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Tales of the Gun - AK-47

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A history of the AK-47, the gun that made history (a book review)

By Mark A. Keefe, IV
Washington Post


By C.J. Chivers

Simon & Schuster. 481 pp. $28

It is indisputably the most produced and iconic firearm design in history. Its distinctive curved magazine and pistol grip are recognized even by those with little knowledge of guns. It is the Avtomat Kalashnikova designed in 1947 - the AK-47.

Although it bears Mikhail Kalashnikov's name, the AK's ubiquitous presence on the world stage more than six decades after its adoption as the standard Soviet-issue rifle can be squarely laid at the feet of Joseph Stalin, and its spread pinned on his successors. Although Cold War secrecy will prevent us from ever knowing the true number of AK-47-based rifles produced, some estimates put it at more than 100 million.

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. He chronicles the evolution and employment of fully automatic firearms, the development of the Kalashnikov and how the rifle redefined modern warfare from its use in Hungary in 1956 to Afghanistan today. Chivers doesn't descend into a technical description of the numerous AK makes, models and manufacturing variations, nor does he engage in a debate on domestic firearms legislation.

Chronicling the early quest for handheld firepower, Chivers concentrates first on two American inventors - Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim - and their designs. The Gatling was a manually operated, artillery-size, multibarrel gun capable of a huge rate of fire, allowing small groups of late 18th-century Europeans to subjugate indigenous peoples throughout the world - so long as the guns worked. Weighing about a ton, the Gatling had little battlefield mobility, had to be cranked by hand and was not very reliable. When the Gatlings went down, often so did the small groups of European soldiers.

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