Have Gun, Will Travel

Image of The GunThe Gun C. J. Chivers, The Gun (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 496 pp., $28.00.

Richard Overy 

Yet of all the handheld weapons across the world, from the age of industrial warfare on, there is one that stands out above the rest: the AK-47 assault rifle, better known as the eponymous “Kalashnikov.”

The explanation for why this simple and effective automatic weapon should end up on national flags and postage stamps is the subject of an absorbing and beautifully written new study by the American New York Times journalist and former–Marine Corps officer C. J. Chivers in a volume simply called The Gun. The book is a biography of the AK-47—in itself an acknowledgement that key weapons become effectively personified—but it is also much more. Chivers has no intention of mythologizing this rifle; the development of the gun and its subsequent worldwide use is tellingly set in a longer and wider historical context. The narrative is a critical and intelligent interrogation of a story shrouded in Soviet doublespeak. And the history of this particular weapon becomes, in an important sense, the story of the violence at the heart of the more than sixty years since the gun was first introduced.

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