The Gun

( 34 )


It is the world's most widely recognized weapon, the most profuse tool for killing ever made. More than fifty national armies carry the automatic Kalashnikov, as do an array of police, intelligence, and security agencies all over the world.

In this tour de force, prizewinning New York Times reporter C. J. Chivers traces the invention of the assault rifle, following the miniaturization of rapid-fire arms from the American Civil War, through World War I and Vietnam, to present-day...

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It is the world's most widely recognized weapon, the most profuse tool for killing ever made. More than fifty national armies carry the automatic Kalashnikov, as do an array of police, intelligence, and security agencies all over the world.

In this tour de force, prizewinning New York Times reporter C. J. Chivers traces the invention of the assault rifle, following the miniaturization of rapid-fire arms from the American Civil War, through World War I and Vietnam, to present-day Afghanistan, when Kalashnikovs and their knockoffs number as many as 100 million, one for every seventy persons on earth. It is the weapon of state repression, as well as revolution, civil war, genocide, drug wars, and religious wars; and it is the arms of terrorists, guerrillas, boy soldiers, and thugs.

It was the weapon used to crush the uprising in Hungary in 1956. American Marines discovered in Vietnam that the weapon in the hands of the enemy was superior to their M16s.

Fidel Castro amassed them. Yasir Arafat procured them for the P.L.O. A Kalashnikov was used to assassinate Anwar Sadat. As Osama bin Laden told the world that "the winds of faith and change have blown," a Kalashnikov was by his side. Pulled from a hole, Saddam Hussein had two Kalashnikovs.

It is the world's most widely recognized weapon—cheap, easy to conceal, durable, deadly. But where did it come from? And what does it mean? Chivers, using a host of exclusive sources and declassified documents in the east and west, as well as interviews with and the personal accounts of insurgents, terrorists, child soldiers, and conventional grunts, reconstructs through the Kalashnikov the evolution of modern war. Along the way, he documents the experience and folly of war and challenges both the enduring Soviet propaganda surrounding the AK-47 and many of its myths.

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Editorial Reviews

Max Boot
Chivers is a first-rate war correspondent and a prodigious researcher who has tracked down every relevant document (or so it appears). He even interviewed the aging Kalashnikov…The Gun is likely to become the standard account of the world's standard assault rifle.
—The New York Times Book Review
Mark A. Keefe IV
In The Gun, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, former Marine officer and Persian Gulf War veteran C.J. Chivers sets out to "lift the Kalashnikov out of the simplistic and manipulated distillations of its history." He succeeds admirably by putting the gun into its social, historical and technological context in an evocative narrative.
—The Washington Post
Patrick Hennessey
[Chivers] writes both with technical precision and the humanity that comes with understanding the invariably unhappy and all too often horrific consequences of the weapon's effects. All this makes for a delicate and at times fascinating balancing act, as Mr. Chivers the enthusiast and expert shares the page with Mr. Chivers the historian and journalist—the expert dealing well with the detailed mechanics of his subject, the journalist at other times brilliantly illuminating the book with highly effective vignettes of human courage, ingenuity and, mostly, suffering.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The AK-47 assault rifle is the defining weapon of the post-WWII era, thanks to its reliability, simplicity, and effectiveness. Over a hundred million units have been manufactured in enough variants-including imitations-to provide one for every 70 people in the world. It is praised in equal measure by soldiers, insurgents, hunters, and police. In his first book Chivers, a Marine Corps vet and senior writer at the New York Times who has reported extensively from Afghanistan and Pakistan, combines recently declassified documents with extensive personal accounts of AK-47 users from around the world. Without denying the familiar contributions of Mikhail Kalashnikov, Chivers describes the AK-47 as a product of the Soviet system. The quest for an individual weapon with the firepower of a light machine gun and the portability of a machine pistol dated from the First World War, but Stalin gave it top priority with the beginning of the Cold War. Chivers vividly depicts the false starts and the eventual success, as when the gun aided in suppressing the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and its subsequent global distribution and evolution into "everyman's gun." An extensive comparison with the US M-16 enhances this outstanding history of an exceptional instrument of war.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
"Eye-opening.... An entertaining work that combines technical details, biographies, political maneuvering and insightful military history." ---Kirkus
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Chivers's book is an engrossing history of the evolution of machine guns since the mid-19th century, which makes it a history of modern warfare. Using the prevalent AK-47 assault rifle as a significant framing device, he goes back to that gun's predecessors and their inventors, from Richard Gatling to Hiram Maxim, John T. Thompson, and the many personalities—Soviet, British, American, Hungarian, Cuban, African, etc.—involved in the propagation of modern warfare and of the imperialism such warfare has supported. A former marine himself, he concludes with the AK-47 and its variant knockoffs in the hands of marines on their way to Iraq. The result is gripping and original interpretive history, highly recommended.
Kirkus Reviews

An eye-opening, often grim history of automatic weapons, emphasizing the Soviet Union's murderous, wildly successful legacy.

