With the development of the AK-47 itself, the narrative really hits its stride. Chivers debunks the Soviet fable about the weapon’s inventor. According to the official line, Kalashnikov, the humble tank sergeant, dreamed up the perfect fighting tool after being wounded by German forces. Sitting in a hospital bed, he sketched the basic design, without any formal engineering training, which he later presented to the industrial arms complex, where it ultimately won a competition. Kalashnikov was hailed as a proletariat hero, an unlettered farm boy who saved the country. He was swiftly promoted to general and presented with a dacha, at a time when most citizens were scrambling to find the basic necessities.

In fact, as Chivers painstakingly reconstructs from interviews and archival sources, Soviet propagandists manipulated the story. They neglected to mention the inconvenient fact that their champion actually had lived in Siberian exile as a boy, after his family was blacklisted during Stalin’s collectivization campaign. Kalashnikov himself nervously guarded this secret, lest he lose his coveted privileges. More to the point, he did not spontaneously come up with his famous prototype. As Chivers shows, he was a simply a cog in the team effort to mass-produce a defensive rifle, and one whose early work was deemed of little promise.

Whatever its provenance, the gun performed better than anything before it. The genius of the design was a loose fit and big parts, which made it less likely to get stuck when dirty. The bore and chamber were chromed to reduce corrosion. During testing, models were dunked in water and buried in sand. The AK held up. It quickly became standard issue for the Red Army and was exported or licensed for knockoffs in the Warsaw Pact countries. Plants producing the AK were subsidized in Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Romania.

Eager to expand its influence in the East-West rivalry, the Kremlin later shared blueprints with other friendly countries, such as China, North Korea, and Egypt. Iraq and Cuba acquired licenses for variants.

Chivers damningly chronicles how the Pentagon failed to keep pace with the Russians. While Washington focused on containing the Kremlin’s nuclear capability, Moscow was churning out what would become a far more lethal weapon. Meanwhile, the American brass was slow to recognize the Kalashnikov’s potential and dismissed it as a primitive submachine gun.

Washington learned its mistake in Indochina, where the Viet Cong showed how guerrillas armed with AKs could wreak havoc on a conventional army. This was a tactical turning point, as well as an object lesson for insurgent groups around the globe. Thanks in part to the Kalashnikov clones provided by China, small VC units could effectively strike the American Goliath and then melt back into the jungle.

Americans responded with the hastily conceived M-16 assault rifle, which was rushed into soldiers’ hands too soon and could not hold its own against its hardier nemesis. The M-16 jammed and corroded in the damp jungle. Pinned-down grunts were reduced to brandishing their useless firearms like clubs. Chivers recounts one sickening battle where a quarter of a company was unable to fight back. “It was 1967, the age of the nuclear power aircraft carrier, the B-52 Stratofortress and the submarine-launched Polaris ballistic missile,” he notes ruefully. “A Marine Corps company commander was preparing his men to wield their rifles like lances, swords, and spears.”

So unreliable was the American weapon that some servicemen opted to use captured AKs, despite the risk of being fired on by compatriots because of the rifle’s distinctive sound. Eventually the M-16 was upgraded.

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.