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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Rifles of Choice for Mass Killers

Time and again it’s the same. A lone gunman or a small group of killers with rifles commits spectacular crimes that seize the attention of the world.

A militant aimed an assault rifle during a siege in which dozens of people were killed at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013. Reuters

The list reaches back decades: the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972; the school takeover in Beslan, Russia, in 2004; the attacks in Mumbai, India, in 2008; the mall assault in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013; the killing of more than 100 people in Paris in 2015.
Often the rifles are variants of the AK-47, the world’s most abundant firearm, an affordable and simple-to-use assault rifle of Soviet lineage that allows a few people to kill scores and menace hundreds, and fight head-to-head against modern soldiers and police forces.
In recent years they have also been descendants of the AR-15, the American military’s response to the Kalashnikov’s spread. Semiautomatic versions of the AR-15 were used by sympathizers of the Islamic State in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015, and a Mini-14 and an MCX, rifles that fire the same cartridge as the AR-15 and compete with it for market share, were used in the mass shootings in Norway in 2011 and in Orlando, Fla., in June.
In the hands of terrorists, military-style rifles have repeatedly been used for swiftly killing on a large scale. How did the Kalashnikov — a disruptive technology that flooded the world almost three generations ago and still retains an outsize role in organized violence — become such a ready amplifier of evil and rage? In what ways did it drive the AR-15 and its competitors to such prominence, too?
The answers reach to the years immediately after World War II, when the Soviet Union was developing multiple weapons for multiple roles. As Soviet scientists worked on nuclear arms that would freeze borders in place under the fear of total war, teams of gunsmiths and engineers set out in a contest to design a conventional weapon — a rifle — that would combine the rapid-fire ferocity of machine guns with the portability of lighter-weight arms. The weapon was to be a conceptual copy of the sturmgewehr, which Nazi Germany had fielded late in the war.
In the evaluations and field trials that followed, Senior Sgt. Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, a wounded veteran of tank warfare on the Soviet Union’s western front, was credited with developing a prototype for a medium-powered rifle capable, like the sturmgewehr, of both automatic and semiautomatic fire.
The AK-47, with an effective range beyond the length of a pair of football fields, was accepted in 1947. A few years later, a lighter and easier-to-manufacture update, the AKM, entered mass production in Russia, and was on its way to becoming the standard rifle for almost all Communist ground forces. The weapon soon left its mark.
The Kalashnikov line was shorter and lighter than traditional rifles. It was inexpensive to manufacture, built for durability and reliable to an extraordinary degree. With few moving parts, and a design that made its disassembly and reassembly almost intuitive, its basics could be mastered by all manner of combatants — from traditionally instructed conscripts to almost wholly untrained guerrillas — in very little time.
The cartridges were smaller than traditional rifle cartridges, which meant that a fighter with a Kalashnikov could carry more ammunition, and be more deadly, than riflemen of previous eras. The rifle’s medium-power cartridges also meant the weapon had little recoil, allowing trainees to learn marksmanship at standard combat ranges with relative ease. These qualities contributed to the weapon’s popularity among those who carried it; in much of the world the Kalashnikov became the everyman’s gun.
The Kalashnikov’s physical characteristics alone do not explain its prominence. It was the vast scale of rifle and ammunition manufacture in mammoth arms plants that drove the Kalashnikov to its status as one of the most immediately recognized products of the Communist era, one of the most readily identifiable objects in the world.
The maps show the many ways in which it spread. Production began in the Soviet Union in the 1940s before expanding to the vassal states of the Warsaw Pact and to China, North Korea, Yugoslavia and beyond. Tens of millions of the rifles were churned out in planned economies, whether they were needed or not. In the U.S.S.R., where Kalashnikovs were cast as tools of the Motherland’s defense, they entered the civic fabric. Students trained with them in schools.
Ammunition plants were built in countries where the rifles were manufactured, ensuring ready supplies. More state forces adopted the weapons and began cartridge production, too. The rifle swept across much of the world. In the 1970s the Soviet Army introduced a new model, the AK-74, which fired a smaller, faster cartridge. Millions of older Kalashnikovs became officially obsolete, freeing them for global trade. Taken together, a series of industrial decisions in planned economies had created conditions for near ubiquity.
The spread changed modern warfare. As Communist governments passed Kalashnikovs to allies and proxies the rifles assumed an unexpected role: battlefield leveler.
Vietnam offered the breakout. Africa had been colonized by small detachments of European soldiers turning machine guns against larger local forces that lacked access to equivalent weapons. In Vietnam, much of that advantage was gone. Guerrillas armed with Kalashnikovs fought toe-to-toe against foot soldiers of a superpower. Modern expeditionary units, facing automatic fire from inexpensive rifles carried by peasants, had met their close-quarters match. Often their ambitions were checked.
