Ask C.J. Chivers: ‘The Gun’

Source: at war blogs NYTIMES

C. J. Chivers, a Times correspondent and frequent contributor to At War, often from his embeds in Afghanistan, has written a book, “The Gun,” that is being released on Oct. 12. He will be answering readers’ questions over the next several days. Please submit your questions below in the comments box.  UPDATE: Follow the Q&A here.
Chinese propaganda poster On a Chinese propaganda poster that reads, “Long live the great Chinese People’s Liberation Army!”, a soldier carries a Kalashnikov.

“The Gun” tells the story of the origins and mass distribution of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, perhaps the former Soviet Union’s most successful product, and certainly its best known export. During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union competed militarily, diplomatically and technologically. Mr. Chivers traces how, on one front, in the race to outfit their forces with compact and versatile rifles for general issue, the Soviets won. The rugged and durable AK-47 was easy to use, carry and clean. It could be reassembled after months in the muck and quickly made ready for firing. It outgunned the far more precise and better machined M-16s that American soldiers were armed with during the Vietnam War. It was also a platform for further development, and its many descendants and knockoffs have become the choice of revolutionaries, guerrillas and criminals worldwide. They are so widely accepted — all but ubiquitous in modern ground war — that they have become icons, objects with any number of meanings. As Mr. Chivers notes:
In his first taped message after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden held a microphone near his beard and told the world that ‘the winds of faith and change have blown.’ It was his movie, he could put in it anything he wanted. Beside him was a Kalashnikov leaning against a rock. Bin Laden understood the symbolic potency of his choice.

“The Gun” is in many ways a history of modern warfare told through the story of how automatic arms, which at first were large, complex and expensive, were reduced in size and complexity and made available to most any man. The Kalashnikov line was the result of this technical evolution, which Mr. Chivers traces back in time to the Gatling gun –- the first reasonably successful rapid-fire arm. The AK-47 arrived to little fanfare or notice. In the age of atomic arms, it was overlooked. And yet it was to become the primary weapon of war for the last half-century or more. Mr. Chivers links its success not just to its well-known characteristics –- reliability, simplicity, durability, ease of use — but to its outsized manufacture in planned economies, which produced it in quantities that no other firearm has ever known.

No one can say for certain how many Kalashnikovs exist today. Their production in secrecy, often in some of the planet’s harshest dictatorships, as made precise accounting impossible. One point is beyond dispute. They are the most abundant firearms on earth. Since the Soviet army chose the AK-47 for distribution to Soviet ranks, automatic Kalashnikovs have been made in Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, China, East Germany, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), and in the United States. Knock-off versions, incorporating the main elements of Kalashnikov’s operating system, were developed in Croatia, Finland, India, Pakistan, South Africa and Israel (The Israeli Defense Forces were so impressed, and so concerned by the performance of the Egyptian Kalashnikovs in the Six Day War in 1967 that Yisraeli Galili and Yaccov Lior borrowed the AK-47’s main features to create a series of weapons at Ramat HaSharon). More Kalashnikovs are made every year (though at a lesser pace than in decades past).
He continues:
Serious estimates put the number of Kalashnikovs and its derivatives as high as 100 million. There could be one Kalashnikov for every 70 people alive.

“Where did all these rifles go?
“The Gun” traces their origins and distribution, and brings to life many people who designed, fought with, or suffered from the changes in small-arms technology, and in economic and diplomatic policies, that flooded the world with Stalin’s compact automatic rifles, or, as Mr. Chivers described them, “Everyman’s gun.”

Please leave questions for Mr. Chivers in the comments box below.

Excerpted from “The Gun” by C. J. Chivers, to be published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster. Copyright (c) 2010 by C. J. Chivers. For more information, check cjchivers.com.

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