Former Marine officer and New York Times Moscow bureau chief Chivers hardly mentions his subject in the book's first third as he recounts the history of automatic weapons from the American Civil War to World War I with familiar eponyms: Gatling, Maxim, Browning, Mauser. Although heavy and requiring a team to operate, WWI machine guns dominated the battlefield, and a few forward-looking military leaders advocated an automatic weapon suitable for infantry who still used single-shot rifles. World War II saw early models that were too heavy (the American Browning Automatic Rifle) or too short-range (the Thompson submachine gun). In 1947, after several years of development, the AK-47 was chosen as the Soviet Army's infantry weapon. Unlike the complex, accurate and expensive postwar American M16, to whose painful trials Chivers devotes a long section, the AK-47 was not particularly accurate but was simple, cheap and extraordinarily sturdy and reliable. NATO and U.S. allies followed the American lead, but AK-47 models quickly became the preferred rifle for most armed forces, police forces, guerrillas and drug cartels. Some readers may skim sections devoted to innumerable conflicts in which the AK-47 family participated, from the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union to today's wars, insurgencies and criminal enterprises. But it's hard to resist a narrative that ends with a world awash with a weapon that has killed more soldiers and civilians than all the high-tech planes, missiles, bombs, WMDs and America's sophisticated rifles combined.

An entertaining work that combines technical details, biographies, political maneuvering and insightful military history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743271738
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/6/2011
  • Edition description: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 303,970
  • Product dimensions: 8.38 (w) x 5.60 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Prichard is a professional narrator and stage and film actor who has played several thousand characters during his career. An Audie Award winner, he has recorded well over five hundred books and has earned several AudioFile Earphones Awards. Michael was also named a Top Ten Golden Voice by SmartMoney magazine.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Stalin's Tools of War 1


1 The Birth of Machine Guns 25

2 Machine Guns in Action 39

3 Hiram Maxim Changes War 68

4 Slaughter Made Industrial: The Great War 107


5 Stalin's Contest: The Invention of the AK-47 143

6 The Breakout: The Mass Production, Distribution, and Early Use of the AK-47 201


7 The Accidental Rifle 263

8 Everyman's Gun 337

Epilogue: The Twenty-first Century's Rifle 409

A Note About the M-16 Series of Rifles in 2010 415

Notes 417

Acknowledgments 449

Index 459

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with C. J. Chivers, Author of THE GUN

What led you to write this book?

In late 2001, David Rohde (a fellow reporter at The New York Times) and I found large collections of Taliban and al Qaeda records in several abandoned insurgent training camps in Afghanistan. Separately, in different provinces and areas of Afghanistan, we gathered up these materials and carried them out. We worked with a small bank of translators to bring them into English, and developed, from the notebooks of jihadi recruits and their instructors, a sense of how these fighters were trained. One element jumped out at me: at every camp, no matter the language or the terrorist group that gave the class, no matter the location of the camp, lesson one was a primer on the automatic Kalashnikov.

That began a long inquiry into these weapons: why were they everywhere there is fighting? How did they become so abundant and widespread? What about them made them a principal instrument of violence in our time? Nine years later, I'm coming up for air.

What role did your experiences as a war reporter and an infantry officer in the U.S. Marines play?

Obviously it informed my work at most every step. The research was based on the idea that to understand the Kalashnikov, you need to put into a much fuller and richer historical perspective than the easy conventional wisdom that has surrounded it. This meant going back almost a century before the Kalashnikov appeared, and tracing the evolution of rapid-fire arms and how they influenced tactics and the experience of war. My years as a Marine Corps infantry officer left me with a firm understanding of ground tactics and the roles, limitations and risks of many different weapons. The corps also places a premium on studying military history, so I had packed a lot of background in my head already, and drew from it as I plunged in with more intensity and focus. And my years covering war, crime, terror and human rights had enriched all of this, and gave me access to conflicts in a very personal, up-close way. The scores and scores of patrols—and the access to fighters of all sorts, and insurgents and child soldiers, and medical workers and victims of violence—richly informed the book, which is not based on just archival work or interviews or analysis, but also on material and insights from the field. And being a former Marine, and, at the basic sense, a grunt, helped with access, too. All sort of fighters, not just in Western military circles, but among guerillas and insurgents, too, sensed I had more than a basic understanding of weapons and tactics. Many of them found our meetings and conversations very engaging, and this led to a willingness to cooperate and more sharing of material.

