Fall 2010

Armed for a Fight

– Andrew Exum

The brief, wondrous history of the AK-47.

The real use of gunpowder, essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote, is “that it makes all men tall.” As far as inventions go, none have had as democratizing an effect as the rifle. While the battlefield before the advent of firearms was marked by a class system as rigid as the one that ruled the larger society—with armored knights on horseback directing the masses (quite literally beneath them)—rifles and muskets meant that a well-trained peasant could as easily kill a nobleman as vice versa.

The development of small arms is one of the most important evolutionary processes in warfare, though it does not receive nearly as much attention as the periodic introduction of larger weapons systems—tanks, submarines, atomic bombs—from both academics and casual students of military history. Following World War II, entire fields of scholarly inquiry were devoted to how nuclear weaponry might affect the behavior of states and shape the world in which we live. Small arms are more or less assumed to occupy a static place on the battlefield, only driving change, if ever, along the margins.

Implicit in C. J. Chivers’s fascinating new history of the development and spread of light automatic weaponry is the argument that while the academy, the military, and the rest of society were busy contemplating nuclear weapons, a quieter revolution in arms was taking place in lesser technologies that deserves at least as much attention. Just before the Soviet Union tested its new atomic bomb in 1949, it began to manufacture and disseminate a light assault rifle of devastating simplicity and durability. That assault rifle, the Avtomat Kalashnikova, or AK-47, has killed orders of magnitude more people than atomic weaponry, though its effect on the battlefield is never mentioned in the same breath as that of nuclear weapons. A modified design is still in production today.

Chivers hopes to change that state of neglect. Anyone who has followed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the pages of The New York Times and Esquire is familiar with his work. He is justly lauded as one of the finest war correspondents of his generation, and he has a former infantryman’s eye and ear for the staccato cadences of small-unit combat. (Upon graduating from Cornell in 1988, Chivers served in the U.S. Marines for six years and led infantrymen in the Gulf War of 1990–91.) As consistently excellent as Chivers’s embedded reporting for the Times is, his regular posts on the newspaper’s “At War” blog about small arms and marksmanship—subjects for which he has an enduring and obvious affinity—are equally enthralling. This book is testament to his erudite understanding of military history and professional interest in gunfighting. The AK-47 has already been the subject of a book by the journalist Larry Kahaner, AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War (2006), but Chivers’s effort surpasses that earlier book in both depth and breadth of inquiry.

The first third of Chivers’s book is devoted to the history and development of automatic weapons and is nearly the length, at 140 pages, of John Ellis’s seminal book, The Social History of the Machine Gun (1975). Many of Chivers’s general themes are similar to Ellis’s: The machine gun was introduced to Western armies in the 19th century over the objection of the armies themselves. Senior officers in Western armies—most especially, perhaps, those of Britain and the United States—found machine guns ungentlemanly, and failed to imagine how automatic weaponry might be used to devastating effect both against and in support of their own troops. “The blindness that afflicted the senior officer class was extraordinary,” Chivers writes. “In addressing the more difficult questions of developing tactics and doctrine for fighting with and against modern automatic arms, institutional inertia trumped individual intellect.”

In some ways, Chivers’s decision to tell the story of the AK-47 within the context of automatic weaponry is an odd one. As he has reported, assault rifles, the AK-47 included, are often ineffective when fired in automatic mode. The best and most experienced gunfighters employ assault rifles on semiautomatic, firing rounds either as single shots or controlled pairs. But Chivers is a keen observer of the often subtle shifts in the ways of combat. Vignettes from the Anglo-Zulu War (1879) and the Spanish-American War (1898) illustrate the value of the Gatling gun—a precursor of automatic weapons—and, more generally, the effect of massed fire on infantry formations. Rifle fire—either single-shot, volley, or automatic—can be effective as a means of suppression, forcing enemy fighters to take cover even when it does not immediately kill them. Chivers notes that much of the fire employed by riflemen in World War II was intended to suppress the enemy. A rifle that allowed infantrymen to put more fire downrange would be an advantage to frontline infantry units.

Chivers provides three corrections to the historical record. The first and most obvious is to the narrative advanced by Kahaner, the Soviet authorities, and Mikhail Kalashnikov himself: that the invention and development of the Kalashnikov series of small arms was largely the work of a lone hero of the proletariat. Kalashnikov played a major role in the development of the weapon that bears his name, but Chivers rightly points out that the production and dissemination of the weapon could not have happened outside the massive centralized Soviet system. Portraying the weapon’s development as the work of an uneducated enlisted man was part of a Soviet propaganda campaign by Stalin’s regime.

