out this part of his response:
“The M16 was long ago debugged. Its performance problems are nothing like those of the mid-1960s.”
This reminds me that Soviet Moscow had miserably inadequate and very badly built housing, but a remarkably beautiful and efficient subway system. They were good at the few things that were important to the government and terrible at everything else.
@Culture of Truth: But by the 4th Gen it would be too small for you to use the trigger.
Got my issue in the mail over the weekend, the whole article is indeed good.
No, no, first the trigger would become a wheel, and then later you would fire it with a touch screen. Think of the apps!
Heh! Ain’t that the truth!
Hey Anne, you should get one of the now almost-inexpensive kindle readers, or the analogous readers from elsewhere — Sony, nook, etc.. I’ve found that it does cut down on the stacks (well, ignoring Florida Cynic’s pun, anyway). It’s more portable and less guilt-inducing when you do, in fact, have stacks of reading you’re behind on. That being said, there is the issue of DRM/digital rights management, which can be worked around, though not painlessly.
Also, e-ink is really fantastic.
Though maybe you already have two, and you were speaking figuratively.
@…now I try to be amused:
War Nerd rated the RPG-7 over the AK-47 as the weapon of the 20th century. In terms of “bang for the buck” I think there’s no contest; a close miss with an RPG-7 is no miss at all, unlike the AK (or any rifle).
The Chechen rebels started fighting the Russians back in the 90s with a standard three-man brick of two riflemen supporting one guy with an RPG-7. Once the Russian armour turned up in the city streets they switched to one rifleman and two RPG-7 operators as they could hose down the armour with AK-47 fire until the cows came home and get bupkis but the RPG-7s would deal with anything up to MBTs and they could at least take the tracks off them even if they couldn’t crack the main armour. It was the same with the brave Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, using RPG-7s against everything including Hind-D armoured helicopters (forget all that rah-rah USA crap about Stingers which were overcomplicated and difficult to use).
Of course the RPG-7 shaped-charge warhead and launcher came out of a late-WWII Wehrmacht design (the Panzerfaust) just like the AK-47’s design. The genius of the Soviets was to redesign them so they could be made cheaply in mass quantities with piss-poor engineering and quality control AND STILL WORK.
Someone up top mentioned it already but you really should read some of the articles that Chivers has written for the NY Times and also for Esquire. He wrote an article called “The School” about the Beslan massacre in Russia that was one of the best articles I’ve ever read about any subject, and the dispatches he does from Afghanistan are really amazing. Gritty without being war porn and informative without being boring.
I’ve got the book coming in the mail in the next day or two and I’d be happy to report back…
@Bnut: great uncle–damn, that makes me feel old.
@Robert Sneddon: ANY kind of cross wind, and the RPG will miss. Still scare the ever living shit out of you, though.
The AK’s biggest asset is its simplicity and high tolerances. The thing will rattle like a baby’s toy, and it’s more accurate to throw it at your enemy than shoot it at him, but it fires all day, all night, and all the next day in damn near any environment. And they’re cheap as hell. Brand new factory-built AKs from Egypt cost about $60/each, and the ones from Poland with the (relatively)* high quality cost about $250/each. An M4 carbine costs the US government about $900.
I’d still take my tempermental M4 over an AK any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Clean the M4 once daily with the correct lubricant and she’ll do everything you ask of her.
*relative to other AK-47’s that is.
@Cris: Chivers was a Marine infantry officer and is a cross-service graduate of the US Army’s Ranger School. He also wrote what is, hands-down, the best piece of journalism about terrorism, ever: The School, written for Esquire, is a detailed account of the Beslan siege. Chivers has been doing yeoman’s work covering some of the worst places in Afghanistan, such as the Khorengal Valley.
calling all toasters
@Robert Sneddon: I hope you meant “firearm of the century” rather than “weapon”– the atomic bomb is hard to beat in the latter category.
Short Bus Bully
The AK is a great gun and learning about it exposes a lot of the Russian (and German) mindsets coming out of WW2 that helped shape our world today. Fascinating that a piece of war materiel can do all that.
