Guns

Aagaard, Finn. Aagaard's Africa. Washington: National Rifle Association, 1991. ISBN 0-935998-62-4.
The author was born in Kenya in 1932 and lived there until 1977 when, after Kenya's ban on game hunting destroyed his livelihood as a safari guide, he emigrated to the United States, where he died in April 2000. This book recounts his life in Kenya, from boyhood through his career as a professional hunter and guide. If you find the thought of hunting African wildlife repellent, this is not the book for you. It does provide a fine look at Africa and its animals by a man who clearly cherished the land and the beasts which roam it, and viewed the responsible hunter as an integral part of a sustainable environment. A little forensic astronomy allows us to determine the day on which the kudu hunt described on page 124 took place. Aagaard writes, “There was a total eclipse of the sun that afternoon, but it seemed a minor event to us. Laird and I will always remember that day as ‘The Day We Shot The Kudu’.” Checking the canon of 20th century solar eclipses shows that the only total solar eclipse crossing Kenya during the years when Aagaard was hunting there was on June 30th, 1973, a seven minute totality once in a lifetime spectacle. So, the kudu hunt had to be that morning. To this amateur astronomer, no total solar eclipse is a minor event, and the one I saw in Africa will forever remain a major event in my life. A solar eclipse with seven minutes of totality is something I shall never live to see (the next occurring on June 25th, 2150), so I would have loved to have seen the last and would never have deemed it a “minor event”, but then I've never shot a kudu the morning of an eclipse!

This book is out of print and used copies, at this writing, are offered at outrageous prices. I bought this book directly from the NRA more than a decade ago—books sometimes sit on my shelf a long time before I read them. I wouldn't pay more than about USD 25 for a used copy.

July 2005 Permalink

Chivers, C. J. The Gun. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7432-7173-8.
Ever since the introduction of firearms into infantry combat, technology and military doctrine have co-evolved to optimise the effectiveness of the weapons carried by the individual soldier. This process requires choosing a compromise among a long list of desiderata including accuracy, range, rate of fire, stopping power, size, weight (of both the weapon and its ammunition, which determines how many rounds an infantryman can carry), reliability, and the degree of training required to operate the weapon in both normal and abnormal circumstances. The “sweet spot” depends upon the technology available at the time (for example, smokeless powder allowed replacing heavy, low muzzle velocity, large calibre rounds with lighter supersonic ammunition), and the environment in which the weapon will be used (long range and high accuracy over great distances are largely wasted in jungle and urban combat, where most engagements are close-up and personal).

Still, ever since the advent of infantry firearms, the rate of fire an individual soldier can sustain has been considered a key force multiplier. All things being equal, a solider who can fire sixteen rounds per minute can do the work of four soldiers equipped with muzzle loading arms which can fire only four rounds a minute. As infantry arms progressed from muzzle loaders to breech loaders to magazine fed lever and bolt actions, the sustained rate of fire steadily increased. The logical endpoint of this evolution was a fully automatic infantry weapon: a rifle which, as long as the trigger was held down and ammunition remained, would continue to send rounds downrange at a high cyclic rate. Such a rifle could also be fired in semiautomatic mode, firing one round every time the trigger was pulled without any other intervention by the rifleman other than to change magazines as they were emptied.

This book traces the history of automatic weapons from primitive volley guns; through the Gatling gun, the first successful high rate of fire weapon (although with the size and weight of a field artillery piece and requiring a crew to hand crank it and feed ammunition, it was hardly an infantry weapon); the Maxim gun, the first true machine gun which was responsible for much of the carnage in World War I; to the Thompson submachine gun, which could be carried and fired by a single person but, using pistol ammunition, lacked the range and stopping power of an infantry rifle. At the end of World War II, the vast majority of soldiers carried bolt action or semiautomatic weapons: fully automatic fire was restricted to crew served support weapons operated by specially trained gunners.

