AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War by Larry Kahaner
John Wiley & Sons, 2006, 258 pages, $25.95
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
You see it every day, in the media, in the hands of soldiers and terrorists, even children. No single weapon, except the atomic bomb, has had so profound an effect. It is the easiest, simplest, and cheapest means of turning ordinary people into an armed force. It is a weapon that kills a quarter of a million people a year.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"Perversely entertaining look at the dark side of innovation." -- Business Week
"A detailed study of the AK-47, the single most deadly weapon ever produced, and its designer.... A fascinating examination." -- Library Journal
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Larry Kahaner is an award-winning journalist and author of eight books, including Competitive Intelligence. His writings have appeared in Business Week, The Washington Post, International Herald Tribune , and the Christian Science Monitor .
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
AK-47. It stands for Automatic and Kalashnikov (its inventor), then '47 for the year it was born. "You've actually fired the AK-47."
"Oh, sure. Many times," says Larry Kahaner.
"How did you like it?"
"It's a funny weapon, because you feel as if it's going to fall apart. But it doesn't. It's not as accurate as you think, or as you'd like, but it just never breaks down, and it's very easy to use."
"You don't really need to study a manual to operate it or receive a lot of training."
"No," he says, "you don't. Someone could show you how to use it in ten minutes. A child could operate it, and they do. In a good number of Middle-Eastern countries, kids at 12 receive an AK as their rite-of-passage present. The first American casualty in Afghanistan, Sgt. Nathan Chapman, was killed by a 14-year-old boy with an AK. There are whole armies of kids in Africa armed with the AK."
"And it's indestructible. You mention Colonel David Hackworth, the most decorated American soldier to come out of Korea. He and his men unearthed a buried AK-47 in Vietnam. He took it right out of the mud, kicked back the rusted bolt, and fired it off."
"Yes, rebels and drug gangs in South America or Central America would bury them after a conflict, with the expectation that they could just dig them up and use them again when needed."
"I was fascinated that the piece of genius in the AK-47 seems to be something that's almost counterintuitive. Namely, that Mikhail Kalashnikov deliberately made the parts looser, with much greater tolerances. So the components aren't seated that precisely and tightly. And that this is what made the weapon so sturdy and tolerant of abuse and dirt."
"Yeah, when you think about it, it kind of makes sense. If you have water or dirt in an AK and put a round in, it will just push the mud and mess out. It doesn't get stuck or jam easily, because the parts don't mesh so tightly and don't need to be so exactly aligned to work. In most weapons, it's just the opposite. Brilliantly enough, it's the same characteristic that allows the AK-47 to also fire the bullets of many opponents' weapons. So the Vietcong, for instance, could use captured ammunition in their weapons, where we couldn't."
"It's that forgiving?"
"Yeah. You could even use junky ammunition that's been sitting around in the jungle for a year or two. It doesn't have to be perfect; the AK will still fire it. You don't find that in other rifles."
"How many Kalashnikov models are there?"
"A lot. One hundred million rifles have been manufactured in 20 countries. In the Soviet Union, you had the AK-47s, AK-74, the 100 series, and the AKM, which is the one you see most often on TV and in magazines. It's got a wooden stock and fires a large caliber 7.62mm bullet. Aside from the Rumanian model you can purchase on the Internet for $350 and have sent to your home, the price can get as low as $10 in some places in the world, elsewhere three or four cattle will buy one, or a kilo of cocaine sulfate. Or you might get an AK as part of a dowry. In Afghanistan you have people buying and selling the weapons, repairing them, making custom copies, transporting them. It's like another economic system that revolves around the AK because it is so ubiquitous. People think nothing of carrying it in the street; it's part of the culture."
"Is it legal in Iraq to own a gun?"
"In Iraq it is legal for a family to have a least one weapon in their home, and they always choose an AK."
"Were Russian children required to know how to tear down and reassemble an AK?"
"It's true, yes. They time the kids; they still do it. And General Kalashnikov, at 85, is very much the national hero there. Everyone knows his name. The irony, of course, is that, while he's a great celebrity in his homeland, he received no money for his creation. He's a poor man. In the U.S. it was just the opposite. Eugene Stoner, inventor of the M-16, is a person no one's ever heard of, who has no celebrity status, but he became wealthy from it."
