This 1980s miniseries is a marathon of a soap opera, based on three staggeringly successful novels by historical novelist John Jakes, that uses two fictional families and their intertwined fates to tell the story of the American Civil War. The boxed DVD set comprises the three miniseries that begin when young men Orry Main and George Hazard head off to West Point in 1842. Main is a scion of a family of South Carolina planters; Hazard, of Philadelphia industrialists. A chance encounter and the hardships of plebe year bind them together in lifelong friendship. The nation’s coming reckoning with the institution of slavery tears them apart. An array of subplots and secondary characters played by a who’s who of acting talent keep things hopping for generations of Mains and Hazards for a span of some fifty years.
If there are faults with North & South they are that the third miniseries, as we’ll see, falls far short of the bar set by the first two; and some of the characters are too one-sided, especially the villains, who would twirl their mustachios if many of them weren’t women; and some characters that seem to be finally disposed of make soap-opera-like reappearances later. But other characters are remarkably nuanced and complex.
There’s really nothing quite comparable. Thanks to the careful adaptation of Jakes’s work (a number of plot liberties were taken, with Jakes’s approval, to bring the show to the small screen), and Jakes’s well-known obsession with historical accuracy, this miniseries is a fairly decent education in the causes, course, and consequences of the American Civil War. With a subject as well-studied and, to many, personal as the Civil War, quibbles can probably be found, but there are worse ways for a teen to review for a history test than to watch a marathon of North & South.
He just needs to remember that, while Abe Lincoln (well-played by a heavily made-up Hal Holbrook) and Jeff Davis (Lloyd Bridges) are real people, as are Lee and Grant, it’s best to leave anyone named Main or Hazard out of the answers to any essay questions.
Acting and Production
The acting varies from subtle and understated to scenery-chewing of both the soap-opera (many of the actors are soap veterans) and stagey variety. The two protagonists are played skillfully by the late Patrick Swayze (Orry Main) and James Read (George Hazard). Read wasn’t a skillful rider, so prior to shooting, Swayze, who kept a ranch, invited him for a visit and got him comfortable in the saddle — a trip that must have helped them play lifelong friends.
Their loves are portrayed by Lesley-Anne Down, never more beautiful, and Wendy Kilbourne, who is still playing across from James Read as his real-life wife after meeting him on the set of North & South. One somehow doubts that mid-19th-Century women dressed in quite as magnificent gowns as they are shown wearing on the screen; if they did, the men of the era might be understandable in their bewitchment. (Note to today’s so-called “hot chick stars”: broadcasting it all is not titillating, just sleazy).
Nobody writes a villain like Jakes, except perhaps Dickens; and villains like manipulative Ashton Main (Terri Garber, perfectly two-faced), brutish Justin LaMotte (an incredible performance by David Carradine, who ever beat him for the Emmy in ’85?), oily Elkanah Bent (Philip Casnoff) and cruel Salem Jones (the late Tony Frank) are enjoyable (if creepy) to watch. Even short-lived villains like Series II’s malevolent Captain Thomas Turner (Wayne Newton[!]) are hateful delights.
Some old-timers show up and lend class to the proceedings: Holbrook and Bridges as the two Presidents; Jimmy Stewart as an avuncular lawyer who gets jammed between the word he has given and never broken in his life; Johnny Cash as the original Man in Black, John Brown. Look for Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia DeHavilland, and Gene Kelly, and you can’t miss Robert Mitchum in the first series. (We’re leaving many talented actors and enjoyable performances out; it’s that kind of show, there are just too many).
It’s fun to see what subsequently-famous actors appear in small roles among the hundreds of actors and thousands of extras. A young, skinny Kirstie Alley has a key role as a driven abolitionist whose uncompromising nature portends a bad end. Forrest Whittaker, for another example, has a complex supporting role as Cuffey, a slave whose liberation leads him to mischief; a young Bryan Cranston has a blink-you-missed-it role as “Col. Austin,” and there are undoubtedly many others.
As a sweeping story that encompasses the Mexican War, John Brown’s Rebellion, and many of the headline campaigns and battles of the Civil War, the 12-plus hours sometimes strains a made-for-TV budget (the original shows were presented by ABC on broadcast TV). That said, the three productions cost $25 million 1980s dollars, then a TV record.