As military analysts reviewed combat as it happened on the ground in the battles of World War II, they discovered that long range aimed fire played only a small part in infantry actions. Instead, infantry weapons had been used mostly at relatively short ranges to lay down suppressive fire. In this application, rate of fire and the amount of ammunition a soldier can carry into combat come to the top of the priority list. Based upon this analysis, even before the end of the war Soviet armourers launched a design competition for a next generation rifle which would put automatic fire into the hands of the ordinary infantryman. After grueling tests under all kinds of extreme conditions such a weapon might encounter in the field, the AK-47, initially designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a sergeant tank commander injured in battle, was selected. In 1956 the AK-47 became the standard issue rifle of the Soviet Army, and it and its subsequent variants, the AKM (an improved design which was also lighter and less expensive to manufacture—most of the weapons one sees today which are called “AK-47s” are actually based on the AKM design), and the smaller calibre AK-74. These weapons and the multitude of clones and variants produced around the world have become the archetypal small arms of the latter half of the twentieth century and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future in the twenty-first. Nobody knows how many were produced but almost certainly the number exceeds 100 million, and given the ruggedness and reliability of the design, most remain operational today.

This weapon, designed to outfit forces charged with maintaining order in the Soviet Empire and expanding it to new territories, quickly slipped the leash and began to circulate among insurgent forces around the globe—initially infiltrated by Soviet and Eastern bloc countries to equip communist revolutionaries, an “after-market” quickly developed which allowed almost any force wishing to challenge an established power to obtain a weapon and ammunition which made its irregular fighters the peer of professional troops. The worldwide dissemination of AK weapons and their availability at low cost has been a powerful force destabilising regimes which before could keep their people down with a relatively small professional army. The author recounts the legacy of the AK in incidents over the decades and around the world, and the tragic consequences for those who have found themselves on the wrong end of this formidable weapon.

United States forces first encountered the AK first hand in Vietnam, and quickly realised that their M14 rifles, an attempt to field a full automatic infantry weapon which used the cartridge of a main battle rifle, was too large, heavy, and limiting in the amount of ammunition a soldier could carry to stand up to the AK. The M14's only advantages: long range and accuracy, were irrelevant in the Vietnam jungle. While the Soviet procurement and development of the AK-47 was deliberate and protracted, Pentagon whiz kids in the U.S. rushed the radically new M16 into production and the hands of U.S. troops in Vietnam. The new rifle, inadequately tested in the field conditions it would encounter, and deployed with ammunition different from that used in the test phase, failed frequently and disastrously in the hands of combat troops with results which were often tragic. What was supposed to be the most advanced infantry weapon on the planet often ended up being used as bayonet mount or club by troops in their last moments of life. The Pentagon responded to this disaster in the making by covering up the entire matter and destroying the careers of those who attempted to speak out. Eventually reports from soldiers in the field made their way to newspapers and congressmen and the truth began to come out. It took years for the problems of the M16 to be resolved, and to this day the M16 is considered less reliable (although more accurate) than the AK. As an example, compare what it takes to field strip an M16 compared to an AK-47. The entire ugly saga of the M16 is documented in detail here.

This is a fascinating account of the origins, history, and impact of the small arms which dominate the world today. The author does an excellent job of sorting through the many legends (especially from the Soviet era) surrounding these weapons, and sketching the singular individuals behind their creation.

In the Kindle edition, the table of contents, end notes, and index are all properly linked to the text. All of the photographic illustrations are collected at the very end, after the index.

December 2011 Permalink

Clarke, Arthur C. and Michael Kube-McDowell. The Trigger. New York: Bantam Books, [1999] 2000. ISBN 0-553-57620-8.

April 2002 Permalink

Hodges, Michael. AK47: The Story of the People's Gun. London: Sceptre, 2007. ISBN 978-0-340-92106-7.
The AK-47 (the author uses “AK47” in this book, except for a few places in the last chapter; I will use the more common hyphenated designation here) has become an iconic symbol of rebellion in the six decades since Mikhail Kalashnikov designed this simple (just 8 moving parts), rugged, inexpensive to manufacture, and reliable assault rifle. Iconic? Yes, indeed—for example the flag and coat of arms of Mozambique feature this weapon which played such a large and tragic rôle in its recent history. Wherever violence erupts around the world, you'll probably see young men brandishing AK-47s or one of its derivatives. The AK-47 has become a global brand as powerful as Coca-Cola, but symbolising insurgency and rebellion, and this book is an attempt to recount how that came to be.