M-14 forever. We carried them in Korea 67-68 and when I got to the Nam they gave us the Mattels!
@soonergrunt: Still LSA? The biggest problem with the 16 in the hill fights was the combination of shitty gunpowder. shitty lube and no time for the Marines to clean their weapons on the assault on 881.
@PeakVT: Hey, I had no idea he was writing a book , but I guessed it totally right!
I guess he just has an easily identifiable style.
The AK is designed to be used by people who don’t know how, or are too poor, to give a gun the tender loving care that’s usually required to make it work.
You can drop an AK in a jungle river for a week, come back, shake off some of the muck, and it will still shoot. Don’t try that with any other gun.
If the battle’s in the jungle, and it’s between a high-tech, fantastically accurate weapon that needs to be taken apart and cleaned every night before bedtime, and something that’s piss-poor for accuracy but thrives on abuse, guess what? The piss-poor weapon wins every time.
[The 4 MIA were recovered on 05 May at 1450H. “One Marine had his weapon between
his legs with a rifle cleaning rod down his weapon. Also he had a pen knife in his hand. As we looked over the weapon, a M-16, we found that there was a cartridge in the chamber. After speaking to his squad leaders, this man had definitely been cleaning his weapon earlier and was always cleaning his weapon.
It was due to a malfunction. All the Marines found there were shot through the
head.”]the assault on 881.
@Phoenix Woman: Bedtime in the bush! Ha.
If you find that you enjoy Chiver’s book, you should take a look at Rose’s book, American Rifle. Apart from the politics, some of the most fascinating portions are the historical debates in the military between accuracy and massed firepower.
For the greatest weapon developed in the 20th Century I’d go with the 105mm Howitzer. Light weight, accurate as all get out, capable of direct (not very well, admittedly) and indirect fire, and has a wide variety of munitions one can shoot out the tube. The standard shrapnel shell and a VT fuse to accurately air-burst is a deadly combination to attacking or entrenched enemy troops.
Or the Lewis Gun, a WW 1 weapon, that was the spark for developing the Maschinegewehr 34 – which everybody, but everybody, copied and is the basis for M-60 and other “general purpose” machine guns in service today. It also was the ancestor of the BREN as well as other light infantry assault/defence machine guns, such as the Russian DP line and descendants.
How about the PAK 43 8.8 cm dual purpose gun? It’s line of development made it into all modern Main Battle Tanks.
@Anoniminous: Direct fire with a beehive was ok! Here’s a quick video of the 1/79th Arty. Korea 67 or 68. There’s a little direct fire here.
@stuckinred: LSA?! What, are you TRYING to get me killed?
LSA is only used in 50 deg and below now. CLP is what we use, as well as graphite in the really bad environments.
Militec-1 is the best stuff though. Clean the weapon really well, strip ALL lubricants off of it, using Diesel/JP-8 if necessary, and lube with Militec-1. My M-4 only jammed once in Afghanistan and that was after about 700 rounds.
@soonergrunt: HA! Sorry dog, I’ve been out 41 years! I remember about 15 years ago when I was at Georgia Tech. A guy I worked with had a son who was chopper mechanic in the corps. I asked him if he could get me a tail-rotor chain. Couple of weeks later he said “my son died laughing, they haven’t used chains in YEARS”!
Also, heavy and durable enough to brain someone with without a subsequent loss of performance.
That’s why it’s my weapon of choice in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
@Sasha: Right after their “bedtime” nap!
The problem with beehives is that up close & personal shit is dangerous. If the sum-bitches are that close it’s time to bug-out. Artillery isn’t trained or designed to “do” the front-line thing.
I’ll take a trusty M-114 (155mm howitzer) so I can blow the shit outta ’em 5-6 klicks away.
The plain fact is that the AK series of rifles lost the cold war for Russia due to the crippling lower-back-related medical expenses incurred by soldiers who had to carry them. The much lighter Armalite produced no such issues.
