Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted, and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields. For the purpose for which it was designed—as a device that allowed ordinary men to kill other men without extensive training or undue complications—this was an eminently well-conceived tool.
- Highlight on Page 7 , Loc. 99-103 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:21 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The acronym abbreviated two Russian words, Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic by Kalashnikov, a nod to Senior Sergeant Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, a twenty-nine-year-old former tank commander to whom the army and the Communist Party formally attributed the weapon’s design. The number was shorthand for 1947, the year a technical bureau in Kovrov, a city east of Moscow with its own hidden arms plants, had finished the prototypes. In the time since, factories in Izhevsk had been tooled up to produce it. Within twenty-five years it would be the most abundant firearm the world had known.
- Highlight on Page 7 , Loc. 105-9 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:26 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Unlike the nuclear arsenals and the infrastructure that would rise around them—the warheads, the mobile launchers, the strategic bombers and submarines—an automatic rifle was a weapon that could actually be used. And none of the Cold War’s seemingly infinite and fantastic array of killing tools could more readily slip from state control. In this way, 1949 became the year of a mismatched but fated pair, RDS-1 and the AK-47, whose descendants were to work in consonance and shape the conflicts ahead. The nuclear umbrella froze borders in place and discouraged all-out war between the conventional armies stacked in Europe, helping to create conditions in which the Kalashnikov percolated from continent to continent, nation to nation, group to group, man to man, maturing as its numbers grew and its reputation spread into the age’s dominant tool for violence in conflict zones.
- Highlight on Page 8 , Loc. 115-21 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:27 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
By the early 1960s, after the Cuban Missile Crisis had startled its participants and as the war in Vietnam was expanding and quickening, the Kremlin and the White House comprehended that their mutual nuclear arsenals had made total war unwinnable. Small wars and proxies would be the means through which the Cold War would be fought. The Kalashnikov Era had arrived. We are living in it still.
- Highlight on Page 8 , Loc. 121-24 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:27 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The richer context is this: The automatic Kalashnikov offers a lens for examining the miniaturization and simplification of rapid-fire firearms, a set of processes that when uncoupled from free markets and linked to mass production in the planned economies of opaque or brittle nations, enabled automatic firepower to reach uncountable hands.
- Highlight on Page 9 , Loc. 134-36 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:29 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
In the narrowest sense, these weapons were born of a set of ugly and overpowering political forces of the early to mid-twentieth century. Nazism, Stalinism, and the exigencies of the Cold War combined to give assault rifles their early shape. But their roots reach much further back in time; they are the result of evolutionary processes in firearms and ammunition development and changes in military and economic thinking that accompanied an industrializing and polarizing world.
- Highlight on Page 10 , Loc. 140-43 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:30 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Last, in the latter half of the Cold War, the chronicle shifts again, to an account of how Kalashnikov-pattern rifles migrated from military possession to guerrillas, thugs, bandits, child soldiers, and a host of other users at odds with the stated, or perhaps supposed, reasons of their design. These weapons began as a means to equip standing armies. But the nations that made them lost custody of them, and then control, and now in much of the world they are everyman’s gun.
- Highlight on Page 10 , Loc. 152-55 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:32 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Once it grew beyond border and crackdown duty in Eastern Europe, and became an automatic weapon for global combat service, it was instantly a groundbreaking firearm, a weapon that rearranged the rules. In the 1960s, when American Marines encountered AK-47s in urban warfare, at Hue City in Vietnam, they discovered that a single guerrilla with a Kalashnikov could slow a company’s advance; they used cannon to rubble buildings in which AK-toting Viet Cong marksmen hid.4 Its power, today a battlefield norm, was at first of an almost unseen sort, at least among the weapons that could be wielded by one man. Interest in it was immediate.
- Highlight on Page 13 , Loc. 197-202 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:40 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The rifle assumed uses that were at once soldierly and ceremonial, and over the decades it reached far beyond conflicts in which the Kremlin played a primary role. When Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, was mourned in 2004 by his followers in Gaza, his casket was guarded by masked men at the ready with folding-stock AKs. The scene was a throwback. Six years earlier along the Cambodian-Thai border the body of Pol Pot was attended by teenage gunmen carrying an Asian version of the same gun. Mastering a Kalashnikov is one of the surest ways to become an underground fighter in our time.
- Highlight on Page 15 , Loc. 225-29 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:42 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
In Los Angeles they have served bank robbers and urban gangs; in the northwestern United States survivalists squirrel them away in anticipation of the worst.
- Highlight on Page 16 , Loc. 240-41 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:44 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
A single comparison provides a sense of the automatic Kalashnikov’s spread. The second-most-abundant family of rifles is the American M-16 family; fewer than 10 million have been made. Serious estimates put the number of Kalashnikovs and its derivatives as high as 100 million. There could be one Kalashnikov for every seventy people alive.
- Highlight on Page 17 , Loc. 254-57 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:46 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Even a single Kalashnikov can set a nation in motion. In 1989, after the drifter Patrick Purdy opened fire with a Kalashnikov on a schoolyard in Stockton, California, striking thirty-four children and a teacher, Congress began work on the assault weapon ban. Purdy did not use a true automatic Kalashnikov. His rifle was not an automatic. It had been modified to shoot a single bullet with each trigger pull, making it no more dangerous (and arguably less, considering the medium-powered cartridges it fired) than the rifles in many a deer camp. The facts hardly mattered. The mere appearance of a Kalashnikov in a schoolyard crowded with children, its look, was enough to put Congress in a lawmaking mood.
- Highlight on Page 19 , Loc. 286-91 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:50 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Yepishev said: “Who needs your truth if it stands in our way?”7 This is part of the nature of official Soviet history, and it frames one of the challenges to objective researchers of the period. And for exactly this reason, Soviet sources are useful, even necessary, when clearly shown for what they are. They go to the very character and motivations of actors involved, and provide readers with a basis for a healthy skepticism of official stories in the national stock.
- Highlight on Page 24 , Loc. 366-69 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:57 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
A small number of firearms references have attempted this, at least in part, and the United States military has quietly built an arms database, known as CHUCKWAGON, that provides this service to its users. The Pentagon’s database includes data not just on weapon types by style and serial numbers and their sources of production but also on intermediate handlers, including governments and units that have possessed distinctly identifiable weapons at certain times. But for private citizens, none of the publicly available tools are complete, and all of them have errors.
- Highlight on Page 25 , Loc. 383-87 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 01:58 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
war is an incubator for industry and weapons development, it is also a phenomenon that attracts profiteers and quacks. Ripley faced problems that will always accompany a government that has the power to make an arms salesman instantly rich. Several decades later, the British minister of munitions would describe the phenomenon perfectly; “I was, naturally being deluged at the Ministry of Munitions with letters and calls from people who had some new invention or improvement to propose. The great majority of these ideas were, of course, useless, and many of them came from cranks and lunatics.”)24 In Ripley’s case, the forces working against standardization were extraordinary. Both sides had been unprepared for war when war arrived. The Union Army had grown from 16,000 officers and men to a force of 486,000 in a matter of months,25 and Ripley was tasked with finding them arms and ammunition.
- Highlight on Page 38 , Loc. 572-79 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 02:14 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The names of these lost sons filled lists in the newspapers around the land, North and South. By the time Gatling wrote Lincoln, about half a million Union and Confederate soldiers were dead, by far the largest toll that the nation had ever suffered in war, and ever would. Hundreds of thousands more men had been wounded. These were staggering numbers for a nation with a population of 31 million. (The proportionate equivalent would be roughly 5 million dead Americans in the first three years of the most recent war in Iraq.) They were even more staggering considering that neither the Union nor the Confederate tallies included civilian tolls.
- Highlight on Page 41 , Loc. 616-20 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 02:21 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Gatling offered to help end the bloodletting through a counterintuitive means: more efficient slaughter.
- Highlight on Page 41 , Loc. 620-21 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 02:21 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Lord Chelmsford ordered Ulundi to be set afire. His command had left its camp before 7:00 A.M. It faced the Zulu charge at 9:00 A.M. “Ulundi was burning at noon,” he telegraphed home.56 The British, with their superior firepower, had completed the destruction of the Zulu nation in a morning, though they were on enemy terrain and outnumbered roughly four to one. One British officer and ten enlisted men were killed.57 The rout had reached proportions almost absurd, but was also demonstrative of what rapid-fire weapons could do when applied to people who did not have them, or who were ordered in the open by commanders who did not appreciate how machine gunnery worked. Colonel Custer had left his guns behind. The killing at Ulundi had shown their utility in what one officer called “wars with people who wear not trousers.”58
- Highlight on Page 75 , Loc. 1143-50 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 05:12 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
At that moment, Hiram Maxim had effectively achieved what he would be most remembered for. The companies he was affiliated with would sell more guns to many buyers, and he would continue his inventing, and would try to design an airplane. With uncanny martial prescience, he would predict aerial bombing before airplanes had even been made. But the demonstration for the kaiser was his moment. Once the kaiser had seen the efficiency and ease of use of the automatic machine gun, Maxim had offered his weapons for sale to the powers that would become the central military actors in World War I.
- Highlight on Page 99 , Loc. 1513-17 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 05:47 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Churchill was shaken. “I have tried to gild war,” he wrote, “and to solace myself for the loss of dear and gallant friends, with the thought that a soldier’s death for a cause that he believes in will count for much, whatever may be beyond this world.” But he was unable to square the sights before him, acre upon acre of the remains of soldiers on their own land, with his understanding of war waged by a “civilized Power.” There was nothing dulce et decorum about the Dervish dead; nothing of the dignity of unconquerable manhood; all was filthy corruption. Yet these were as brave men as ever walked the earth. The conviction was born in me that their claim beyond the grave in respect of a valiant death was not less good than that which any of our countrymen could make.
- Highlight on Page 119 , Loc. 1816-22 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 06:56 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The attitude was well established in successful military units: Moral force was superior to material might, and men were supreme. In its way, the attitude marked one of the older and more enduring vulnerabilities of military units steeped in their past success and lore.
- Highlight on Page 132 , Loc. 2012-14 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 07:21 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Both comments were instructive. Racism still informed colonial operations. And Captain Meinertzhagen, who published his diaries years later and with the benefit of seeing the outcome on the Western Front, could not, even with the passing of time, understand the technical picture for what it was: Intensive machine-gun fire could hardly be beaten back by men with rifles using tactics of yore.
- Highlight on Page 142 , Loc. 2165-68 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 07:39 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
It is still twilight when the signal is given and we go over the top, advancing across the open ground with difficulty, as two lines of trenches have to be “jumped” by means of narrow bridges, which causes much congestion. Everyone is in the charge; stretcher-bearers, signalers and the Lewis gunners, and we make our way blindly forward through a chaos of bursting shells and machine-gun bullets. It is only possible to see one’s nearest neighbors in the smoke, the sense of direction is entirely lost, and there is an awful feeling of being very much alone. The noise, which at first was deafening, is hardly noticed after a few minutes, shell splinters and bullets are practically ignored, and dead and wounded lying in the way are only looked upon with a sort of mild interest. The sole idea seems to be to keep on until something happens. It appears as though it would be impossible to get through such an inferno, but at last we reach the trench. The Germans have put up a stout resistance but we managed to get about sixty prisoners before they break away for their own lines.
- Highlight on Page 150 , Loc. 2300-2308 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 07:53 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Geddes, satisfied that he had a document that would enable him to deliver more machine guns to the front, presented the memorandum to Lloyd George. Lloyd George was aghast. He had quietly taken to talking on his own with soldiers returning from the horrors of France, and had been told repeatedly that the troops needed more machine guns. As minister of munitions, he had no authority to exceed the secretary of war’s request. He seemed not to care. He almost tore up Kitchener’s memo, but Geddes managed to save it for posterity. Lloyd George then broke policy. “Take Kitchener’s maximum [four per battalion],” he said. “Square it, multiply that result by two; and when you are in sight of that, double it again for good luck.”
- Highlight on Page 152 , Loc. 2329-34 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 07:56 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
maintained his detachment and dark humor to the book’s end, where he lamented that an inhaler he had designed to relieve congestion brought him no fame at all. “It is a very creditable thing to make a killing machine,” he wrote, “and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering.”54
- Highlight on Page 159 , Loc. 2428-30 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 08:05 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Soon, they topped the hill, and raced together Over an open stretch of herb and heather Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned With fury against them; earth set sudden cups In thousands for their blood; and the green slope Chasmed and deepened sheer to infinite space Of them who running on that last high place Breasted the surf of bullets, or went up On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge. Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge, Some say God caught them even before they fell.
