To start with a positioning statement, I’m not a fan of guns in the popular mindset. They’ve become a cultural point of polarization in North American discourse that’s incredibly frustrating, especially given the horrific toll paid in American lives to the political sticking point of easy gun access. But they’re also a critical part of recent human history, particularly in the construction of colonial powers and the power asymmetries that persist today. They’re worth exploring as designed objects which weigh down and distort the flow of history.
Chiver’s The Gun is a critical look at one player, the most pervasive gun of our day —AK-47 and its offspring — in order to construct one of the best works of design criticism I’ve yet seen (albeit unintentionally). The book spans a few broad strokes: it explores the history of automatic weapons, the inventors, and how at each stage automatic weapons came to shape warfare. It explores Kalashnikov as both an individual designer and a symbolic myth for the Soviet state, and his relationship to both design and design communication over the decades.
As a counter case, it considers the American counterpart, the M-16 rifle, fielded in the Vietnam war, and the compromises both systemic and political that led to its failure. And most importantly, it explores the knock-on effects of a designed object, by showing how a combination of weapons stockpiling in former Soviet block nations, and extreme durability in adverse conditions, have made the automatic Kalashnikov the basic background radiation to violence and conflict for sixty years — conventional, terrorism, insurrectionary, revolutionary.
I just reread this book last week and was reminded why it’s been on my recommendation list for designers looking to expand their awareness of design’s role in society, and the potential for deeply negative, enduring effects of our creations. Kalashnikov certainly never imagined the knock-on effect of his work, and when he died in 2013, was still trying to defend his creation and eschew responsibility for its effect. Certainly, some of that is correct: how could he imagine what might result from his designs? On the other hand, designers today are trained to think not just in the enclosed systems of their works, but in the broader systems within which our creations operate. Culpability in design is something we have to engage with — whether we’re designing small arms or social networks.
So yes. Read this book. It’s had an enduring effect on me and I’m glad to have revisited it — however dark the subject.