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'The Gun': How AK-47s Changed The Nature Of War

A rebel soldier holds an AK-47 assault rifle in the Ivory Coast city of Bouake in 2002.
Georges Gobet
AFP/Getty Images
A rebel soldier holds an AK-47 assault rifle in the Ivory Coast city of Bouake in 2002.

The image is iconic: the stubby barrel, the inverted arc of the banana clip. Osama bin Laden included one in his video after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Saddam Hussein had a pair with him when he was captured. It appears on the flag of Mozambique and Hezbollah.

The AK-47 -- or versions of it -- can be found in every major conflict of the past 50 years. In his new book, The Gun, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter C.J. Chivers traces the history of the lethal firearm.

Chivers, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, tells NPR's Audie Cornish the gun is one of the principle weapons of insurgents in Afghanistan, where he's been reporting.

"It's been in circulation in the country for several decades," he says, "to the point of which it's one of the most common sights out in the Afghan countryside."

Chivers says the weapon has changed the nature of warfare over the past 50 years because of its availability and ease of use.

AK-47s don't have a lot of recoil, don't jam, and are easy to assemble and disassemble. The gun was produced by the tens of millions, Chivers says, "often by countries that eventually lost custody of them."

Once the guns got into the hands of insurgents, it made the insurgents more effective.

"It let them -- for the first time really in history -- fight the most powerful nations on the earth, and fight them effectively," he says, "fight them to a standstill even."

Chivers says he thinks the gun's availability and durability has made some conflicts much harder to fight.

"I routinely find [AK-47s] here in Afghanistan from the 1950's -- these weapons are six decades old and they're still working quite well," he says.

Chivers says he's not hopeful that much can be done about the proliferation of AK-47s.

"Longer term, I think, you can affect future supply by securing and destroying some of the weapons in the Eastern European, Russian and Chinese stockpiles," he says. "The rifles that are already out, they're out to stay; they have to be collected literally one at a time, and there's not much more that I can think of, that's more costly than that."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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