Tim Heffernan, at Esquire, interviews C.J. Chivers about Chivers’ new history of the AK-47, The Gun:
TIM HEFFERNAN: Would you call the AK-47 a great invention?
C. J. CHIVERS: Without question the AK-47 was a remarkable invention, and not just because it works so well, or because it changed how wars are fought, or because it proved to be one of the most important products of the 20th century. The very circumstances of its creation were fascinating. The rifle is essentially a conceptual knock-off of a German weapon that had been developed by Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the 1930s and 1940s, and it came together through not only the climate of paranoia and urgency in Stalin’s USSR, but also via the ability of the Soviet intelligence and Red Army to grasp the significance of an enemy’s weapon and willingness to replicate it through a large investment of the state’s manpower, money and time. It was a characteristically Soviet process, and an example where centralized decision-making and the planned economy actually combined to design and churn out an eminently well-designed product. We spend a lot of time denigrating the centralized economy, for good reason. But it just so happened that what the centralized economy of a police state really wanted, it got. It couldn’t make a decent elevator, toilet, refrigerator, or pair of boots. But the guns? Another story altogether.
TH: Is it the signature weapon of the 20th century? The 21st? Will the AK still be killing in 2110?
CJC: The Kalashnikov was the most important firearm of the last 60-plus years, so much so that there really is no second place. It is not going to be unseated from its place any time soon, certainly not in our lives.
TH: What’s memorable about being shot at by AKs — what makes it different from, say, being shot at by a sniper? What does an AK bullet sound like when it goes past your ear? When it hits the wall you’re crouched behind?
CJC: Actually, in a lot of circumstances, the Kalashnikov is poorly used by people who are not especially good shots, or who are outright bad shots. In these cases, the rifle’s weaknesses emerge. As far as accuracy goes, the Kalashnikov is stubbornly mediocre, and the ease with which it can be fired on automatic means that many people fire it on automatic when they would be better served firing a single, aimed shot. These factors combine in a phenomenon many people who have been shot at by Kalashnikovs have come to be grateful for — a burst of bullets cracking by high overhead. There have been many times when we have shaken our heads in relief and gratitude that the nitwits with Kalashnikovs on the other side of a field don’t quite know how to use the weapon in their hands. Getting shot at by a sniper is a much different experience, and far more frightening. But either experience is, to borrow your word, memorable. These memories are pretty much all bad.
Neither hardware nor military history are in my wheelhouse, but this sounds more like the tongue-in-cheek definition of economics: “It’s the study of who eats… and who gets eaten.” I’m going to look for this issue of Esquire when it hits the newstands, and I may have to buy the book, although goddess knows I don’t need any more additions to the unread stacks.