What is so special about the AK-47? What is it able to do better than other guns? Is its performance really as good as legend claims?

The automatic Kalashnikov has many remarkable traits; but no, it is not the miracle weapon that it is often described to be. It is the result of a set of design compromises, and in compromise is imperfection, and limitation. That said, its compact size, its ease of use, the simplicity and sturdiness of its design, and the high quality of its protective finishes make it a weapon that almost anyone can use in most any circumstances. I remember when I first was shown one up close, as a young Marine, and an instructor held one up and said: "This is a bullet hose." It's an apt description. But I would argue that its most important trait is not in the characteristics of each rifle, but in the line's abundance and the circumstances of its spread. If there weren't so many of them, they would be a much less influential object, and somewhat less interesting, although they certainly are interesting in their own right.

What is the myth of the invention of the AK-47? How much truth is there in it?

The simple fable is that the AK-47 resulted from the epiphany and determination of an unlettered sergeant who had been wounded in the Great Patriotic War. The truth is much, much more complicated, and the weapon is better understood as the result of Soviet administration in the Stalin years, and the investment of extraordinary amounts of resources. The Kalashnikov was the product of the Soviet state. Examining it this way is useful, because its design and its abundance tell us something of the priorities of the Soviet Union. Remember, this was a system that could not make, or did not care to make, a decent toilet or refrigerator or pacemaker. But the guns? These were a priority, and they were exceptionally well-considered and matched to what the Soviet Army wanted them to do. The idea that the AK-47 sprang from one man's mind is proletarian myth. It was the result of collective work at a grand scale.

How did the AK-47 become the defining weapon of the Cold War? How was its destiny linked to the atomic bomb?

These two weapons were designed simultaneously in the earliest moments of the Cold War. They both flowed from the Soviet Union's aggressive and successful intelligence work, and are conceptual copies of weapons that the Soviet Union's enemies had developed first, and that had caused alarm and worry. In 1949, when the Kremlin's first atomic bomb was exploded on a tower on the Kazakh steppe, the first production of the AK-47 was secretly rolling off the assembly lines in a massive plant in the Urals. And from there the two weapons, a mismatched pair, worked in concert. The atomic bomb and its many descendants helped freeze borders in place, and cleared the way for the means by which the Cold War would largely be fought—in proxy wars and influence scrums around the world. And for these wars, the AK-47 was very well suited. As production increased and its reputation and availability spread, it became the most common instrument of modern war, and part of the Soviet Union's real legacy.

How did you research this book?

The book covers a large swath of history and geography, and delves into current affairs, too. So it required many different approaches. I scoured archives in the United States and abroad for historical materials, and spent many a night reading the diaries and letters and memoirs of soldiers and inventors long deceased. I chased after out-of-print books that might shed insights into particular questions: how did the Sudanese fight at Omdurman? When and how were machine guns first used? I toured museum collections, met with curators and specialists and government arms-design and ordnance officials to build an understanding of how weapons are made, and how they work. I dug up ballistics studies, old and new, and sometimes fought for their public release. I chased after internal reports of arms manufacturers. As the narrative became more recent, I tracked down and interviewed veterans and arms officials involved in important events in the book—including particular battles in Vietnam. I went and stood at the test site where the first Soviet atomic bomb was detonated, and saw the damage, and then absorbed the information available from the test site's caretakers and historian. And of course I did extensive field work, walking scores and scores of foot patrols in Afghanistan and Iraq, and sitting in on rifle training and interviewing participants. It was an obsession, I suppose—passing a long period (when I should have been on vacation) at Beslan, where I had worked as a correspondent during the worst terrorist siege of our time, and unraveling the roles of weapons; or, another vacation spent in Acholiland, in Uganda, interviewing child soldiers and their victims, and gaining a firm understanding of how a millennial movement had been armed. The work on the ground, in the wars and at terrorist acts, in hospitals, at graveyards, with criminal investigators, was essential. It's not so hard to appreciate what these weapons are, and how they shape fighting, if you have been ambushed by people carrying them. Unfortunately, that has happened to me too many times. The book drew together all of these sources and means of research, and many others, and each served its purpose well. I can't imagine the book without all of them. It would be much less sturdy.

What do you hope readers take away from it?