Not only the war, but also the political intrigues of two separate national capitals at war, factor into the many subplots. (We had never considered, for example, how the “states’ rights” basis of secession hamstrung Davis’s government’s halting attempts at a centralized war effort. The first-cut at Confederate civil authority was as weak as the much-reviled Articles of Confederation of US History). Jakes’s heroes and villains make you want to keep watching.
Unfortunately the three miniseries really comprise two separate productions, and most of what we’ve had to say so far only applies to the first two miniseries. The second production was based entirely on Jakes’s third book of the trilogy, creating real continuity problems, because the first two miniseries made a number of changes. (For instance, Orry Main’s brother Cooper’s character is merged with Orry in Series I and II, but appears out of nowhere in Series III. In the books and in Series III he is the more progressive, if that’s the word, foil to traditionalist Orry). The second production, third series, also lacks the polish and budget (as well as many stars, whose characters were or are killed off at the end of Series II and the start of Series III — including Swayze’s central Orry Main, who appears only in leftover footage from the earlier shows). For most people, if you watch the first two miniseries, you’ve checked the North & South box, made it through to the end of the Civil War, and might want to consider whether you watch the anticlimactic and dissatisfying third series.
Accuracy and Weapons
You can’t tell the Civil War story without guns, and there are guns aplenty. George’s brother Billy joins the First US Sharp Shooters under Col. Daniel Berdan, who is portrayed — accurately — as a detail-obsessed martinet. Naturally, the Sharpshooters shoot Sharpses, although we admit insufficient expertise to quibble, or not. Union cavalry are generally shown with breechloaders, which by 1863 at least was largely true. Some at Appomattox Court House are depicted with brass Henry repeaters.
Cannon figure in a subplot: naughty characters conspire to sell the Union bad cannons and blame this on some of the good characters, others of whom are slain by the same exploding characters. If things like that hadn’t really happened, we’d have found this subplot a bit Hollywood (even though it came from the pen of Mr Jakes, not the screen writers).
To get the right guns, as well as the quantity of extras needed for marching and battle scenes, producer David Wolper employed Civil War reenactors. As is usually the case with films relying on reenactors, the picayune details are mostly taken care of by the painstaking living-history buffs. Of course, today’s reenactors can probably find fault with their 1985 ancestors’ depiction, but it sure beats what Hollywood often does on its own.
As is common with Hollywood films set in the era of black powder, the amount of smoke the weapons generate is deliberately reduced. The cannons sadly don’t recoil when they fire, but other than that, the din and chaos of a Civil War battlefield comes to life.
There is of course no CGI in this vintage film, from before the dawn of digital effects.
Several interesting special features, including a making-of production and various retrospectives by key members of the cast and crew, have been made, but they’re not all included on all DVD prints for reasons known but to Warner Brothers.
The bottom line
North & South is fun, it’s a Civil War tale that doesn’t butcher the history, although there are a few groansome anachronistic attitudes. You get slices of life and of history to include the run up to, conduct of, and aftermath of the Civil War. (With Mexican and Indian wars thrown in as bookends). And you get it packaged with enough romance, intrigue, suspense and excitement that the whole family can watch it with you.
You do need to suspend disbelief enough to think that the same characters would be at Harper’s Ferry when John Brown attacked, at Fort Sumter in the heady early days of secession, with Lincoln as he made his decision on the Emancipation Proclamation, alongside Grant and Lee at the surrender, and, in short, in every single significant event of the entire continent-spanning war (and the following years as well). This is of course a convention of historical fiction, the convention so ably mocked by Winston Groom in Forrest Gump.
But if you know a lot about the Civil War you won’t be offended too much, and if you know a little, you’ll certainly learn more, thanks to North & South.
For More Information
Every once in a while, one of these stories comes along that just defies synopsis. This is one of those stories, one which exists in the strange intersection of a dysfunctional family and an oversupply of -OH radicals in the bloodstream.
A Burien [Washington] man accused of biting off his father’s eyebrow after turning unruly on a drive home from a family wedding has been charged with assault.
King County prosecutors contend Joel Salmeron-Ciprian chomped on his father after the older man pulled over because of his son’s behavior. Salmeron-Ciprian, 30, has been charged with second-degree assault.
According to charging papers, Salmeron-Ciprian’s father was driving his inebriated son and other relatives home from a wedding at 7:45 p.m. on Dec. 1 when he was forced to stop the car.
