Having traveled to parts of the world where war has done its usual nasty work on people’s lives, I have come to develop a particular hatred for the shape, the look, the sound of the AK-47. It was perfected by a Russian named Mikhail Kalashnikov — thus its other alias — in the same year that the Russians completed their first successful test of an atom bomb, and while the latter got more media coverage, the former’s appearance on the scene has been far more damaging to countries and to lives.
Thanks to the dynamics of the Cold War, this gun was the signature weapon of rebel movements around the world — it even graces the national flag of Mozambique. Once the Cold War ended, any former Soviet Army officer worth his salt made a killing in the open market selling these and other stockpiles of small arms into black markets around the world.
Even its most ardent supporters will admit that the Kalashnikov is not the most accurate, elegant or even effective weapon on the market. It has endured because the design is simple, its parts easily replaced or restored, and its low weight and ease of operation make it an ideal weapon for rebel movements and guerrilla groups that don’t have time to train recruits and have to rely on child soldiers, women combatants or on poor, starving conscripts. It is knocked off in China, North Korea, Venezuela and in most of the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Of the 800 million small arms in circulation around the world, around 15 percent are Kalashnikovs.
When the activist Peter Thum approached me about an idea he had to buy AK’s in Congo and melt them down for jewelry, I jumped at the chance. The idea of making swords into plowshares has always been a favorite of mine, and this seemed like a 21st century opportunity to act out that biblical idea. So last month, I invited a few friends over, and a few people who might be interested in the work of Thum’s NGO, Fonderie 47, and we did an enormously satisfying thing. We cut a gun in half. And it was wonderful.