Among the Iraqi dictator’s most prized gifts were chrome plated AK-47s. Reporter C.J. Chivers tells the story of how this humble rifle became fashionable among revolutionaries—and dispels many of the myths about them. His new book, The Gun, tells their strange history and why they’re a threat to world stability.
Last month, in one of the odder news conferences that a government might ever hold, Iraq welcomed home one of its lost, looted treasures. The returned object was not a Mesopotamian artifact, at least not in a traditional sense. It was a compact automatic rifle with a folding stock, plated in chrome and with a decorative pearl handgrip—one of Saddam Hussein’s AK-47s. The rifle had been confiscated by the U.S. Army, removed to Texas and then, after the Army reconsidered, sent home.
Rifles can reveal entire histories. This one certainly did, and not just because Iraq’s late dictator and the Kalashnikov had histories that were weirdly intertwined, or because the rifle had moved so liquidly around the world, as Kalashnikovs tend to do.
Yes, Saddam Hussein earned a bust in the AK-47’s pantheon. It was not enough for him to build an arms factory that produced Kalashnikovs, or to ensure that Iraq’s government-commissioned statues gripped the iconic firearms triumphantly overhead, or to erect a mosque with minarets modeled after the Socialist assault rifle’s distinctive profile, or to stockpile assault rifles around his country as an insurgency’s fuel—all of which he did. In the high-rolling days of Hussein’s Baathist Iraq, he handed out assault rifles as gifts, fit for a pimp. Saddam’s limited-edition rifles were plated in chrome and sometimes in gold, and awarded like bowling trophies and banquet favors to the party elite. After he slipped off into hiding (with a pair of Kalashnikovs) ahead of the invading American tanks and his eventual execution, many of these rifles remained behind. They served as reminders of how far the Kalashnikov had come in its march from secrecy to ubiquity as it secured its notorious place as our age’s dominant tool of war.
This is where the fuller history lies. By the time Hussein clawed to power, the Kalashnikov, once a weapon with a narrow purpose and regarded by the Pentagon as of limited use, had become both a firearm and a symbol that could be appropriated by most any cause, from oil-man bling to shadowy jihad. The Eastern bloc’s assault rifle did not start out like this, at least not officially. It was to be the firearm of the proletariat. How did the Kalashnikov reach such a strange and potent place? The answer is a geopolitical tour of much of the latter half of the 20th century.
It can take an outsized figure like Hussein, through martial kitsch, to remind us that the Soviet myths, and many other myths, about this weapon are false.
Let’s start with a technical answer. A conceptual copy of the Sturmgewehr, a medium-powered automatic rifle designed in Hitler’s Wehrmacht, the AK-47’s format was worked out in a secret design contest held from late 1945 to early 1948 in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Its components were simple, inelegant, and, by Western standards, of seemingly workmanlike craftsmanship. The impression it created was that of the puzzling embodiment of a firearm compromise, a blend of design choices no existing Western army was willing yet to make. It was midsized in important measures—shorter than the infantry rifles it would displace but not longer than the submachine guns that had been in service for 30 years. It fired a medium-powered cartridge, not powerful enough for long-range sniping, but with adequate energy to strike lethally and cause terrible wounds within the ranges at which most all combat occurs.
This weapon was not merely a middleweight. It was a breakthrough arm. It could be fired automatically, and at a rate like those of the machine guns that already had changed how wars were fought. It could be fired on single fire, like a rifle of yore. It had little recoil. It was so reliable, even when dunked in bog water and coated with sand, that 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, as Soviet teachers would soon learn, it could be disassembled and reassembled by Slavic school boys in less than 30 seconds. These technical qualities mattered. Though the Soviet Army worried over the weapon’s relative inaccuracy, it was satisfied with what its contest had produced. It ordered mass production of AK-47s for widespread issue to Soviet conscripts. And the rifles’ traits, coupled with production that followed, meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dim-witted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, an automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields. As a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without training or undue complications, this was an eminently well-conceived tool.
Next came the breakout. In a few swift years after Stalin died in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev’s Kremlin shipped the rifles and the technology to produce them around the Socialist world, and to states with which it hoped to curry favor. By 1956, the two largest standing armies in the world—in the USSR and in Mao’s China—had parallel assembly lines. Soon the rifle and its knockoffs were leaving arms plants across the Warsaw Pact. They were promptly copied elsewhere—in Finland, Yugoslavia, Israel, South Africa, India, Iran, and, with time (and Yugoslav help) in Baathist Iraq.
Lies attended the rifles’ spread. The Soviet Union framed the weapon first as a tool for national self-defense and later as an instrument for revolution against the hegemony of the West. This was self-serving. The Kalashnikov first drew blood as an instrument of repression—stifling anti-Soviet uprisings in Eastern Europe and shooting civilians fleeing the Iron Curtain’s borders. It proved a battlefield leveler in Vietnam, allowing a lightly trained local population to stand up to, and turn back, the troops of a superpower. By the 1960s, the Kalashnikov was entrenched as the terrorist’s rifle, a status it cemented at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Both sides of many wars were carrying it. When the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact unraveled, uncountable millions more of the weapons slipped from state hands, solidifying the weapon’s place as the most widely distributed firearm in history, and as a threat that will never be easy to fix.
How much of a threat are they? Try naming a war in which they are not widely used. Then consider that the United Nations estimated that small arms were the predominant weapon of 46 of the 49 wars of the 1990s, in which nearly 4 million people died. And the Kalashnikov is the dominant small arm.
Today the global distribution of compact automatic rifles, and statistics like those in the preceding sentences, are subjects all but taken for granted. For more than 40 years the Kalashnikov has been an indelible part of the life in war zones and unstable lands.
They have become so familiar, so ordinary, that it seems unsurprising when people with Kalashnikovs put them to ghastly use—the siege at a public school in Beslan, for example, or the terrorist raid into the waterfront of Mumbai. It can take an outsized figure like Hussein, through martial kitsch, to remind us that the Soviet myths, and many other myths, about this weapon are false.
I set out almost a decade back to document this rifle’s spread, and its origins, and its influence on modern war. I discovered with time that much of what I had read of my subject, the received wisdom, was not true. Kalashnikovs are not so inexpensive as to be almost free. (That fable that you can buy one for a chicken? Ask people who trade in that for their evidence. A retail price on conflict zones is usually at least several hundred dollars, and sometimes more than $1,000.) They are not “high-powered.” They were not designed via the epiphany of an unlettered Russian sergeant at a workbench, as fables would have it. And they are certainly not a liberators’ tool—at least not in most of their characteristic uses. Saddam Hussein’s rifle outlasted its owner, as Kalashnikovs also tend to do. It turns out to be useful as more than a bizarre gift. It’s a reminder that in the study of the Kalashnikov, one of the 20th century’s most successful and destabilizing products, much of what we have been told was wrong. After all of the killing in Iraq, we ignore the dangers of this weapons’ proliferation, and its significance, at the peril of the lives of civilians and our troops alike.
C.J. Chivers, a senior writer and war correspondent at The New York Times, is the author of THE GUN, a history of the origins of the world's most abundant weapon -- the Kalashnikov -- and the consequences of its spread. For more information, visit www.cjchivers.com