HISTORY

THE LORD OF WAR

Cheap and easy to get, AK-47s kill 250,000 people every year

BRIAN BETHUNE December 4 2006
HISTORY

THE LORD OF WAR

Cheap and easy to get, AK-47s kill 250,000 people every year

BRIAN BETHUNE December 4 2006

THE LORD OF WAR

HISTORY

Cheap and easy to get, AK-47s kill 250,000 people every year

BRIAN BETHUNE

Happy Birthday, Mikhail Kalashnikov! Not only did the most famous arms maker since Sam Colt celebrate his 87th birthday on Nov. 10, but his AK-47 assault rifle—the world’s true weapon of mass destruction—will turn 60 next year. The Avtomati Kalashnikova 1947, to give its full name, is flourishing like never before. When Andrew Niccol, director of the Nicolas Cage arms-running film Lord of War, needed 1,000 AK-47S for props, he found the real thing much cheaper than replicas; when the shooting wrapped, Niccol had no trouble reselling them on the open market. As many as 100 million are scattered about the globe, most of them in strife-torn Third World nations. Lightweight and dead easy to maintain, AK-47s are perfect for child soldiers. They’re dirt cheap too: during combat lulls in Africa one can be bought for the cost of a chicken; even when they’re in demand the price rarely tops $100. And they kill a quarter of a million people every year.

The assault rifle even has its own biography, AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War (Wiley) by veteran journalist Larry Kahaner. A detail-rich combat history, the book also offers a compelling human story: its inventor’s. As a young Soviet soldier, Kalashnikov was badly wounded in the first months of the 1941 Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R. Uneducated but possessing an instinctive grasp of machinery, he set out to create a rapid-fire weapon to match the German Schmeisser. He wanted a simple, utterly reliable gun, one that could be churned out rapidly by unskilled workers and mastered in hours by peasant soldiers.

By 1947 he had it, although the gun didn’t come into its own until it took on the American M-16 in Vietnam. In jungle fighting, the AK-47’s “spray and pray” power—600 rounds a minute—made up for its lesser accuracy. AK-47s that had been buried unwrapped in rice paddies still fired as soon as they were unearthed; the more complex M-16 was frequently clogged with mud. In fact, American troops began ditching their own rifles in favour of captured enemy guns—a pattern repeated in Iraq.

The AK-47 soon became the weapon of choice for guerrillas, especially anti-American ones. The Soviets virtually gave it away, and now it’s a fixture of life in parts of Africa and Asia. The wheel turned full circle on the Soviets in Afghanistan, when the CIA bought two million Chinese-made AK-47s and handed them out to mujahedeen insurgents— many of whom are now aiming their guns at Canadian and other NATO troops.

All this has made the AK-47 as much cultural icon as weapon. Instantly recognizable by its distinctive banana-shaped magazine, it adorns the flags of Hezbollah and Mozambique. Osama bin Laden is often photographed with his; Saddam Hussein was caught in his spider hole with two, although he declined to fire either. The Iraqi dictator also erected a huge mosque—the one that claims to hold a Koran written in Saddam’s own blood— with four 37-m-high minarets shaped like AK-47S. In the design world, too, the gun has a certain cachet. At the Milan Furniture Fair in 2005, Philippe Starck unveiled his AK-47 table lamps, topped by black shades lined with crosses. The rifle stars in at least one Quentin Tarantino movie, Jackie Brown, k where Samuel L. Jackson inA tones: “AK-47The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherf-ker in the room.”

As for Kalashnikov himself, as the Soviet Union crumbled he was impoverished and almost forgotten. But the end of the U.S.S.R. also meant he was free to travel abroad, where he became a celebrity. Gun enthusiasts brought him to Virginia in 1990, where he met M-16 designer Eugene Stoner. Kalashnikov was stunned when Stoner told him his royalties were a dollar a gun—and six million were in circulation. “Kalashnikov was of two minds,” says Kahaner in an interview. “Stoner might be rich, but he had no other recognition, none of Kalashnikov’s government medals. Still, there was certainly some envy.” Their guest being so evidently poor, his hosts took him on a shopping trip with their own money. Kalashnikov was delighted to see a style of boot he liked, then crestfallen to not find his size on the shelf. The Americans had to assure him that what he saw was not, as in the Soviet economy, all there was: a salesman would go into the back and get his size.

Eyes now wide open, the former Communist stalwart embraced the capitalist opportunities that came his way in the 1990s. Today he tours the world armaments circuit like a rock star, fronting for Russian weapons makers and flogging his own brand of vodka. His immortality seems assured, and not just by the millions of weapons set to roil the world for decades to come. In Mozambique, the defence minister came out to honour the man whose invention had driven out the country’s Portuguese colonial masters. “He told me,” Kalashnikov later recounted, “that when the guerrillas went home to their villages, they named their sons Kalash.”