Magazine

The Reliable Killer


AK-47

The Weapon That

Changed the Face of War

By Larry Kahaner

Wiley -- 258pp -- $25.95

(Readers'

Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good A chilling account of the Soviet automatic rifle's global impact.

The Bad Chapters on U.S. and U.N. attempts curtail assault weapons drag a bit.

The Bottom Line A chilling and perversely entertaining look at the dark side of innovation.

Here's today's puzzler: Name a Russian innovation that whips most everything America and Western Europe throws against it, has astounding firepower, and is unaffected by heat, cold, and sand. (No, it's not Maria Sharapova.) Need more hints? It's easily transported, and its familiar silhouette has made it a must-have fashion accessory certifying the rebel status of figures from the anonymous Viet Cong to Osama bin Laden. Give up? It's the Kalashnikov assault rifle, also known as the AK. Since its first large-scale production in 1947, this low-tech weapon of mass destruction has spread across the globe, doling out death from Afghanistan to the U.S.

If we need a reminder, the AK is graphic evidence that not every innovation benefits humanity. With one devastating, engrossing anecdote after another, author Larry Kahaner provides a chilling and perversely entertaining brief in AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War. Consider this:

-- The AK was first unveiled by the Soviet Army during the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Capable of 600-rounds-per-minute bursts of killing power, the weapon demonstrated its effectiveness while demanding few skills of the poorly trained, largely conscript Soviet army. The revolt was squelched. As many as 50,000 civilians were killed.

-- Since that time, around 100 million AKs have been produced. The Soviets chose not to assert patent claims or charge licensing fees, allowing "wholesale production" of the weapon in countries from Bulgaria and Poland to China.

-- During the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Soviets introduced an improved AK with a smaller, more lethal bullet. But the insurgent mujahideen likewise carried AKs, thanks to the CIA, which donated as many as 400,000 of them.

-- With the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of weapons flooded the globe. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, a huge supply prompted the rise of a thriving black market and a "Kalashnikov culture," in which AKs were everywhere.

-- The AK has become the firearm of choice for at least 50 standing armies and uncounted ragtag outfits, from insurgents and terrorists to drug dealers and street gangs.

For inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov, inspiration came in 1941 in the form of direct contact with Nazi invaders' Schmeisser submachine guns. As the young tank commander recovered from his wounds, he vowed to create a weapon that would help defend the motherland. However, it took him years of tinkering, along with technical schooling, to perfect his brainchild, the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947.

It was in Vietnam, Kahaner tells us, that the AK really earned its stripes. In jungle skirmishes, whoever pumped out the most rounds in the shortest amount of time won. America countered with its own automatic, the space-age-sleek M-16. But for years that rifle was reputed to have problems. One story, plucked by Kahaner from the Vietnam memoir of Colonel David Hackworth, illustrates the issues. Hackworth came across an accidentally exposed Viet Cong gravesite, yanked out a mud-caked AK, pulled back the bolt, and fired off thirty rounds as if the gun had just been cleaned. "This was the kind of weapon our solders needed and deserved, not the M-16 that had to be hospital cleaned or it would jam," wrote Hackworth.

The AK's story only gets darker from there. In Africa, the end of the Cold War led to cutbacks in aid, fragmentation of national states, and revived tribal rivalries. Beginning in Liberia and spreading to Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Rwanda, a new kind of war emerged, marked by vicious attacks on civilians and grotesque atrocities. And there was a new kind of combatant: children. In the Sierra Leone civil war of the 1990s, as many as 80% of combatants were estimated to be between 7 and 14 years old. "Armed with an AK, they were just as lethal as an adult," observes Kahaner.

Kalashnikov culture also spread to Latin America, beginning with the Nicaraguan Contra war of the 1980s. Again the U.S. helped spread the epidemic, as Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North's secret White House project shipped thousands of AKs to the counterrevolutionaries. Soon, "just as it had done in the Middle East and Africa, the indestructible and cheap AK worked its way from country to country, turning small conflicts into large wars" in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia.

Today the AK's place in civilization seems clear. In 2004, the Iraqi army, trained by the U.S. military, nixed American-made M-16s and insisted on being issued AKs. That same year, Playboy issued its list of "50 Products That Changed the World." Near the top--beaten out by only the Apple (AAPL) Macintosh, the pill, and the Sony (SNE) Betamax--was the AK, the embodiment of innovation's dark side.

By Hardy Green


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