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The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War, by CJ Chivers, Allen Lane RRP£25, 457 pages
The staggering superiority of western firepower was never more clearly shown than at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, when an Anglo-Egyptian army stopped dead a horde of charging Islamic fundamentalists, twice its number, with an array of rapid-firing Lee-Metford magazine-fed rifles and Maxim machine guns. For only 60 casualties, the Anglo-Egyptian forces slaughtered thousands of Sudanese. “It was a terrible sight,” said a young Winston Churchill in the imperial army, “for as yet they had not hurt us at all, and it seemed a terrible advantage.”
Within less than 100 years that “terrible advantage” had been lost, as the enemies of western imperialism got hold of their own rapid-firing guns. From Afghan Mujahideen to Iraqi insurgents to Congolese child soldiers, they all had the firepower to halt western influence, and the gun that made them so strong was invariably the AK-47 – the Kalashnikov.
Chivers tells the story well. At first, it appeared that Mikhail Kalashnikov would never become a hero of the Soviet Union. He was the son of Cossack farmers; his family fell foul of Stalin’s collectivisation, had their property and livestock seized, and were sent to western Siberia. Within a year of trying to establish a new farm in appalling conditions, his father was dead. One of his brothers was condemned to forced labour. Restless and angry, Kalashnikov fled to Kazakhstan, where he got a job as a railroad clerk.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Kalashnikov joined the Red Army. Being small in stature, he was best suited for service inside a tank. With a toolkit in his hands, he got to know everything about his fighting vehicle. The war-winning genius of the Soviet Union was weapons that were quick to make and simple to maintain; Kalashnikov absorbed these lessons.
Sergeant Kalashnikov was wounded in the fighting and it was while recovering that he turned his attention to inventing a superior automatic gun, spurred by the memory of comrades executed by machine-gun-wielding Nazis. In a railway workshop he hammered out a prototype. Taking it to a commissar, he was arrested, but party contacts got him out and a Soviet major-general was sufficiently impressed to assign him to gun design full-time.
Kalashnikov kept simplifying his machine gun through hundreds of different versions until finally perfecting it in 1947, by which time it had become an assault rifle. Part of its success derived from a massive bolt carrier and gas piston, which created enough excess energy inside the barrel to push a bullet through any dirt inside the weapon – an important consideration for easy use by poorly equipped soldiers.
Tested in sub-zero chambers, submerged in salt water, dragged through sand and ash, dropped on to concrete, the AK-47 proved tough and after just four weeks it was in production. It is still killing people across the world today.
CJ Chivers, a former US Marine and Gulf war veteran, is superb on the technical history of the AK-47 and its predecessors, but he also strikingly underlines its human cost as well as weaving adeptly through the propaganda that transformed Kalashnikov into a Soviet hero. Sickeningly, the regime rewrote his biography, describing a happy pastoral childhood in which his mother wrote to him during the war about fixing a roof on their farmhouse. There was no roof, there was no farmhouse – it had been burnt to the ground by Stalin’s henchmen.
Tim Newark is the author of ‘Highlander: The History of the Legendary Highland Soldier’ (Constable)