Hence, we were pleased with the title of our new book to review. What’s your book called, CJ Chivers? Oh, it’s The Gun. And, er, what’s it about? Well, it’s about a gun.
Except, it’s not really. Ironically, a book called The Gun is not just about a gun, or even the gun of the title, the AK-47. It is, rather about all Kalashnikov rifles: the 47, the 74, the 101/102, the 103/104, the RPK, the AKM, the AKMS.
In fact, it’s not just about the rifles. It’s about the man who designed them, Mikhail Kalashnikov (the AK stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova), and their utility in modern combat.
And yet, and yet, it’s not even just about Kalashnikov, his rifles and their proliferation, but about the development of the machine gun and its slow adoption by militaries in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
It is here, rather than in the historical-factual descriptions of Kalashnikov’s life, that the book shines. Chivers provides vivid descriptions of the design of the first machine guns, the Gatling and the Maxim guns (strictly speaking, the Gatling was not a machine gun because it relied on a handcrank, but it still vastly improved firing rates on traditional rifles), and the slaughter inflicted upon African populations by this newfound firepower. The casual killing power of these machines was encapsulated in a Hilaire Belloc poem in The Modern Traveller:
He stood upon a little mound
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
‘Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.’
Chivers makes a strong case for the profundity with which the machine gun, with its ability to unleash hundreds of rounds per minute, changed the face and pace of warfare. It created a vast mismatch between the technologies of developed countries and developing societies. Zulus were massacred by the thousand, the Americans deployed them against the Spanish, and describing a scene in Sudan, Winston Churchill, then a war reporter, noted:
There was nothing dulce et decorum about the Dervish dead; nothing of the dignity of unconquerable manhood; all was filthy corruption.
Yet, developed countries were slow to appreciate the importance of the machine gun in broader war. So, when the First World War broke out, the British were outgunned by the German Maxims and as both the Allies and Central Powers expanded machine gun production, war came to a standstill as lines of guns would cut down any advancing soldiers. Tactics were woefully slow to adapt, so that even at the Battle of the Somme:
Watching from behind their machine guns, German soldiers were amazed…As they peered over their parapets in the sudden quiet, the sights astonished them: thousands upon thousands of men, strolling exposed in neat lines.
By the end of the first day at the Somme, 21,000 British soldiers were dead, having been sent to their graves by outdated tactics reliant on bayonets and ordered lines of infantry.
The research that has gone into Richard J Gatling, Hiram Maxim, their inventions and the effects is comprehensive and, most importantly, enjoyably written. Weaving in the historical notes with descriptions of the guns’ usage allows for instant reflection on the importance of machine gunnery in changing the nature of warfare.
Where The Gun falters and stumbles, however, is ironically in its discussions of the Kalashnikov rifles. Here, the most significant case study used, the Vietnam War, appears seemingly more as a stalking horse for Chivers to effectively showcase another travesty in Western military development: the very poor performance of the M-16 and the refusal by the American military establishment to improve the rifle despite up to 40% of them jamming or becoming unusable.
The M-16 chapter is informative and rightfully indignant, but it seems like a diversion from the main topic, that with which the book is advertised: the importance of the Kalashnikov rifle. Chivers describes why the gun was so successful — its loose fit and simplicity in design made it extremely hard-wearing and reliable. This was and is vital to insurgent forces that have little access to small arms and are often living in squalid conditions without the means to keep up their rifles. Today, Taliban fighters, as evidenced by the author on his Afghan excursions as a war reporter for the New York Times, still use weapons from the Soviet era that work perfectly despite poor maintenance. This has also allowed the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda to bury caches of the weapons, to be later dug up and made to work for their unique, child-soldier-driven insurgency. Combined with the rapid proliferation of factories producing Kalashnikov variants to Soviet clients, allies and others, whether it be China, Bulgaria or Yugoslavia, and the number of Cold War proxy conflicts encouraging the supply of small arms, the AK soon became the weapon du choix for insurgents battling Western forces worldwide.
Still, it felt like there was more that could be said about the Kalashnikov. The symbolism of the rifle, with its distinctive curved stock, for one seems like a potential topic of interest.
Nevertheless, these are churlish complaints on an otherwise well-produced book. Chivers has delivered an accomplished work, illuminating and engaging. Even if the writing at times became repetitive in its reportage style, with short sentences designed to maintain the pace, this was a book that impressed in its discussion of machine gunnery and enlightened in its research of the Kalashnikov.