King County deputy sheriffs arrived to find Salmeron-Ciprian pinned to the ground by his father, who was bleeding from the face. As it turned out, his right eyebrow was missing.
Salmeron-Ciprian fought with deputies, one of whom shocked him with a stun gun, according to charging papers.
Interviewing witnesses, deputies were told Salmeron-Ciprian was drunk and shouting at his father during the ride home. The older man stopped the car after his son tried to grab him from the rear seat of the truck; a fight ensued after the men exited the truck.
Medics responded to the scene and took the older man to the hospital. Deputies arrested Salmeron-Cirprian, who remained irate.
Having threatened to kick the “ass” of one deputy, Salmeron-Ciprian also threatened jail staff, a detective said in charging papers.
“I’m going to eat your face too,” he said, according to charging papers.
Threatening to kick the ass of the arresting officer is always a bad idea, but it comes up frequently when suspects have been hitting the Judgment Juice pretty hard. The reason it’s a bad idea is that, while you may succeed in kicking the ass of one deputy, just about the time you’re basking in the satisfaction of a job well done the rest of his shift shows up spoiling for a fight (and usually all the adjacent and overlapping jurisdictions, too). Thing is, nothing makes a cop show up faster than the thought of taking hold of some wannabe cop-beater and conducting some live tissue training with his PR-24. (Or hers — copchicks sometimes like to show they can swing hickory as well as the guys, and with the average criminal’s luck, he probably looks like the deadbeat who owes her six years child support, and had an affair with her sister).
So the threat to kick a deputy’s or cop’s ass is usually nothing but a ticket into the Hall of Hematoma, noncompliant suspect division.
Threatening to eat the cop’s face — now, that’s a new one on us. (We’ve heard corrections officers hear this from time to time, but most street punks don’t have the imagination to think things like that up on the fly. Neither do the cons, but they have a lot of free time to work up insults). However, we can’t imagine this turning out any better for the suspect, especially if he still has a mouthful of some other chap’s (in this case, his father’s) face.
Actually we don’t know what happened to the missing eyebrow. We leave speculation as an exercise for the reader.
If you’ve seen the Jean-Claude van Damme “epic split” video this will make more sense. If you haven’t, the Belgian brute’s feat, which was an ad for Volvo trucks, is after the jump.
The narration makes no sense to us, but that’s just us. Hit the “more” button to see the ad that Chuck and gang are sending up in this video Christmas card!
Ler’s stop berating the media long enough to crown Leslie Linthicum of the Albuquerque Journal with laurels for her report on the injury, long (and still risky) recovery, and remarkable character of Bernallillo County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Robin Hopkins. Hopkins, the mother of a toddler, took an AK round in the worst and the best possible place.
It was the worst possible place because the steel-cored FMJ round came through her cruiser door and hit her well below the vest. It crashed into her hipjoint, destroying a section of the femur, and, even more alarming, both branches of the femoral artery and the single-branched femoral vein. The bullet lodged in her shattered thigh. But it was the best possible place because of where the wound occured in the physical world. As the criminal sped away to a rendezvous with other officers, and his own mortality, Hopkins’s bullet-riddled Charger coasted to a stop right in front of a fire/rescue station. When seconds count, sometimes the Lord (or blind luck, if you prefer) delivers succor in seconds. Firemen and cops got a tourniquet on — a lesson of GWOT war trauma experience — and rushed her to the hospital.
Here’s a small sample of Ms Linthicum’s excellent report, the part to do with the perpetrator, whose history will not surprise anyone who pays attention to violent crime:
On Oct. 26, Christopher Chase got up in the morning and taped a note to his front door. It gave contact information for his next of kin. He walked a few blocks over to Broadway with two guns and the intention to live up to his knuckle tattoo: Cop killer.
Chase, according to APD Police Chief Allen Banks, had his first run-ins with Albuquerque police in 1992 when he was 14. He was identified as the suspect in property crimes and was arrested for family violence. His record from then on shows another eight arrests – for domestic violence in 1993, battery on a household member in 1994, disorderly conduct and evading officers in 2000, embezzlement in 2004, and a string of arrests for warrants and failing to appear.
Chase was the suspect but not charged as a juvenile and an adult in several burglaries, criminal damage to property cases, in a car theft, an identity theft and a vehicle embezzlement case.
Banks imagines that when Chase went out on that Saturday morning, he was probably picturing a shootout that would settle up his score with police.
