The Gun

Occasionally I’ll read Wired Magazine. Mind you, I could do without magazines, they seem to clutter up the place. Heck, if it’s worth reading consistently, I’ll just subscribe online. However, my wife is an infovore so we do end up having a ton of magazines in our home (including Wired) and I do hammer through many of them. Same issue with cable; I’ll say, “I don’t need cable,” just before embarking on a ten hour college football watching binge. If it’s there, I’ll use it. I’m no stranger to hypocrisy. Anyway, because of all the magazines lying around, I happened to stumble upon an article in last month’s Wired about the AK-47 and I was compelled to get the book.

It’s called The Gun and it was written by a guy named C.J. Chivers. It’s part history, part social studies, and part politics. It’s all good. The gun referenced in the title is the Avtomat Kalishnikova 47. Avtomat because it’s an automatic – excess energy from the bullet is captured to work the mechanism such that the next bullet is seated and ready to fire without any human intervention. Kalishnikova because the man credited for it’s invention was one Michael Kalishnikov, although we will find out that he was definitely not solely responsible. And 47 because the year that the invention was basically complete and settled on was 1947.

Here’s the point of the AK-47 according to Chivers:

It was so reliable, even when soaked in bog water and coated with sand, that its Soviet testers had trouble making it jam. And its design was a testament to simplicity, so much so that its basic operation might be grasped within minutes, and Soviet teachers would soon learn that it could be disassembled and reassembled by Slavic schoolboys in less than thirty seconds flat. Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields. For the purpose for which it was designed—as a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or undue complications—this was an eminently well-conceived tool.

Chilling stuff isn’t it? Chivers is an ex-Marine and shared a Pulitzer for coverage of the war in Afghanistan. He seems to be qualified to sort through the history of this gun and makes it highly interesting. It’s about a lot more than the AK-47 though. He starts back in the Civil War, when Richard Gatling wrote a letter to Abe Lincoln describing the benefits of his hand-cranked machine gun. Gatling gave way to Hiram Maxim, who’s gun, unlike Gatling’s, was automatic. By the end of World War I, machine guns were everywhere, but one had still not been built that was small enough to be wielded effectively by one man; especially a small, untrained, dimwitted man, as Chivers would say. The German’s broke through thanks to Hugo Schmeisser and the American’s invented the Tommy Gun, but these had drawbacks that would eventually be addressed by the AK-47.

The former Soviet Union got this thing right. Notice, I didn’t say Kalishnikov got this thing right. Sure, he was instrumental, but for the most part, the invention “flowed from official directives and widespread collaboration and not from a flash of inspiration.” It was well-conceived and well-made, but then it got pushed it out to Soviet allies, and distribution went through the roof. Chivers talks about how other countries tweaked it throughout the 1950s making it even better, so by the time the Vietnam war rolled around it was decades ahead of the M-16, America’s flawed answer to the assault rifle. We really botched things. This quote by Chivers encapsulates things pretty well:

On the level of anticipating security threats, the Pentagon did not recognize the risks to its forces or its allies from the AK-47’s capabilities and global production. And as for designing infantry firearms, it remained obstinately committed to high-powered cartridges and rifles that fired them. Part of the bedrock belief was tradition. As with the European affection for bayonet and cavalry charges at the turn of the century, America was the victim of romance—with old-fashioned rifles and the sharpshooting riflemen who carried them.

Man, we screwed up, and it had a hugely negative effect on our ability succeed in Vietnam. Chivers puts it out there, that the AK-47 was a major factor in how obstinate our enemies were in Vietnam. He really throws the Army and Robert McNamara under the bus in a big way:

The early M-16 and its ammunition formed a combination not ready for war. They were a flawed pair emerging from a flawed development history. Prone to malfunction, they were forced into troops’ hands through a clash of wills and egos in Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s Pentagon.

He lays this thing at McNamara’s feet and details the negative reaction our troops in Vietnam had to using the M-16 and how vocal they were about it’s drawbacks. It’s not a pretty picture (don’t worry, we eventually figured it out and now the M-16 is solid). But in truth, Vietnam was a drop in the bucket compared to the fame that the AK-47 would achieve. In 1972, it figured prominently in the abduction of Jewish athletes in the Munich Olympics. This allowed the gun to make a leap, an infamous leap:

… After Munich, the Kalashnikov’s utility in crimes against civilians and public order would be demonstrated repeatedly, in hijackings, hostage seizures, assassinations, suicide rifle attacks, and summary executions, sometimes before video cameras, designed to sow hatred and fear.

This is what the AK-47 is today, the weapon of choice for terrorists and drug dealers, along with huge guerilla armies, often supplied by the US.

In this way, the United States military, since 2001, became one of the largest known purchasers of Kalashnikov assault rifles, which it has handed out by the tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These things aren’t going away either.

The final factor will be time. Kalashnikovs are sturdy, but not indestructible. They can and do break—sometimes when backed over by an armored vehicle or car, sometimes when struck by bullets or shrapnel, occasionally when warped by fire. If left exposed and unattended long enough, they can succumb to pitting, corrosion, and rust. With the passing of many years, the combined tally of these forces will bring an end to these weapons. But in another half-century, or century, the rifles will have broken, one by one, and the chance exists that they will no longer be a significant factor in war, terror, atrocity, and crime, and they will stop being a barometer of the insecurity gripping many regions of the world. Until that time, they will remain in view and in use.

I love the wry humor (“sometimes when backed over by an armored vehicle or car”). They’ve reached saturation folks, they’re all over the place in numbers so innumerable that it may not make any sense to try and systematically rid the world of them, like we attempt to do with nukes and land mines. So instead, let’s learn from it. Let’s try and duplicate it’s success in our business and personal lives. This product is still thriving after more than 60 years. Sixty years! Here are a few lessons Chivers conveys.

  • Don’t stray from project goals. Analyze the desired use case, set goals, and stay the course.
  • Design for the lesser skilled, the least knowledgeable, the careless, and the destructive.
  • Buck conventional wisdom for the sake of simplicity. Prioritize form over function, know when heavy and loose is not a negative.
  • Make upgrades and iterations simple, and do them rapidly. Testing and debugging are part of the process, not an afterthought.
  • State projects benefit greatly from openness and competition. All organizations should be cognizant of the fact that a closed-door procurement session could be suboptimal.

I’m sure there are other lessons. It’s too bad such an item of mass destruction gets to reinforce these ideas.