Category Archives: Design

Shoddy Manufacturing Made the AK-47 Durable

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Image via NYT, this fully functional AK-47 is as old as my parents (made in 1954) and discovered in a Taliban gun locker in Afghanistan. Photograph by famed AK-47 expert C.J. Chivers

While researching a piece for Works That Work magazine on the endurance of the AK-47, I came across a very surprising little nugget of insight. You see, the AK-47 is like the living-dead of automatice rifles– you can abuse it, never clean it, throw it in a lake for a few weeks, bury it for a couple of decades. And then, just a little digging and minimal dirt removal later and pop! pop!! pop! pop! pop!! the AK will still spew bullets like water through a hose.

Don’t believe me? Just watch the clip below in which an AK-47 that has been buried for 18 years in the dirt of South Africa is excavated and fired.

Okay. Okay. So we all know that AK-47s are durable and all. But what I recently discovered is the reason.

Apparently in the mid-20th century gun manufacturers were concerned about making high quality parts with perfectly fitting components. Gun makers (especially in the US) would use precision machine tools to mill parts with exacting tolerances and little room for imperfection.

But Russian arms makers didn’t have the luxury of such machines. They had to work with relatively primitive assembly plants and a potentially inebriated workforce. So the automatic rifle that came off of the assembly line would rattle if the return spring was removed and tension between the parts was released. But this mediocre construction is the secret to the AK’s success!

From the NYT:

The very fact that its parts were “loose fitting, rather than snug” meant that it was “less likely to jam when dirty, inadequately lubricated or clogged with carbon from heavy firing.” “It was so reliable,” Chivers writes, that even when it was “soaked in bog water and coated with sand” its Soviet testers “had trouble making it jam.”

mind = blown

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Selling Fear: Gun Advertising Aimed At Women

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Yesterday afternoon I popped over to Quad Cinema on 13th Street and watched A Girl And A Gun, Cathryne Czubek’s recently released documentary on female gun owners in America. It is an excellent cross section of stories from a variety of women whose lives have been touched by firearms: from the Tai Chi instructor who purchased a handgun for protection against an ex-boyfriend to the mother and victim’s right’s advocate whose daughter was paralyzed by a stray bullet.

But the film churned up a whole host of contradictory feelings: pride in the women who have mastered gun use as a sport and tool for empowerment, anxiety and moral disdain at the fact that guns make it easier for us to kill one another, internal debate about whether women using guns was an appropriation of male patriarchy and oppression or an assertion of independence. I’m not sure that I’ll ever reconcile all of these reactions. But I am very clear on my feelings about one section of the film: fear-based gun advertisements aimed at women.

Scotsdale Gun Club Ad

For decades, firearms companies have told women that we need guns for protection and safety. And I hate this. I feel it is an acceptance of male violence — that it is energy and effort misdirected to treat a symptom instead of addressing the real problem and finding a solution. These advertisements seem to assume that the danger comes from outside of the home. And that it is the woman’s job to stop instead of society’s job to prevent.

And even firearms instructors buy into the idea that women need guns in order to not be murdered or raped. The very nice gentleman who taught me how to shoot two years ago talked about how I needed to carry a gun in my car in case it broke down in a rural part of the state and I was left alone on the side of the road. “Don’t be a victim,” he told me. A male instructor shown in A Girl And A Gun says “I absolutely guarantee to you that nobody ever raped Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Wesson.”

The World Health Organization recently reported:

Physical or sexual violence is a public health problem that affects more than one third of all women globally… intimate partner violence is the most common type of violence against women, affecting 30% of women worldwide.

ladies home companion

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“Making Guns”: pistol forms as tools for creation

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Designer James Shaw’s Plastic Extruding Gun, photograph taken by Paul Plews, via jamesmichaelshaw.co.uk

Ah, those critical UKers! First Tony Dunne on the need for a designers’ Hippocratic oath, then Francis North’s Comfort Gun. And now I’ve found recent RCA grad James Shaw and his Making Guns, three gun-shaped tools for additive creation. Rather than spewing out speeding bullets, Shaw’s three homemade gadgets respectively shoot out papier mache, pewter, and blobs of recycled plastic.

But what’s really fascinating about these funky object-makers is what the use of the pistol form can reveal about human impulses and the desire for control. These guns don’t kill or explode or rend. They don’t make holes in anything. They’re objects used for creation rather than destruction. Yet, as Shaw acknowledged in a piece last week on Wired.com:

We have nail guns, spray guns, and handheld drills, Shaw points out, something he attributes to “our desire to dominate and master materials and our environment.”

Is the form of the gun–regardless of its purpose or design–an inherently agressive object? One that necessarily connotes control? I suppose the same question could be asked of any tool used to shape the world, from shovels to iPhones. But it made me wonder if the form of the pistol at its most basic and abstract could ever fully escape its associations with violence and human agression.

