Here we go! AK47: the very best there is! When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherf–––er in the room, accept no substitute!" So says Ordell Robbie, the homicidal gun merchant in Quentin Tarantino's great movie "Jackie Brown." Somehow Michael Hodges missed that quote when he wrote the smart, terse history "AK47: The Story of a Gun." But he didn't miss much else about this weapon, the most ubiquitous fully automatic gun on the planet, and in the quotes he collected from soldiers, freedom fighters and street gangsters, he certainly replicated the malign glee behind Robbie's words on nearly every page of this disturbing, absorbing book.
The brainchild of Russian inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK47 has been around for 60 years, and for good reason. Cheap to manufacture, with only eight moving parts, it is a marvel of murderous efficiency. It can survive being submerged in water or buried in sand and still fire. In the hands of the Viet Cong, it instantly became the envy of every American serviceman with a much inferior M-16 rifle. Today the AK47 and its clones have found their way into the arsenals of Palestinian insurgents, Chechen rebels, Somalian warlords and New Orleans gangs. It is a global brand—the Coca-Cola of small arms—and as such, Hodges thinks, operates "like any other brand: free of moral or ethical restraints, a signifier merely of lifestyle choices."
By far the most troubling sections of "AK47" describe how many ethnicities have cemented their identities around this gun. The flag of Hizbullah "sports an AK logo above the words 'Party of God'." And now this same obsession—"the gun is who I am"—pervades Iraq. "The Viet Cong did not knowingly raise up their AK47s as a signifier of their fight, but Iraqi resistance fighters do so regularly." This sturdy gun, with its instantly recognizable silhouette, has "infiltrated the consciousness of the planet." Kalashnikov's invention did not cause all the world's current trouble. On the other hand, it is impossible to envision those troubles playing out in quite the same way without the presence of this weapon. How scary is that?