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Of Uncommon Character: the AK-47 (ed. Jan 8, 2011)

Of Uncommon Character: the AK-47 (ed. Jan 8, 2011)

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Published by Pete Willows
First book review of 2011. It ran in the Feb 15, 2011 print edition of the Egyptian Gazette. My last print review in a pre-revolutionary Egypt. I listened to it on audio book.
First book review of 2011. It ran in the Feb 15, 2011 print edition of the Egyptian Gazette. My last print review in a pre-revolutionary Egypt. I listened to it on audio book.

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Published by: Pete Willows on Jan 08, 2011
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01/25/2013

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Pete WillowsJanuary 8, 2011Word count: about 1100
Of uncommon character: the AK-47
C. J. Chivers.
The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War 
.
 
Tantor Media. MP3 - UnabridgedCD edition. 19 hours. October 2010. $34.99 ISBN: 978-1-4001-6914-6.Mikhail Kalashnikov was a sergeant in the Red Army when his design team won Stalin’scontest to develop a new machine gun. The acronym, AK-47, stands for 
 Avtomat Kalashnikova
,‘the automatic by Kalashnikov’ – the year was 1947.The AK-47, with its distinctive banana-shaped magazine, sloping muzzle sight, gas tubeabove the barrel, and pistol grip, adorns the flag of Mozambique. One man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter, is another man’s jihadist, is another man’s warlord. The gun knows nodifference. When bin Laden placed a Kalashnikov rifle next to himself as a companion for  photographs, he did so with purpose—he chose the AK-74su, which was the 1974 model used bySoviet paratroopers in their Afghan war, and would have indicated bin Laden had played asignificantly more engaging role than he did in that conflict by acquiring the weapon on the battlefield. Such are the semiotics of modern conventional weaponry.Mikhail Kalashnikov, sired from robust peasant stock, was born into near penury on thesteppes of central Russia in 1919. His father was branded a
kulak 
and the family sent to live inSiberia when Kalashnikov was a boy, as part of Stalin’s collectivization. It was a lean, hard and bitter youth for Kalashnikov. He later fought in World War II, defending his homeland againstGermany’s advance on the Russian Front, in what Stalin called “The Great Patriotic War.”
 
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The brilliance in the design of the AK-47 is lain in simplicity. It can be torn down andreassembled by schoolboys in about thirty seconds. The guns are reliable. They almost never  jam. They remain in service for decades. The guts of the weapon are intentionally loose— appearing crude—the cycling mechanism, heavy. This roomy assembly allows the gun to dispelcarbon on recoil, along with debris and dirt.The AK-47’s action is gas-operated. As the bullet leaves the muzzle, some of thedischarged gas is siphoned back into the weapon, which pushes a piston that ejects the spentcartridge, chambering a live round on recoil. This was not a new idea.Chivers takes us through the evolution of the machine gun. He starts with RichardGatling’s six barrel, hand-cranked Gatling gun, developed during the US Civil War in the 1860s.Heavily modified variations of Gatling’s rotating barrel plan are still used in modernconventional firearms. Ironically, Gatling claimed to have developed a weapon that he thoughtwould save lives on the battlefield by allowing one man to perform the work of a hundred men.Hiram Maxim later developed a water-cooled machine gun that operated by harnessingthe energy of that weapon’s recoil to drive its mechanism. The Maxim gun proved itself mostcapable of annihilating entire columns of men in the decisive Battle of Omdurman, in 1898, near Khartoum, when Lord Kitchener retook the Sudan with British and Egyptian troops. WinstonChurchill was in attendance and wrote about it in his book,
The River War: an Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan
. [sic]“The Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets, and several had to be refreshed… before they could go on with their deadly work. The empty cartridge-cases, tinkling tothe ground, formed a small but growing heap beside each man. And all the time out onthe plain on the other side bullets were shearing through flesh, smashing and splintering bone; blood spouted from terrible wounds; valiant men were struggling on through a hell
 
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of whistling metal, exploding shells, and spurting dust—suffering, despairing, dying.Such was the first phase of the battle of Omdurman.”In the mid-1960s, US forces in Vietnam were issued the M-16 automatic rifle, which wasessentially a prototype that had been pressed into service, and with a penchant for failure in battle. The moments it took to disassemble those jammed guns in a fire-fight cost many anAmerican soldier their life. The Viet Cong were using AK-47 variants, which had been in production for fifteen years, having had design flaws worked out.Kalashnikov rifles were manufactured on a massive scale across the Soviet Union:assembly plants in East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria sent weapons by the boxcar to depots inthe Ukraine. Other nations make their own version of the automatic by Kalashnikov, like China’sinterpretation of the AK-56. Egypt makes a model called the Misr. Sudan, the MAZ. Iraq, theTabuk. It would be almost impossible to arrive at an accurate number of these weapons inexistence today.In 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev inherited a Soviet Union that had begun to collapse under itsown weight. Soon after, the Berlin Wall fell. As did the USSR, in 1991. Resultantly, stockpilesof Kalashnikov assault rifles and ordnance left unattended in the Ukraine—some hidden in saltmines, others sitting on abandoned freight trains—flooded the illegal international arms market,and in the tens of millions. Some of those assault rifles armed the belligerents in the Yugoslavwars of the early 1990s.The decade of the child soldier in Africa, with images of skinny boys struggling to holdup a Soviet-era Kalashnikov assault rifle, emerged at about this time. Charles Taylor armed thedisorganized and marauding Revolutionary United Front in Liberia and Sierra Leone—the kids

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