- Highlight on Page 160 , Loc. 2443-47 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 08:08 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Every day Svetlana Vladimirovna works a long shift at the machining factory beside the smelter at the edge of her city in central Russia. The factory makes the best beds in the Soviet Union, all of them of exceptionally fine steel. But no one in Svetlana’s city, including Svetlana, has a bed. This is an unfortunate but perfectly understandable matter of policy. The comrades who run the factory, and who have designed such magnificent and marvelous beds, better than any beds in America, have decided in the spirit of the revolution and correct socialist principles that they must give beds first to all of the hospitals, and to the army, and to the universities, and to the collective farms, and to many other important institutions necessary for the people and the government in the world’s most rapidly and inevitably advancing socialist society. To do this, the factory must work round the clock. Three shifts a day. And only rarely stopping on holidays. It is understood that the workers need beds. But it is not yet the workers’ turn. Only recently did the cosmonauts receive beds! And so everyone who works at the bed factory returns home after each shift and sleeps on the floor. One summer Svetlana’s sister, Natasha, who long ago married a man in Leningrad and moved away, returned for a visit. She was appalled that after ten years Svetlana still had no bed. After all, Svetlana was strong of hand and skilled with tools and one of the best machinists at the bed factory. “My dear sister,” Natasha said. “You have not been thinking correctly. It is very easy to have a bed. Each day you must steal one piece of bed from the parts bins at the factory and smuggle it home. And after a week or two you must assemble the parts. Then you will have a bed. And you will never again sleep on the floor.” Svetlana listened closely. “My dear sister,” she sighed. “It is you who are not thinking correctly. We have tried this many times. We have stolen the bed parts and carried them home. We have assembled them in the room. And every time, after we finish, we discover that instead of a bed we have an automatic Kalashnikov.”
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But little in any independent inquiry into the evolution of automatic arms can compare in degree of difficulty to an examination of the origins of Kalashnikov’s AK-47. The reasons are manifold. First and foremost, the weapon came into existence inside one of the most secretive and paranoid military systems the world has known. Within this system, the state-directed process was long, fundamentally bureaucratic, scattered across multiple cities and testing sites, and conducted in a cone of near silence by scores, if not hundreds, of participants. The rules muzzled
- Highlight on Page 174 , Loc. 2662-66 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 08:28 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The weapon, which Kalashnikov emphasizes as a defensive tool and a shared monument to the population’s creative energy, was rather a marker of the planned economy under totalitarian rule, a nation that could make weapons aplenty but would not design a good toilet, elevator, or camera, or produce large crops of wheat and potatoes, or provide its citizens with decent toothpaste and bars of soap. This is not to say that the planned economy was completely inefficient, though broadly it was. In the planned economy, when the plan worked, the nation got what its planners ordered. Main battle tanks became sturdy, reliable, and fearsome. Refrigerators barely worked. The AK-47 and its descendants in many ways form an apt emblem of the Soviet legacy, a wood-and-metal symbol of what the socialist experiment came to be about.
- Highlight on Page 180 , Loc. 2746-52 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 08:45 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Since the October Revolution, the population of the former Russian empire had suffered civil war, collectivization, purges, and labor camps. The revolutionary promises of socialism had given way to the centralization of a police state and single-party rule. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the NKVD, had grown in size and role, and its secret police had become a principal arm of a government that ruled by violence and fear. By the time of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, show trials had thinned the ranks of the Bolshevik revolutionaries and party luminaries.
- Highlight on Page 181 , Loc. 2775-79 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 08:47 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Stalin’s personality cult had overtaken the land, and the national conversation was smothered by official propaganda and state lies. The nation was being consumed by the general secretary’s whim, and the whims of those who acted under his hand.
- Highlight on Page 182 , Loc. 2781-82 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 08:48 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Stalin knew that large military forces would be necessary to occupy and administer this new socialist frontier, and to face down the West. These forces would need weapons. The timing was ideal for arming them. The Soviet Union had gone through an industrial transformation and remained on a war footing. It now had a labor force skilled in making weapons. Its arms and munitions factories, which had grown in size and number and worked around the clock in the war years, were producing weapons at an extraordinary rate. By one official estimate, in slightly less than four years of war, the Soviet Union managed to manufacture 12 million rifles, more than 6 million submachine guns, and almost a million machine guns—more than 13,000 weapons a day.20 But this was an average over a four-year period during which production in the first years was small. By the end of the war, at least one enterprise, the sprawling gun works at Izhevsk, claimed at peak production to be making 12,000 weapons each day by itself, consuming fifty tons of steel every twenty-four hours.21 This was the state of Stalin’s defense complex as it considered its needs for a new infantry arm, a small automatic rifle that could be issued to every man.
- Highlight on Page 183 , Loc. 2804-13 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 08:52 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Hitler had swung round and become a strong supporter. He renamed Schmeisser’s automatic yet again: the sturmgewehr, or storm rifle, which in translation became assault rifle, the designation that stuck. A new class of firearm had been named.
- Highlight on Page 192 , Loc. 2936-37 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 09:05 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
As weapons go, the PPSh was neither handsome nor refined. It was a triumph of pragmatism, expediency, and unpretentious Soviet ideals. One reviewer said it fit a pattern: “The Russians excel in calculated crudity. In these burp guns, the plumbers have all but eliminated the gunsmiths.”41 Aesthetics matter to many gunsmiths. They mattered not at all to a nation that risked falling under Nazi control. Known among Soviet conscripts as the pe-pe-sha, the dumpy submachine gun was popular with Red Army troops and was regarded well enough that when German soldiers captured them, as they often did, they carried them, too. This is the highest vote of confidence an infantry arm can achieve, and this submachine gun, rushed into production to save the nation, became a familiar prop in Soviet symbols of the Great Patriotic War, appearing endlessly in murals and statuary.
- Highlight on Page 197 , Loc. 3016-22 , Added on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 09:14 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Often times designers become affixed to a certain idea and hesitate to discard it. They are so attached to their original concept, you could say, like a spinster to her cats! I am just the opposite. Today this idea seems good, tomorrow I might just toss it. The day after I might do the same until such a point, when I can feel the design is completed. When you work with somebody who is afraid to discard an idea that has outlived its usefulness, you notice that they find it difficult to part with it. They think their accomplishments should last for all times. I am referring here to the need for a certain flexibility (of mind), i.e., the ability to test as many ideas as possible and not get too attached to any one in particular. This enables one to develop models of high reliability. . . . There is no limit to improvement!
- Highlight on Page 222 , Loc. 3404-10 , Added on Thursday, June 16, 2016, 03:18 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Yet the assault rifle’s practical merits do not explain the proliferation that followed. The AK-47 was not to break out globally because it was well conceived and well made, or because it pushed Soviet small-arms development ahead of the West.2 Technical qualities did not drive socialist arms production. It was the other way around. Soviet military policies mixed with Kremlin foreign-policy decisions to propel the output that made the AK-47 and its knock-offs available almost anywhere.
- Highlight on Page 237 , Loc. 3632-36 , Added on Thursday, June 16, 2016, 03:42 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
But even Stalin could not last forever. Someone else would send the rifles around the world. Nikita S. Khrushchev, who would replace him, became the Kremlin’s arms dealer, the man whose government passed the weapons out and whose decisions would serve to expand assault-rifle production to outsized levels.
- Highlight on Page 239 , Loc. 3661-63 , Added on Thursday, June 16, 2016, 03:45 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
As the AK-47 gained acceptance and approval in the Soviet army, the Kremlin used it as a readily deliverable tool in the game of East-West influence jockeying, both as a diplomatic chip to secure new friendships and as an item to be distributed to those willing to harass or otherwise occupy the attention of the West.
- Highlight on Page 240 , Loc. 3666-68 , Added on Thursday, June 16, 2016, 03:46 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
On October 24, the government fell. Nagy returned to office. He tried to balance conflicting pulls, working with the Kremlin while feeling the revolution’s ineluctable draw. The Kremlin escalated. On October 25, Soviet divisions from outside Hungary crossed the border. Hungary, a member of the Warsaw Pact, was being invaded by its fraternal mentor, which had pledged to protect it from invasion. The Soviet military had decided that it must destroy the Corvinists. A conventional idea was settled upon: A Hungarian army unit, working with Soviet armor, would storm the theater.
- Highlight on Page 264 , Loc. 4037-41 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 12:19 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Once civilians started filling orders, scandal was not far behind. In 1921, a shipment of Thompsons bound for the Irish Republican Army was discovered on a vessel soon to depart Hoboken for Dublin, which nearly caused a major diplomatic row between Washington and London.65 The company’s officers dodged indictment, though suspicions lingered that some of them knew more about the Irish deal than they let on. In 1923 the Saturday Evening Post questioned the merits of the gun’s existence, and worried aloud over the uses to which it might be put. Except as an arm for trench warfare or semimilitary police forces having to deal with armed risings, it is difficult to see what honest need they can meet; yet we are faced with the fact that they exist and are on the open market for anyone who wants to buy them. Here, one would say, is an arm that is useless for sport, cumbrous for self-defense and could not serve any honest purpose, but which in the hands of political fanatics might provoke disaster.66
- Highlight on Page 277 , Loc. 4243-51 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 12:36 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
There was also the important matter of scale. Perhaps a few hundred Thompsons reached criminal hands in the United States. They caused minor havoc and national uproar, but the United States took steps for the public’s safety before popular ownership of submachine guns became widespread. It began to make law. In 1934, Congress passed the National Firearms Act, part of a series of state and federal laws that restrict the sale, ownership, or use of automatic arms in the United States. Ultimately, after a brief and noisy heyday, Thompson’s trench broom served to illustrate how stable nations with responsive governments can adjust to shifts in weapons technology. These were not the sort of nations where the AK-47 would leave its longest-lasting marks.
- Highlight on Page 279 , Loc. 4264-69 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 12:38 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The AK-47 existed on a different order of magnitude, and was controlled by a different political culture. It was being assembled in enormous quantities by governments that, while they lasted, would show small concern for where the weapons went, or to whom. And after these governments fell, many of their automatic arms cascaded out of their possession. The arms flow began with a trickle. It began with József Tibor Fejes.
- Highlight on Page 279 , Loc. 4270-72 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 12:38 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Soon after the cease-fire, the Kremlin adopted a conciliatory tone. It published in Pravda a declaration of respect, equality, and noninterference in the domestic affairs of its European satellites. By all appearances, the insurgents had won. They had forced Khrushchev to accept a new point of view about Soviet relations in the buffer zone. The revolution shifted from violent to political, at least on the surface. On November 1, 1955, Prime Minister Nagy delivered a radio address declaring Hungary’s departure from the Warsaw Pact, and proclaiming its new unaligned status. Hungary was leaving the Soviet orbit.
- Highlight on Page 279 , Loc. 4274-78 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 02:17 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
For Hungarians the proclamation was a moment of national self-determination. For the Kremlin, the radio address challenged Soviet authority over the nations in its grip and threatened to unravel a carefully choreographed alliance. For Nagy, the address was a reactive step; he had received reports of new Soviet military activities. The conciliatory declaration in Pravda had been a trick. On October 31, Khrushchev had decided to invade Hungary again, and with a much larger force.
- Highlight on Page 279 , Loc. 4278-81 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 02:18 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
On November 1 in Washington, Allen Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, addressed the National Security Council after digesting the news. He marveled at the insurgents’ success: In a sense, what had occurred there was a miracle. Events had belied all our past views that a popular revolt in the face of modern weapons was an utter impossibility. Nevertheless, the impossible had happened, and because of the power of public opinion, armed force could not effectively be used.67 Public opinion was not so powerful after all. That night, Soviet troops started a reconnaissance of the capital. On November 3, the Soviet and Hungarian delegations met for negotiations. The meeting ended when General Ivan Serov, director of the KGB and Dulles’s Soviet counterpart, placed the Hungarian delegation under arrest.
- Highlight on Page 280 , Loc. 4283-89 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 02:18 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The Soviet army called the crackdown Operation Whirlwind and launched it with the codeword grom, Russian for thunder. Armored divisions rolled into Budapest from multiple directions, this time with an ample complement of infantry. Nagy managed a radio broadcast to say the Hungarian government was at its post and Hungarian troops were fighting. Then he fled to the Yugoslav embassy. János Kádár, a rival politician who had secretly betrayed Nagy and received Kremlin backing, announced that a new government had been formed. The attack was overpowering. Soviet units quickly encircled the Hungarian Ministry of Defense and army buildings and barracks, neutralizing any chance of an organized conventional defense.
- Highlight on Page 281 , Loc. 4294-99 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 02:19 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
For Kalashnikov, this period should have been a time of professional and personal satisfaction. Instead it brought troubles. Kalashnikov’s fame had fueled resentment, and as his stature grew he faced a species of social persecution that inhabited the post-Stalin Soviet Union. In 1956, Khrushchev issued a speech to a party congress, “On the Personality Cult and Its Consequences,” in which he denounced Stalin’s brutal excesses and the fealty and adoration that surrounded him.
- Highlight on Page 288 , Loc. 4407-10 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 03:51 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
And one common element of modern infantry fighting involved a reliance not on the precision aimed fire of the individual, but on the massed area fire of the group. The means and style of conventional ground warfare had changed. Concentrated firepower was often used to pin down an enemy as much as to kill him, while friendly troops moved in close. This suppressive fire, studies showed, was frequently applied without soldiers’ putting their weapons’ sights to their eyes, unless a distinct target presented itself, which was often not the case. In firefights like this, what was the purpose of such a rifle as La Garde had championed, which could strike a standing man seven hundred yards away? Soldiers often were relying on volume of fire more than on precise plinking at great range, and creating volume of fire required carrying hundreds of bullets, which was not easy to do if those bullets were heavy and large.