When he pulled up next to Hopkins at Fourth and Schulte, aimed his rifle out the window and fired bang, bang, bang, bang, he didn’t see a mother of two children, or a runner, or a yoga practitioner, or a wife or a friend. All he saw was a police car and a badge.
“That was the guy’s intention, to kill cops,” Hopkins says. “It wasn’t personal; it wasn’t Robin Hopkins. It was what I stand for. And I’m OK with that.”
“And fortunately,” she adds, “he did he not kill cops, and he didn’t hurt one citizen.”
via A bullet, a rescue and a long road home | ABQJournal Online.
The scrote in question, Christopher Chase, was a career criminal with a record of convictions stretching for over 20 years of his 35-year life.
Chase had “cop killer” tattooed on his knuckles, but he was a failure even at that antisocial ambition. He wounded four cops, of whom the very alive Hopkins was the most seriously injured. (Her runner’s and yogini’s fitness was probably a factor in her survival, as well as the good fortune of getting shot in front of a building full of paramedics and EMTs).
As a felon, Chase could not legally have acquired the Romanian Cugir Draco AK or Yugoslavian Zastava Tokarev that he had during his shooting spree (all the wounds appear to have been from the AK). It’s true that Linthicum makes a small technical error in referring to the con’s Draco pistol as a “rifle,” but as the Draco is a shortened, stockless derivation of the AK, it’s an error many steeped in the gun culture would also make, and we can’t hold it against her.
Romanian AKs like that, WASR rifles and Draco pistols, were the principal weapons “walked” to Mexican cartel buyers by ATF agents along the Southwest border. It’s unknown whether Hopkins and the three leg-wounded Albuquerque city cops need to be added to the list of at least three American and several hundred Mexican law officers shot with ATF-furnished guns. Everyone should remember that the ATF agents and managers who enabled that spree of cop-killings, and possibly this spree of attempted cop-killings, have mostly been promoted or otherwise given unusual benefits: the only exceptions have been the whistleblowers who dared to talk to Congress or the media.
Returning to the article, Ms Linthicum also reports, en passant, what Deputy Hopkins thinks of citizens’ Second Amendment rights. It’s worth clicking over to the ABQ Journal for that alone. As to what Ms Linthicum thinks of gun law and policy, that’s completely absent from her article, which is a credit to her and her editors. She lets the participants and the facts tell the story.
There are still some questions you will have after the article (how did Chase die, exactly? How many rounds were fired by cops and Chase?) but you can answer some of them with other stories in the same paper.
They used to call it reporting. Please go read. Wouldn’t it be nice if it caught on?
But before you all celebrate, the way it was done is this: the Marines dropped the standard for the convenience of the majority of women, who could not meet it.
The old standard? Three pull-ups. The new? None. That’s because even with extra training, most Marine women couldn’t do three pull-ups by the end of recruit training. This was much lower than the requirement for men, but only 45% of women Marines could achieve this goal.
So, the USMC has erased the goalposts — quietly, without a press release to the outside world.
Meanwhile, 14 enlisted women entered Marine infantry training. Ten of them failed, three passed. The Marines’ propaganda machine described four as passing, for example in this video report, but was forced to admit that one of the four passed, except for “the combat fitness and the physical fitness tests.” Oh, that kind of “pass”.
Comrades, the chocolate ration has been raised from 30 grams to 20 grams a week! And all women Marines have passed their pull-up test.
Actually, this is the third time that we’ve written one of these up. This is not surprising as far more people are killed annually with things like “baseball bats” than they are with things like “assault rifles.”
Miami’s New Times, who never met a criminal they didn’t like more than his victim, starts off saying some nice things about the young perp (right) before saying what he did this Christmas Eve.
Brandon Aydelott loved baseball. He was a varsity player at Gulf Breeze High School who also played in the Golden Gloves competition circuit, which regularly saw scouts from Division 1 schools. The 17-year-old senior could throw a 99 mph fastball — although he averaged about 80 — and also played shortstop. Police say a baseball bat played a part in the murder.
It almost seems like writer Allie Conti is attributing criminal intent to the bat. The same way she writes about guns! (even fake ones). Of course, she’s probably a recipient of a low-quality liberal arts education, like most reporters, and probably never heard of Newton’s First Law of Motion, particularly the bit about “unless an external force is applied to it.” Like most reporters.
Now she gets around to mentioning the victim of that fatal bat beating — Brandon’s mother.