Toward that end it is a total, abject, and utter failure. In a total of 225 pages, only about 35 are devoted to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the history of the weapon he invented, its subsequent diffusion and manufacture around the world, and its derivatives. Instead, what we have is a collection of war stories from Vietnam, Palestine, the Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, and New Orleans (!), all told from a relentlessly left-wing, anti-American, and anti-Israel perspective, in which the AK-47 figures only peripherally. The author, as a hard leftist, believes, inter alia, in the bizarre notion that an inanimate object made of metal and wood can compel human beings to behave in irrational and ultimately self-destructive ways. You think I exaggerate? Well, here's an extended quote from p. 131.

The AK47 moved from being a tool of the conflict to the cause of the conflict, and by the mid-1990s it had become the progenitor of indiscriminate terror across huge swaths of the continent. How could it be otherwise? AKs were everywhere, and their ubiquity made stability a rare commodity as even the smallest groups could bring to bear a military pressure out of proportion to their actual size.
That's right—the existence of weapons compels human beings, who would presumably otherwise live together in harmony, to murder one another and rend their societies into chaotic, blood-soaked Hell-holes. Yup, and why do the birds always nest in the white areas? The concept that one should look at the absence of civil society as the progenitor of violence never enters the picture here. It is the evil weapon which is at fault, not the failed doctrines to which the author clings, which have wrought such suffering across the globe. Homo sapiens is a violent species, and our history has been one of constant battles. Notwithstanding the horrific bloodletting of the twentieth century, on a per-capita basis, death from violent conflict has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era, notwithstanding the advent of of weapons such as General Kalashnikov's. When bad ideas turn murderous, machetes will do.

A U.S edition is now available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

August 2008 Permalink

Jordan, Bill [William Henry]. No Second Place Winner. Concord, NH: Police Bookshelf, [1965] 1989. ISBN 0-936279-09-5.
This thin (114 page) book is one of the all-time classics of gunfighting, written by a man whose long career in the U.S. Border Patrol in an era when the U.S. actually defended its southern border schooled him in the essentials of bringing armed hostilities to an end as quickly and effectively as possible while minimising risk to the lawman. Although there are few pages and many pictures, in a way that's part of the message: there's nothing particularly complicated about winning a gunfight; it's a matter of skill acquired by patient practice until one can perform reliably under the enormous stress of a life-or-death situation. All of the refinements and complexity of “combat shooting” competitions are a fine game, the author argues, but have little to do with real-world situations where a peace officer has no alternative to employing deadly force.

The author stresses repeatedly that one shouldn't attempt to learn the fast draw or double action hip shooting techniques he teaches before having completely mastered single action aimed fire at bullseye targets, and advocates extensive dry-fire practice and training with wax or plastic primer-only practice loads before attempting the fast draw with live ammunition, “unless you wish to develop the three-toed limp of the typical Hollywood ‘gunslinger’” (p. 61). Jordan considers the double action revolver the only suitable weapon for a law officer, but remember that this book was written forty years ago, before the advent of today's light and reliable semiautomatics with effective factory combat loads. Still, the focus is on delivering the first shot to the malefactor's centre of gravity before he pulls the trigger, so magazine capacity and speedy reloading aren't as high priorities as they may be with today's increasingly militarised police.

This book is out of print, but used copies are readily available.

August 2005 Permalink

McGivern, Ed. Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Clinton, NJ: New Win Publishing, [1938] 1975. ISBN 0-8329-0557-7.
This is a facsimile of the 1938 first edition, published to commemorate the centenary of the author's birth in 1874. Earlier facsimile editions of this classic were published in 1945, 1957, and 1965; copies of these as well as the first edition may be found at abebooks.com, but most are substantially more expensive than new copies of the 1975 reprint. Imagine trying to publish a book today which includes advice (pp. 461–462) on shooting targets off an assistant's head!

March 2004 Permalink

Nugent, Ted and Shemane Nugent. Kill It and Grill It. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-164-2.