- Highlight on Page 301 , Loc. 4615-21 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 04:18 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
American intelligence officials marveled that few of them had undergone significant training with live ammunition before being sent on missions against South Vietnamese and American forces. Many captured enemy fighters said they fired their weapons for the first time only in combat.4 And yet by summer 1967, as Hotel Company rushed toward Ap Sieu Quan, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were killing nearly eight hundred American servicemen each month. One reason for their success was their weapons. Nikita S. Khrushchev was gone from the Kremlin, forced into retirement in a bloodless coup in 1964. But his practice of using arms transfers as a foreign-policy lever continued, and the People’s Republic of China had followed the Soviet example with haste.
- Highlight on Page 310 , Loc. 4754-60 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 04:37 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Had the early M-16 been a reliable automatic rifle, this might have been a straightforward and simple development, a story as old as war. One side gets a new weapon, the other side matches it in kind. In this way, the war in Vietnam became the first large conflict in which both sides carried assault rifles—initially in small numbers but eventually as the predominant firearm. But the American adoption of assault rifles flowed from reaction rather than from foresight or planning, and it was painful and bungled. The early M-16 and its ammunition formed a combination not ready for war.
- Highlight on Page 315 , Loc. 4822-26 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 04:43 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The origins of the problems emerge in especially sharp relief when viewed in contrast to the Soviet Union’s much more successful rifle program. The AK-47 and AKM had resulted from methodical state-directed pursuits. The M-16 arrived in troops’ hands by another route. The American system was neither capitalist nor fully state-driven. It was a disharmonious hybrid.
- Highlight on Page 316 , Loc. 4831-34 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 04:44 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
For all these reasons, the M-16 was not a ready equalizer. It was the accidental rifle, pushed into service by a confluence of historical forces that left the United States military in a rush and unwilling to explore a wider set of options or a more careful course. These were conditions for disaster, as the Marines of Second Battalion, Third Marines were finding out.
- Highlight on Page 318 , Loc. 4867-69 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 04:51 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Kennedy brought with him Robert S. McNamara as secretary of defense. McNamara was a graduate of Harvard Business School, a former top executive at Ford, and a believer in an approach to decision-making called “systems analysis,” which had been conceived in the 1950s at the Rand Corporation. Systems analysis centered on intensive study of problems and options, with examinations of costs, benefits, and risks of potential decisions. Its introduction to the Pentagon, along with a cadre of McNamara’s disciples, who called themselves the whiz kids, was a frontal challenge to the military establishment.
- Highlight on Page 318 , Loc. 4871-75 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 04:52 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
McNamara sensed at least this much. In October 1962, after his aides had examined the gun gap, he wrote a secret memorandum to Cyrus R. Vance, the secretary of the army. The memorandum was a marker of bureaucratic exasperation. “I have seen certain evidence,” he wrote: ... which appears to indicate that: 1. With the M-14 rifle in 1962, we are equipping our forces with a weapon definitely inferior in firepower and combat effectiveness to the assault rifle with which the Soviets have equipped their own and their satellite forces worldwide since 1950. This was a painful declaration for the United States’ most senior military official at the height of the Cold War—a frank admission that the Soviet Union had leaped ahead of the United States in an important way.
- Highlight on Page 320 , Loc. 4895-4901 , Added on Saturday, June 18, 2016, 04:55 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Firearms and their ammunition form a system. While that system can seem exceedingly simple compared to a fighter jet or a tank, it often is not simple at all. Automatic firearms and cartridges work together in complex ways, and changes to either a weapon or a cartridge can create pervasive disharmonies that can be difficult to pinpoint; ghosts can readily inhabit these machines, and they do. The services and the committee, working through both the government’s arsenal and Colt’s, proceeded to make changes to the AR-15 and the .223 round—more than one hundred in all. Many changes were minor and arcane. Others, including a change to the rifling in the AR-15’s barrel and the addition of a device that could push the bolt forward manually, were significant and consumed months of infighting and interservice positioning. Throughout it all, as the members maneuvered and quarreled, the committee missed a basic step—ensuring that the rifle was resistant to corrosion.
- Highlight on Page 342 , Loc. 5232-38 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 02:02 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
McNamara had opened discussions he had not anticipated. The American rifle program, once staid and organized, had become fully disordered. The army had developed one weapon, the M-14, and lobbied for its approval and survival. The air force had snubbed its sister service and adopted the AR-15, which was now called the M-16. McNamara had begun to push the M-16 into select units’ hands. And the Marine Corps was campaigning for the Stoner 63.
- Highlight on Page 343 , Loc. 5251-54 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 02:04 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Moreover, 95 percent of the combat veterans said that when they did see Viet Cong and NVA soldiers, the enemy was either running, prone, or in some sort of hiding.40 What all of this meant was that one touted feature of the M-16—an ability to strike and penetrate steel helmets at five hundred yards—was almost irrelevant in jungle war. This was a dispiriting finding, given that the desire for this long-range performance had led the army to accept a propellant that made the rifle less reliable. And the soldiers’ narrative comments hinted at burgeoning problems. Some soldiers liked the M-16. But many others said that while it was a good rifle when it worked, it jammed. Ominously, several soldiers pleaded for cleaning equipment.41 The National Rifle Association also was ready to give the rifle a boost, and prepared an article for the American Rifleman that praised the M-16. The article, published several months later, asserted that the rifle “bears up well under harsh field conditions” and that “dust, dirt, and rain do not make the M-16A1 less functional provided minimal care is exercised.” As with the stoppages mentioned casually in Shooting Times, the NRA’s article carried a strong whiff of the malfunctions plaguing the rifle. It mentioned problems with dirty chambers, extraction, and jamming, but only briefly. The American Rifleman concluded, without offering evidence, that the rifle “is proving itself in Vietnam.”42 The gun press, with access to arms and arms companies that the traditional media could not match, was missing the biggest small-arms story of the war. The troops would have to find out the truth themselves. They would get that chance.
- Highlight on Page 349 , Loc. 5352-65 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 10:25 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
His letter back to Colonel Yount detailed a supply failure. It also revealed his own uncertainty about the army’s state of knowledge of the weapons it was handing out. The 173rd uses some field expedience, primarily for cleaning the chamber and the bore of the weapons. They either use a piece of commo wire, a shoe lace or a nylon cord which they carry with them. They take a 30 caliber patch cut it in half, fold it once and loop the string or what ever it is to the center of this patch. Then using oil they pull it through the bore of the weapon starting from the chamber. As they do this, they clean both the chamber and the bore and then dry it off. They also put a little bit of oil on it. I have not been able to find anyone that does not put a little bit of oil in the chamber of the weapon to prevent it from corroding. I try to discourage it, however I am not completely convinced myself that if you leave the chamber completely dry you won’t have a problem resulting from corrosion, even if you cleaned your weapon every day.44 No one, it seemed, was quite sure what to do with this new rifle, not even the officers issuing it.
- Highlight on Page 352 , Loc. 5390-99 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:01 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
In at least one of these cases, the American soldier firing it was killed.45 The problems were multiplying. Of 2,000 M-16s tested at the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division, 384 malfunctioned.46
- Highlight on Page 353 , Loc. 5400-5402 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:02 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
All the rifles have an extremely high rate of fire which isn’t helping us in the least bit. You better get that new buffer over here right pronto to stop some of this malfunction. It sure will help. Finishes have been wearing off many of the weapons and I’ve actually seen holes eaten right through into the charging handle area and along the lower receiver area, underneath the dust cover. You can see right into the magazine. Carrying handles are pretty well eaten up on many of the weapons. Rust is covering quite a few of them.48
- Highlight on Page 354 , Loc. 5414-18 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:03 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
November 1966, the latest news of the M-16’s poor performance in Vietnam reached top channels in the army. Colonel Yount visited the Pentagon to brief now-Colonel Hallock. Colonel Hallock’s interest in the M-16 was zealous and personal. He had been an early supporter of the rifle, and a supervisor of Project AGILE more than four years before. The meeting marked a potentially agonizing moment. The SAWS test had zeroed in on problems with misfeeds and fouling related to ball powder. The new weighted buffer had been identified as a fix for at least part of the problem. But the buffer was available only for newly manufactured weapons at Colt’s factory—not for the scores of thousands of rifles already in Vietnam. The weapon Colonel Hallock had advocated was failing, and as near as he could tell, the failures were getting American soldiers killed. What to do? Colonel Hallock filed a classified memorandum for the record based on his meeting. It left no doubt that the army had long understood the scope and nature of the M-16’s problems, had done little to resolve them, and still was moving slowly to help soldiers with malfunctioning weapons in Vietnam.
- Highlight on Page 356 , Loc. 5444-52 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:12 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Far from the war, the two colonels discussed a list of factors compounding the rifle’s poor performance—lackluster weapons-cleaning habits, shortages of cleaning equipment, insufficient training, and a host of jerry-rigged practices by soldiers, including soaking ammunition with oil. This was not how the M-16’s introduction as the primary firearm in Vietnam was supposed to go. And Colonel Yount’s inaction was not how military officers were expected to carry out their duties. Colonel Hallock wanted the problems remedied. But his bureaucratic instincts interfered. He was equally interested in restricting who knew of the problems.
- Highlight on Page 357 , Loc. 5461-66 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:13 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
I said, as I have on several other occasions during the last year, that this situation was potentially explosive with the Congress, within Defense, in the Army, and with the public, and that the malfunctions alone could be expecting to be causing loss of soldiers [sic] lives, even though the data showed the XM16E1 to be more effective than other rifles even with the malfunctions. Also, that if there were excessive malfunction rates, the troops would lose confidence in their weapon, even though the causes were not due to weapon design, and that it was a serious thing for the troops to lose confidence in their weapon. I urged again that highest priority be given to correct this situation and also that he consider the security aspect of the information in technical and other channels.
- Highlight on Page 357 , Loc. 5467-73 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:14 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Colonel Hallock stamped his memorandum SECRET HOLD CLOSE repeatedly, and sent it to Dr. Jacob Stockfisch, codirector of the Force Planning and Analysis Office, urging that the gloomy information be provided to the army chief of staff. (Stockfisch’s office reported both to the secretary of the army and the army chief of staff; it was a strong proponent of the M-16.) Read against what was happening in Vietnam, and as more rifles known to be unreliable were being manufactured and issued to men headed to combat, the correspondence was chilling. The military had the option of delaying the issue of the M-16 until its shortcomings were worked out, and to allow troops to carry weapons that worked. But this would have meant admitting to a mistake and sounding an alarm. It would have required an officer to display courage. Instead, corporate instincts and self-protection had trumped integrity and good sense.
- Highlight on Page 357 , Loc. 5474-80 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:15 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Colonel Yount added that only he and two other people were allowed to keep file copies of his reports. “All other copies,” he wrote, “will be destroyed within 10 days of receipt.”52 At a time when the M-16 program desperately needed candor, attention, and more resources, and when commanders and troops in the field should have been informed of the problems emerging in Vietnam, another cover-up had begun.
- Highlight on Page 358 , Loc. 5482-85 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:15 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
It is easy, based on the existing records, to see Colonel Yount and Colonel Hallock as bureaucratic villains; certainly they acted against the interests of the troops in Vietnam. Their careerist behavior was of a familiar species, and ugly, even unconscionable, when revealed. If some of the men who had been in fighting in which M-16s had failed could have read what Colonel Hallock wrote, they would have demanded investigations. Rage was high enough in Vietnam that no small number of grunts would have wanted to do worse.
- Highlight on Page 358 , Loc. 5485-89 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:15 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
But these two colonels were hardly alone. They were part of a procurement and advocacy phenomenon that had slipped from control. Since early 1963, McNamara’s office had pushed the M-16 along without check. Colonel Yount managed the program, but he did not provide its direction or have control over many of its decisions. With General Westmoreland calling for more rifles, all involved in the rifle program faced internal pressure to keep M-16s flowing off the assembly lines and into Vietnam. And yet it was a fateful moment to choose to play along quietly. It was in many ways a last chance.
- Highlight on Page 359 , Loc. 5492-96 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:16 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Effective November 4, the army had decided to adopt the M-16 as its standard rifle. Step by step, decision by decision, without clear signs of institutional intent, the watermelon shoot on Boutelle’s farm and the untrustworthy Project AGILE report had led to policy. The M-16, a rifle with a flawed development history, was to replace the M-14, even though the army knew the powder-rifle mismatch was causing high M-16 malfunction rates, and before a technical solution had been put into place.