Second, where John Ellis in his history saw automatic weaponry as a means to further imperial conquest—especially the colonization of Africa—Chivers points out that in World War I, the machine gun in the hands of the indigenous defenders of German East Africa (now Tanzania) helped to repel a British assault, shaming British officers who were defeated by black African troops. Like the rifle before it, the machine gun was first effectively employed by colonial powers but then leveled the playing field between them and their would-be subjects.

In the same way, Chivers takes aim at the AK-47’s iconic status as the weapon of liberation. In the popular imagination, at least, the AK-47 is forever associated with plucky freedom fighters resisting Western hegemony. But as Chivers notes, the first time the Kalashnikov was employed outside the Soviet Union, it was used to brutally repress burgeoning freedom movements in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, in 1953, and Hungary, in 1956. More often than not, the AK-47 has been a tool in the service of repression and autocracy.

Chivers, like Kahaner, seems to want to draw larger conclusions about the evolving character of war from the story of the AK-47, but I am not sure that the spread of irregular war can be so easily linked to the spread of small arms. One should also not overstate the importance of the assault rifle in the successes of nonstate actors on the battlefield. Though the AK-47, held in a raised fist, enjoys privilege of place on the flag of Hezbollah, it was not through coordinated infantry assaults but through roadside bombs, antitank rockets, and a savvy propaganda campaign that Israel and its allies were driven from Lebanon in the 1990s. The same tactics are evident in Iraq and Afghanistan today. As Chivers himself has written elsewhere, Iraqi and Afghan insurgents are, by and large, comically poor marksmen. What successes they have enjoyed against U.S. and allied soldiers are due more to improvised explosive devices and the tried-and-true insurgent tactics of protraction and exhaustion than to effective use of the AK-47, though it remains ubiquitous in both countries.

The most important lessons from this book concern not the effect of the AK-47 on the modern battlefield, but rather the ineptitude displayed by the British and U.S. armies in adapting to automatic weaponry in World War I, and later by the U.S. Army in developing a capable alternative to the AK-47.

Given the stakes involved in combat, readers could be forgiven for imagining that military organizations are among the most flexible and pragmatic of bureaucracies. In reality, though, they are among the most hidebound and resistant to innovation, in large part due to the organizational cultures that take root and instruct the officer corps not only about what war is but what war should be. Challenges to military culture are often successful only when accompanied by exceptionally strong leadership or the kind of external shock that follows a disastrous defeat. The weapons acquisition process is usually slower to change than are units in the field. Time and again, in Chivers’s account, the fates of mud-caked infantrymen in far-off lands were determined by procurement and budgeting decisions made in London and Washington.

The British rifleman in World War I was betrayed by his uniformed leadership in two ways. Even after German machine guns (built on a variant of American-born inventor Hiram Maxim’s model) decimated British ranks at the Somme, the British continued to lionize close-in bayonet fighting as decisive, though, as Chivers memorably writes, it reduced the Enfield rifle to “a 20th-century spear.” It was not until late in the war that infiltration tactics were developed to mitigate the horrific defensive advantages the machine gun offered in trench warfare. Second, consistent with Barry Posen’s argument in The Sources of Military Doctrine (1984) that strong civilian intervention is required to spur military innovation, only at the urging of statesman David Lloyd George did the British army finally acquire enough machine guns for each of its battalions.

Even the hard lessons of combat don’t quickly penetrate organizational culture. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were victimized by an insular Army Ordnance Corps that had failed to commission or develop an assault rifle to match the AK-47 carried by the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies. With the rest of the nation focused on the development of nuclear weapons, the leaders of the Ordnance Corps had, as Chivers puts it, “lost the arms race of their lives.” Although the M-16 and its variants eventually developed into fine rifles and carbines, superior to the AK-47 in most ways, U.S. infantrymen in Vietnam were badly outmatched for the duration of the war.

Though I have never met Chivers, we have much in common: Like him, I am a recovering infantryman who takes delight in the esoterica of small arms and rifle ballistics. I am unsure how much enjoyment the non-specialist will take from this excellent contribution to the field of security studies. If it is half as much as mine, though, Chivers’s book will be well worth reading.

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Andrew Exum is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he grew up in East Tennessee and learned how to shoot with a Winchester Model 68 when he was about 10 years old.

Reviewed: The Gun by C.J. Chivers, Simon & Schuster, 481 pp, 2011.

Photo courtesy of The United States Marines Corps