It is no accident that C. J. Chivers opens “The Gun,” his bold history of the AK-47, not with the loud crack that is the report of the rifle but with the monstrous bang of the first detonation of a Soviet nuclear bomb. As Mr. Chivers’s detailed history then skirts as far back as the United States Civil War and brings us right up to the current conflict in Afghanistan, the message of his prologue is clear: For all that the escalating cold war shaped the last 60 years, no one was ever killed in conflict by a Russian nuke. By contrast untold millions have been wounded and killed by the AK-47 and related weapons, as they have proliferated and mutated from tools of engineering ingenuity, honestly wrought in defense of the socialist motherland, to the firearm of choice for both oppressor and oppressed.
The AK-47 was revolutionary because it was the first weapon to combine the portability of machine pistols that had proved popular in World War II with the accuracy of less portable, sharpshooting weapons and the firepower of the heavier, more traditional machine guns. It was also and remains beguilingly easy to use and maintain and unerringly reliable.
Mr. Chivers is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a former Marine with, one suspects, more than a nodding acquaintance with his subject. He 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.
There are as many inherent dangers as advantages in writing object history. The recent deserved success in Britain of “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” a collaboration between BBC radio and the British Museum, has shown how informative history can be when told from the perspective of a single object, but such histories can be selective.
Mr. Chivers succeeds in bringing his own disparate strands together into a mostly coherent narrative, but the history is necessarily a subjective one. He moves from topic to topic at a healthy pace. Certainly the reader doesn’t tire as we roam from Kremlin politics to the Tet offensive via diversions like the Hungarian uprising and the Munich Olympics.
Sometimes, however, he dwells, perhaps indulgently, on a particular theme or episode. We are for example more than a third of the way through before we encounter the sometimes pathetic, sometimes tragic figure of Mikhail Kalashnikov and his eponymous rifle.
Mr. Chivers’s account of the general development of automatic weapons and the men who pioneered them is impressive. The portraits of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s forerunners, Richard J. Gatling and Hiram Maxim (whose entertaining character comes across bizarrely at odds with the devastation his machine wrought on the fields of Flanders) stand in effective contrast to Kalashnikov, the curiously unsympathetic Russian sergeant, and lend the book depth.
From horse-drawn, hand-cranked cannons that subdued the enemies of the British Empire, Mr. Chivers traces the development of automatic weapons in the early 20th century and the often costly failings of conservative military leaders to understand their potential and effect. He deconstructs the Soviet mythology behind the AK-47’s development before charting its proliferation and rise to ubiquity. The book sometimes struggles to keep up with the various tactical and strategic changes occasioned by the development and distribution of the rifle, but this may be an accurate reflection of how the wider world has struggled to comprehend and cope with the spread of this powerful gun.
His broad reach allows Mr. Chivers to touch on diversions that he and many readers may well find interesting — a considerable discussion of the ill-fated introduction of the M-16 rifle to United States Marines in Vietnam is one example — but means that we are sometimes caught in a limbo between a necessarily limited canter through big events and a dense excursus on the gun itself. The book’s discussion of the difficulties of penetrating layers of secrecy and Soviet myth in deconstructing the historiography of the AK-47 will be fascinating to many historians, less so to casual enthusiasts.
Other elements of “The Gun” are perhaps unwittingly illuminating. Mr. Chivers skates over the murky distinction between romantic freedom fighters who wield their AK-47s against the brutal Soviet regime and the current terrorists who do so against its armies. While much of the detail on the development of the gun and the treatment of the man whose name it bears serves as a salutary reminder of the awfulness of life in Soviet Russia, Mr. Chivers can’t resist taking a few easy shots at the Soviets.
For an essentially international book about an international symbol, “The Gun” never quite escapes an essentially Western perspective. While our own shortcomings are often addressed with clarity and precision, it is hard to escape the feeling that the ill-use the rifles have been put to by our enemies gets more attention than when the butt has been on the other shoulder.
But these are minor quibbles that fall away when Mr. Chivers provides in harrowing detail a sense of the human cost of this sometimes too abstract symbol.
“Karzan Mahmoud toppled and fell, landing in a puddle of cold standing water,” he writes of the shooting of a young Kurd. “There he lay, on his back, blinking up into raindrops peppering his face. He had no idea how many times he had been hit. His body was broken; his mind, for the moment, was strangely detached. His blood stained the puddle red. He thought he heard thunder.”
Mr. Chivers adds: “Technical studies did not sketch this: what it looked and felt like when military rifle bullets smacked human life, when incapacitation meant not just preventing action but summoning death, when rifles and gunfights were stripped of engineering, politics, romance or any whiff of fable.”
He is right to address the “fable” of the AK-47. As someone who has been shot at and shot back with this weapon, I can testify to its enduring appeal. But for all that, “The Gun” is a history of 10 pounds of wood and steel. Its strength is that it can’t but be a human history: the history of the men who designed and built, did or didn’t purchase, correctly or incorrectly deployed, and triumphed or perished by an inanimate object.