The Kalashnikov’s superiority to the American M-14 in jungle warfare in Vietnam spurred Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary at the time, to push the Pentagon to hurry production of a new American assault rifle, the AR-15, which became known as the M-16. The decision would propel assault rifles to their current position as standard military firearms across the world.
After its effectiveness was proved in Vietnam, the Kalashnikov assumed its indelible association as the terrorists’ choice.
Hostage-takers with Kalashnikovs scaled an Olympic Village fence in Munich in 1972 and seized members of the Israeli team. The rifle had broken its leash. It was no longer a tool of the state, or Communist ideology. The era of Kalashnikov terrorism had begun, with the world watching live on TV.
Instruction in the rifle had by then become a staple of irregular warfare training, including in curriculums at Palestinian camps. Its spread continued to such a grand degree that the Kremlin’s foes began procuring the weapons. American and Pakistani intelligence officers coached Islamic fighters on the particulars of Kalashnikov use in the war to expel Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Originally intended to strengthen authoritarian states, the Kalashnikov had gained outlaw credibility, morphing to a symbol of revolt, blowback, crime and jihad.
The Kalashnikov’s simplicity, compact size and gentle recoil combine to make it uncannily well-suited for child soldiers.
In many wars commanders have provided the rifles to teenagers, and occasionally to combatants yet to reach their teenage years, who in spite of their small stature are able to manage the weapon and carry a large load of ammunition.
Kalashnikovs are primary firearms for entire formations of child soldiers, including Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa, and the weapon is routinely used by children who augment rebel or irregular forces in wars around the world.
The Islamic State, following the pattern, has made images of its child soldiers posing with Kalashnikovs part of its propaganda routine. They are not alone. Images of child soldiers with Kalashnikovs have been common in many conflicts for decades.
A boy from the Mursi tribe in southern Ethiopia with a Kalashnikov rifle in 2007. Pavel Wolberg/European Pressphoto Agency
Prone to jamming, the M-16 had a rushed and disastrous introduction in the Vietnam War. But most of its early flaws were worked out, and it secured its place in American armories. From there, NATO defense standardization prompted European services to field their own assault rifles, spreading this class of weapons across the non-Communist world.
The Kalashnikov had fueled an unheralded arms race. By the 1980s the two lines of weapons — the AK-47 and the AR-15, and their many descendants and spinoffs — were a global pair.
Laws in the United States mostly limited civilian possession of AR-15s and their competitors to models that fire semiautomatically only. But as these variants gained popularity with veterans, gun-rights advocates, preppers and, occasionally, with criminals or terrorists, their place in crime grew — even as Kalashnikov production ebbed. Variants of the AR-15 were used in the mass killings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, and by sympathizers of the Islamic State in San Bernardino. An MCX, a recently introduced military-style rifle designed for the Special Forces but available in semiautomatic form for civilians, was used by the lone gunman who attacked a nightclub in Orlando in June.
Semiautomatic Kalashnikovs are also part of the mass-shooting routine. The gunman in the 1989 schoolyard shooting in Stockton, Calif., which killed five children and wounded dozens more, attacked his victims with a semiautomatic Chinese Kalashnikov. His crime was part of the impetus for bans on assault-style weapons at the state and national level. The Army veteran who killed five police officers in Dallas in July used a semiautomatic Kalashnikov. It had been made at the original AK-47 plant in Russia to be legal in the West and appeal to hunting and sporting markets.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as Communism failed, the market economy welcomed Stalin’s old goods. Successor governments continue to unload huge stockpiles, further flooding the world.
Among the principal movers of Kalashnikovs has been the Pentagon, which bought them by untold thousands for proxy forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon also distributed tens of thousands of M-16s and the shorter M-4 carbine based on the AR-15 design, to the same forces. Many of these forces failed, yielding their rifles to bazaars or foes, making ever more weapons available on unregulated markets and for dangerous hands.
Today the Kalashnikov and AR-15 variants remain the most commonly seen weapons on modern battlefields; their use is central to almost every war. They are a staple of insurgency and terrorism and all but fundamental to the grim routine of mass shootings. The Islamic State has killed far more people in Europe with bullets than with bombs, and controls territory in multiple countries in part through its military rifle stocks.
Governments have done little to stop the spread of this class of weapons. Often, as in the case of the United States, they have contributed to it. Acts of crime, terror and oppression with Kalashnikovs and AR-15 descendants, endured by civilians under withering fire, have been hard-wired into our times. There is no end in sight.
C.J. Chivers is a reporter for The New York Times, a former Marine and the author of “The Gun,” a history of the Kalashnikov line and its effects upon security and war. Follow him on Twitter.

How the AK-47 and AR-15 Evolved Into Rifles of Choice for Mass Killers  

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