"I didn't realize they had actually met."
"Oh, yes. In Washington. The Smithsonian ran a program taping great inventors, and their curator Ed Ezell brought them both in. Kalashnikov and Stoner met there for the first time."
"Stoner arrived in his own plane."
"Yes, he'd gotten very rich from the M-16. He received royalties of about a dollar per rifle. There were 16 million military versions of it produced and even more civilian AR-15s."
"Meanwhile, you reveal, Kalashnikov's apartment furniture was bought over half a century ago with money awarded him as part of the Stalin Prize; his American hosts had to buy him clothes and shoes to make him presentable. Putin was embarrassed into raising the General's pension to a munificent $100 a month and provided him with some amenities and a modest dacha, a country cottage."
"Where Kalashnikov makes his money now," says Kahaner, "is through his worldwide celebrity status. The Russian weapons cartel flies him to big arms shows to sign autographs and promote sales. He has also lent his name to a vodka. It comes in a bottle shaped like his rifle."
"You've fired the M-16 as well. What did that feel like?"
"If you've fired a .22 rifle at squirrels or targets, it's not that much different. It's a very smooth, very sleek weapon. It feels good in the hand. And it doesn't have much of a recoil."
"Which would you opt for?"
"I'm a very bad shot -- not a professional soldier. I'm not going to be one to clean it, and I don't know much about weapons, so I'd want something that's not going to break down. I would opt for the AK. Also, the thinking back in the '50s that led to the M-16 was that if you fire a smaller bullet at a higher velocity, you do more damage. As opposed to using a larger bullet, which will travel more slowly. Our soldiers in Iraq, for instance, carrying rifle models based on the M-16, fire a small bullet that's really not much more than a .22 caliber. But it travels at a very high velocity and does incredible damage to internal organs. However, you have to hit the target right to do that kind of damage. It's called hydrostatic shock. The laws of physics say that all the energy that's in that high-speed bullet has to go somewhere when it strikes and stops dead. So the small caliber round is very effective, but, if you shoot somebody in the leg or the arm, it's not going to do much."
"It will just pass through?"
"It may or may not. The guy may be out of commission, but he won't be dead. When you use a large-caliber bullet like the AK-47's 7.62 mm, no matter where you hit the person, it's going to do a lot. Even break bone. Which is why a lot of GIs in Iraq complain that their rifles just aren't powerful enough. They have two main complaints. That they have to keep their weapons so clean in an extremely dirty environment."
"That's a very old complaint now."
"Exactly. And the second complaint is that sometimes they'll want to shoot through some obstruction -- a fence, a stucco wall the enemy may be hiding behind -- and they can't do that with an M-16-type weapon, whereas you can with an AK. So Americans sometimes feel themselves at a disadvantage."
"With a 7.62 you can probably fire through an engine block."
"Well, I don't know about that," says Kahaner, "but you can fire through a wall or door."
"The Marines to this day remain bitter about the M-16. In 1967, inspectors found 75 percent of the Third Division's rifles in Vietnam could easily misfire and did. The M-16 was quite a scandal. A lot of Marines on the battlefield were found dead over their desperately stripped, inoperable rifles. Part of the problem was addressed, but the complaint remains about the rifle's sensitivity to dirt and dust."
"Are you familiar with Geneva Convention or other international restrictions on the type of rounds armies can legally use?"
"There are certain types of bullets that can't be used, because of how they expand -- hollow points, or dumdums. But I don't know. I get mixed messages about what's allowed and what's not allowed."
"Do you think it was really the intent of armaments designers to circumvent international prohibitions against extremely injurious bullets by introducing high-velocity weapons? And to find ways around restrictions on the bullets used, such as putting those air pockets inside rounds to compromise the structures deliberately and make the bullets come apart on impact and inflict greater damage? If you introduced a flaw in the nose of a lead-tipped bullet, by notching it to make it a dumdum, it would be illegal. But putting it inside the bullet apparently makes the round legal. I mean, everything was so deliberate and calculated about new weapons, was this factored in too by their inventors?"
"I don't know. The reason for the restrictions on the bullets is that -- an odd thing about making war -- you're not supposed to make your opponent suffer. You can kill, you can maim, but you're not to make the enemy suffer."