Sharon was a Pensacola native and a single mom. She attended high school and college in Alabama and moved back to become a beloved comprehensive science teacher at Holley-Navarre Middle School.
Is it just us, or have a lot of these murderers been raised by single mothers? Anybody run the percentages?
Her body was found around 6 p.m. Tuesday by a friend who stopped by the house on 1119 Crane Cove Blvd. in Gulf Breeze. The visitor first noticed a front door that was open and smeared with blood before coming across the deceased.
Friends are defined these days as, “who finds you when your only son beats you to death,” apparently. Lord love a duck.
Brandon was found at a nearby home, where he had been staying on and off for several months because of his tumultuous home life. The 6’3″, 200-pound athlete peacefully surrendered and confessed to police how he beat his mom with a bat, cut her throat, and ultimately stabbed her in the eye. It is unclear what their final argument was about.
via Florida Teen Murders His Mom, A Beloved Local Teacher, On Christmas Eve.
Well, of course it’s unclear. It’s not like she can tell us, and he isn’t exactly a credible witness.
In an era of extreme defense retrenchment, there are basically three things you can do, as a company highly dependent on defense contracts:
- You can hope for the budget climate to turn around, while funding your own existence, at least, until the money runs out. This is what Evergreen Air Cargo tried to do; they lost.
- You can try to diversify from government-contract to commercial-contract business. This is too much of a cultural leap for companies addicted to the crack of cost-plus government contracts (we’re lookin’ at you, Booz-Allen) to do. If your company is already running both government and commercial operations, you might not be able to use all your .gov capacity on the .com side, which means wrenching cuts and layoffs. To try to shift your doomed military contract business towards the growth side of government is a variant of this play, but it certainly isn’t possible for everybody. Another variant is to try to sell to foreign militaries, but many of them are themselves addicted to the crack of the DOD Foreign Military Sales aid budget, and with that too declining, doors worldwide are slamming shut to US prime contractors.
- You can just roll the defense side up. You can call it a hiatus or going into standby mode, but once you’ve lost the talent and the tribal knowledge that was your defense operation, you can’t get it back economically.
Boeing Military Aircraft Company has tried #1 and all variations of #2, and is looking at #3 in the short-term future. Boeing’s military side started with the company’s own bomber plant in Wichita, and has grown through several acquisitions. No bombers have been produced in the USA in over a decade, and there are no plans to produce more. The P-8 Poseidon is a weaponized 737, and Boeing’s tanker likewise is a jetliner in a soldier suit. Boeing’s military transport line, the C-17, was acquired with McDonnell Douglas; its plant in Southern California is scheduled to close when the planes now on the schedule, which are for foreign air forces or completely on spec, are complete. Boeing’s helicopters came from acquisitions of Hughes and, much earlier, Piasecki; the AH-64 production line, too, is likely to close (Boeing didn’t retain the smaller Hughes helicopter line).
The production line on the bubble now — its fate will be decided in the next ninety days — is the St. Louis fighter line, also acquired in the McDonnell Douglas purchase. Foreign interest in the planes has been sunk by the jet’s uncompetitively high prices ($50 million plus for a base Super Hornet, $60 m for a Growler). This pricing is the result of decades of cost-plus sales to the US DOD. With Navy orders for Super Hornet and Growler fighter and electronic-warfare aircraft cut again, the production line that produced over 5,000 Phantoms before turning out thousands of F-18s is likely to go silent — for good.
If there are, as currently projected, no F-18 E/F or EA-18G orders in the 2015 budget, the long lead time items for that production won’t be ordered in 2014, and the St Louis plant and, probably, some parts makers, will close by 2016.
Boeing has no follow-on contracts or designs for combat or cargo aircraft, and they’ve lost competition for contract after contract. Company leadership has been preoccupied with the commercial market, where Boeing faces its own challenges, and by such self-inflicted drama as the relocation of corporate HQ to a city far from any customers or plants and a botched attempt at outsourcing that traded vital intellectual property for cheap, but below-spec parts.
The US Air Force is looking to run a trainer competition. The US industrial base for military aircraft has already become so decrepit that all three of the currently announced competitors originate in foreign countries (UK, South Korea, and, we are not making this up, Russia). Boeing no longer has the capability to design such an aircraft in-house, and has been seeking partnership with SAAB of Sweden.
