There is much in common between this biography of AK-47 by The New York Times journalist CJ Chivers and Rob and Edwin Lewis' The Supersonic Secrets, the life story of the erstwhile king of skies, the Concorde. State-of-the-art inventions, not their zippy creator(s), are the subjects of both, and swish language keeps them outside the realms of textbooks or product manuals, unlike an earlier bio of the gun by Larry Kahaner titled AK-47.
But if The Supersonic Secrets scorns at human foolishness for dismissing a diamond as char, The Gun venerates the human genius of turning a quotidian stone into something precious.
The 'story' begins with the desire of Kremlin under Stalin for a "weapon [that] must be compact, lightweight, highly reliable, simple to manufacture, easily operated, and composed of a small number of independent parts", something that none of Soviet Union's Cold War opponents possessed back then. Chivers writes that though Germany's Hugo Schmeisser should be credited for designing the earliest assault rifle, in public memory, it will always be senior sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov who 'created' the Avtomat Kalashnikov, which is today "the most abundant firearm on Earth".
The book, rich with details, is a research marvel. Chivers gives an extended SWOT analysis of every western weapon that preceded the AK-47, talks about their creators and adds dollops of 'war-diaries' to substantiate his arguments. But the focus never shifts away from the "banana clipped" wonder. "In the 1860s, Richard Gatling began selling the first rapid-fire arms… In the 1880s, Hiram Maxim… invented the first truly automatic gun… From 1943 to the early 1960s…automatic arms reached an evolutionary end state…The result…was an improved AK-47…[which] began to show up in battles, first as rarities, then curiosities and then almost everywhere."
The gun which the West dismissed as over-simplistic eventually acquired a cult status because, "It was so reliable [that even when it was] soaked in bog water and coated with sand, [the testers] had trouble making it jam." Also, it was the "everyman's gun", a prospect not envisaged till the AK-47 fell into the 'wrong' hands.
Chivers busts the myth around the gun's alleged creator. Officially, the selection of Kalashnikov's doodle of a prototype in 1945 set the ball rolling for the AK-47. Kalashnikov, who lacked formal training in metallurgy, was fickle-minded, contradicted himself in his various memoirs (some of which he wrote himself) and "sought credit for the rifle when it was put to uses he liked."
But Chivers argues: "[It's creation] was driven not by the entrepreneurship or by quirky Russian innovation… but by the internal desires and bureaucracy of the socialist state " In other words, for the first time the Soviet Union had assigned a human face to its propaganda, which, over the decades, has become more than just a handy instrument of easy death - and has redefined "asymmetrical conflicts".
Whatever be the back-story, the reality is that this proletarian scapegoat-cum-icon never came in the way of the success of the gun, produced in over 20 factories across the world today, with about 100 million units in circulation.
It's perhaps this mystery around this beauty that also baffled its creator. After all, which son of a gun in his right mind would have otherwise dismissed the questions on the misuse of the gun by terrorists and 'consoled' the victims of his creation by saying, "I sleep soundly"?