Readers will quickly see that THE GUN is not focused solely on weapons, although there is a lot of material—some of it never seen before—on weapons and their development and what they do. The book is focused on people. It was researched and written in part as social history. And so what is here are stories, one after another, of people and their relationship to weapons and to war across almost 150 years of war: callous officers on colonial duty in Africa; young "volunteers" in the trenches of the Western front; intensely competitive businessmen and inventors who suspended ethics or good sense as they sought markets; Marines in Vietnam who found that they faced Kalashnikovs with weapons that did not work; child soldiers who recount their duties caching Kalashnikovs in the African soil and then returning years later to retrieve and restore them. The weapon becomes a lens to examine people—personally, in the context of their governments or their businesses or their laboratories, and as combatants or victims or salesmen. In these stories, weaved together, are a means to understand how we came to a time when the Kalashnikov became the world's dominant firearm, and how the combination of its peculiar characteristics and its ready availability has shaped war in the past decades, and to this day. When you get done with this book, I hope you will have a stronger sense of what war is, and of what weapons are, and who is behind them. But what do I want readers to take away? I want them to take away the stories that make it possible to understand these themes. We turn to books for stories, not just for information. And that's what's here: stories, each of which can stand on its own, but all of which point to the place of the Kalashnikov in modern war, and how we got to where we are.

The Kalashnikov is many, many things. It's also a hell of a story.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 34 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 12, 2010

    Well researched history / politics of Major Auto Weapons

    I liked this book. It is a well researched history and politics of some major automatic weapons that affected the world. Starting with the Gatling, it goes to the Maxim with some mentions of other famous weapons. It concentrates mostly on the AK 47 and M- 16. No exploded diagrams of weapons here. But you get the history of the people involved in the design and manufacture and use of the weapons and their effect on governments, war and society. He takes you into the design competitions of the AK in Russia and compares that with the US history of the M 16 adaptation. The author is mindful to point out at each evolutionary step of the automatic weapon its effect on war and society. Finally, the author points out what is to be done about the proliferation of weapons. Here he and I part ways. He wants destruction of the excess weapons. But his book amply points out the weapon problem in this world was instigated by governments, exploited by governments and continued by governments. As freemen here in the USA we can never give up our rights to own guns to protect our freedom. Because of the ineptness and evil of governments in the small automatic weapons proliferation, freemen must have the means to defend themselves should these weapons be turned upon us. The author has taken pains to show how these automatic weapons have been turned upon more than just soldiers. Its probably not what he wanted his readers to take away from reading his book, but it is plainly evident from his easy to read and interesting book.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Should be called, "Automatic Rifle Mystique"

    This isn't a bad book, but it covers an awful lot other than Kalishnikov's rifles and doesn't cover many aspects of AKs. More than the first third of the book is about Gatling guns and Maxim machine guns. Then there's a section about the development of the AK, which more than anything, points-out the discrepancies between various biographies of Kalishnikov. This is followed by a long discussion of the flawed purchasing and early issue of the M-16. Then there's a section about AK use by terrorists/insurgencies/child-soldiers ~anyway -- there's very little technical data, not even a drawing/exploded view/parts-diagram of an AK and no production figures/tables/countries of origin/model differences/whatever. The book is MASSIVELY repetitive and more than a little wordy (taking paragraphs to say something a sentence would cover). While covering similar weapons (AKs and ARs) the book discusses the Sturmgewehr only as a predecessor of the AK, devotes only a few pages to the Thompson SMG, and barely mentions the M3 greasegun, the PPS, and other early assault weapons. Also, check the pictures; they're more likely to show people than to show weapons. I like that the book, "names names" regarding the early M-16 problems, and is worthwhile as a reference on that subject, but hey, I bought a book about AKs, not ARs.

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2011

    Not great 2.5 stars

    Some very interesting facts and the historical perspective on the development of automatic weapons was great. However, the book is EXTREMELY redundant that I almost couldn't finish it. It could be about 100 pages shorter. Not a great book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2014

    The history of the AK-47 written vividly and eloquently

    With a parallel of the development of the M-16, the history of machine guns, propaganda associated with Russia, design considerations, the life and times of Kalishnakov. Fascinating history, and a great view of the inevitability of the assault rifle.

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  • Posted March 17, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    awesome history lesson

    awesome history lesson

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  • Posted March 14, 2012

    AK 47 The gun that changed armed conflict

    Be will have to wade thru 150 pages detailing Gatling's gun then Hiram Maxim's machine gun. From then on you get a look at the AK, Kalishnikov the man and what the Soviet Union was like in those years. Chivers also details the failures of the M16 in Nam. Robert McNamara should have been crucified for making this choice and Colt firearms for producing a piece of junk that got our soldiers killed in SE Asia. He goes on to detail the impact of the most prolific firearm in the world made by several countries. All in all a good read if you're interested in the AK 47. Four stars instead of five because of the annoying slow start.

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  • Posted March 6, 2011


    this book gives a plethora of in information on rapid fire weapons

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