- Highlight on Page 359 , Loc. 5496-99 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:16 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
In early February 1967, the armorers for Second Battalion, Ninth Marines, stationed near the coast at Phu Bai, Vietnam, grew concerned about the new rifles in the battalion’s custody. The Marine Corps was beginning to receive its share of M-16s. Though this battalion’s rifles had been used just four times, and only for training, they were already pitted. The armorers reported their concerns and offered other observations as well. The weapons rusted easily; a recessed area on the bolt was difficult to clean; during firing, the trigger pin and hammer pin “tended to work their way out of the receiver.” The armorers also wrote that “we experienced more than a normal amount of ruptured cartridges.”54 The mix of rapid corrosion and cleaning difficulties were an ill-boding combination for a rifle issued for fighting in rain forests and rice paddies. The Marine supply officers seemed alarmed. “This rifle is currently being utilized by units engaged in active combat,” they wrote to the Rock Island Arsenal. “Therefore, an expeditious evaluation is requested.”55 The complaint reached the office of Colonel Yount. Before an army technician was able to examine the weapons, supervisors at the arsenal ordered him to hand out new maintenance instructions that were to be “taken by the user to correct reported problem.”
- Highlight on Page 360 , Loc. 5508-18 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:18 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Headquarters had spoken. Though the army knew the M-16 had technical problems that needed technical solutions, combat units were blamed for their rifle’s worrisome traits. The troops entered the monsoon season of 1967 with rifles prone to fail, and a bureaucracy ready to scold them when they did. The decisions to blame the infantry, and to keep the problems out of public discourse while issuing more rifles, were untenable. By early 1967, the sense that something was awry had reached Washington. Angry troops were sending home letters. Journalists were hearing complaints. Reports of the AK-47’s reliability were also providing an obvious contrast. The Washington Daily News posed the question. How did the world’s wealthiest nation lag behind communist countries in its most basic fighting tool?
- Highlight on Page 361 , Loc. 5522-28 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:19 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The two weapons were designed in fundamentally different ways and their differences in lineage left the M-16 lacking in reliability for reasons that no manufacturing tweaks or upgrades could entirely fix. The AK-47’s main operating system had been conceived to have a loose fit and massive parts, and the resulting excess energy available in each firing cycle made it resistant to jamming.
- Highlight on Page 362 , Loc. 5545-48 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:21 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The M-16 was the manifestation of a different set of design ideas. Its parts were made to be a snug fit, almost in the manner of a manually operated bolt-action rifle. The tight fit helped make the M-16 more accurate than the Kalashnikov, all the way out to the theoretically impressive five hundred yards. It also seemed to make it undependable. Dust, dirt, sand, rust, carbon buildup—all these things could slow or obstruct the movement of an M-16’s bolt.
- Highlight on Page 363 , Loc. 5559-62 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:26 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
By spring 1967, the problems had become so widely known that Congress took an interest. On May 3, 1967, Representative L. Mendel Rivers, Democrat of South Carolina and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, appointed Representative Richard H. Ichord, Democrat of Missouri, as head of a special subcommittee to examine “the development, production, distribution and sale of M-16 rifles.”57 Ichord steered wide of the question of which weapon was better—the M-14 or the M-16—for Vietnam or elsewhere. He left such questions to soldiers.58 If the military wanted the M-16, so be it. He wanted to know why the M-16 was malfunctioning at an unacceptably high rate.
- Highlight on Page 364 , Loc. 5568-73 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:27 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Then came the shock. On April 27, the battalion was preparing for combat against dug-in NVA units on Hills 861 and 881 near Khe Sanh. It spent much of the day watching artillery and air strikes pounding suspected NVA positions on the high ground. On April 29, the company moved toward Hill 881 North, and that night, after recovering the remains of a missing Marine, it spent the night in the bush on the approach to the southeast of Hill 881 North. On April 30, the company moved out on foot again, jumping into an attack at first light with Second and Third platoons abreast of each other and moving forward in a battle formation known as “on line.” In Third Platoon, as Second Lieutenant Thomas R. Givvin, the platoon commander, walked uphill he found at least five M-16s with cleaning rods forced down their barrels resting on the ground.60 These were the discards of Marines who had fought on the hill several days before. Hotel Company moved through tall elephant grass and was ambushed at a distance of about fifty meters by the North Vietnamese Army.
- Highlight on Page 364 , Loc. 5582-89 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:28 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Hotel Company had only one platoon—First Platoon—that was still at fighting strength. As the sweat-soaked Marines at last moved near the enemy bunkers, and were preparing to rush, the captain gave an order over the radio to his platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Ord Elliott: Fix bayonets. He was effectively telling men to prepare to fight to the death, hand to hand. The order was superfluous. Lieutenant Elliot had come to the same decision himself. He had already told the men to ready their knives. With bayonets affixed, the officers thought, the Marines whose M-16s failed might slash or stab their way through the bunkers.62 It was 1967, the age of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the B-52 Stratofortress, and the submarine-launched Polaris ballistic missile. A Marine Corps platoon and company commander were preparing their men for an attack in which they would wield their rifles like lances, swords, and spears. And that was Captain Madonna’s assessment of Colt’s assault rifle, circa 1967. “It was a pretty good bayonet holder,” he said. “I knew those weapons were failing. I didn’t know what the rate was, but I knew I couldn’t rely on them anymore.”
- Highlight on Page 366 , Loc. 5605-14 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:30 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
By May 5, the jamming had been widespread enough that sadly surreal scenes unfolded at one helicopter landing zone on Hill 881 North, where wounded Marines, who had been hit in a mortar bombardment, were waiting to be evacuated. Marines who had not been wounded wandered among the casualties, asking their bloodied colleagues if their rifles had worked. When they found a wounded Marine whose rifle had performed well, they asked to trade and exchanged a faulty M-16 for the M-16 that had reliably fired. Other Marines had also found that three pins near the trigger assembly had a tendency to work loose and slip out, rendering the rifles useless.64 Over several days, the Marines’ initial satisfaction with their M-16s had turned to astonishment, then disgust. Emotions were further inflamed by a sense among troops that the Pentagon had failed to provide them with enough cleaning rods, as the army technical team had found when they visited Vietnam six months before.
- Highlight on Page 368 , Loc. 5629-36 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:32 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Before we left Okinawa, we were all issued the new rifle, the M-16. Practically everyone of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.
- Highlight on Page 368 , Loc. 5637-39 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:32 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
There were, as is often the case, grains of truth in the official statements, just as there were errors and exaggerations in some of the troops’ accounts. In the Hill Fights rifles failed; by most accounts, many rifles. But the claim that “practically everyone of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him” was overstatement, at least battalionwide. By seizing on such statements and becoming argumentative, the officers in Washington missed the substantial truth: M-16s were failing at an alarming rate, the failures put lives at risk, and the grunts had lost faith in their rifles and in some cases in their chain of command.
- Highlight on Page 368 , Loc. 5641-45 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:33 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
How this translated into combat was captured in the last minutes in the life of Lance Corporal David C. Borey, a Marine from Massachusetts assigned to Bravo Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment. A fellow Marine mailed a letter home describing the skirmish, which erupted after his unit had been airlifted outside Da Nang and was caught in the open crossing a rice paddy the next day. “This is how it happened,” he wrote:
- Highlight on Page 369 , Loc. 5655-58 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:34 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Like you said, Dad, we are all complaining about the M-16. When it works you can’t beat it but it jams so goddamn easy. The only cover we had was a 5 dike to hide behind. There was a steady flow of lead going back and forth and we were jaming [sic] left and right. And when they jam the only thing you can do is poke a cleaning rod down the bore and punch out the empty shell. Borey had the only cleaning rod in our group and he was running up and down the line punching out the bores. I knew he was going to get it and I think he did too. A man needed the cleaning rod and Dave jumped up and started running towards him. As soon as he got up he was hit in the foot. He was about 10 feet in front of me and he called to me and said—Hey Bert I’m hit. He couldn’t stay where he was—bullets were hitting the dirt all around him. He had to get back to the dike. I told him to get up and run and I’d shoot grazing fire into the tree line where the VC were. I got three magazines and fired 60 rounds to cover him but as he was running a goddamn VC bullet hit in the back.68
- Highlight on Page 369 , Loc. 5658-66 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:35 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The wall of silence had broken. One incident after another eroded public confidence. Senator Peter H. Dominick, a Republican from Colorado, visited Vietnam in May 1967 at roughly the same time that Lance Corporal Borey was shot. Dominick inquired about the M-16. He was told it was a good weapon and was invited to test fire a sample rifle himself. Someone produced an M-16 and handed it to the senator, who tried to fire it. It jammed.69 In June, members of Ichord’s panel held their own test fire with an M-16 provided by Colt’s. If any one M-16 might have been expected to perform flawlessly, this should have been it: the test rifle a manufacturer facing congressional investigation presented as a sample to Congress. The subcommittee’s rifle jammed several times.
- Highlight on Page 370 , Loc. 5666-72 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:35 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The other night we got a radio message from one of our night ambushes. . . . The last words they said were, “out of hand grenades, all weapons jammed.” The next morning when they got to them, their hands were all skinned up and cut and their stocks on their rifles were all broken from using them as clubs.
- Highlight on Page 370 , Loc. 5673-75 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:36 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Private First Class Nickelson had survived. He rose to his feet but left his jammed rifle in the dirt. He had arrived in Vietnam a month before. Until that day, he had never handled this kind of rifle. In the United States, the Marine Corps had trained him on an M-14. In his one previous firefight, his M-16 had jammed, too—after firing a single round. He had been in two firefights against NVA soldiers with automatic rifles, and he had managed to fire only three rounds back. What good was a rifle that did not work? Nickelson was new to war. He was no fool. He understood this was not right.
- Highlight on Page 373 , Loc. 5715-19 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:39 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Upon arriving in Vietnam and before being assigned to the battalion, Nickelson had bought a .38 revolver from a soldier who was rotating home. He would carry that until the Marine Corps could give him a rifle he could trust. An officer ordered him to pick up his M-16. Nickelson was incredulous. “Fuck you,” he said. An argument broke out at the edge of the smoking village. Nickelson refused to carry a rifle that did not work. Other Marines intervened. Hotel Company had enough problems. A compromise was reached—he would carry an M79 grenade launcher. Someone produced his new weapon. The Marine who had carried it had been shot; it was available for anyone else’s use. Nickelson slung it and walked into Ap Sieu Quan.
- Highlight on Page 373 , Loc. 5719-25 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:40 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
By the time helicopters flew back to the USS Tripoli on July 26, the mood in Hotel Company was dark. The company’s executive officer, Lieutenant Chervenak, had queried each platoon in Ap Sieu Quan and learned that forty rifles had jammed during the battle. Forty rifles. Roughly a quarter of the company had been under fire and unable to fight back. The officers in other companies in Second Battalion, Third Marines told him of similar problems in their own firefights during Operation Bear Chain.
- Highlight on Page 374 , Loc. 5728-32 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:40 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The Corps’ reaction similarly stumped him. The Marine Corps had not been interested in the M-16 throughout the early 1960s.75 But once the Pentagon took its decision, the Corps’ generals adopted the Beltway stance. A din of complaints about M-16 jamming had risen from the ranks. The generals’ replies mixed paternalistic denials that the M-16 was failing with strong defenses of the weapon’s merits. The senior officers followed the army’s pattern: They blamed the troops for the weapons’ problems. At a press conference in Da Nang just after the battles for Hills 861 and 881, one highly decorated commander, Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt of the Third Marine Amphibious Force, delivered a classic performance of an officer who has lost touch with his men. First he declared that the Marines in his command were “100 percent sold” on the M-16. Most of those who had relied on the weapon in battle, he added, “have nothing but praise for it.” This can be read only as a lie. General Walt pressed on. He put blame for malfunctions squarely upon individual Marines and their officers and noncommissioned officers, saying they either had not adequately maintained their rifles or had tried to force too many rounds into their magazines. This was a slap at the men at war. In a booming slip of the tongue, General Walt added that “rumors” of unsatisfactory M-16 performance were started “by a very, very small majority.”76 Not long after the press conference, General Walt was reassigned to Washington and elevated to the post of the Corps’ assistant commandant. In July, the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Greene, repeated General Walt’s position, calling the M-16 “ideally suited” for the jungle warfare of Vietnam. The brass had set a tone. With the generals standing behind the M-16, complaints had little chance of finding a supporting audience. The young Marines in Vietnam were on their own.
- Highlight on Page 375 , Loc. 5744-58 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:42 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
One officer responsible for the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division’s public statements described an official prohibition against mentioning M-16 malfunctions. This was a subject not to be broached in any army comments or in conversations with journalists, along with other topics officially deemed too unsettling for the public’s ears: “the defeat of U.S. units,” “B-52 and other bombing errors,” “female VC,” “very young VC,” and the “use of flamethrowers, hand-held or track-mounted.” MACV31 told all information officers prior to my arrival that the M16 was not a topic for discussion. Newsmen were not to question soldiers about the weapon. No stories about the rifle jamming or malfunctioning were to be written. This was done despite the fact that many GIs hated the M16, felt they couldn’t trust it. And until an order stopped the procedure, carried their own weapons instead: carbines, 45 caliber grease guns, rifles sent from home, captured AK47s, et cetera.
