By C. J. Chivers
A book review by Loose Rounds Guest Writer Andrew Betts
That the Kalashnikov series of rifles and light machineguns has had a profound impact on geopolitics is indisputable. It has been manufactured and distributed in such large numbers that in many places in the world the word “Kalashnikov” (or local slang for the AK) is literally synonymous with “gun.” While the influence of the gun is well known, there is much about the origin of Kalashnikov’s rifle that is misunderstood. The Gun tells us the story of how the Kalashnikov family of weapons came into existence and it gives us fascinating insight into the ways in which it continues to shape the world in which we live.
Chivers begins with a detailed history of the development of automatic arms and their influence on the battlefield. He tells us about some of the attempts at automatic and repeating arms before the advent of the Gatling gun and then he examines in great detail the life of Richard J. Gatling as well as the development of the weapon itself. We get to see fascinating detail about how the arms business of the 19th century worked and we move on to accounts of the use of Gatling’s gun on the battlefield. We are treated to similar detail about the Maxim machine gun and its own creator as well as its influence on the battlefield. The author then takes us on to an account of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov’s life and the development of his namesake and its influence.
The story of how the Kalashnikov rifle came into being is not as simple as it first appears. The rifle was a symbol of socialist power and ability. It was inevitable that its origins would be obscured by propaganda. The Soviet Union embellished bits here and there and created total fabrications in other places. The author sifts through the propaganda, public record, and personal accounts to get to the core of what really happened. He takes great pains to unravel the truth by weighing accounts from multiple sources and he painstakingly cites every bit of information. This book is not simply a collection of the author’s opinions, it is a professionally researched factual account.
Chivers provides incredible detail into the lives of Gatling, Maxim, and Kalashnikov and he is just as meticulous in his account of the development and influence of each of those weapons. There are some glaring holes, though. While it would not be practical for the author to cover every automatic weapon between World War I and the end of World War II, it seems reasonable that he spend a little more time on one of the most influential weapons of the time: the US Rifle M1. The Garand is barely even mentioned, nor is the Johnson. The Simonov carbine and the SVT are also only mentioned in passing. The Thompson and other sub machine guns are mentioned but little detail is given. With so much attention given to the Gatling and Maxim, it seems odd to give such short shrift to some of the other notable self loading designs contemporaneous to Kalashnikov’s work.
Later, the author details the absolutely horrid tale of the adoption and fielding of the M16. He pulls no punches. The decisions made at the time were criminally negligent and we see an account of this process at a level of detail seldom seen. The M16 was a failure because of terrible bureaucratic decisions, though, not because of any inherent design flaw. The issues that caused the early failures were eventually corrected and the rifle developed into a durable and dependable combat rifle. In real field environments, Eugene Stoner’s rifle is every bit as reliable as Kalashnikov’s. The author gives us an accurate account of the reasons for the M16’s early troubles but he leaves us at the end of the M16’s birth pains. If the reader had no context, he might believe that the M16 continued to be a terrible rifle.
This book is about the Kalashnikov rifle, though. We can forgive the author for not spending much time on other weapon systems. It is disappointing, then, that the technical discussion of the Kalashnikov ends with the AKM. The author could have given us far more detail about the technical specifications of the various types of ammunition fired in Kalashnikov pattern rifles and machineguns and he definitely could have provided more detail about models such as the AK-74 and RPK. The AK-74 especially deserves substantial attention because it is still the primary issued rifle for several nations. It is barely mentioned and we are not treated to any details of the decision process or the reasons for the development of the 5.45x39mm or the changes that went into the AK-74 rifle.
It is easy to be critical, though. It is far more difficult to do the intensive research and talented writing that goes into a book of this scope. It is a detailed and far reaching story of automatic arms in general and the Kalashnikov rifle in particular. It is entertaining and engaging. The author’s style is such that he is able to communicate a great deal of information without ever losing the reader’s interest. Most of all, though, it is extremely enlightening. It is very unlikely that anyone can read this book and not learn something. For anyone remotely interested in firearms, this is definitely worth your time.