From Russia With Blood: On the Kalashnikov Rifle

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The Avtomat Kalashnikova, C.J. Chivers writes in The Gun, is "the world's most widely recognized weapon, one of the world's most recognizable objects." The AK-47 and its descendants have defined and exacerbated half a century of guerrilla conflict, terrorism, and crime; it is the most abundant firearm in the world, with as many as 100 million Kalashnikovs in circulation, 10 times more than any other rifle.

Chivers, a Marine Corps veteran and senior writer at the New York Times, has spent nearly a decade mapping the spread of the Kalashnikov and untangling its history, from the dusty government archives of the former Soviet Union to the battlefields of Afghanistan. The Gun, his history of the weapon, was published this week. He spoke via email with FP's Charles Homans about the AK-47's uncertain origins, how it has transformed modern warfare, and why the age of the Kalashnikov won't end anytime soon.

Foreign Policy: The Soviet Union's atomic bomb and the Kalashnikov both date from the same year, and you suggest that the United States made a critical error in obsessing over the former while ignoring the latter. But is there anything the United States could have done to limit the spread and influence of the AK-47?

C.J. Chivers: The United States is not responsible for the Kalashnikov's mass production or stockpiling, and during the Cold War it could have done nothing to stop these things from occurring. Later, while it certainly would have been helpful, in the security sense, if it had done more to contain the spread of weapons and ammunition that have rushed out of post-Cold War stockpiles, it might be useful to ask this question of China and Russia -- the two main Kalashnikov producers, who have shown little interest in undoing the effects of their exported rifles. That said, there are many ways to contain the ongoing proliferation, and rather than pursue them with any real determination, the United States has instead become the largest known purchaser of Kalashnikovs, which it has reissued in Iraq and Afghanistan with scant accountability. One thing about the AK-47 story is that almost no one looks good in it....

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