- Highlight on Page 376 , Loc. 5759-66 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:42 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
I am a Marine First Lieutenant and have been serving in a rifle company in Vietnam since the 15th of May. Ever since my arrival, immediately following the battle of hill 881, one controversy has loomed above all others—that of the M-16 rifle. I feel that is my duty and responsibility to report the truth about this rifle as I have seen it. My conscience will not let me rest any longer. The idea of a lightweight automatic weapon is a fine idea and I do not categorically reject the M-16 rifle as being useless. I do believe, however, that there is a basic mechanical deficiency within the weapon which causes a failure to extract. This failure to extract a spent casing from the chamber allows another round to be fed in behind the unextracted casing causing the rifle to jam. When this occurs, a cleaning and rod and precious seconds are needed to clear the weapon. A marine in a firefight does not have those precious seconds. We are constantly told that improper cleaning and unfamiliarity with the weapon cause any malfunction which may occur. Any rifle that requires cleaning to the degree they speak of has no place as a combat weapon. I believe that the cold, hard facts about the M-16 are clouded over by a fabrication of the truth for political and financial considerations. I have seen too many marines hiding behind a paddy dike trying to clear their rifle to accept those explanations any longer. Our battalion has test fired these rifles on numerous occasions, aboard the ship and in the field, to try to find a solution to this problem. All rifles were cleaned and inspected prior to these tests. Having supervised several of these tests, I will swear to the fact that at least 25 to 40% of the rifles malfunctioned at least once under these optimum conditions.
- Highlight on Page 378 , Loc. 5785-99 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:44 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
During a recent fight on the 21st of July, no fewer than 40 men in my company reported to me that their rifles had malfunctioned because of failure to extract. Because of these inoperative rifles we were severely hampered in our efforts to extract a platoon which had been pinned down. Lack of sufficient firepower also caused us great difficulty in getting our casualties out. Having 40 rifles malfunction in any rifle company is a serious matter, and in an understrengthened company such as ours, the gravity of the situation is greatly increased. This problem is increasing in its seriousness and I know that is a major morale problem in the company. Unfortunately, all our complaints and the results of our tests never seem to reach willing ears. I do not mean for this letter to slap at my battalion, the Marine Corps, the Colt Manufacturing Company, the Defense Department or anyone else concerned. It is written out of concern for the safety of the men in my company and of the great morale problem that the M-16 causes. I will stand and stake my reputation on the fact that we have had men wounded and perhaps killed because of inoperative rifles. The men in my company have absolutely no confidence in the weapon they carry, and yet, they will be asked to go on another operation in the very near future carrying this very same weapon. Word will come down from higher up, however, stating that no one will take a negative attitude about the M-16, nor will they speak of the weapon in a derogatory manner to any newsman.
- Highlight on Page 379 , Loc. 5799-5810 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:44 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
I can only hope that men such as yourself, who are in a position to do something, WILL do something. The search for the truth is paramount in all of us and I ask you to look into this problem and search for the truth there. I will stand behind every word that I have written. I think that this problem has been overlooked too long and too many attempts have been made to gloss over a situation that endangers the lives of men.79
- Highlight on Page 379 , Loc. 5811-14 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:45 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
In all of the available records surrounding the bloody introduction of the M-16 to American military service, this stands as one of the few brave and candidly honest acts. The officers behind Project AGILE had produced a report no follow-up studies could support. General Johnson had quietly ordered the rifle into service knowing that it was unreliable. Colonel Hallock and Colonel Yount had enforced a hush about the M-16’s many performance problems, even while agreeing that the weapons’ failures were getting American soldiers killed. Officials at Colt’s were insisting in public that the weapon worked well while they reviewed internal reports that said it did not. It fell to a twenty-three-year-old Marine lieutenant, his unit thinned by casualties while their rifles jammed, to stake his name on the truth.
- Highlight on Page 380 , Loc. 5821-27 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:49 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
A pair of Marines had swung far to the left during the firefight. They dashed through vegetation and surprised the guerrillas at close range. But as the Marine opened fire his M-16 seized up. One round did not extract and the rifle tried to feed a round in behind it, leaving the Marine with a jam that would take many seconds, even minutes, to clear. He was helpless. The Viet Cong turned and killed him. After recovering the Marine’s body and the jammed rifle, Lieutenant Chritton allowed his fury to guide him. He and other Marines carried the dead Marine and his rifle to the battalion command post and entered the tent to confront the battalion commander with the facts. The commander and the executive officer pulled the lieutenant aside, away from the Marine’s corpse. The executive officer produced a camera, placed the jammed rifle on a table, and made a series of photographs. “We’ll take care of this,” the commander told him. But nothing had come of it, and soon Lieutenant Chritton’s dream started to follow him through his nights. In it, he was home in the United States, and he had kidnapped the president of Colt’s and forced him to admit that Colt’s was knowingly selling bad rifles to the government. Lieutenant Chritton was hardly the irrational sort. He certainly was no criminal. He left the Marine Corps and went on to a long civilian career as a lawyer. The dream stayed with him for his remaining months in Vietnam, and it visited him intermittently after he returned home to the United States.
- Highlight on Page 381 , Loc. 5838-48 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:50 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Back in Washington, Representative Ichord’s subcommittee ground toward its conclusion. The army had stonewalled the congressmen in many ways as they held hearings and lobbed correspondence back and forth with the Pentagon. Important witnesses were never produced. (Colonel Hallock, the supervisor of Project AGILE who later proposed and enforced a cover-up, avoided scrutiny. On May 31, as complaints from Vietnam reached high pitch, he retired.)
- Highlight on Page 382 , Loc. 5849-52 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:51 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Representative William G. Bray, a Republican from Indiana and a subcommittee member, called the collusion “one of the most incredible and inexcusable exercises in duplicity I have ever seen.”85
- Highlight on Page 383 , Loc. 5862-64 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:52 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Twelve days after the release of Ichord’s report, on October 29, the Washington Post, the newspaper of the nation’s political class, published Lieutenant Chervenak’s letter.86 His words had an instant effect. The Marine Corps opened an investigation—not into the causes of the rifle’s failures or the slow reaction by the chain of command to troops’ complaints, but into the officer who dared to write to the Washington Post. General Greene personally called the battalion, looking for Lieutenant Chervenak. By chance the lieutenant was on a rest period in Japan. The brass could not find him. An investigating officer was assigned and canvassed Marines in the battalion, taking sworn statements. He could establish no real wrongdoing. Telling the truth was not legally forbidden, it was just discouraged to tell the truth this way. The offense was a matter of protocol, not of law. When Lieutenant Chervenak returned, the battalion executive officer presented him a letter of reprimand for failure to follow proper channels.87 Lieutenant Chervenak was unmoved. He listened politely. When the major handed the letter to him he did not bother to read it. He was not by nature a troublemaker. But he knew that given the same circumstances, he would do the same thing again.
- Highlight on Page 384 , Loc. 5874-84 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:54 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Marine Corps began facing facts it had ignored. On December 3, a pair of representatives from Colt’s and the Marine Corps caught up with the battalion at a base outside Da Nang. They had been ordered to follow up on the lieutenant’s allegations. Marines gathered in the theater for a presentation, at which the Marine Corps representative, a warrant officer, opened with the familiar lines. He told his audience that the M-16 was a good rifle and if it was failing it was because they were not cleaning it adequately. The Marines shouted and jeered. A near riot ensued. The battalion commander demanded order and quiet. The representative from Colt’s, Kanemitsu Ito, was so shaken he dared not take notes.
- Highlight on Page 384 , Loc. 5886-91 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:55 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
As the Marines filed past to show him rifles that had failed them, he worried that the troops might label him a profiteer as he and the warrant officer condemned pitted rifles. After all, he thought, every rifle to be replaced might be seen as another sale for Colt’s. He decided to let the warrant officer do most of the talking. Quietly, out of the center of attention, he watched. That night, emotionally and physically exhausted, Ito typed a letter and sent it back to Colt’s. He had important news to share. What Lieutenant Chervenak had written to the Washington Post was not quite right. Matters were actually much worse. I walked into a den of angry, feroucious [sic] lions when I visited the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marines. It was really a touchy situation. I would never ask anyone else to be in the situation I was in. The officers and a great majority of the men hated the M-16A1 rifles. They had a right to hate it. The chambers of the rifles were so badly pitted that the only thing they could use the rifles were for a club.89
- Highlight on Page 385 , Loc. 5895-5902 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:56 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The examination of 445 rifles found that many had “chambers that looked like the surface of the moon”; 286 rifles were immediately condemned as unfit for combat use. Ito understood how serious this was. He sought as much information as he could get. He looked for Lieutenant Chervenak, but by then the lieutenant had been reassigned out of Hotel Company, and Ito could not find him. Ito read a copy of the battalion’s investigation and discovered it contained ninety-six sworn statements from Marines who agreed with the lieutenant’s letter. If this were not enough, in Hotel Company, where Lieutenant Chervenak had written of 40 jammed rifles, his letter was more than vindicated: 67 of the company’s 85 rifles were so pitted that the warrant officer and Ito replaced them on the spot. And the charge that Marines had not been cleaning their rifles could find no traction here. The company commander during Operation Bear Chain, Captain Culver, had been a member of the Marine Corps’ Rifle Team—a bunch of crack shots. Captain Culver was almost religious about forcing his Marines to clean their weapons. To him, any suggestion otherwise was a personal insult.
- Highlight on Page 385 , Loc. 5903-11 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:56 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
- Bookmark on Page 386 , Loc. 5911 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:56 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
- Bookmark on Page 386 , Loc. 5917 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:57 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Ito saw the problems for what they were. His correspondence to Colt’s did nothing to sugarcoat them. But he was in a difficult position. Colt’s had wanted him to distribute surveys about the rifle. A lockdown was in place. The questionnaires are out of the question. The M-16 rifle is a very hot topic over here. They don’t want any names or units put on paper. I have been asked not to put anything down on paper. Unit COs [commanding officers] and staff officers forbid the use of the questionnaires. I go into the field armed (would you believe) with an M-16 rifle, when I can get one. Everything that I inspect and see, I must keep in my head until I can get to a place to write it down.91
- Highlight on Page 386 , Loc. 5917-22 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:57 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Every time I think that I am tired, I do these things. As I said I have a lot of guts. I wished that others had the guts to look at things I see or ask questions. Some had reasons to hate me yet they like me because I am helping—a few don’t really know. I don’t know what to say to them—there are people with no arms, legs, faces and the rest. These are some of the places I go to find the information I need. I go every place, but I sure wouldn’t ask anyone else to do it.… . . . It is difficult working 18–20 hours a day—7 days a week. Any time I am tired I go back to the 24th, 93rd Evac or the 3rd Field Hospitals.
- Highlight on Page 387 , Loc. 5930-35 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:58 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Even as late as summer 1967, while complaints of jamming rose to a roar, Colt’s executives had been briefing journalists as if nothing were wrong. They told the executive editor of Popular Mechanics that they had received “no official complaints from their customer—the Department of Defense.”
- Highlight on Page 388 , Loc. 5937-39 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:58 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
In the end, Kanemitsu Ito was a midlevel engineer. He could describe what he had seen. He could share what he knew. But Benke, the man who ran Colt’s Firearms Division, would get the last word. Benke interjected. He told the military officers present that “the observations were based on very brief contact, hearsay, and single pieces of evidence, and that final conclusions would require added review and investigation.”95 By this time, Benke had been receiving frank, descriptive accounts of M-16 failures from his teams in Vietnam for more than a year. The accounts had come from multiple engineers—from Fremont, Hall, Behrendt, and others—and from multiple trips. Each of his company sources had relayed the remarks and experiences of many soldiers. Ito was neither treading new ground nor trafficking in rumor. He was sharing carefully observed details consistent with what others had seen and said. In November 1966, Benke had received a memo from another Colt’s engineer, which summarized “discussions with one brigade commander, four battalion commanders and many other field and company grade officers.” The memo specified “changes and things which should be expedited,” including chrome-plating the bore and chamber, installing new buffers, and applying a better protective finish. More than a year had passed. Thousands of troops in Vietnam still had rifles without these improvements. They continued to suffer malfunctions.
- Highlight on Page 388 , Loc. 5946-56 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 11:59 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
More than forty years later, Paul Benke disagreed with any reading of the record that suggests that Colt’s was not forthright and conscientious, or sold the Pentagon rifles unfit for combat duty in Vietnam. The M-16 rifle program suffered from problems, he said, but these problems were related to interservice rivalries, inadequate troop training, and bureaucratic opposition to the rifle within military circles. The problems with the rifle’s reputation were exacerbated, he said, by the fact that he was opposed to the American involvement in Vietnam.
