Walk into any big bookstore’s history section and you’ll essentially find three types of books. There are the big-event histories (WWII, Potato Famine, Spanish Flu), the thick biographies (Churchill, Mao, a founding father) and the somewhat quirkier microhistories that typically take as their subject seemingly small events or commodities that have had significant historical repercussions. While a microhistorical account of salt or of New York’s long, tortured relationship with rats may be enlightening, it’s rare that a popular microhistory is as completely relevant to contemporary politics as Michael Hodge’s AK47: The Story of a Gun.
Hodge’s investigation of the AK47, its creator, and the sordid ways in which the weapon has been bought, sold, traded and used on and off the battlefield strengthens our current understanding of ongoing conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. The book also paints a clear and pained portrait of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the engineer and former Red Army tank driver who designed the weapon. A highly decorated and much celebrated nationalist, Kalashnikov is somewhat ambivalent about his legacy. On the one hand, the 1949 adoption of the AK as the standard issue assault rifle of the Russian Army helped push the Russian military to firearms prominence while simultaneously giving the weapons-making industry and economy a shot in the arm. On the other hand, Kalashnikov is all too aware of what the weapon’s mass production, its relative ease of use and a major international black market have accomplished. In one of the book’s most enlightening moments, Kalashnikov — who has called for the mass destruction of the AK47 on various occasions — tells Hodges: “How could I realize how long the AK would last or what it would do in the world? But now, I realize well enough.”
It’s a Frankenstein story of sorts, and it’s all the sadder because the AK was developed specifically in the face of the Nazi threat, and was intended to put a swift, efficient end to violent conflicts. The reality, as Hodges explores in instances as disparate as Vietnam, Somalia, Chechnya, Palestine and Iraq, is that the AK has leveraged some of recent history’s worst violence.