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AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War by Larry Kahaner

John Wiley & Sons, 2006, 258 pages, $25.95


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.


"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


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 .


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."

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