- Highlight on Page 389 , Loc. 5957-61 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:00 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
When provided a copy of Ito’s correspondence and of the memorandum of record from the meeting he attended with Ito in the Pentagon in December 1967, he said, “We never ever ever tried to hide anything.” Their only concern, he said, was that soldiers have the best possible rifle.96
- Highlight on Page 390 , Loc. 5968-70 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:01 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
In the matter of a rifle, the defending American troops, after several years in Vietnam, still did not have a fully reliable firepower match. Matters were more dire for the Americans’ Vietnamese allies, who often were armed with surplus weapons from World War II. One of the senior South Vietnamese officers, Lieutenant General Dong Van Khuyen, lamented his soldiers’ predicament against the better-armed foe. “During the enemy Tet offensive of 1968 the crisp, rattling sounds of the AK-47s echoing in Saigon and some other cities,” he said, “seemed to make a mockery of the weaker, single shots of Garands and carbines fired by stupefied friendly troops.”97
- Highlight on Page 390 , Loc. 5973-77 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:01 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Such was the state of resignation. The M-16, which at the start of the war had been a symbol of innovation and technical promise, had become instead a symbol of the mix-ups of war, and of a dishonest Pentagon and a manufacturer with which it worked. As public opinion on the war shifted, America’s undependable rifle became another element of disaffection, a symbol of failure for a military that had won World War II and for a nation that believed its industry was among the best in the world.
- Highlight on Page 392 , Loc. 6003-6 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:05 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The M-16 sure is a marvelous gun, and in a god-awful war it provides some keen fun. The bullet it fires appears too small to harm but it makes a big hole and can tear off an arm. Single shot, semi, or full automatic, a real awesome weapon, ’tho in performance sporadic. But listen to Ichord and forget that stuck bolt, for you aren’t as important as a kickback from Colt. So carry your rifle (they don’t give a damn), just pray you won’t need it while you’re in Vietnam. The M-16 is issue, though we all feel trapped. More GIs would protest, but somehow they got zapped.102
- Highlight on Page 392 , Loc. 6007-14 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:05 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
In autumn 1968, Ito was back in Vietnam, where he and another Colt’s field representative toured military units around Saigon. They found that many magazines did not seat well on the weapons, which caused M-16s to fail to feed when fired on automatic. They found problems with the selector switch, which was often difficult to turn. And, even after all of the changes, they found that “quite a few rifles are rusting or corroding,” especially around the selector switch. In a tape sent back to Colt’s offices, Ito said that “damaged or poor functioning parts were noted in rifles which were only in use for two months maximum.”100
- Highlight on Page 391 , Loc. 5992-96 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:06 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Several months after the fight for Ap Sieu Quan, Staff Sergeant Elrod was reassigned from Hotel Company’s First Platoon to become the battalion’s intelligence chief, and was meritoriously promoted, to the rank of gunnery sergeant. The battalion continued to operate against the NVA in the provinces just south of North Vietnam. Throughout this time, he refused to carry an M-16.
- Highlight on Page 393 , Loc. 6015-18 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:07 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
One day in spring 1968, after a skirmish in a gully near Khe Sanh, Gunnery Sergeant Elrod found an AK-47 beside a dead North Vietnamese soldier. The rifle was in excellent condition. He claimed it as his own, along with several magazines. This was not a trophy. It was a tool. Now he had an assault rifle he could depend on. The AK-47 did not solve all his problems. It solved one problem but replaced it with another. There was a special danger related to carrying the enemy’s weapon: The M-16 and the AK-47 have distinctly different sounds, and whenever Gunnery Sergeant Elrod fired his new weapon, he risked drawing fire from other Marines. He considered this less of a risk than carrying a rifle that might not fire at all.
- Highlight on Page 393 , Loc. 6020-25 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:09 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
A few weeks later, Gunnery Sergeant Elrod was walking across a forward operating base near Khe Sanh with his AK-47 slung across his back. A lieutenant colonel stopped him. “Gunny, why the hell are you carrying that?” he asked. “Because it works,” Gunnery Sergeant Elrod replied. “It’s going to get you killed,” the colonel said. Gunnery Sergeant Elrod knew something about how Marines were getting killed. In his experience, this was not one of the ways. “Sir,” he said. “My Marines know what my weapon sounds like. And it works.”
- Highlight on Page 393 , Loc. 6025-31 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:09 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
And that was the basic position from which any discussion about automatic rifles began and ended.
- Highlight on Page 394 , Loc. 6031-32 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:09 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
available data, compiled in the database of the Wound Data and Munitions Effectiveness Team, or WDMET, showed that 51 percent of American combat fatalities in Vietnam during the period under study were caused by small arms, 36 percent by fragmentation munitions, and 11 percent by mines and booby traps. From Ronald F. Bellamy and Russ Zajtchuk, Textbook of Military Medicine. Part I. Warfare, Weaponry and the Casualty. Conventional Warfare: Ballistic, Blast and Burn Injuries, Chapter 2, Assessing the Effectiveness of Conventional Weapons (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General, 1989), p. 65.
- Highlight on Page 394 , Loc. 6039-43 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:10 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
weight. v Under the license sale arrangement, MacDonald would receive a cut of both Fairchild’fs and Colt’fs future receipts. This included a 1 percent commission from Colt’fs for the selling price of every rifle sold, and 10 percent of Fairchild royalties, some of which were calculated on a sliding scale. For sales to military customers, the combined formula guaranteed him 1.225 percent. These were considerable incentives for MacDonald to try to have the AR.15 adopted by the American military. (For a detailed review of the license deal, see ’How a Lone Inventor’fs Idea Took Fire,’h Business Week, July 6, 1968.)
- Highlight on Page 395 , Loc. 6048-52 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:12 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
embarrassment had grounds beyond the origins of the cadavers used. The twenty-seven severed heads were ultimately subjected to tests of little apparent value. And there are hints in the report of a lapse of scientific judgment that cast doubts on the value of the entire study. According to the report, Dziemian and Olivier used AR-15 ammunition different from the ammunition the American military used in Vietnam. Throughout the war, American troops would use a metal-jacketed round, just as the military had been using in other cartridges throughout the century. But in the Biophysics Division’s test in 1962, the cartridges were described by Dziemian and Olivier as propelling ’bullets with a lead core and no metal jackets.’h These rounds could be expected to create wounds of a much different nature from those made by military ammunition, and their use in the tests risked undermining judgment about the relative lethality of the tested weapons. But there is a hurdle to knowing with certainty what really occurred: the secrecy and cover-up of the work. Was the reference a clerical error? The photographs of the ammunition released to the author by the United States government were low-quality digital scans and provided no help in determining the bullets’ composition. Ultimately, it is not possible to tell from the records released to date. The study’fs final report did have other clerical errors, so it remains possible that this, too, was a clerical error. This was one of the pitfalls of secret tests, which were subject neither to peer review nor to public scrutiny. Both research lapses and editorial lapses could pass, and did pass, unchallenged.
- Highlight on Page 395 , Loc. 6053-64 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:13 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Thomas L. McNaugher, in his rigorous 1984 study, The M16 Controversies: Military Organizations and Weapons Acquisition, emphasized maintenance and noted that by 1970 the rifle was widely considered reliable. The most likely cause for most of the reported problems, based on the records now available, and the accounts of veterans, would seem to be corrosion in the rifles’f chambers. This was caused in some cases by cleaning habits in the wet climate of Vietnam, but from a manufacturing perspective was related more strongly to the failure of the army and Colt’fs to chrome-plate the chambers of all M.16s leaving Hartford until late in 1968. Another likely factor contributing to the failures to extract, though as far as is publicly known the army never conducted extensive tests of the cartridge cases from 1966 to 1968, was that the ammunition cases were too soft and expanded under the pressures of firing, lodging into pitting and tool marks in the chamber.
- Highlight on Page 396 , Loc. 6070-76 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:14 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Rifle cleaning habits were in all likelihood much less of a factor, considering that the same troops, when using M-14s in the same environments, reported few reliability problems.
- Highlight on Page 397 , Loc. 6077-78 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:14 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The West German government, eager to exorcise the memories of Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin in 1936, had chosen a low-key police posture: an unarmed security staff, unimposing barriers, a climate of trust and accommodation rather than suspicion and control. The organizers had dubbed the competition “The Carefree Games.” Like this motto, the public-relations ambition was unsubtle. The XX Olympiad was to be a global affirmation of Bavaria reborn, and a declaration of decency for a nation that had returned from fascism to the civilized world. The men in the track suits were members of the Black September terrorist organization, a recently assembled cell directed to exploit the Games’ officially friendly atmosphere.
- Highlight on Page 398 , Loc. 6100-6105 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:17 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
cook.1 Afif had patiently watched this same section of fence the night before and observed athletes returning from parties outside. The athletes had scaled the barrier, dropped into the compound, and continued toward their apartments. No guard had stopped them. They passed unchallenged into the secure zone. Afif decided that his cell would imitate this behavior. The killers would masquerade as athletes coming home.
- Highlight on Page 399 , Loc. 6107-10 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:18 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
One operating tenet of Black September was its almost airtight secrecy. Even now, as they moved toward their crimes, six of the terrorists—Palestinians from refugee camps who had been trained in Libya—did not know what they had been ordered to Munich to do. Afif briefed them in a restaurant. They were to seize members of the Israeli delegation from their beds and then leverage their lives in a hostage siege.
- Highlight on Page 399 , Loc. 6118-21 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:19 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
At about 3:30 A.M. the men stepped into taxis and were driven toward the section of fence Afif had selected. They arrived unmolested and met a group of Americans headed inside at the same time. The two teams—the athletes and the terrorists—helped each other over the top, gym bags and all.4
- Highlight on Page 400 , Loc. 6128-31 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:20 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The processes that completed the Kalashnikov assault rifle’s march out of communist garrisons were not random. They resulted from deliberate socialist arms-manufacturing, stockpiling, and transfer practices, followed by many means of distribution—some legal, some not—that followed.
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The transfers of assault rifles to Arab governments were scarcely remarked upon as they occurred. Diplomats and commentators concentrated on Soviet military hardware thought to be more menacing—the artillery, tanks, armored personnel carriers, radar systems, missiles, and aircraft that might change the regional security equation. Rifles were just rifles. Who worried over a weapon with a range of a few hundred meters, which injured its victims bullet by bullet, when a neighboring state was updating its jet fighters and main battle tanks? What was lost to the security experts of the era was a process more dangerous than the introduction to the region of larger-ticket conventional arms: the prodigious migration of the rifle from state garrisons to those bent on unconventional war and crime.
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The movements represented a mix of nationalist, religious, and ethnic ambitions, and were organized by leaders willing to exploit arming opportunities made available by the Cold War.
- Highlight on Page 403 , Loc. 6165-66 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:24 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Two phenomena paired to ensure this outcome. One was a socialist behavior: stockpiling, a behavior linked to the excessive rifle production in planned economies. The second was a capitalist axiom: the unrelenting energy of markets. Once excess socialist assault rifles existed, market forces ensured that they moved.
- Highlight on Page 403 , Loc. 6168-71 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:28 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Decades of arms-manufacturing policies in the planned economies of the Eastern bloc had led, by the 1970s, to a material consequence: surpluses of arms without apparent use. The full extent of the Eastern bloc stockpiling is unknown. No thorough historical record has ever been assembled. Nor is it possible for a complete and accurate record to be made. All of the factors related to the socialist arms industry and the associated forms of trade—the conventions of state secrecy, the volume of production over time, administrative incompetence, personnel turnover, pervasive corruption, and other forms of criminal activity—worked to prevent accountability.
- Highlight on Page 403 , Loc. 6176-80 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:29 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
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A different set of circumstances filled the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic with arms. Throughout the Cold War, the German drive across Slavic soil in the Great Patriotic War was both a fresh memory and a core narrative in Soviet national identity. The Kremlin considered Ukraine a buffer in the event of another conventional war with the West. As Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces arrayed along the borders of the capitalist world, Ukraine was prepared as a second defensive line. Huge stockpiles were cached on its territory, ready to be issued in any number of desperate scenarios. The most spectacular of the storage sites was in Artemovsk, in eastern Ukraine, near the border with Russia. Artemovsk lies in a region atop geological deposits of salt, and when the Soviet army sought a place to hide a reserve of conventional arms, the mines—out of sight of American spy planes—seemed ideal. More than 150 meters belowground, in man-made caverns from which miners had carted away salt, the army sequestered surpluses. The mines became a repository of small-arms firepower on a scale unknown in the West. The tunnels were filled with caches within caches, a layering of small arms reflecting generations of European war. Within them were weapons reaching to World War I, along with arms captured from the Third Reich or donated to the Red Army by the United States during the Lend-Lease program of World War II. Added to these were Soviet arms that the Red Army had used to fight the Wehrmacht, but subsequently replaced.
- Highlight on Page 405 , Loc. 6199-6210 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12:56 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The Artemovsk arsenal was an armory and a warren, a storage network mapped out by logisticians in which crates of weapons were separated by type and stacked toward ceilings, in places ten meters or more high. Electric cables and lights ran along the walls, keeping the place in a dim artificial glow. Beneath this maze and monument to Cold War thinking, farther below the earth, miners continued to extract salt. The depot was sealed off, separated by heavy doors and airlocks, the entrances watched by guards.8 In all, the caves held some 3 million guns.
