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Of uncommon character: the AK-47
C. J. Chivers. The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War. Tantor Media. MP3 - Unabridged CD 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’s contest 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 tube above 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 no difference. 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 by Soviet paratroopers in their Afghan war, and would have indicated bin Laden had played a significantly 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 the steppes of central Russia in 1919. His father was branded a kulak and the family sent to live in Siberia 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 against Germany’s advance on the Russian Front, in what Stalin called “The Great Patriotic War.”
The brilliance in the design of the AK-47 is lain in simplicity. It can be torn down and reassembled 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 dispel carbon on recoil, along with debris and dirt. The AK-47’s action is gas-operated. As the bullet leaves the muzzle, some of the discharged gas is siphoned back into the weapon, which pushes a piston that ejects the spent cartridge, 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 Richard Gatling’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 modern conventional firearms. Ironically, Gatling claimed to have developed a weapon that he thought would 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 harnessing the energy of that weapon’s recoil to drive its mechanism. The Maxim gun proved itself most capable 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. Winston Churchill 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 to the ground, formed a small but growing heap beside each man. And all the time out on the 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
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 was essentially 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 an American 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 in the Ukraine. Other nations make their own version of the automatic by Kalashnikov, like China’s interpretation of the AK-56. Egypt makes a model called the Misr. Sudan, the MAZ. Iraq, the Tabuk. It would be almost impossible to arrive at an accurate number of these weapons in existence today. In 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev inherited a Soviet Union that had begun to collapse under its own weight. Soon after, the Berlin Wall fell. As did the USSR, in 1991. Resultantly, stockpiles of Kalashnikov assault rifles and ordnance left unattended in the Ukraine—some hidden in salt mines, 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 Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. The decade of the child soldier in Africa, with images of skinny boys struggling to hold up a Soviet-era Kalashnikov assault rifle, emerged at about this time. Charles Taylor armed the disorganized and marauding Revolutionary United Front in Liberia and Sierra Leone—the kids
stoned on alcohol, cocaine and garden variety stupor, while shooting at each other from bridges in downtown Monrovia. Joseph Kony still shepherds the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda—here again, pre-pubescent soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs and given to cutting off the lips and noses of non-combatants. I once saw a bumper sticker on the pickup truck of a gun enthusiast in the US that read, “Guns don’t kill people—people kill people.” The flip remark would be, “yes, they’re killed by people with guns.” But brutality and slaughter pre-date the advent of automatic weapons. And when people lack easy access to guns, they pick up axes and machetes, as was the case in the Rwandan Genocide. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, thousands of civilians had their hands chopped off for sport, while rebels fought to control the diamond mines. But just as Richard Gatling intended his machine gun to save lives on the battlefield, Mikhail Kalashnikov thought he was designing a weapon that would protect Mother Russia. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Like most inventions, the development of automatic weapons was inevitable. And it would be naïve to think otherwise.
Willows is a contributing writer to The Egyptian Gazette and its weekly edition, The Egyptian Mail. He studied at the American University in Cairo, and now lives in Toronto. He can be reached at: email@example.com