So that’s where we stand: during two periods of defense cuts (the 1990s and the current era), our broad and deep military aircraft industry consolidated into two massive companies, one of which is on the brink of a market exit, and neither of which can design an unarmed jet trainer.
So we had a slate of posts for today all queued up, but some genius (ahem) didn’t hit the “Publish” button. We figured it out when no one commented on our awesome 0600 AK reliability post. We just put it up about 18 hours late, and we’re going to leave things at that through 1100 Friday.
Your WeaponsMan.Com dues for Boxing Day will be refunded 😉
Back to normal (?) after that 1100 post. Thanks for reading and for commenting!
The Avtomat Kalashnikova obrazets 1974g and its successors have an enviable reputation for reliability, especially under adverse conditions. There are a number of reasons for this, and we’ll go into them in some depth here. First, though, let’s say what is not a cause:
- It’s not because of blind luck.
- It’s not because the weapon is orders of magnitude better than its worldwide competitors. Indeed, by the end of WWII a very high standard of reliability had come to be expected, and weapons that did not meet this standard were mercilessly eliminated, like the Johnson M1941 and the Tokarev SVT.
- It’s not because Kalashnikov the man had genius that was lacking in other men. His competitors in the field, from Browning, to the Mauser-werke engineers of the 1940s to Stoner, were certainly men of genius as well. (Heck, so were Tokarev and Johnson). He’d have been the first to tell you he was just a thinking engineer.
- It’s not because of breakthroughs. Almost every feature of the AK is recycled from somewhere else. What Kalashnikov did was synthesize them in a new way.
The Kalashnikov rifle is not, in fact, a universally superior design. Compared to its worldwide competitors (the FN SAFN and FAL, the CETME and G3, the M14 and M16 series, to name the most important), it is less accurate, less flexible/adaptable, and less ergonomic than every other. It offers less practical range than any other; and at the other extreme of range, it is the worst bayonet handle. It weighs more than some, has the heaviest magazines by far, and has an inferior weight-to-firepower ratio to most. It is inaccurate from the shoulder in full-automatic fire, yet it is designed to be fired, preferentially, on full automatic.
The strengths of the AK have overcome these deficiencies to make it incredibly common worldwide. Those strengths, compared to its competitors, include a somewhat lighter weight of ammunition, a larger standard magazine, great simplicity of operation and ease of manufacture, and that vaunted reliability, perhaps its most salient characteristic.
Design features of the AK which contribute to its reliability include:
The AK is almost as simple as a hammer. It is simple to build and manufacture (we’ll go into some specifics below). It uses no space-age materials, not even any aeronautical technology, just 19th-Century steel and iron and wood. (Much later, Kalashnikovs would have composite magazines and composite furniture. The US put composite stocks on BARs by 1944, and had them ready for the M1 and M14 in the 1950s, but an AK would not have a composite stock in its home nation for another forty years). There is no advanced machinery needed to produce an AK — indeed, one can be built (and they have been built) with hand tools and no precision measuring equipment, not even a micrometer. The rifle itself has no parts that cannot be filed, ground or machined from steel, or hammered from sheet metal, or riveted or welded from parts made this way. Most auto repair shops have the tools needed to build an AK, apart from rifling the barrel; the necessary materials are in the same shop’s scrap pile.
The AK’s operating system is simple and proven, a long-stroke gas piston system and a rotating bolt. Unlike the dainty bolt of the AR system (lifted itself from the M1941 Johnson) with its 7 precision locking lugs (and one false lug on the extractor), the AK bolt has two locking lugs, oversized, overstrong, and remarkably tolerant of undersized contact patches with the locking recesses of the trunnion. (Factory AKs have wide disparities here, especially those made by some of the more slipshod non-Russian, non-Chinese factories. The guns all seem to headspace correctly, operate normally, and fire reliably).
The AK does have one part that is a highly complex weldment: the magazine. The magazine and the feed path in general is very simple, straightforward, and repeatable, which is why the mag clearly got a lot of engineering hours. Gun designer David Findlay, who’s worked at Remington, Marlin, H&R 1871, and Smith & Wesson, says**:
Feed-system design, though, is one of the most important aspects of any weapons performance. A great deal of testing must be done to ensure good performance. Small variations and subtleties in magazine dimensions can have enormous impact on gun reliability and function.
