Micheal Hodges’ Ak-47: the Story of a Gun was not what I expected. I was prepared for a detailed account of what Mikhail Kalashnikov went through while designing his eponymous and famous gun, the AK47 [similar to the Gatling book].
Instead, the book is more like a series of personal or at least localized stories of how the proliferation of the Kalashnikov has changed culture and affected politics since its introduction.
Everyone recognizes the silhouette of the AK47. Usually a wooden stock, gas tube up-top, and long curved magazine. It’s probably more accurate to use the term ‘Kalashnikov’ as it5 refers collectively to the family of guns and not just the first model. Numerous variants have since been made such as the AKS-47, AK-74, etc.
The book starts out with an explanation of how one the gun’s alleged shortcoming is perhaps its greatest strength. Soon after WWII, Mikhail Kalashnikov design an assault rifle (likely loosely based on an original German design, the Sturmgewehr) that could be easily operated and more importantly, maintained by uneducated peasants from the far corners of the Soviet Union. It was widely assumed that the next conflict the U.S.S.R. would have on a large scale would be with the U.S. and Western Europe. Kalashnikov also resolved one of the dilemnas of his day: what cartridge size is appropriate? Large rifle calibers of the era (1940s, post-WWII) had the ‘punch’ desired but proved too powerful for contemporary automatic mechanisms, jamming, misfiring, and soon destroying the weapon. Piston calibers worked more reliably but didn’t have the range or accuracy desired. Kalashnikov decided on the intermediate 7.62mm cartridge.
The original Kalashnikov rifle, the AK47, has only 8 moving parts (making for simple disassembly and maintenance), several stamped parts, and large tolerances. It is these tolerances that make the weapon relatively impervious to harsh conditions (dirt, grime, moisture, sand) and lack of maintenance. The AK47’s historical adversary, the M16 (and variants) is probably a better engineered weapon and more accurate and longer distances. But it has at times proven to be a maintenance problem in extremes such as the jungles of Southeast Asia and Deserts of the Middle East. There are countless anecdotal stories of a Kalashnikovbeing buried or pulled out of the sand and firing reliably after little more than being shaken out.
Hodges then moves into various vignettes from around the world in which the Kalashnikovhas played an important role in history, in many places it is still doing so. The times and places include:
– Various regional and tribal wars in sub-Saharan Africa
– Middle-East and terrorism from Munich to 9/11
– The current conflict in Iraq
– The rap/hip-hop scene
One example of how widespread the Kalashnikov ‘culure’ has become? The gun is featured on the national flag of Mozambique.
The life story of Mikhail Kalashnikov is hardly less interesting than that of the gun. The book is almost worth it just for that story. His counterpart is Gene Stoner, creator of the M16.
Mikhail Kalashnikov is impressed humbled, and trouble by the fact that his creation circa 1947 has grown far far beyond his wildest expectations and become the weapon of choice for terrorists and dictators around the world. Perhaps most troubling is the widespread use of the gun by child soldiers in Africa. As an aside, the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan is part of the book. Hodges explains how the Kalashnikov has been produced in such massive quantities that the street prices of them drops to $100 or less in some parts of the world. But what I still don’t understand is how in extremely poor areas the combatants will waste (e.g. Black Hawk down story in Somalia, or much of the Middle East) ammunition so frequently. I can only imagine that it must be easy to obtain locally and cheaply.
The book wraps-up with Hodges in Iraq as an embedded reporter. The stories he tells are tough to get through at times (due to the realities of the conflict, not his writing), but well-worth reading nonetheless. One odd error I found. The Columbine story is described as taking place on April 20 1991, it actually took place in 1999.
Only about 200 pages and a quick read. Recommended.
Ak-47: the Story of a Gun at Amazon
AK-47: The Story of a Gun: MacAdam Cage Publishing
Weapon of choice for children, rebels and soldiers – Telegraph
Review: AK47 by Michael Hodges – Books – The Guardian
AK47 The Story of a Gun – Time Out New York
Powell’s Books – Ak47: The Story of a Gun by Michael Hodges
AK47: The Story of the People’s Gun by Michael Hodges – Times Online
AK47 by Michael Hodges – PopMatters