AK-47: The Story of a Gun
Originally published in Time Out New York, May 22, 2008

What do Patty Hearst, Iraqi insurgents, African child soldiers and New Orleans gang members have in common? The answer: their weapon of choice, the Kalashnikov, otherwise known as the AK-47. Tracing the rifle’s terrifying history in AK47: The Story of a Gun, journalist Michael Hodges — an editor-at-large at Time Out London — examines the meteoric ascension of this simple, affordable and highly effective assault weapon into a global brand on par with Big Macs and the Nike swoosh. As such, the AK possesses the quality that admen have been trying to create for decades: It has “an atmosphere.”

Sired in the late ’40s by Soviet General Mikhail Kalashnikov to beat German fascism, the gun was subsequently used by North Vietnamese guerrillas and romanticized by the Che-identified New Left as a symbol of resistance. But used against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the AK underwent yet another reinvention — morphing from an instrument of “justifiable revolt to unjustifiable terror” — that has since pockmarked lives and landscapes worldwide with devastating efficiency.

How did a gun obtain such staying power? If the AK seems immune to the creative destruction that cannibalizes and replaces older technologies with new ones (the Walkman begot the Discman, which in turn succumbed to the already-fossilized first-generation iPod), that’s because no other gun can beat Kalashnikov’s timeless design. With only eight moving parts that require little cleaning, the AK can fire a ruinous 650 rounds per minute in virtually every climatic condition, be it humid Southeast Asia or the arid Fertile Crescent. In vivid dispatches from the world’s least-secure places, where the trail of bodies is piled knee-deep, Hodges reveals this 60-year-old killing machine to be, if nothing else, a survivor.