June 2002 Permalink

Ponting, Clive. Gunpowder. London: Pimlico, 2005. ISBN 1-8441-3543-8.
When I was a kid, we learnt in history class that gunpowder had been discovered in the thirteenth century by the English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, who is considered one of the founders of Western science. The Chinese were also said to have known of gunpowder, but used it only for fireworks, as opposed to the applications in the fields of murder and mayhem the more clever Europeans quickly devised. In The Happy Turning (July 2003), H. G. Wells remarked that “truth has a way of heaving up through the cracks of history”, and so it has been with the origin of gunpowder, as recounted here.

It is one of those splendid ironies that gunpowder, which, along with its more recent successors, has contributed to the slaughter of more human beings than any other invention with the exception of government, was discovered in the 9th century A.D. by Taoist alchemists in China who were searching for an elixir of immortality (and, in fact, gunpowder continued to be used as a medicine in China for centuries thereafter). But almost as soon as the explosive potential of gunpowder was discovered, the Chinese began to apply it to weapons and, over the next couple of centuries had invented essentially every kind of firearm and explosive weapon which exists today.

Gunpowder is not a high explosive; it does not detonate in a supersonic shock wave as do substances such as nitroglycerine and TNT, but rather deflagrates, or burns rapidly, as the heat of combustion causes the release of the oxygen in the nitrate compound in the mix. If confined, of course, the rapid release of gases and heat can cause a container to explode, but the rapid combustion of gunpowder also makes it suitable as a propellant in guns and rockets. The early Chinese formulations used a relatively small amount of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), and were used in incendiary weapons such as fire arrows, fire lances (a kind of flamethrower), and incendiary bombs launched by catapults and trebuchets. Eventually the Chinese developed high-nitrate mixes which could be used in explosive bombs, rockets, guns, and cannon (which were perfected in China long before the West, where the technology of casting iron did not appear until two thousand years after it was known in China).

From China, gunpowder technology spread to the Islamic world, where bombardment by a giant cannon contributed to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Knowledge of gunpowder almost certainly reached Europe via contact with the Islamic invaders of Spain. The first known European document giving its formula, whose disarmingly candid Latin title Liber Ignium ad Comburendos Hostes translates to “Book of Fires for the Burning of Enemies”, dates from about 1300 and contains a number of untranslated Arabic words.

Gunpowder weapons soon became a fixture of European warfare, but crude gun fabrication and weak powder formulations initially limited their use mostly to huge siege cannons which launched large stone projectiles against fortifications at low velocity. But as weapon designs and the strength of powder improved, the balance in siege warfare shifted from the defender to the attacker, and the consolidation of power in Europe began to accelerate.

The author argues persuasively that gunpowder played an essential part in the emergence of the modern European state, because the infrastructure needed to produce saltpetre, manufacture gunpowder weapons in quantity, equip, train, and pay ever-larger standing armies required a centralised administration with intrusive taxation and regulation which did not exist before. Once these institutions were in place, they conferred such a strategic advantage that the ruler was able to consolidate and expand the area of control at the expense of previously autonomous regions, until coming up against another such “gunpowder state”.

Certainly it was gunpowder weapons which enabled Europeans to conquer colonies around the globe and eventually impose their will on China, where centuries of political stability had caused weapons technology to stagnate by comparison with that of conflict-ridden Europe.

It was not until the nineteenth century that other explosives and propellants discovered by European chemists brought the millennium-long era of gunpowder a close. Gunpowder shaped human history as have few other inventions. This excellent book recounts that story from gunpowder's accidental invention as an elixir to its replacement by even more destructive substances, and provides a perspective on a thousand years of world history in terms of the weapons with which so much of it was created.

