Truth: the gun has played an incredibly important role in history. Truth: the AK-47 is, essentially, the most popular small arms weapon in world history. And a third truth: Mikhail Kalashnikov, the creator of said gun, passed away recently at 94 (“AK” means “Avtomat Kalashnikova”). You can read a ton of different obituaries of Kalashnikov, including here, here, here and here. Most will tell you the same stuff, but there are some amazing facts about the man and the gun he’s most associated with, including a lot of “Sliding Doors” type moments — for example, he almost died at age six and he was more fascinated with poetry than weaponry — which make you wonder if the gun could have never been invented had he made different choices, or had his life gone according to another plan. (In all likelihood, it still would have been invented; if we can invent atomic bombs, you’d have to figure someone would have come along and been able to create a simple gun that rarely jams and is made out of just eight parts.) C.J. Chivers is the man when it comes to details and knowledge about the AK-47; he wrote this article in 2010 in The Washington Post and he wrote Kalashnikov’s obit for The New York Times. (He also wrote a semi-famous book called The Gun.)
There are two interesting things about Chivers’ reporting on the AK-47 that I think place it into a broader context. We already know it’s killed more people than any gun model in history, and most people (I think) know that after the fall of the Soviet Empire, the guns flooded black markets all over the world. But these two things, correlated, are important and intriguing, moreso than any numbers about the amount of death.
First, from that New York Times obituary:
It cemented its place in martial history in the 1960s in Vietnam, where a new American rifle, the M-16, experienced problems with corrosion and jamming in the jungles, while Kalashnikovs, carried by Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers, worked almost flawlessly.
It is everywhere because it is everything: lightweight; easy to disassemble, clean and reassemble; immune to jungle humidity, desert sand, arctic cold. Or as Chivers summarises, it is a weapon for “the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained” – a weapon, he notes chillingly, that allows “ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or complications”. It is so durable that, as a reporter in Afghanistan in 2008, Chivers saw an AK-47 stamped with a manufacturing date of 1954.
Think about these things in concert:
1. The AK-47 was so simple that, essentially, a child could use it. That has happened, the world over, many a time.
2. The gun, which can end a person’s life on Earth in literally a second, rose to prominence in military and black market circles predominantly because of its own durability — namely, it can live longer, effectively, than anything similar to it. In the process, it shortens life. Odd, no?
3. The gun is renowned for its adaptability — you can fire it with relatively consistent results in environments such as a jungle or a desert. At the same time, the sheer presence of its rise in war and gun culture has reduced the flexibility and adaptability of the societies that embrace it.
As with many things in life, a Nicolas Cage character may have said it best.