AK-47 and friends: A new history of automatic weapons, by ex-USMC officer

The review of this book in today's Sunday Times is only available online to subscribers. So - here's a review from Salon.com. Even if you're not into gun porn, it looks like an interesting piece of work.

"The Gun": How automatic weapons changed the way we kill
A new book explains how AK-47s, M16s and other guns reinvente d slaughter -- and their gruesome effect on the body
By Matt Zoller Seitz

Few common objects are as shrouded in mystery as the gun.

I don't mean to suggest large numbers of people are unfamiliar with guns, because in this country, that's not the case. The long tradition of routine, practical gun ownership in the United States continues to this day, in rural areas especially. According to a regular Gallup poll question, somewhere between 38 percent and 42 percent of U.S. households contain at least one firearm. I visited many a firing range growing up in Texas, and my childhood home in Dallas had several guns: .38 and .22 revolvers, a .410-bore "snake charmer" shotgun, and a 12-gauge shotgun. My brother and I knew where they were, and knew better than to play with them.

When I use the word "mystery" I'm referring to two kinds of mystery: one micro, one macro. The micro level is what guns do to human bodies. Most people have thankfully been spared that type of knowledge. Soldiers, police and criminals are the only social groups with a high likelihood of committing or enduring gun violence. For the rest of us it's an abstraction represented dryly in news reports ("So-and-so was shot three times in the chest by an unknown assailant") or stylized via popular culture. YouTube has made images [Warning: graphic link] of actual, unvarnished gun violence more accessible, but what you see on that site is still but the tip of the representational iceberg. WikiLeaks notwithstanding, the vast majority of gun injuries and deaths -- on the battlefield, on the street or in the home -- aren't visually represented anywhere except in government files (sometimes not even there). Everyone understands the gist of what it means to shoot someone or get shot, but Americans are spared the particulars -- and that's how we seem to like it.

On the macro level, guns have been framed in such a way that we tend to think of them only as devices that one individual might use against another. They are that. But they're also more than that. Guns are, in no particular order, inventions, mass-produced products, tools of global politics and symbols of national pride. It is possible to go from cradle to grave in America without ever understanding any of that. And that's why C.J. Chivers' book "The Gun" is so valuable. Ostensibly a history of automatic weapons -- and a very good one -- it's also an engrossing yet plainspoken exploration of what guns are and what they do. It truly does approach the subject from the inside-out, explaining, with equal lucidity, how an automatic rifle discharges one bullet and loads another; the psychological effect that weapons have on the individuals that carry them and the nations that create and distribute them, and the economic and political impact that a well-designed weapon can have upon the world at large.

More than anything else, though, "The Gun" describes what bullets do to flesh. The author's own descriptions tend to be exact yet detached, readable but never exploitative, using language not markedly different from that which Chivers employs to visualize the layout of a rifle assembly line or the clockwork details of a Gatling gun ammo feed. Other accounts of violence in "The Gun," however, are drawn from historical records, mostly firsthand reports by military officers testing new weapons against live targets. These descriptions are charged with emotion: rage, terror, astonishment. Taken together, Chivers' dry descriptions and his astutely chosen historical passages clear away whatever residual fog might be hovering around the American reader's imagination, and show the machine gun, and the gun generally, for what it is, in all its multifaceted complexity.

Chivers is a former Marine infantry officer who later became a New York Times correspondent, and was part of a team that won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I'd imagine that this blend of insider and outsider sensibilities is part of the reason why "The Gun" manages to be consistently fascinating without devolving into adolescent gun fetishism, moralistic finger-wagging or tedious info-dumping. Thoroughly researched and sensibly organized, the book is a hybrid of war reportage, sociological analysis, kinetic technical writing, and historical quotations that treat the machine gun not just as a milestone in homicide technology, but an evolutionary (or de-evolutionary) signpost, a weapon as significant as the club, the sword, the bow-and-arrow and gunpowder itself. Simply put, the machine gun placed a nearly divine death-dealing power in the hands of lone soldiers, giving one rifleman the killing power of a platoon -- and bestowing the same dark gift on terrorists, guerrilla fighters, bank robbers and maniacs that think "The Terminator" is a how-to film.

"The arm in question," wrote Richard Gatling, the Gatling gun inventor, in a letter to President Abraham Lincoln in February 1864, "is an invention of no ordinary character."

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