The internet is filled with endless, unresolved, binary debates such as: blonde vs. brunette, Pele vs. Maradona, Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi, Lion vs. Tiger, Mercedes-Benz vs. BMW, etc. Fans hotly argue against each other, sometimes fanatically, with each side glorifying its “idol” and listing its undisputable merits, while disproving the opposite side’s arguments and mocking its self-evident “stupidity.” Sometimes during my long journeys of internet-surfing, I become locked up in these debates; not necessarily because I’m interested in the topic itself, but just for the fun of watching people tearing each other apart over it. Recently I became interested in the ultimate quarrel over the best assault rifle in the world: Is it the Russian/Soviet AK-47 (the Kalashnikov) or its American rival, the M-16?
I’m not by any means a gun enthusiast and I don’t claim any special expertise in this area. I did actually once shoot with the AK-47 during my military training in school (in Syria high school students used to receive lousy military training, but it was cancelled later. Now, tragically, many young Syrians do it for real!). I would like, however, to show that the contrast between the AK-47 and the M-16 is not merely a matter of technical features and performance, but of philosophy, i.e. philosophy of design.
When spoken of rifles, the first thing that may come to mind is accuracy and range. In these terms, the more technically sophisticated M-16 clearly surpasses the crude AK-47, which was developed about a decade earlier than its American counterpart. In the following video, you see American actor and former soldier R. Lee “Gunny” Ermey—with his American-cowboy character—testing the rifle of the “good guys” (the M-16, of course) against the one of the “bad guys.” He shoots to the sound of hard rock music with his M-16 on a target making more hits than the other guy with the AK-47, who shoots tediously without music in the background.
Combat, however, often does not take place in controlled, clean environments like shooting ranges. If you give R. Lee Ermey an M-16 and throw him in the middle of the dirty, muddy jungles of Vietnam against a Vietcong carrying an AK-47, the odds might be heavily against him.
The reliability, durability, and ease of use of the AK-47 are legendary. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of his namesake rifle, described once how the test models of the AK-47 were dragged in sand and then fired without the need to clean them. Even when it jams, an AK-47 can be cleaned and repaired within seconds in the middle of a firefight. The M-16, on the other hand, is notorious for its “allergy” to the smallest particles of dirt to the extent that American soldiers used condoms to cover the barrels of their rifles to protect them. The M-16 does not only jam much more often than the AK-47, but it is also difficult to clean and it consumes so much valuable time to fix during the battle, which may cost its user his life.
(A more serious documentary from the Discovery Channel about the clash between the M-16 and AK-47 in the Vietnam War)
While the AK-47 is so simple that “even an idiot can get it going,” American soldiers were issued comic-book-style manuals to teach them how to maintain their M-16’s. The procedures were apparently so complicated that they had to use erotic language and images to explain to soldiers how to take care of their rifles! The soldier is introduced to a sexy blonde woman, whose name is Connie Cooes, and invited to “strip” her to “know her inside out, every contour and curve, every need and whim, what makes her tick.” It is no wonder that American soldiers used condoms to protect their “sexy” M-16’s!
To view the complete manual, see here
The frequent malfunctions of the M-16 and its complicatedness proved to be disastrous for the mighty American military in its war against the poorly trained Vietcong soldiers with their dependable, tough AK-47 rifles. This failure illustrates clearly how technological sophistication does not necessarily yield the desired results in real-life situations. One might be tempted to think that the triumph of the AK-47 over the M-16 (at least in combat environments like that of the Vietnam War) was the result of pure luck: The Soviets were technologically backward and less wealthy compared with Americans, so they had to make simple, cheap guns and it happened by chance that their product came to be more efficient and effective in the battlefield than the American’s.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The AK-47 was not the outcome of a limited mind or limited resources; quite the opposite: the AK-47 is the outcome of a genius mind that knew exactly what is needed in the battlefield and what is not. The philosophy behind it is to make the most easy-to-use, cost-effective, and mass-producible rifle in the world, and Kalashnikov obviously succeeded in that. The AK-47 is the most produced weapon in the world with some 75 million units having been manufactured. It has probably killed more people than any other individual or heavy weapon including weapons of mass-destruction. Certainly from an ethical perspective, this is abhorrent, especially when one takes into consideration that it is the weapon of choice for child soldiers, but from a disinterested technical viewpoint, this is ultimate genius.
The contrast between the M-16 and the AK-47 is not the only example of the clash between simplicity and perfectionism in military design. Another famous example is the confrontation between the mighty German Nazi Tiger-1 tank and the Soviet T-34 at the Eastern Front of World War II. The Tiger-1 represented the peak of mechanical engineering and sophistication of any nation at the time. It was a fierce, muscular-looking beast that struck terror in the hearts of Allied soldiers who confronted it. As described in this informative documentary, the Tiger-1 was designed as a 60-tonn piece of propaganda to deliver a psychological as well as a physical message to the enemies of the Nazis. It was regarded as the “master tank” of the “master race.”
People tend to judge products of the same type on one-to-one basis in laboratory-like environments. In this case, it is true that the T-34 stands no chance with the Tiger-1, but this is not what happened at the battlefields of the Eastern Front. The production of an item is a complicated process that starts with design, through manufacturing, until the final product is out. Hence judgment should be made on the whole process, not on the final product alone. The Tiger-1 was a very expensive, over-engineered tank that consumed extensive resources and labor. The Germans were never able to produce more than 1300 items of this model, whereas the Russian with their mass-production techniques, which, by the way, were borrowed from Ford’s automobile factories in Detroit, were able to manufacture some 60,000 T-34 tanks. What chances has the Tiger-1 against the T-34 on a 1-to-46 basis, particularly on the widely stretched Eastern Front? It is reported than one German Tiger-1 tank stood its ground against 50 T-34 tanks, but this was probably one-in-a-thousand case scenario. The German unrestrained quest for perfectionism in engineering cost them so dear that they suffered terrible defeat to the hordes of tanks of the “inferior Slavonic race.”
It is interesting to know that the Nazis also issued racy illustrated manuals (Tigerfibel) to their Tiger-1 staff with images of sexy women to help them in operating and maintaining their tanks. Probably Americans borrowed this idea from the Nazis to make their M-16 manuals; failing to see that sexy images cannot make an overly complicated machine works better!
To view the complete manual of the Tiger-1, see here