January 2007 Permalink

Ross, John F. Unintended Consequences. St. Louis: Accurate Press, 1996. ISBN 1-888118-04-0.
I don't know about you, but when I hear the phrases “first novel” and “small press” applied to the same book, I'm apt to emit an involuntary groan, followed by a wince upon hearing said volume is more than 860 pages in length. John Ross has created the rarest of exceptions to this prejudice. This is a big, sprawling, complicated novel with a multitude of characters (real and fictional) and a plot which spans most of the 20th century, and it works. What's even more astonishing is that it describes an armed insurrection against the United States government which is almost plausible. The information age has changed warfare at the national level beyond recognition; Ross explores what civil war might look like in the 21st century. The book is virtually free of typographical errors and I only noted a few factual errors—few bestsellers from the largest publishers manifest such attention to detail. Some readers may find this novel intensely offensive—the philosophy, morality, and tolerance for violence may be deemed “out of the mainstream” and some of the characterisations in the last 200 pages may be taken as embodying racial stereotypes—you have been warned.

December 2003 Permalink

Schulman, J. Neil. Stopping Power. Pahrump, NV: Pulpless.Com, [1994] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-057-6.
The paperback edition is immediately available from the link above. This and most of the author's other works are supposed to be available in electronic form for online purchase and download from his Web site, but the ordering links appear to be broken at the moment. Note that the 1999 paperback contains some material added since the original 1994 hardcover edition.

February 2004 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Lever Action. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2001. ISBN 0-9670259-1-5.

March 2002 Permalink

Wilson, Cody. Come and Take It. New York: Gallery Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-7826-6.
Cody Wilson is the founder of Defense Distributed, best known for producing the Liberator single-shot pistol, which can be produced largely by additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) from polymer material. The culmination of the Wiki Weapon project, the Liberator, whose plans were freely released on the Internet, demonstrated that antiquated organs of the state who thought they could control the dissemination of simple objects and abridge the inborn right of human beings to defend themselves has been, like so many other institutions dating from the era of railroad-era continental-scale empires, transcended by the free flow of information and the spontaneous collaboration among like-minded individuals made possible by the Internet. The Liberator is a highly visible milestone in the fusion of the world of bits (information) with the world of atoms: things. Earlier computer technologies put the tools to produce books, artwork, photography, music, and motion pictures into the hands of creative individuals around the world, completely bypassing the sclerotic gatekeepers in those media whose offerings had become all too safe and predictable, and who never dared to challenge the economic and political structures in which they were embedded.

Now this is beginning to happen with physical artifacts. Additive manufacturing—building up a structure by adding material based upon a digital model of the desired object—is still in its infancy. The materials which can be used by readily-affordable 3D printers are mostly various kinds of plastics, which are limited in structural strength and thermal and electrical properties, and resolution has not yet reached that achievable by other means of precision manufacturing. Advanced additive manufacturing technologies, such as various forms of metal sintering, allow use of a wider variety of materials including high-performance metal alloys, but while finding applications in the aerospace industry, are currently priced out of the reach of individuals.

But if there's one thing we've learned from the microelectronics and personal computer revolutions since the 1970s, it's that what's scoffed at as a toy today is often at the centre of tomorrow's industrial revolution and devolution of the means of production (as somebody said, once upon a time) into the hands of individuals who will use it in ways incumbent industries never imagined. The first laser printer I used in 1973 was about the size of a sport-utility vehicle and cost more than a million dollars. Within ten years, a laser printer was something I could lift and carry up a flight of stairs, and buy for less than two thousand dollars. A few years later, laser and advanced inkjet printers were so good and so inexpensive people complained more about the cost of toner and ink than the printers themselves.

I believe this is where we are today with mass-market additive manufacturing. We're still in an era comparable to the personal computer world prior to the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981: early adopters tend to be dedicated hobbyists such as members of the “maker subculture”, the available hardware is expensive and limited in its capabilities, and evolution is so fast that it's hard to keep up with everything that's happening. But just as with personal computers, it is in this formative stage that the foundations are being laid for the mass adoption of the technology in the future.

This era of what I've come to call “personal manufacturing” will do to artifacts what digital technology and the Internet did to books, music, and motion pictures. What will be of value is not the artifact (book, CD, or DVD), but rather the information it embodies. So it will be with personal manufacturing. Anybody with the design file for an object and access to a printer that works with material suitable for its fabrication will be able to make as many of that object as they wish, whenever they want, for nothing more than the cost of the raw material and the energy consumed by the printer. Before this century is out, I believe these personal manufacturing appliances will be able to make anything, ushering in the age of atomically precise manufacturing and the era of Radical Abundance (August 2013), the most fundamental change in the economic organisation of society since the industrial revolution.

