The Gun | By C. J. Chivers | Simon & Schuster | 496 pages, $28

Oh, to imagine the world without the AK-47. Anyone who has lived through (or reported on) a conflict over the past half century has probably encountered some version of the Russian basic assault rifle.

Avtomat Kalashnikova 47—the automatic rifle said to have been designed by Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov and first manufactured in 1947—is the most common sophisticated weapon on earth. Between the original gun and its variants, there are thought to be one hundred million in circulation. Fifty armies and most rebel movements use them. Durable, and light enough for a child to use, the AK almost never fails.

“In their march from secrecy to ubiquity,” writes C. J. Chivers in The Gun, “Kalashnikovs have become more than weapons. They have become symbols—first of the success of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the socialist way, later of popular insurrection, armed liberation, and gangland stature, more recently of jihad. A Kalashnikov can be appropriated for most any cause.”

Even those who have not experienced it firsthand have probably spotted the distinctive banana-shaped clip on television. The Kalashnikov epitomizes revolutionary chic. Every self-respecting militant from Yasir Arafat to Osama Bin Laden has posed with one. The iconic silhouette decorates the flags of Mozambique and various armed groups, including Hezbollah.

C. J. Chivers sets out to explore how this deceptively simple rifle became the most popular firearm ever used, and changed the nature of warfare. Because of its size and reliability, the AK-47 has served as the midwife of small armies and guerrilla forces operating in rough terrain. The Taliban and Colombia’s FARC rebels are only two of its more recent beneficiaries. It is the perfect tool for combatants who rely on ambushes against less mobile forces. According to the United Nations, most of the forty-nine conflicts fought in the 1990s were waged with small arms, which collectively killed four million people. Chivers is right to assume that most of the rifles were AK-47s.

A senior writer for The New York Times and former Marine who served in the first gulf war, Chivers is one of the most expert chroniclers of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. Like his journalism, The Gun crackles with eloquence and authority, and the author excels at showing the human cost of war. (His story for Esquire about the 2004 Beslan school hostage siege is one of best articles I’ve ever read on the senseless depravity of violence.)

Yet the title is somewhat of a misnomer. Chivers devotes more space to the precursors of the Kalashnikov, and to its American derivative, the M-16, than he does to the nominal star of the show. This is especially true of the first third of the book, in which Chivers discusses the miniaturization of rapid firearms that preceded the AK-47.

That fascinating story begins in 1862, when American inventor Richard J. Gatling designed the bulky weapon that bears his own name. This behemoth weighed a ton, and had to be dragged on wheels. Yet it could fire continuously, and first saw action toward the end of the Civil War.

Next came the first self-powered machine gun, which the American-born Hiram Maxim developed in 1884. The weapon’s repeated fire facilitated European colonization of lightly protected Africans. By the time World War I rolled around, machine guns operating from trenches rendered bayonet charges obsolete. Germany immediately set to work designing even more transportable weapons, which served them well in the next global conflict—itself the ultimate advertisement for greater firepower and mobility. The Soviet Union learned this lesson well. The crushing humiliation of the 1941 Nazi invasion convinced the Kremlin to develop a widely issued and easily carried basic automatic.

Judith Matloff is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is a veteran foreign correspondent, who teaches a course on conflict reporting at Columbia, and is the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.