Every once in a while a book arrives which leaves you spinning, disoriented and exhilirated at the same time. This is that kind of a book.
This book is also one of those, which deftly switches narrative styles- traverses time and contexts and yet keeps an unerring focus on the underlying theme- the Automat Kalashnikova -47. Otherwise known as AK-47.
The journalism is sweeping, the research intensive and history rich- C J Chivers, its author, at once makes “The Gun” a combined narrative of human fantasies, intentions, values, ingenuity and follies.
From the fantasy of Dr Gatling to produce an efficient weapon of war to end all wars to Leonid Minin who was the modern day merchant of death, lord of war arming insurgencies around
the world – the scope and revelations of C J Chivers is broad and comprehensive.
“The price of a Kalashnikov is the barometer of a society’s fears”
Chivers covers the eclectic personalities of gun history from Gatling, to Maxim to Hugo Schmeisser inventor of sturmgewehr(German assault rifle of WW-II fame), finally to firmly focus on Mikhail Kalashnikov- the inventor of the AK-47. But deep within the story also lies the failure of the Soviet state and the paradoxes it gives birth to. Rarely in mankind’s history an invention has been made by deliberation by committees and finetuned and improved upon by an entire nation. AK-47 is an exception. AK-47 though was initially conceived by Kalashnikov and yet the final product which we today see is a gun made by committees, by deliberative bodies and push and pull of Cold War politics. AK-47 long ceased to be Kalashnikov’s gun and instead took a turn towards being the Soviet Union’s gun.
The Gun is also a story of the insurgency and unrest that mars the 21st century. As Cummings, a gun runner remarked, that the demand of AK-47 remains- “an index of human follies”
One idea that repeatedly repeats itself in the book is the apparent simplicity of design, the huge margins of safety attributed to the major operating system of the gun which decided its longevity. Stories of child soldiers retrieving caches of AK-47 years after being buried and then testing them successfully tells a story of its durability. What made the AK-47 so robust?
Neither nature’s ravages nor human stress tests were able to find a fault in it?
In many ways- the core takeaway for me was simplicity trumps. American made M-16, were a shattering and embarrassing failure against AK-47 in Vietnam. They jammed!
But why did they? Weren’t American manufacturing processes better than Soviet ? Wasnt American industry more innovative than Soviet?
M-16 had a lot of flaws.And these flaws were a combination of misguided institutional preferences and blindfolded trudging in strategic space. But from the perspective of engineering- it was too perfect!
It used modern manufacturing techniques which used precision cutting, very high level of calibration and tolerance levels. It was tightly fit and the gap between moving parts was so less that only modern automation could assemble such an engineering marvel.
The idea of engineering precision which enabled man to reach moon (equivalent to firing an intercontinental missile to land on a precise volleyball) was put to use. Tolerance levels shrunk to millimeters and even fractions of that.
When compared to M-16, AK-47 was an abomination of craftsmanship. When one removed its spring, the entire mechanism rattled and jangled. The cartridge feeder system was so designed that when a bullet was fired, the bolt action which expelled the cartridge pulled back a full 150% of a cartridge’s length.
Now what does it mean?
Think about a gun- and the soldier wielding it. Like the soldier- the gun also will travel to various climates, operate in various punishing environments and in extremely stressful combat situations. The gun had to be robust enough to keep operating in all circumstances.
For an automatic, one of the major problems is “failure to extract”. Failure to extract implies a gun’s inability to eject out the spent cartridge( like below, resulting in jamming of guns like in right). This implied that the gun had to keep ejecting cartridges at all times. Now being an automatic machine gun – it comes with its own uniqueness. The gun has to keep operating in long bursts thus the temperature inside a barrel can go extremely high.
In such cases, metal expands in unpredictable ways and any “precision” casting part will soon jam. In contrast, AK-47 because of its huge margins of safety- operated without any hitch at all times.
Long operations also meant accumulation of soot, possible accumulation of dirt etc. AK-47 was so ably designed with enough tolerances that Soviet gun testers had difficulty in making it jam. It was dragged through sand, soaked in salt water and dipped in bog and yet it fired. In one revealing place- Chivers discusses how a friend of Kalshnikov described the tests after it was dragged through sand
“Look, look, sand is flying away in all directions- like a dog shaking of water from its fur”
The system due to its inherent margin of safety was self-correcting.
The implications and lessons for an investor are clear:
1. Maintain adequate tolerance level in your thinking- account for stresses in your viewpoint.
2. Adaptability of mind (because of high margin of safety he has gained in being flexible) renders an investor profitable and less prone to adverse events.
As one reads through the book- the motif is clear. While Soviets were time and again ready to challenge status quo and imitate their opponents, America found itself hobbled and paralysed by remnants of past and blind shutting out of any criticism for self. For once- the Soviets became free thinkers and the Westerns became ossified thinkers.
And free thinkers- won again!