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Point and Shoot

Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel
By Julia Keller

(Viking, 294 pages, $25.95)

AK-47: The Story of a Gun
By Michael Hodges

(MacAdam Cage, 210 pages, $24)

A bullet is a terrible thing. It can travel the length of three football fields and explode a man's spleen. What could be more terrible? A rain of bullets – a veritable storm of spleen-destroyers – leaving no square foot of air free from reaching death.

Richard Gatling built the world's first practical "machine gun" – and what an apt term that is, making the soldier out to be no longer an artisan of battle but an industrial-scale taker of lives. Gatling was the prototypical Yankee tinkerer, a self-educated deviser of farm implements, including a mechanical planter that fed seeds from a hopper. From seeds, creators of life, it was an easy jump to bullets: Death too could be fed from a hopper. Gatling employed six rifle barrels in a tight cluster. A crank positioned each barrel in turn to have a new bullet dropped into its breech.

It was an elegant solution to a problem that had bedeviled armorers for a century – the best of soldiers could fire only two or three rounds a minute. The gun itself, writes Julia Keller in "Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel," made a "perfect circle of gleaming barrels, gleaming smartly in the fresh dawn of a world newly besotted by technology." Alas, Ms. Keller is more adept at writing poetic phrases than at showing us how the weapon actually operated. (For that, go to the Internet site HowStuffWorks.com.)

Gatling's patent was filed during the U.S. Civil War. With the naiveté of inventors everywhere, he urged the gun's adoption by the Union army on the grounds that it would not only crush the rebellion but "save lives, wounds and sickness, by lessening the number [of soldiers] subjected to the perils of war." But armies have ever been slow to change their ways, and it was not until the Spanish-American War in 1898 that American soldiers swept to victory (at San Juan Hill) under the protective cover of Gatling guns.

By then, however, the multiple-barreled machine gun was obsolete, having been replaced by a truly automatic weapon from another Yankee, Hiram Maxim, who used the recoil from one exploding cartridge to jack another into the breech, with the bullets fed from a belt. For the first time, a machine gun could be made compact enough to be carried by two infantrymen instead of rolled about like an artillery piece.

By the time Maxim patented his machine gun, he was a British citizen – Sir Hiram, thanks to his contributions to the Royal Army. Despite Britain's head start, it was Germany that began World War I with an inventory of 5,000 machine guns. (Britain had only 200 or 300.) Ms. Keller quotes a German gunner writing home about an early encounter between machine guns and massed infantry: "The English fell in heaps."

The grail, of course, was to do away with the distinction between soldier and machine gunner. Every army, by the time of World War II, equipped its infantry squads with one or two light machine guns – weapons that spewed out short bursts of fire – but it was not until the Cold War that the U.S. and the Soviet Union each made a concerted effort to do away with the infantry rifle altogether.

The Russians got there first, thanks to Sgt. Mikhail Kalashnikov, who in 1947 built an automatic rifle with just eight moving parts, so stoutly put together that it proved almost impervious to dirt, sand and mud. This was the AK-47, which Michael Hodges celebrates in words as lyrical as Ms. Keller's: "Sublime," he gushes of its design, remarking on "the curve of the magazine, the parallel lines of the barrel and the gas tube."

Ironically, as Mr. Hodges tells us, Kalashnikov took his inspiration not from the well-machined weapons of the German army but from the redoubtable M-1 Garand carried by American GIs during World War II. For its part, the U.S. Army eventually followed the German example, choosing a light, finely machined, small-caliber weapon that until 1964 had been the province of local law-enforcement officers. When the Vietnam War heated up, the M-16 (designed by Eugene Stoner) was adopted wholesale by U.S. forces. In the hands of trained warfighters, it is actually a better weapon than the AK-47, an assessment that Mr. Hodges heatedly rejects and that, in any case, detracts not at all from the weapon's fame and ubiquity.

Intended to be maintained by the illiterate conscripts of the Red Army, the AK-47 eventually showed itself to be ideal for peasant armies, rebel guerrillas, child soldiers and drug lords. There are millions of Kalashnikov's automatic rifles in combat around the world. So iconic is the gun that it appears on the flag of Mozambique, crossed with a hoe as one of the essential implements of national liberation. For all we read of weapons of mass destruction, the homely AK-47 – costing as little as $100 from a Bulgarian factory – is the true WMD. It has killed far more human beings than all the nuclear, bacteriological and chemical weapons ever employed.

But it is not true, as Mr. Hodges would have us believe, that the AK-47 is the nemesis of American warfighters in Iraq. Most casualties there are inflicted by roadside bombs. "Small arms fire" now ranks third as a slayer of our soldiers and Marines, behind such mundane traumas as traffic accidents.

Mr. Ford is the author, most recently, of "Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942" (2007).

(First published in the Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2008)