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Arms and the Man

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
October 29, 2010
New York Times


The Soviet Union did not often make a product superior to the American alternative. Nobody in his right mind would have chosen to drive a pokey Lada over a speedy Corvette or even a stolid Packard. One of the few exceptions was in the military sphere, where the Soviets devoted a disproportionate share of their resources. In the long run, their greatest engineering triumph may not have been the construction of an atomic bomb in 1949 (based on stolen Western secrets) or the lofting of the first satellite into orbit (1957) or even the first man in space (1961). Far more enduring, if more low tech, was the development of the world's most ubiquitous firearm: the AK‑47, or as it is often called, after its designer, the Kalashnikov.

Western experts initially dismissed this automatic rifle as crude and simplistic. As the New York Times correspondent (and former Marine) C. J. Chivers explains in “The Gun,” Westerners were used to making guns with “precision tools that allowed assembly lines to work within tight tolerances and mill parts to an exacting fit.” That's not how the AK-47 was constructed in Russia's primitive assembly plants by workers who no doubt consumed more vodka than was good for them. “Anyone who removed the return spring from a Kalashnikov, for example, would find that many parts, when not held by its tension, would slide and rattle,” Chivers notes. Even on a test range the AK-47 was not particularly impressive, its accuracy inferior to that of Western competitors.

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