Findlay wrote these words in explaining the engineering of the feed path of the Thompson Submachine Gun, but they’re generally applicable, and go a long way to explaining why Mikhail Kalashnikov lavished so much care on the magazine design. The fact that the receiver of the AK has received many modifications, but that the only change to the magazine is in reinforcing ribs and later magazine-body materials seems to hint he got it right.
An old engineer’s quip is that the designer’s objective is to “simplicate and add lightness.” (This has been attributed, among others, to automotive engineer Colin Chapman and aerospace engineer Burt Rutan). Mikhail Kalashnikov started off by “simplicating” most of the potential for trouble out of his design. (He didn’t make “adding lightness” a priority).
2. Environmental protection
Every designer has long known that foreign matter — mud, dust, and what have you — are the bitter enemies of reliable function in the short term, and that corrosion, rust, is the long-term destroyer of gun reliability. If you examine an AK you will see that it’s hard for foreign matter to intrude into, say, a dropped rifle. The safety, modeled loosely on that of the Remington Model 8 (a Browning design), does double duty in sealing the gap between the receiver and the nonstructural receiver cover. In operation, the charging handle, which is part of the bolt carrier, reciprocates in the open slot that the safety/selector seals shut. That seal and the lack of other large entrees into the receiver keep the interior clean.
Unlike Browning or Stoner, Kalashnikov was limited by the Soviet industrial base; he couldn’t call out exotic materials or sophisticated protective treatments, so early AKs were all steel and rust blued, an attractive finish that was weak at preventing corrosion. Some critical parts, though, notably the gas port area, the gas piston, and the bore, received hard chrome plating, and the weapon is designed in such a way that rust or pitting on other parts just does not matter in terms of reliable function or accuracy. It’s not unusual to find AKs in the field with all kinds of surface rust and pitting on their exteriors, only to find that the vitals, protected by chrome plating, have held up, and the guns still shoot within the modest (and sufficient) standards of a new AK.
3. Lack of small, dainty (and fragile) parts
A field-stripped AK contains nothing you’ll need to grope for if you drop it in tall grass (or mud, or a stream) in the dark. The pieces are big and robust, deliberately so, and this philosophy extends to the internals.
The story of the development of any weapon you care to name involves interesting (and sometimes distressing) breakages. The FN, for example, was prone to firing-pin failures (the answer, which took the experts of three countries to fix, was to reduce the hardness of the part, as measured on the Rockwell C scale, and to shot-peen its surfaces: problem solved). The very first AR-10 tested by the US government had a bullet emerge from the side of the barrel in testing, not exactly a confidence-builder. (They gave up on an AL alloy barrel with a steel liner, then, which neutralized the gun’s weight advantage over the extant M14). Indeed, the AR-10 had terrible problems well into its development and production, and the Portuguese were still solving problems with it during their colonial wars in the 1970s. Many of those same problems, and a set of new ones, struck during development and production of the M16. The AK presumably had problems with these, but because the information was closely held at the time, archives have not fully opened, and most of the principals passed on without leaving technical memoirs, we know about only a few of them (for example, the failure of the first model stamped receivers, which caused a change to a machined-from-billet receiver).
The internals, though, seem to have been robust from the very beginning. Kalashnikov’s point of departure was the Garand trigger group, which itself borrowed from Browning. (Stoner would choose that same point of departure). This is part of the brilliance of the design: he wasn’t inventing for the sheer joy of inventing, but to make something that worked. That means, where he didn’t have a way of doing it better than someone else, he borrowed happily.
Borrowing aside, the Kalashnikov’s departures from Garand practice (apart from those required to render the weapon selective-fire, and to improve the Garand’s sub-optimal safety) showed a lot of interest in making things sturdier. The hammer spring, for instance, is made of two wires coiled together, giving some small redundancy; it also does double-duty in the AK as the trigger return spring.
4. Minimal use of tight tolerances
There are some parts of a gun that absolutely must fight tightly to ensure accurate, safe, and yes, reliable operation. On the AK, almost all of those are permanently assembled at the factory (the barrel into the trunnion, for example). The trigger mechanism is designed with a lot of slop and play in it, which is why AKs have that typically very long, smooth trigger pull with a surprise let-off (SKSes are similar), but it isn’t that way to manage the trigger pull: it’s there so the mechanism will be positive and safe the first time and the 1,000,000th time.