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Mikhail Kalashnikov had a new role. He was a tour guide. Early in the 1960s, before deposing his mentor, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid I. Brezhnev visited Izhevsk as part of his duties as chairman of the Supreme Soviet, the union’s legislature. Brezhnev was in his midfifties, dark-haired and emanating the insider confidence of a politician on the rise. Kalashnikov, ever capable of befriending and performing for power, was eager to escort the chairman on his rounds. In the Soviet Union, important decisions rested within few hands. Brezhnev was a potential patron, a man to be solicited, to be known to, no matter what.
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The exchanges pointed to the perils of the Kremlin’s governing style. A small-arms research-and-development center was a cog in the national security apparatus. Arguably it was an important cog. It was not of sufficient importance for its status to require a decision of the head of state. But the concentration of power in few hands meant an endless scrum for access and favor, and involved the most senior officials in matters better handled by ministries and staff. It also colored the way midlevel bureaucrats acted and thought.
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As Brezhnev’s power and stature were rising, the assault rifles being assembled in secret in East Germany had found their way to border guard detachments at the boundary with West Germany. The new knockoff was starting to replace the PPSh submachine guns that had been carried by the government’s border guards since the units had formed. The guards stood grim duty. In 1961, the East German government had begun construction of what it called the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall, another milestone in doublespeak, considering that the purpose of the wall was not to keep Germans from the west from entering the east, but to stop the flow of émigrés fleeing the oppression and stagnation of the socialist side.
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The killing of Fechter also fit the use of the assault rifle for which Mikhail Kalashnikov had been rewarded: “reinforcing the power of the state.” Here was the real Kalashnikov, 1962, propaganda peeled away.10
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The challenge to Kremlin hegemony was less confrontational than the uprising in Hungary twelve years before. But it was a threat. Its nickname, Prague Spring, suggested it was only a start.
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After Farouk was deposed in 1952, in part because of Egypt’s military failures, the Egyptians lent the fedayeen more support. Unconventional war and sabotage proliferated as other Middle Eastern governments and the Palestinian diaspora followed the Egyptian example. Unable to defeat Israel by conventional means, they maintained pressure in other lethal ways, while seeking a measure of deniability.
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Soviet arms designers had watched the American rollout of the M-16 and had examined captured specimens from Vietnam. They had not been favorably impressed with Colt’s rifle. (Kalashnikov himself called it “freakish,” “prankish,” and “capricious,” and something that American soldiers “threw away.”)14 The M-16’s ammunition was another matter. It demanded attention. By the early 1970s, within five years of the M-16’s designation as the United States’ standard military rifle, the Soviet army was at work on its own small-caliber, high-velocity round: the 5.45-millimeter cartridge.
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By the 1970s, the Eastern bloc arms stores were proving to be of limited Cold War use, and the risks of the stockpiles and of greater assault-rifle distribution were becoming discernible. The war the rifles were to help the Kremlin win was not fought by the means the stockpilers had planned, and the armories stood as powerful attractants for all manner of opportunists.
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The gun-running business was often quiet and opaque, but one private dealer of the era, Samuel Cummings, an American who decamped for Europe and made his fortune brokering deals, granted moments of transparency. In the mid-1970s, Cummings, by then a minor tycoon, offered a tour to a British journalist of part of his arsenal, and explained how small arms move liquidly from fight to fight. Here, he points out, is a stack of American Garand rifles which were first exported to Germany in the ’fifties for the first German rearmament. When Germany got more advanced weapons they were transported to Jordan in the late ’sixties, and when Jordan got more advanced weapons they were bought by Cummings and shipped to Manchester. From there many of them were shipped to the Philippines, to help fight Moslem rebels financed by Libya, while a few remain in Manchester waiting for customers. Here, just next door to the Garands, are some British Enfield rifles which were captured by the Japanese in Indo-China, then taken over by the Americans and used in Vietnam, before they were bought by Cummings. Here are some Springfield rifles which were first supplied to the French in Indo-China in the ’fifties. Here are Mausers which were brought over to Taiwan by General Chiang Kai-shek when he left the mainland in 1949. Over there are German ME42 guns which were left by Hitler’s troops in Greece, Swedish guns made under license in Egypt and captured by the Israelis, British Sten guns dropped by parachute during the Second World War for the French Maquis, American Brownings for the Dominican Republic, Belgian Mausers from Venezuela, American M16s from the Chilean Army. . . . Cummings knows that his arsenals depend for their stocks on the aftermath of wars.
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Cummings, in one of his signature one-liners, declared the flow of arms “an index of the world’s folly.”
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the durable nature of demand in a world in which the next local struggle was always about to start somewhere, and in which whenever one combatant adopted a new rifle its opponents wanted upgrades, too. There were almost always customers—if the price was right, the supply could be found, and weapons unneeded in one place could be married with a purchaser someplace else.
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If, as Cummings implied, today’s arsenals depend on their stocks from the aftermath of yesterday’s wars, then the Cold War had provided the biggest boon of all.
- Highlight on Page 419 , Loc. 6423-24 , Added on Sunday, June 19, 2016, 01:22 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Tanzania’s army and a coalition of anti-Amin guerrilla groups invaded. Amin bolted. The disappearance of a commander in chief is never a good sign in a military government, and the Ugandan army took its cue from the boss. Officers and troops disappeared from many barracks. What happened next pointed to the risks ahead in Europe when communist nations crumbled from within. In the northeastern region of Moroto, Ugandan troops vacated their garrison, leaving behind an armory. Moroto was inhabited by the Karamojong tribe, traditional herders who roamed the countryside in search of water and forage for their livestock. Their region was formally Ugandan but never fully under Ugandan control, and as a seminomadic people, many Karamojong saw themselves as unincorporated. They had paid for this perceived backwardness and disloyalty at the hands of Amin and his government. After the evaporation of the army at Moroto, local men looted the base and relieved it of weapons. This marked a consequential rearrangement.
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violence begets violence
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The introduction of Kalashnikovs to the Karomojong multiplied their firepower by a much larger factor than had the introduction of AK-47s to Soviet infantry squads, because the rustlers were not graduating from rifles and submachine guns. They were moving up from spears. In the ensuing years, traditional Karamojong power arrangements eroded, and the elderly leaders were supplanted by younger men leading bands of rustlers equipped with assault rifles. Warlords became a force. Karamojong raiding parties set upon their neighbors and claimed herds owned by the Iteso and Acholi people.
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Government efforts to control the Karamajong proved insufficient. Upheavals in Rwanda and Congo, and the eruption of an unrelated Acholi insurgency, brought more Kalashnikovs into the country. A local arms race matured. Attempts to restrict the flow of assault rifles were futile.
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By the 1980s, Mikhail Kalashnikov wanted to travel within the Warsaw Pact to observe the production of his rifles elsewhere. He mentioned this desire on a visit to Moscow to the office of Dmitri F. Ustinov, the Soviet minister of defense. Kalashnikov regarded Ustinov as a mentor and friend. The reaction was cold. He sensed his mistake. Hardly had I started to say that I wanted to see a weapons factory in Bulgaria, when Ustinov became gloomy and frowned. He said in a low voice: “Comrade Major.” I was in civvies as usual, but the minister’s tone made me want to rise from the armchair and stand at attention. It should be mentioned that this happened at precisely the time when the Americans had published an insulting story about “the Russian sergeant having armed the whole of the Warsaw Pact,” and they started rapidly raising my military rank. In the morning, I found out that I had been given the rank of senior lieutenant, and in the evening I was already a captain. Obviously, Ustinov personally monitored my “military career,” and that was the case when I found out that I had been made a Major. But that didn’t change anything. I felt a chill go down my spine when the minister said distinctly: “You have not said that. I have not heard you say that. Anything else?”24 Kalashnikov, for all his official achievements, lived within Soviet constraints, no matter that the series of arms carrying his name had entered the official national culture.
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And the preconscription training, the tests held for teenaged boys handling assault rifles as part of their school day, established this: Children, it turned out, could figure out the basics of the Kalashnikov at least as quickly as soldiers could.
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The pipeline was an open secret. To feed it, arms were purchased by the Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi Arabia, and wealthy Arabs, among other sources, and moved by containership to the port of Karachi, where they were received by officers of the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence service. From Karachi, most of the arms moved by rail to the Ojhri Camp in Rawalpindi, which became an ISI arms depot—a reservoir of arms and ammunition to be sent over the border. The items were sorted there and carried by truck to Peshawar and redirected again, often to warehouses of Afghan commanders and groups fighting inside Afghanistan. The commanders’ logisticians moved the arms to the border on their own fleets of trucks and passed them off to smaller camps, from where they sometimes moved by animal train. The system was slow. At any point after Karachi it could look mismanaged and vulnerable. Ammunition was piled high in Rawalpindi without adequate attention to safety (and in 1988 the Ojhri Camp depot exploded). The routes to the border were watched by Pakistani border guards and police officers who often extracted bribes. Afghan commanders diverted and resold weapons, redistributing them for cash. And inside Afghanistan, the Soviet army, while mostly road-bound, was actively searching for the pack trains. But the pipe was force-fed enough equipment in Karachi that arms and ammunition flowed out the other side, and the mujahideen were outfitted for war in remote terrain.29 It also proved nearly impervious to interdiction at large scale.
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I would liken our system to a tree. The roots represented the ships and aircraft bringing supplies from various countries to Pakistan. The trunk lay from Karachi almost to the border, at which point the many branches lay across the frontier. These branches divided into hundreds of smaller ones inside Afghanistan, taking the sap (arms and ammunition) to the leaves (the Mujahideen). Lop off a small branch, even a large one, and the tree survives, and in time others grow. Only severing the roots or trunk kills the tree. In our case only the branches were subject to attack.30
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When the researcher traced serial numbers, the discovery was startling. Of almost 3,000 captured M-16s, nearly 1,900 could be traced back to a previous owner. Of these, 1,239 had once been in the inventory of the United States military, including 973 rifles documented as having been in Vietnam. The American military had left them in Asia, where they had been collected—perhaps by a private broker like Cummings but more likely by the intelligence service of a communist government—and shipped back across the sea. Another nearly 600 of the guerrillas’ M-16s had been provided to the Salvadoran government as part of the American foreign military sales program and had leaked from government possession to the insurgency.31 In sum, the United States had armed its foes, indirectly but surely.
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The war echoed edicts of Mao: “Guerrillas must not depend too much on an armory. The enemy is the principal source of their supply.”32
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The insurgents’ arms-procurement arrangements had progressed, from rifles abandoned by capitalist enemies in Cuba and Vietnam, to interlocking and complementary socialist sources. The socialist system of export had matured. Kalashnikov assembly lines—created under the auspices of defending the Soviet Union and ensuring arms standardization for conventional communist forces—had developed into a supply network for insurgency in the Americas.
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In early 1989, the formerly banned trade union, Solidarność, exacted a commitment from Poland’s communist government to hold elections, which it won overwhelmingly in June, creating an irreparable crack. Events accelerated. Czechoslovakia held its Velvet Revolution in November 1989; the Berlin Wall fell the same month. Romanians revolted in December. Hungary held free elections in spring 1990, and Bulgaria in June. Ukraine declared its independence that July, followed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. Georgia and the Central Asian republics announced their independence the next year. Albania voted its communists from office in 1992.
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Fighting broke out between Azeris and Armenians in early 1988, igniting a six-year war. In 1991, Georgia attacked separatist South Ossetia, and Chechnya declared its independence from Russia, setting a course for a larger and more costly war that would see human-rights abuses by Russia and its proxy forces on a grand scale, and the separatists’ adoption of the tactics of terror. Yugoslavia was fracturing, heading into a series of ethnic wars. Civil war erupted in Tajikistan in 1992, the year fighting broke out in Transnistria, and between Georgia and the Abkhaz.
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Nearly a year passed before the West German Bundeswehr, the federal defense forces, assumed responsibility for East German arms stores. By then, the depots were no longer full—large numbers of weapons had drifted from state custody into the possession of collectors, criminals, and faraway rebel bands.
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In the early 1990s, Albania maintained a veneer of control over its postcommunist affairs. Appearances did not hold. Its leaders knew little of business, and beneath their assurances that an orderly transition from totalitarian bunker state to market economy was under way, the country’s economy was carried along by Ponzi schemes fronting as legitimate investments. A large fraction of the population poured savings into these traps. In 1996 the end came. The schemes ran dry. The funds defaulted. The population’s savings vanished. Panic came quickly as the pyramids collapsed. In 1997, public anger turned to rage. Rioting broke out early in the year, driven by popular fury at the government for not protecting the people from nationwide fraud. Citizens ransacked government buildings and turned on the army and the police. Just as had happened in Moroto in Uganda, crowds seized the state’s guns. The Kalashnikov factory at Gramsh was picked clean. Armed gangs formed, and in many regions anarchy prevailed.
