I recently completed C.J. Chivers’s exhaustive (and at times exhausting) story of the AK-47, “The Gun.” (Published also with the subtitle “The Story of the AK-47” and “The AK-47 and the Evolution of War.”) I first heard about this book through an interview with C.J. Chivers on the National Public Radio program “Fresh Air with Terri Gross.” Not exactly a gun-friendly show. Chivers is also a senior writer for the New York Times. Not exactly a gun-friendly newspaper. He is also Ivy League educated (undergraduate at Cornell and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism). He seems well-position as part of the Northeastern, liberal media elite, so I wondered how this book would be received by The Gun Culture. Well, I found out that Chivers has some bona fides in that area, too, having served in the United States Marine Corps from 1988 until 1994, seeing action in the Persian Gulf war and being honorably discharged as a captain in 1994. Overall the reviews I have seen in both the “mainstream liberal” media and the gun media have been very positive.
I actually listed to the audio version of the 500 page book, which was almost 19 hours long. At that length, you can imagine that this book is much more than a story of that single weapon.
To me this was like four books in one. In the first book, Chivers provides a great deal of the history of automatic-fire weapons and their role in armed conflict. The second book is a history of the invention and development of the AK-47. The third book is a comparison between the deployment of the AK-47 in comparison to the development and deployment of the M-16 rifle by the US military. The fourth book examines the global spread of the AK-47 — its use in seemingly every major armed conflict in recent history, from the murder of Israeli Olympians in Munich to child soldiers in Uganda.
To me an interesting section was the contrast between the AK-47s successful use by peasants in the jungles of Vietnam and the M-16’s problems with reliability in the hands of American soldiers there. In the story of the deployment of the M-16 in Vietnam, Col. Harold Yount and Col. Richard Hallock are painted as villians who knew they were sending a flawed weapon into battle. I do not follow military history. I wonder if Chivers’ interpretation here is widely accepted?
Overall, I was glad I listened to this book, though I imagine if I was actually reading the book I would have skimmed over quite a few sections on the history of automatic weapons and the details of the development of the AK-47. To me the sections comparing the AK-47 to the M-16 and on the dissemination of the AK-47 worldwide were the most interesting.