The only moving parts with truly tight tolerances are the fit of the bolt lugs into the trunnion, which affects headspace. For safety and accuracy headspace has to be right on. But the non-bearing surfaces in the trunnion are opened up enough that dust and dirt has somewhere to pack into, other than interfere with the tight fight of bolt to trunnion. John Garand considered the wise use of tolerances key to the legendary reliability of the M1*. Like the AK, its only critical tolerances in the operating mechanism come from the interface of the lugs of the rotating bolt with the mating recesses of the receiver.
5. Use of very loose tolerances everywhere else
Garand deliberately eschewed the use of a bolt carrier in place of an operating rod. He considered the competing bolt carrier and tipping bolt design (as used in Tokarev, Simonov and FN rifles) more troublesome both in production and in service because they had more critical tolerances. While the AK uses a bolt carrier, its fit to the bolt and receiver is if anything even less critical and looser than Garand’s op-rod.
What Rayle (and Garand) thought of as an innate flaw in bolt-carrier vs, op-rod systems, the need for precision tolerances both on the locking/headspacing feature of the bolt and its receiver, and also on the interface of the bolt with the bolt carrier, turns out to be an innate flaw in the Browning (Tokarev, Simonov, Saive, Vervier, etc). tipping bolt. The AK’s bolt can interface with its carrier just as loosely as the M1s does with its operating rod, with no harm to the functioning of the rifle.
This is not to say that nothing on the AK is manufactured with precision. (That would be the STEN). The beauty of the AK, from an engineering design viewpoint, is that nothing is manufactured with unnecessary precision.
To Sum Up
These things, taken together, suggest that the AK is narrowcast at its original role as a submachine gun replacement for the semi-literate peasant conscript army of a nation lacking depth in precision manufacturing. It was the perfect gun for the Red Army in World War II, even if it came a little too late. It was also, therefore, the perfect gun for the continuation Soviet Army.
Unlike the service rifles of the USA or Germany, or the first-generation battle rifles of the West in the 1950s, the AK was manufactured without an excess of precision which limited its adaptability as, say, a sniper rifle. (The AK’s then-unique use of an intermediate cartridge also did this). But it suited Soviet doctrine of mass attacks and mass fires well. Unlike the NATO rifleman, the Soviet soldier, although instructed in semiautomatic fire on ranges, was also extensively drilled in live-fire obstacle courses, and was expected to run them firing on full-automatic, from the hip. He was the heir of the submachine-gun battalions of the Battle of Berlin, and planned to fight the same way, as mechanized infantry guarding the flanks and securing the obstacle-ridden forests and towns to enable the great tank attack. Hence, the first click off safety on an AK is full-auto, contrary to every successful NATO selective-fire rifle.
The same adaptations, design decisions, and production practicality that made the AK a perfect replacement for Ivan’s retired PPSh submachine guns, made the AK a perfect weapon for terrorist groups, “national liberation” movements, and under-resourced armies of newly free colonies worldwide.
Like the Mauser before it, the AK is a universal gun. And like the Mauser, the AK will be with us until something better supplants it. And “better,” in this case, will be defined by history and by nations, not necessarily by gun experts.
* John Garand’s comments come from Rayle, Roy E. Random Shots: Episodes in the Life of a Weapons Designer.
** Findlay, David S. Firearm Anatomy: Book I: The Thompson M1A1 Submachine Gun. p. 76. San Bernardino, CA, 2013: Findlay, David S.
Something quite remarkable happened. For the first time, men were in position to see the Earth rise over another heavenly body, on the Apollo 8 circumlunar mission. This video from the Goddard Space Flight Center shows how the three astronauts teamed up to take an iconic photograph.
This happened off the air, at least as far as the public is concerned. The audio in that video came from the spacecraft voice recorder.
The broadcast that evening, the one that those of us who were alive at the time of Apollo 8 in 1968 heard, was different. The astronauts read an excerpt from the Book of Genesis in the King James version of the Bible. All America, and much of the world, listened. Some inconsequential, since-forgotten militant atheist later tried to sue the astronauts and NASA. We couldn’t figure out how to embed the file, so we have to send you to the horse’s mouth, as it were.
We have more to say, but this is not the day to be on topic. Instead, we give you this off-topic but very much on-point post, and sign off with a line cribbed from that broadcast from lunar orbit:
Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you on the good Earth.
Uh, yeah, correction on the fifty-five versus forty-five thing. Thanks, guys. I will not draft posts at 0300. I will not draft posts at 0300. I will not draft posts….
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.