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the government offered an assessment of what it had lost, the numbers were staggering: nearly seven hundred thousand firearms, 1.5 billion rounds of ammunition, more than 3 million hand grenades, and a million land mines. As much as 80 percent of the army’s small arms were missing. Researchers later claimed the official estimates were low.36 Some of these weapons were recovered through government offers of amnesty. Most were not. Many went north to the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, which at the time was listed by the State Department as a terrorist group. The next year, the KLA was fighting a war against Serbian troops.
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The remnants of the Soviet army lacked the organization, will, and resources to carry all its equipment. It did try to carry much of its weapons and ammunition. Many columns reached Russia. Others made it only to Ukraine, where their journey stopped. Ukraine, already a prestaged conventional arsenal, became an arms dump along the army’s road home, a nation where rail cars crammed with munitions were abandoned in the open air.
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After trying to count its inheritance, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claimed to own between 2.44 million and 3 million tons of ammunition in as many as 220 depots, and an estimated 7 million military small armsvii—roughly one hundred firearms for every soldier.
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Once the payments from Africa were posted in his offshore bank accounts, Minin dispatched planeloads of Ukraine’s weapons—made for the Cold War, cached in European bunkers, marooned by the Soviet collapse, and tended by government officials both incompetent and criminal—on their journey to Africa, thereby moving guns from a northern Cold War front to the postcolonial power struggles to the south.
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These were not ordinary thugs. The RUF, among its many crimes, specialized in mutilation. In raids on villages along the Liberian border, it captured civilians and amputated limbs by hacking them off. It then released survivors and burned down villages as warnings to others. Its leaders with time were indicted on war-crime charges, as was Charles Taylor, who helped ferry them their guns. Sierra Leone and Liberia were not the only African countries to suffer from war criminals emboldened by excess Soviet guns, nor were they the only African countries that suffered atrocities and mutilations at such men’s hands.
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acronym AK meant not just the Automatic by Kalashnikov. The letters stood for something more: the Africa Killer, the gun that helped sink country after country into fresh cycles of blood.
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The Lord’s Resistance Army, sinister and bizarre, descended from a mystical guerrilla movement founded by Alice Auma, a childless Acholi woman who by various accounts was either Kony’s aunt or his cousin. In 1985, Auma returned from a period of isolation on the banks of the Nile claiming to have been possessed by the spirit of an Italian army officer, whom she called Lakwena. Lakwena, she said, spoke dozens of languages. His name meant Word of God.
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Late in 1986 Alice announced that Lakwena had ordered her to organize a movement to overthrow the Ugandan government, which was led by Yoweri Museveni, a former guerrilla commander who had displaced a post-Amin Acholi president. At that, Alice Lakwena, a composite of personalities in the form of a young woman with no military experience, became as strange and underqualified a guerrilla leader as the world had known. Yet she found a following. Uganda was suffering, and the Acholi felt abused by Museveni. Her message of rejuvenation appealed.
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Rituals arose around Alice’s invocations. Before battle, the soldiers attended purification ceremonies and were rubbed with shea butter oil, which Alice said would render their skin bulletproof. Many Holy Spirit fighters did not carry rifles. Those who did, at least in the beginning, were ordered not to aim at their enemies, but to fire in the general direction and allow spirits to guide bullets toward flesh. Others believed that if they chose the right rocks, those rocks, when thrown, would explode like grenades. The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces were not a rational military organization. But their cultishness gave them an early power against their foes, some of whom believed Auma’s magic was real.
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occasional interviews with journalists, who documented her end as an exiled lush, hooked on gin, spiritless, vowing a return. Her homecoming was unnecessary. Joseph Kony replaced her as the possessed guerrilla leader of Acholiland. The new commander had learned what Auma had not. Kony did not ask his child soldiers to rest their faith on shea butter and stone grenades alone. He made sure to give them guns.
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Joseph Kony raised Alice Auma’s millennial weirdness several notches, blending her mystical persona with more practical ways to kill. He claimed to inherit her otherworldly contacts in 1987, when spirits took possession of him.
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In almost any other setting or any other time, Kony would have been marked down as a barking madman, a person to be walked wide around when encountered on the street. But Acholiland was rife with cross-border intrigues, and across Uganda’s northern line, in Sudan, Kony found support. Sudan was willing to arm him and the abducted children with whom he crossed out of Uganda, and to use the LRA to undermine a neighboring state.
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Assault rifles did more than amplify the war. They gave it stamina, a duration it otherwise could not have had. The children sensed this. “The Arabs gave Kony many weapons, and up to now that is how he has been able to resist,” said one former soldier. “Without the guns it would have just been sticks.”
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The population suffered from both sides. The Ugandan government forced rural Acholi residents into displaced-person camps, both to protect and to control them. The Acholi economy withered. Eventually, the government invested in heavy weapons to chase the child soldiers down. The use of Mi-24 helicopter gunships was decisive in pushing the brigades across Uganda’s borders.
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loudness and repetition are not truth, and these statements, echoed by journalists and arms-control advocates over the years, are best viewed with skepticism. The more realistic retail price range for a single automatic Kalashnikov in much of the developing world, depending on many factors (the rifle’s exact type, nation of manufacture, and condition, the local laws and security conditions at the time and point of sale, the experience of the purchaser) is on the order of several hundred dollars. In some conflicts, a thousand dollars is not rare. Prices climb when and where Kalashnikovs are difficult to obtain. In nations capable of enforcing the laws they pass, strict gun control can send prices soaring.
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Not just cash and barter have been used to acquire rifles; extortion has proven an effective means. In Chechnya, insurgents often gain rifles and ammunition through novel agreements. A local fighting cell will use middlemen to negotiate with Russian or pro-Russian Chechen units for truces. In exchange for not attacking a certain Russian position for a prescribed length of time, the insurgents exact a tax paid in armament—a rifle, a can of ammunition, perhaps a sack of grenades. Sometimes to close deals, they sweeten agreements by delivering vodka regularly to a government checkpoint or position. In this way, Russian units have arranged quiet tours.55 Such arrangements are mercurial, and similar pressures can be applied in the other direction and serve as a mechanism for disarmament. Russian units, when seeking to capture weapons, have set up roadblocks and impounded Chechen civilians’ cars and trucks. For each vehicle to be released, the soldiers tell the evicted drivers, the price is one Kalashnikov rifle, to be obtained as the vehicle’s owners see fit.56 In such situations, a rifle becomes very expensive—worth as much as a family’s automobile.
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Relatively new, the AKSU-74 had been carried in the Soviet-Afghan War by specialized soldiers, including helicopter and armor crews, for whom a smaller weapon was useful in the tight confines of their transit. For an Afghan fighter, possession of one of these rifles signified bravery and action. It implied that the holder had participated in destroying an armored vehicle or aircraft; the rifle was akin to a scalp. By choosing it, bin Laden silently signaled to his followers: I am authentic, even if his actual combat experience was not what his prop suggested.
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the United Nations had attempted a rough tally of the human costs to those in places where the rifles are used most. It found that small arms had been the principal weapons in forty-six of the forty-nine major conflicts in the 1990s, in which 4 million people died, roughly 90 percent of them civilians.
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Not youth, not will, not fitness, neither training nor hard-won knowledge could bring a man broken in this way back to what he had been, seconds before. Slogans and money meant nothing here and now. Even ideas were few. Karzan Mahmoud was not a cadaver. Not yet. He was a man who wanted to stand and feel the handle of a pistol wrapped within his shooting hand. He could not. Instead, he was fighting sleep.
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“My God helped me,” he said one night in Ottawa. “I like my God.” He had been helped, but not healed. He knew he never would be. And he found, when considering the rifle that had altered his body and diminished his life, that he wondered about Mikhail Kalashnikov, who lent his name to the weapon. He had a question for the man who proudly insisted he was the inventor of this device. “Why did you make this machine?” Mahmoud asked. “You don’t like living people? You are smart. Why not make something to help people, not make them dead?” Mahmoud was sipping tea, pinching the small warm glass with a mangled hand, furrowing his bullet-scarred brow. “Are you not afraid to see the judge?”
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Post-Soviet Russia developed around him into an extraction state, an exporter of hydrocarbons, lumber, minerals, and people. It manufactured few commercial products widely recognized or sought beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. In its lists of companies and exports, Russia had no Sony, Panasonic, or Samsung; no Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, or Nissan; no Vanguard, Lloyd’s of London, or Sotheby’s; no Gucci, Tag Heuer, or Cartier; no Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, or Kraft; no Nokia, Black-Berry, Apple, or Microsoft. Russian fashions were not coveted, Russian popular music was scarcely listened to outside the former Soviet Union. But Russia had invented one commercial product that had overtaken much of the world: the AK-47 line. The
- Highlight on Page 472 , Loc. 7228-33 , Added on Thursday, June 23, 2016, 03:00 AM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
Others detected his discomfort, his fatigue, and a sense that he was performing services scripted by others. He goes, frankly, as a bauble, a banquet boy in the rolling Russian hospitality suite, to lend the peddling of planes and tanks some historical gravitas. He helps get the checks written… it is a special torture custom-made for him in a special capitalist hell.86
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Americans like to think that everything that is best is “Made in USA” and they would like very much that the period after World War Two would pass under the sign of their achievements and that “according to the law of the markets their American products would fly like a swarm.” Unfortunately, everything was the opposite. The second half of the twentieth century is marked by the fact that the Americans could not feel themselves absolutely unpunished either in Cuba or in Korea or in Vietnam or in tens of other places, which they believed were their zone of vital interests. And everywhere it was the AK that had a sobering effect on them.94
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His zigzagging statements were unsurprising. He had lived a complicated life. With a complicated life came a complicated file—that of a survivor in a dystopia that first tormented his family, then championed him as a national hero. He presented a mass of ideas that cannot be squared.
- Highlight on Page 478 , Loc. 7318-20 , Added on Thursday, June 23, 2016, 10:37 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
The references to Galileo and the outbursts were significant. They underscored the most consistent qualities of Kalashnikov’s innumerable comments after the Communist Party’s fall: his pride of association with the AK-47 and his sense of extraordinary accomplishment. This was his real position.
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These positions made him much different from another renowned figure in Soviet arms design: Andrei D. Sakharov. Sakharov, one of the physicists who led the Soviet nuclear-arms program, had contributed to the successful detonation of RDS-1 outside Semipalatinsk in 1949 while Kalashnikov was involved in outfitting the gun works in Izhevsk. His later work was a cornerstone of the development of the hydrogen bomb. He was a giant in Soviet weapons programs, a three-time Hero of Socialist Labor—one of the rare Soviet men more decorated than Kalashnikov. By the mid-1960s, burdened by the moral responsibilities of his work, he urged an end to the arms race that had been the center of his professional and intellectual life. Sakharov dared to question the entire socialist world. In doing so he rejected its rewards and brought upon himself its wrath. He called for rapprochement with the West and the development of a pluralistic society rooted in human rights and free expression. The Soviet Union ordered him into internal exile and restricted his travels and his writing. In 1973, Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the KGB, who had been the Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the crackdowns in 1956, labeled him “a person involved in anti-social activity.”100 The world saw Sakharov differently. In 1975, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Mikhail Kalashnikov was no Sakharov.
- Highlight on Page 479 , Loc. 7338-48 , Added on Thursday, June 23, 2016, 10:40 PM The Gun (C. J. Chivers)
His memoirs touched difficult themes. “Arms makers have strange destinies!” he wrote. “They are saluted with shots they never expected, and it is not orations or music that remind one of jubilees but moans and screams.”101 These were hints at private pain. But almost always, after allowing such a tantalizing glimpse, he turned back to his fuller answers, the jumbled medley of a man whose name was attached to the world’s most common rifle, and a killing machine.
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they spread the weapon not because I wanted them to. Not at my choice. I made it to protect the Motherland. Then it was like a genie out of the bottle and began to walk on its own in directions that I did not want.
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museum, which struggled for years to raise money for its construction, provides a series of stories within a story. Kalashnikov derided the men who dismantled the Soviet Union and profited from the looting of state assets afterward. The museum in Izhevsk that is dedicated to him was built with donations from Anatoly B. Chubais, one of the main architects of the privatization of state assets, who profited handsomely in the process. The ironies only get richer. Chubais was nearly assassinated in 2005 by at least two men who ambushed his armored BMW on a road outside Moscow, spraying it with Kalashnikov fire.
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The United States has underwritten destruction programs. These have been small in ambition and scale, low in priority and funding, and undermined by official incoherence. Moreover, domestic politics in the United States have hindered any American government from trying to undo assault-rifle proliferation, at least as more than a backwater project. The climate of mutual distrust—between those who would seek to regulate and destroy more military assault rifles and those who claim that any such steps risk infringing the right of American citizens to bear arms—is of such an order that those who direct American foreign policy often steer clear of the issue.
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Where armed groups threaten a perceived American interest, a common solution is to send in more guns to counter them. In this way, the United States military, since 2001, became one of the largest known purchasers of Kalashnikov assault rifles, which it has handed out by the tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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No sustained will has emerged to cut up the guns, in part because guns and ammunition can still be converted to money. The United States sent mixed messages and created uncomfortable situations in the Eastern bloc.
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