« Tom Swift and His Air Scout Now Online | Main | Reading List: Early Warning »

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reading List: The Gun

Chivers, C. J. The Gun. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7432-7173-8.
Ever since the introduction of firearms into infantry combat, technology and military doctrine have co-evolved to optimise the effectiveness of the weapons carried by the individual soldier. This process requires choosing a compromise among a long list of desiderata including accuracy, range, rate of fire, stopping power, size, weight (of both the weapon and its ammunition, which determines how many rounds an infantryman can carry), reliability, and the degree of training required to operate the weapon in both normal and abnormal circumstances. The “sweet spot” depends upon the technology available at the time (for example, smokeless powder allowed replacing heavy, low muzzle velocity, large calibre rounds with lighter supersonic ammunition), and the environment in which the weapon will be used (long range and high accuracy over great distances are largely wasted in jungle and urban combat, where most engagements are close-up and personal).

Still, ever since the advent of infantry firearms, the rate of fire an individual soldier can sustain has been considered a key force multiplier. All things being equal, a solider who can fire sixteen rounds per minute can do the work of four soldiers equipped with muzzle loading arms which can fire only four rounds a minute. As infantry arms progressed from muzzle loaders to breech loaders to magazine fed lever and bolt actions, the sustained rate of fire steadily increased. The logical endpoint of this evolution was a fully automatic infantry weapon: a rifle which, as long as the trigger was held down and ammunition remained, would continue to send rounds downrange at a high cyclic rate. Such a rifle could also be fired in semiautomatic mode, firing one round every time the trigger was pulled without any other intervention by the rifleman other than to change magazines as they were emptied.

This book traces the history of automatic weapons from primitive volley guns; through the Gatling gun, the first successful high rate of fire weapon (although with the size and weight of a field artillery piece and requiring a crew to hand crank it and feed ammunition, it was hardly an infantry weapon); the Maxim gun, the first true machine gun which was responsible for much of the carnage in World War I; to the Thompson submachine gun, which could be carried and fired by a single person but, using pistol ammunition, lacked the range and stopping power of an infantry rifle. At the end of World War II, the vast majority of soldiers carried bolt action or semiautomatic weapons: fully automatic fire was restricted to crew served support weapons operated by specially trained gunners.

As military analysts reviewed combat as it happened on the ground in the battles of World War II, they discovered that long range aimed fire played only a small part in infantry actions. Instead, infantry weapons had been used mostly at relatively short ranges to lay down suppressive fire. In this application, rate of fire and the amount of ammunition a soldier can carry into combat come to the top of the priority list. Based upon this analysis, even before the end of the war Soviet armourers launched a design competition for a next generation rifle which would put automatic fire into the hands of the ordinary infantryman. After grueling tests under all kinds of extreme conditions such a weapon might encounter in the field, the AK-47, initially designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a sergeant tank commander injured in battle, was selected. In 1956 the AK-47 became the standard issue rifle of the Soviet Army, and it and its subsequent variants, the AKM (an improved design which was also lighter and less expensive to manufacture—most of the weapons one sees today which are called “AK-47s” are actually based on the AKM design), and the smaller calibre AK-74. These weapons and the multitude of clones and variants produced around the world have become the archetypal small arms of the latter half of the twentieth century and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future in the twenty-first. Nobody knows how many were produced but almost certainly the number exceeds 100 million, and given the ruggedness and reliability of the design, most remain operational today.

This weapon, designed to outfit forces charged with maintaining order in the Soviet Empire and expanding it to new territories, quickly slipped the leash and began to circulate among insurgent forces around the globe—initially infiltrated by Soviet and Eastern bloc countries to equip communist revolutionaries, an “after-market” quickly developed which allowed almost any force wishing to challenge an established power to obtain a weapon and ammunition which made its irregular fighters the peer of professional troops. The worldwide dissemination of AK weapons and their availability at low cost has been a powerful force destabilising regimes which before could keep their people down with a relatively small professional army. The author recounts the legacy of the AK in incidents over the decades and around the world, and the tragic consequences for those who have found themselves on the wrong end of this formidable weapon.

United States forces first encountered the AK first hand in Vietnam, and quickly realised that their M14 rifles, an attempt to field a full automatic infantry weapon which used the cartridge of a main battle rifle, was too large, heavy, and limiting in the amount of ammunition a soldier could carry to stand up to the AK. The M14's only advantages: long range and accuracy, were irrelevant in the Vietnam jungle. While the Soviet procurement and development of the AK-47 was deliberate and protracted, Pentagon whiz kids in the U.S. rushed the radically new M16 into production and the hands of U.S. troops in Vietnam. The new rifle, inadequately tested in the field conditions it would encounter, and deployed with ammunition different from that used in the test phase, failed frequently and disastrously in the hands of combat troops with results which were often tragic. What was supposed to be the most advanced infantry weapon on the planet often ended up being used as bayonet mount or club by troops in their last moments of life. The Pentagon responded to this disaster in the making by covering up the entire matter and destroying the careers of those who attempted to speak out. Eventually reports from soldiers in the field made their way to newspapers and congressmen and the truth began to come out. It took years for the problems of the M16 to be resolved, and to this day the M16 is considered less reliable (although more accurate) than the AK. As an example, compare what it takes to field strip an M16 compared to an AK-47. The entire ugly saga of the M16 is documented in detail here.

This is a fascinating account of the origins, history, and impact of the small arms which dominate the world today. The author does an excellent job of sorting through the many legends (especially from the Soviet era) surrounding these weapons, and sketching the singular individuals behind their creation.

In the Kindle edition, the table of contents, end notes, and index are all properly linked to the text. All of the photographic illustrations are collected at the very end, after the index.

Posted at December 31, 2011 22:28