Meanwhile, transfers of AK rifles to Arab countries were under way, and the weapon ended up the hands of hostage-takers and militants in the Middle East. At this point, with proliferation no longer in their interest, the Soviets began to lose control of their Frankenstein. Arms smuggling and the gun’s relatively low price meant that almost anybody could afford it. The buyers included, paradoxically, Washington’s proxies in Africa and Latin America. And the weapon acquired such cachet in some parts of Africa and Afghanistan that obtaining one became a rite of passage for young men. Partygoers would shoot AKs in the air in celebration, or give them away as presents.

The book’s final chapters deal with this spread and its lethal consequences. Global circulation soared after the cold war, when stockpiles in the Eastern bloc and newly independent countries like Ukraine were offloaded by traffickers or officials eager for a buck.

Chivers covers the basics with his customary fluency, but the research here is more broad-brush than in earlier parts of the book. He could have delved deeper, for instance, into how the illicit gun trade increased criminality and weakened democratic institutions around the world. For this I would recommend Larry Kahaner’s AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War, which came out in 2006. Kahaner does a fine job of describing how the rifles were recycled from conflict to conflict, and became a form of currency that fomented global trade in narcotics and “blood” diamonds. For example, Kalashnikovs that armed Mozambique’s leftist government migrated to South Africa, where they were used to man roadblocks and hijack cars. Mexican drug thugs have inherited some of their guns from Central American insurgencies of the 1980s.

Chivers concludes that the durability of the AK-47 will guarantee its preeminence for years to come. Suicide bombers and homemade explosives may get more attention in the media, but the AK-47 continues to kill more people, he argues. I would agree, having seen the farcical “demobilization” of insurgents in southern Africa. At the end of so many decades of conflict, millions of weapons remained in circulation or ended up in bazaars in nearby countries. U.N. peacekeepers will never succeed in decommissioning them all. They are too sturdy and commonplace.

And what of the weapon’s nominal creator? In recent years, Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov has lamented the bloody legacy of the creation that carries his name. But when he turned ninety last November, he seemed at peace with the past, if one is to believe the government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazetta. “I feel a happy man,” Kalashnikov reportedly said. “As with any person, I have things to regret. . . . But I can say one thing: I would not live my life again differently if I had the chance.”

 

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.