Seriously though. Weapon of the 20th century? The Kalashnikov ranks fairly low in my book. Behind, at the very least, the airplane, motorized vehicles and thermo-fucking-nuclear bombs. The internal combustion engine and nuclear weaponry redefined warfare, the assault rifle just refined warfare.
Zombie killing? AK-47 most of the time, but I also like the Mossberg 590. M4 would be good too. The smaller, lighter rounds and better polymer magazines mean you can carry more ammo.
@Anoniminous: Time on Target
@Sarcastro: Most nation-states and almost all revolutionary movements couldn’t afford aircraft, armored vehicles, and such. Nukes? Only the top of the top of the top get to play on that chessboard.
But everybody and his brother can afford an AK, and lots of them. Ironically, it’s the weapon that ‘democratized’ (for lack of a better word) warfare.
What’s significant, at least to Chivers’ point, is that the Kalishnikov democratized warfare. The “anybody, however untrained, can use this rifle” characteristic meant that anybody (however untrained) did use it, does use it.
@soonergrunt: jinx (you beat me)
Any thoughts for the replacement of the M4/M16? The XM-8 looked like it would a few years ago, but then it was dropped.
Also, are we staying with 5.56 forever?
Also, it seems like a lot of militaries are adopting a bullpup design (UK, Israel, China). Any chance the US will take that route?
Poor? Yes, this is often the case. Don’t know how to give a gun the tender loving care it may require? Hardly.
@Erik Vanderhoff: I didn’t realize that Chivers had written this great piece on the use of AK-47 knock-offs in Iraq and Afghanistan (“Russia’s Trademark Gun, but Others Grab Profits”)
AK 47 vs RPG 7
It seems to me that the RPG 7 was the great equalizer allowing peasant nations with no mechanization to effectively fight mechanized forces. It was the most important weapon in 3rd world vs 1st world conflicts.
The AK, on the other hand, allowed 3rd world nations to battle other 3rd world nations.
Also, the AK-47 is, I think, the only specific weapon to found on a national flag and coat-of-arms
@Jay C: We should totally put the atomic bomb on our flag (before Iran puts it on theirs).
The AK vs M16 is a tired debate, the M16 and its “variants” aren’t the guns that pissed off the troops in earlier Nam. As a rifle the AK sucks eggs, as a closer range weapon that functions in adverse conditions it is great. If something won’t shoot when you need it to, you have a problem.
As a great invention there are some quibbles, firstly it is a further developement of an existing weapon and concept. Secondly, its virtue as functional in poor conditions is partly an outgrowth of Soviet inability to use precise machining on mass scale – it is what it is because it is what they could build.
The value of mass fire derived from WWI and WWII experiences led to things like the M1 and submachine guns. Those experiences led to divergent thought like the AK and the M16. The AK is the spray and pray version and the M16 is the descendent of the M1 idea of power, accuracy, and rapid fire. I have my preferences, but I’m not being shot at.
If an AK-47 round misses you by three feet it’s a clean miss. If an RPG-7 round, whether it’s a shaped-charge antiarmour round or an antipersonnel beehive round, hits three feet away from you because the wind caught it then that’s a different kind of a miss. The RPG-7 is the most powerful man-portable easy-to-use killing machine in the catalogue and it’s cheap and reliable. It doesn’t take a big logistics train to keep the man with the launcher supplied for a stand-up fight as the Russians discovered in Afghanistan and Chechnya and it invalidates the other guy’s armour or fortifications big time, unlike the pipsqueak ammo from a personal weapon like the AK or the M16.
As for nukes as contenders for weapon of the century they’ve only been used in one conflict since their invention. The rest is dick-waving exercises (mostly by the US; it holds the all-comer record for nuke tests at over a thousand). In contrast today or yesterday, somewhere on the planet someone has unleashed an RPG-7 at an enemy with devastating effect. It will be in service for decades to come, delivering serious hurt at Walmart prices when the aircraft carriers and artillery tubes have all been melted down and turned into razorblades.
@Chuck Butcher: “Pissed off the troops”. Marines died because of stupid motherfuckers that made them trade their 14’s then blamed the dead for not maintaining them. Pissed off is right.
