An eye-opening, often grim history of automatic weapons, emphasizing the Soviet Union’s murderous, wildly successful legacy.
Former Marine officer and New York Times Moscow bureau chief Chivers hardly mentions his subject in the book’s first third as he recounts the history of automatic weapons from the American Civil War to World War I with familiar eponyms: Gatling, Maxim, Browning, Mauser. Although heavy and requiring a team to operate, WWI machine guns dominated the battlefield, and a few forward-looking military leaders advocated an automatic weapon suitable for infantry who still used single-shot rifles. World War II saw early models that were too heavy (the American Browning Automatic Rifle) or too short-range (the Thompson submachine gun). In 1947, after several years of development, the AK-47 was chosen as the Soviet Army’s infantry weapon. Unlike the complex, accurate and expensive postwar American M16, to whose painful trials Chivers devotes a long section, the AK-47 was not particularly accurate but was simple, cheap and extraordinarily sturdy and reliable. NATO and U.S. allies followed the American lead, but AK-47 models quickly became the preferred rifle for most armed forces, police forces, guerrillas and drug cartels. Some readers may skim sections devoted to innumerable conflicts in which the AK-47 family participated, from the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union to today’s wars, insurgencies and criminal enterprises. But it’s hard to resist a narrative that ends with a world awash with a weapon that has killed more soldiers and civilians than all the high-tech planes, missiles, bombs, WMDs and America’s sophisticated rifles combined.
An entertaining work that combines technical details, biographies, political maneuvering and insightful military history.