But that is then, and this book is about now, or the recent past. The author, who describes himself as an anarchist (although I find his views rather more heterodox than other anarchists of my acquaintance), sees technologies such as additive manufacturing and Bitcoin as ways not so much to defeat the means of control of the state and the industries who do its bidding, but to render them irrelevant and obsolete. Let them continue to legislate in their fancy marble buildings, draw their plans for passive consumers in their boardrooms, and manufacture funny money they don't even bother to print any more in their temples of finance. Lovers of liberty and those who cherish the creativity that makes us human will be elsewhere, making our own future with tools we personally understand and control.

Including guns—if you believe the most fundamental human right is the right to one's own life, then any infringement upon one's ability to defend that life and the liberty that makes it worth living is an attempt by the state to reduce the citizen to the station of a serf: dependent upon the state for his or her very life. The Liberator is hardly a practical weapon: it is a single-shot pistol firing the .380 ACP round and, because of the fragile polymer material from which it is manufactured, often literally a single-shot weapon: failing after one or at most a few shots. Manufacturing it requires an additive manufacturing machine substantially more capable and expensive than those generally used by hobbyists, and post-printing steps described in Part XIV which are rarely mentioned in media coverage. Not all components are 3D printed: part of the receiver is made of steel which is manufactured with a laser cutter (the steel block is not functional; it is only there to comply with the legal requirement that the weapon set off a metal detector). But it is as a proof of concept that the Liberator has fulfilled its mission. It has demonstrated that even with today's primitive technology, access to firearms can no longer be restricted by the state, and that crude attempts to control access to design and manufacturing information, as documented in the book, will be no more effective than any other attempt to block the flow of information across the Internet.

This book is the author's personal story of the creation of the first 3D printed pistol, and of his journey from law student to pioneer in using this new technology in the interest of individual liberty and, along the way, becoming somewhat of a celebrity, dubbed by Wired magazine “one of the most dangerous men in the world”. But the book is much more than that. Wilson thinks like a philosopher and writes like a poet. He describes a new material for 3D printing:

In this new material I saw another confirmation. Its advent was like the signature of some elemental arcanum, complicit with forces not at all interested in human affairs. Carbomorph. Born from incomplete reactions and destructive distillation. From tar and pitch and heavy oils, the black ichor that pulsed thermonous through the arteries of the very earth.

On the “Makers”:

This insistence on the lightness and whimsy of farce. The romantic fetish and nostalgia, to see your work as instantly lived memorabilia. The event was modeled on Renaissance performance. This was a crowd of actors playing historical figures. A living charade meant to dislocate and obscure their moment with adolescent novelty. The neckbeard demiurge sees himself keeling in the throes of assembly. In walks the problem of the political and he hisses like the mathematician at Syracuse: “Just don't molest my baubles!”

But nobody here truly meant to give you a revolution. “Making” was just another way of selling you your own socialization. Yes, the props were period and we had kept the whole discourse of traditional production, but this was parody to better hide the mechanism.

We were “making together,” and “making for good” according to a ritual under the signs of labor. And now I knew this was all apolitical on purpose. The only goal was that you become normalized. The Makers had on their hands a Last Man's revolution whose effeminate mascots could lead only state-sanctioned pep rallies for feel-good disruption.

The old factory was still there, just elevated to the image of society itself. You could buy Production's acrylic coffins, but in these new machines was the germ of the old productivism. Dead labor, that vampire, would still glamour the living.

This book recounts the history of the 3D printed pistol, the people who made it happen, and why they did what they did. It recounts recent history during the deployment of a potentially revolutionary technology, as seen from the inside, and the way things actually happen: where nobody really completely understands what is going on and everybody is making things up as they go along. But if the promise of this technology allows the forces of liberty and creativity to prevail over the grey homogenisation of the state and the powers that serve it, this is a book which will be read many years from now by those who wish to understand how, where, and when it all began.

October 2016 Permalink