"The Gun": How automatic weapons changed the way we kill

A new book explains how AK-47s, M16s and other guns reinvented slaughter -- and their gruesome effect on the body

Published October 26, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"As Gatling posted his letter," Chivers writes, "war had reached its bloodiest form yet. The Industrial Revolution and the American zest for capitalism were proving to be incubators for weapons development, and the soldiers of the time faced firearms and artillery that were becoming more powerful and more precise. Ordered into battle at close ranges, in solid-colored uniforms and in dense formations, they were easy marks at short distances, and suffered miserably from bullet and shrapnel injuries, as well as from diseases stalking both armies' filthy camps … Accounts of the carnage were accumulating. More than 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg, nearly 35,000 at Chickamauga, another 30,000 at Chancellorsville." With po-faced idealism that seems absurd in retrospect, Gatling "offered to help end the bloodletting through more efficient slaughter. He hoped that President Lincoln would see that his weapon -- 'very simple in its construction, strong and durable and can be used effectively by men of ordinary intelligence' -- was "providential, to be used as a means in crushing the rebellion."

Unfortunately for Gatling, his new gun didn't get much play during the U.S. Civil War. By the time the Union army placed its first orders, the conflict was already winding down. But the gun took its turn in the spotlight soon enough. And like the monster in "Frankenstein" -- a tale of hubris that Chivers' book sometimes evokes -- the machine gun slowly but surely turned on its creator, an ironic turn of events that Chivers chronicles in vivid detail and gallows humor. "This is not an account solely of a weapon's ubiquity on the battlefield," Chivers writes of the AK-47, putatively the brightest star in this book's homicidal firmament. "Nor is it a treatment of the AK-47 only for the sake of examining the AK-47 … These weapons occupy a place in history beyond the questions of when, where and how they have been manufactured and used … The journey through this history is populated by geniuses and fools, ruthless villains and naïve idealists, self-promoting salesmen and incorrigible profiteers, a pantheon of killers of all stripes and, now and then, people who wanted the killing to stop."

When Chivers' history enters the era of the multi-barreled, hand-cranked Gatling and its more advanced imitators, including the Gardner -- roughly 1865 through the early 1900s -- the machine gun is a lethal indulgence. It was so pricey that only industrialized countries could afford to buy large numbers of them. It was also prone to malfunction, thanks mainly to the hellish heat generated by the continual ignition of all that gunpowder, which could warp and even melt parts of the gun. And on top of that, early versions of the machine gun weighed hundreds of pounds, which meant generals had to decide if the battlefield advantages a machine gun conferred were worth the hassle of lugging it through war zones. Despite these drawbacks, however, the earliest version of the machine gun had great success as a colonial "pacification" tool, beloved by European powers looking to crack down on "savage" uprisings in occupied African nations. Before its invention, a few dozen white riflemen with pith helmets would have regarded a thousand Zulu on a nearby ridge as a cue to start writing up their wills. After the machine gun, that same sight led to a math problem: If we have X number of guns firing Y number of bullets per minute, how long before we break for lunch?

Strategists didn't start to see the potential offensive applications of the machine gun until the turn of the century, after witnessing a few wars fought between industrial powers (such as Russia and Japan) that were somewhat more evenly matched. But as the machine gun evolved and became lighter and more reliable (thanks to more sophisticated shell casings and the displacement of iron by lighter, tougher steel) it became less an imperial indulgence than a standard item in the modern army's tool kit. The big guns were miniature cannons, the equivalent of having a whole platoon of tireless robots firing simultaneously in the same direction. The smaller machine gun, or submachine gun, was a glorified sidearm, deadlier than a pistol but more useful at medium distances (the distances at which most early 20th century wars were fought) than a single-action rifle.

And it's here that the weapon's history took a curious (and for Western powers, unfortunate) turn: Now that pretty much anyone with killing on the brain could obtain, maintain, carry and use a machine gun, wholesale slaughter became democratized. And the wonderful, horrible thing about democracy is, everybody gets a vote. As Chivers documents in nearly every section of this book, the machine gun -- a noun encompassing weapons as diverse as the Gatling, the Gardner, the Thompson and the AK-47 -- could transform an ordinary man into Zeus hurling thunderbolts. This was true whether the triggerman was a U.S. Marine, a German storm trooper, a Depression-era Chicago gangster, an Algerian insurgent, a Cuban rebel, a Viet Cong warrior or a Miami coke dealer. The age of the one-man army -- or, at the very least, the one-man platoon -- had arrived, and it wasn't going away.

But this power fantasy had a flip side. The machine gun -- like the grenade, the flamethrower, the fighter plane and the laser-guided bomb and other instruments of mass death -- made individual soldiers even more pawnlike than they'd been in the pre-machine gun age. This is the rhetorical through-line of Chivers' book -- the notion that when the machine gun came along, the same thing happened in war that was happening throughout civilization during the machine age. Individual willpower and resourcefulness increasingly took a back seat to state muscle and industrial might.

The most dramatic illustration of this principle can be found in lengthy section on the development of the AK-47 -- at once the fuzziest and most compelling part of "The Gun," thanks to inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov's varied and contradictory life stories and the former Soviet Union's mania for secrecy. Although Kalashnikov was the assault rifle's primary creator, it was literally designed by committee -- a committee of millions of Communist workers struggling to build a mighty economy and an even mightier war machine. It wasn't the best rifle ever made, far from it. But it was light, reliable and cheap to produce, a murderous miracle that could only have been devised in the land of Stalin, with his purges, expropriations, five-year plans, ostentatious lionizing of the nameless worker, and mandatory worship of all things lethal and shiny. The AK-47, Chivers writes, expressed the personality and preoccupations of the post-World War II USSR in much the same way that the Gatling epitomized the war-frazzled determination of United States after the Civil War, and the MP-18 captured the rapacious life force of Germany circa 1915, when that nation's army perfected the idea of "shock troops who, before the war's end, would master the tactics of pinpoint attacks and breaches of front lines." And the U.S.-manufactured, jam-prone M-16 rifle -- which was rushed into production partly because the country was embarrassed by the ubiquity of the AK-47 and desperately wanted to create a "Free World" equivalent -- expressed the arrogance, obtuseness and misplaced faith in technological wizardry that doomed the overall war effort.

Chivers draws links between machines and their cultures very convincingly. The breadth and depth of his strategy is as compelling as it is educational. His book treats guns not just as tactical devices, technological marvels and instruments of death and terror, but as psychological snapshots of the nations that produced them -- and monuments to a bloodthirsty, ingenious race that has spent centuries years fighting over land, money and God, and won't stop any time soon. His approach goes so far beyond the "Guns are scary/guns are awesome" approach that after you've finished the book, it's hard to reenter the pandering that passes for discourse without feeling disgust. Like a judicious and coolheaded marksman, "The Gun" hits its target again and again.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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