Book Review: The Gun by C. J. Chivers

This is a look at The Gun by C.J. Chivers.

Book Details
* Hardcover: 496 pages
* Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (October 12, 2010)
* ISBN-10: 0743270762

I first learned of the book after seeing review and mentions in both Esquire and Wired magazines. I’m interested in the Kalashnikov due to both its history and its engineering. The gun is widely-respected for its longevity and reliability, though not its accuracy. Also see these two related books / reviews:

Quick Book Review: Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel
Quick Book Review: AK47: The Story Of A Gun

Over the last year or two I’ve read two similar books, on the Gatling and Kalashnikov. The Gun seems like a natural progression. The Gun was not exactly what I expected (though I wasn’t disappointed). One review I read discussed the history of the Kalashnikov at length, and another the M16. The book seems logically built around 4 guns: the Gatling Gun, the Maxim Gun, the Kalashnikov (and numerous variants) , and the M16 (and variants). Gatling’s one ton machine became a ten pound rifle by the 1950s. (p. 8)

It’s really a natural progression. The Gatling was the first commercially successful machine gun, though notably not automatic. The Maxim picked up where Gatling left off. Hiram Maxim’s gun was much smaller, lighter, and automatic.

Besides corpses and vodka, the AK-47 was the only thing communist Russia was ever able to mass-produce.
— C.J. Maloney

What I found one of the most interesting historical bits and themes in the book is the contrast between the Soviets’ development of the Kalashnikov and the U.S. development of the M16. The irony is that the Soviets used a market-based competitive process with requirements to end up with a fantastic rifle and bit of engineering. The Americans used a combination of the old boy’s network, rent-seeking, threats, and favoritism (p. 296). As a result the early variants of the M16 were plagued by numerous problems, getting many soldiers and Marines killed in the process. It took years (decades?), politics, and a great deal of bureaucratic dancing to get the M16’s problems worked out. And even today the gun isn’t necessarily a good match for the needs of the U.S. military.

The designs of these guns (and I guess all guns) are based on various engineering compromises. For example, the Pentagon wanted a gun that was built to tight tolerances and accurate to perhaps 300-500 meters. The Soviets realized that they wanted (needed?) a rifle that was built to loose tolerances in order to be reliable and easily disassembled/maintained by peasants with negligible education (e.g. pp. 186-188). The result was a very reliable rifle that was not particularly accurate beyond 100 meters. This was a calculated compromise as the Soviets realized that most infantry conflicts take place at well under 200 meters, often much less. The designs and choice of cartridges also involved similar compromises. The pairing of rifle and cartridge is a system and they need to work together in unison.

The Soviet effort to build the Kalashnikov was inspired by their experiences in WWII fighting the Germans. They captured some example of the German StG 44 or Sturmgewehr, arguably the first and father of all subsequent assault rifles. A German rifle and design were the inspiration for the AK47, and it was subsequently improved by a German engineer (Hugo Schmeisser, p. 207).

Also, I think no book on the history of the Kalashnikov would be complete without a discussion of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the alleged inventor of the eponymous rifle. Mr. Chivers explains that Mr. Kalashnikov’s legend is in large part a fabrication of the Soviet propaganda machine. This point wasn’t entirely clear to me after reading the previous book: AK47: The Story Of A Gun. Mikhail Kalashnikov was most definitely involved in the creation of the gun, but not alone and not to the extent that the Soviets would have us believe. It is more appropriate to say that the Soviet system created the Ak47 than to claim that Mr. Kalashnikov did. (p. 7)

Here are some items of note from the book:
1. Mikhail Kalashnikov was a twenty-nine year old former tank commander the Communist party attributed the gun’s invention to. p. 4
2. The Kalashnikov, not the nuclear weapon was the deadliest weapon of the Cold War. p. 4
3. The Kalashnikov is a force equalizer, identified the world over with the terrorist, the thug, the dictator, and the child soldier. p. 9

4. The Tabuk Sniper Rifle is a Kalashnikov variant (one of many), and manufactured in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. p. 11
5. You can even buy Mikhail Kalashnikov brand vodka
6. Fewer than 10 million M16 variants have been produced, some estimates put the number of Kalashnikovs manufactured as high as 100 million. p. 12
7. One of the earliest machine guns, the Ripley, was created and manufactured in Troy, NY. A firm in Rochester, NY created a volley-gun, the Requa, with twenty-five .58 caliber barrels in a single row. p. 28

8. Hiram Maxim claimed to have beaten Edison to the light bulb, only to be too slow in filing the patent paperwork. Maxim also appears to have been a virulent racist. pp. 68, 105-106
9. The numbers of men brutally mowed-down in WWI are staggering. Tactics as of 1916 had not yet adapted to the rise of the machine gun. As a result, thousands of men were fodder for early German machine guns. In one battle 30,000 British troops were killed or wounded in the first sixty minutes. By midday the number was 50,000. By end of day … 21,000 were dead, 35,000 wounded, and 600 captured. p. 134
10. As a boy, Kalashnikov and his family had been declared Kulaks by the Communist party and were exiled to Siberia. p. 146

11. The Pentagon failed to understand or appreciate the AK47 and what it meant. A severe miscalculation. p. 251
12. Kennedy, McNamara’s “whiz kids,” and “systems analysis” account for a great deal of hubris. p. 271
13. What caused the M16’s jamming problems? pp. 325-328
14. The description of Lord’s Resistance Army is beyond bizaare. pp. 372-376

A final note from the book: “As it groaned and buckled in its last years, the Soviet Union was struggling to deliver food to the citizens of Moscow. Its weapons reached the far corners of the world.” p. 365

Mr. Chivers discusses the engineering and history of these guns, how they were shaped by experiences of war, and how the guns themselves then in turn shaped war and diplomacy in the decades that followed. Definitely a well-researched a readable book. Recommended!

Additional links:
The Gun at Amazon.com
How the AK-47 Rewrote the Rules of Modern Warfare – Wired.com
The AK-47: ‘The Gun’ That Changed The Battlefield : NPR
Ask C.J. Chivers About His Book, ‘The Gun’ – NYTimes.com
From Russia With Blood – Interview with C.J. Chivers – Foreign Policy
C.J. Chivers’s Official Blog
A history of the AK-47, the gun that made history
AK-47 Video – How Does an AK-47 Work? – Esquire
Automatic for the People: The AK-47 by C.J. Maloney
C.J. Chivers’ The Gun explains how the AK-47 changed the world – Slate Magazine