AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War

by Larry Kahaner, Wiley, Hoboken, N.J., 2006, $25.95.

On January 4, 2002, a 31- year-old Green Beret was killed during an ambush in Afghanistan’s Paktria province. Nathan Chapman was the first American soldier felled by enemy fire in the war on terrorism, shot down by a 14-year-old boy with a Kalashnikov rifle. The death of this highly trained, elite soldier at the hands of a gun-toting adolescent chillingly illustrates the AK’s ability to turn almost anyone into a formidable foe. In his absorbing, meticulous history of this revolutionary weapon, Larry Kahaner makes a compelling case that the world’s 75 million extant AKs—which kill as many as 250,000 people a year—are “true weapons of mass destruction.”

Invented in the Soviet Union on the cusp of the Cold War (“47” refers to the first model, issued in 1947), the Avtomat Kalashinkova was a great battlefield equalizer. Inexpensive, easy to fire and virtually indestructible, it quickly became the gun of choice for many of the world’s armies. (When the Iraqi army recently rejected American rifles, the Pentagon grudgingly outfitted it with $60 AKs.) It remains especially popular among CIA-sponsored guerrillas, West African warlords, drug traffickers and terrorists—notably Osama bin Laden, who has used it as a prop in his videotapes.

Despite the AK’s devastating ubiquity, Kahaner argues that the American military has yet to fully accept its status as the basic tool of asymmetric warfare. Battered AKs routinely outperformed brand-new M-16s in Vietnam, and now the gun is a major cause of American casualties in Iraq. Even in the age of Kevlar and IEDs, a 70-year-old assault rifle still has the power to confound the world’s most powerful military.

 

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.