I think the T-34 vs the Tiger I/II is a better example of the difference between the German and USSR systems.
For the Zombiepacolypse you’d need light weight, lots of ammo, and you’re accuracy needs would depend on if you were talking about fast or slow zombies, since 28 Days Later ‘rage’ zombies would be harder to hit, and you’d need to start taking them down further away before they close the distance, as opposed to World War Z ‘shambler’ zombies.
I’d prefer an AK during World War Z if only because, I know I would never give “better” rifle anything resembling proper care, especially considering the nomadic existence the zombie apocalypse would entail.
A .22 pistol and a sharpened entrenching tool for close-quarters dispatching of zombie scum, and I’m good to go.
You’ll get no argument from me. I used “pissed off” because it didn’t take a paragraph.
I”m fond of auto shot guns in something like Fallout 3
Then you’ll be happy to learn that the Esquire article ends with:
Mike in NC
The Iraqis had a zillion Kalashnikovs, yet at some point a few years back I believe it was decided to rearm them with US-made rifles. Your tax dollars at work.
The Other Chuck
As bullpups go, the FN P90 is ubiquitous in police forces in Europe and it’s becoming a SWAT weapon of choice here in the states. I believe the Secret Service uses it as do some special forces units. Seems a matter of short time before the ground pounders doing city patrols are carrying them.
So I guess Belgium will be arming our troops, because god knows developing a new weapon here in the USA seems to be damn near impossible.
Which involved contracting KBR to put a “Made in USA” sticker on the butt of each rifle.
@The Other Chuck:
I thought the P90 was a niche weapon. B/c it’s so compact it’s stowed in tanks and other armored vehicles where full sized rifles don’t fit well. Also it uses unusual ammunition that is less powerful than a standard rifle and can be hard to find. I hadn’t heard it was being adopted by SWAT.
@Arclite: Well, I think 5.56 is here to stay for a while yet. If we change that, we have to change the SM249 SAW as well, to say nothing of the expenses to other countries in the NATO alliance.
Whatever shape the weapon takes externally, I think we’re about to see the death of the gas impingement operating system. It’s going to be operating rods from here on out.
The FN SCAR and the HK 416, both in use by US SOCOM, both use 5.56mm ammo and operating rods.
Better magazines would make a hell of a difference, and those are being fielded right now. More optical sights, too.
@Sasha: You know, the Undead-American/Infected-American population are really decent people. They don’t pollute, they don’t over-use resources, they are localvores, they walk instead of driving, and they use much less electricity than their counterparts. They could part of our electoral coaltion, if only we could get over our bigotry as a society.
@Robert Sneddon: I had RPG fired at me more than once. I’m still here.
Seriously though, it is a good weapon in the hands of someone who knows how to employ it.
The crosswind issue is because of the relatively large sail space of the pop-out fins. If there’s a cross wind, they act like the vane on a windmill and turn the round into the wind. This turning effect is so severe that any crosswind over about three knots will cause a 90 degree turn at a range over 200 meters.
I had one shot at me at a range of about 90 meters. I’ll go to my grave remembering that green floating volleyball of doom. It swerved to the side and bounced off the fiberglass hood of my humvee and detonated in the field on the other side of the road.
Heh…..the sociological observations are great, sort of remind me of a quote from Cryptonomicon (sort of)……
“Ask a Soviet engineer to design a pair of shoes, and he comes up with something that looks like the box the shoes come in. Ask him to design something for slaughtering Germans and he turns into Thomas fucking Edison.”
john 'tug' wilson
As a Brit born at the end of ww2, and having read a pre-publication copy, I found this very interesting. The Soviets did most to defeat Hitler and the most centralised of states was truly pragmatic under pressure, despite the bureaucracy. All armies prepare for the last war. The Soviets prepared for invasion and thus equipped their forces with the most effective arm for a mass, briefly trained levy. Chivers’ book [or at least the early version I read] tries too much for narrative and flounders a bit when trying to make it’s various points. The Kalashnikov works,all the time. US and British assault rifles have had endless teething troubles. The shade of Trotsky would be amused…………………