Shaw’s closing quote from the Wired piece also struck me:

“The exciting thing about making new types of tools is that they will necessarily allow new forms and types of objects.”

New tools also allow new forms of social interaction and understanding of human capability. It’s interesting to think back to an era in which firearms themselves were new tools, newly shaping the people and relationships that surrounded them. The material creations of these guns help make one think of the immaterial changes wrought by conventional firearms.

For more images of Shaw’s Making Guns and their odd creations, visit his website: jamesmichaelshaw.co.uk

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Designer James Shaw takes aim with his Pewter Squirting Gun, photograph taken by Paul Plews, via jamesmichaelshaw.co.uk

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A Girl And A Gun

A friend sent me the link to this amazing trailer for “A Girl and A Gun.” It looks like it tackles some of my favorite issues– targeted advertising, genderization of firearms, narratives of security, gun aesthetics. It’s playing at Quad Cinema here in NYC beginning on July 5th. There should be a Q&A following one of the screenings that weekend. Anyone care to join?

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Tiny Guns For Tiny Toys

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Image of “BrickArms Bandit — Mr. Black” via BrickArms

Last week CNN reported on a study by interaction expert Christoph Bartneck demonstrating that LEGO figures are getting angrier. In his examination of LEGO miniatures, the New Zealand-based Bartneck found that the little people are sporting harsher facial expressions and more tiny guns than ever before.

I was entirely prepared to pitch in and write a short (but thoughtful) post implying that the increased aggressiveness of the LEGO figures might mirror some sort of increased glorification of aggressiveness in the culture. But then I checked out Bartneck’s blog, specifically this post in which he responds to last week’s media firestorm around his research.

Surely there is a relationship between the artifacts and ourselves. We shape the tools and toys and they shape us. But it is a complex relationship in which causalities are difficult to establish. Our little LEGO study was never intended to give an answer to this question and it certainly cannot even give a hint. We have only been able to scientifically establish that there are now proportionally less happy faces and more angry faces. But this is the main question that has been asked by the reporters. I feel sorry to have to disappoint the reporters and readers. I am not able to give you any scientific proof that LEGO is good or bad for your children.

There seems to be another narrative embedded here. One in which the tools we use for play as children end up profoundly shaping our lives as adults. It’s the same sort of question involved in asking whether your kid should be able to play violent video games or use an adult’s iPad. It’s a question I think I’ve also been circling with posts about Keystone’s children’s rifles the V&A’s exhibition on war toys.

Obviously our objects and built environments inform how we think. But do angry LEGOs make angry children?

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Nike Shoes Transformed Into Pistols

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‘Nike Air Max Assault Weapons’ images created by Phil Robson, via HiConsumption

Yesterday’s post examined a piece of children’s furniture that appropriated the gun aesthetic. Today we’re flipping this idea to look at a collection of stunning concept guns that stole their look from Nike sneakers. Created by Australian graphic designer Phil Robson (aka Fil Fury), each of the Nike Air Max Assault Weapons takes the form of an existing firearm (Beretta, Uzi, etc) and remixes it with a running shoe. The result is a series of surreal, Nike-branded weapons that leaves me wondering what kind of world these objects might exist in.

A few ideas:

  • Dystopian future in which consumer brands become warring nation states that attract soldiers by providing trendy military swag.
  • Parellel universe in which Nike co-founder Phil Knight takes up marksmanship instead of running in college and builds off of his post-grad military service to create a wildly successful Japanese-inspired line of consumer firearms
  • An alternate reality in which technology and human compassion have made firearms obsolete-yet-highly-collectable decorative objects. Like all brands, Nike decides to get in on the action. Ah yes. Guns as the new Beenie Babies…

These are surprising objects, no? They subvert our expectation of what guns are supposed to look like. Actually, now that I think about it, they sort of remind me of the Neos pistol by Beretta. See what I mean:

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Huh. Interestingly enough this gun’s name Neos, like Nike, was also taken from ancient Greek. Nike was the Goddess of Victory, an embodiment of triumph. Neos means “new.” The appropriation and remixing of Greek art and architecture and is a recurring theme in the history of design. There may be something in this.

Additional images of Nike Air Max Assault Weapons (and one actual Nike sneaker, if you can tell) below. For more information on Robson’s work, visit his website or HiConsumption.

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Image of Nike Air Max sneaker via Nike; Images of ‘Nike Air Max Assault Weapons’ created by Phil Robson, via HiConsumption

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Where Gun Design Meets Crib Design

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John Browning Crib designed by Aaron Coston, images and information via Guns and Tactics

The above crib pays homage to the prodigious gun designer John Moses Browning (who created among other classics, the M1911 pistol that was standard-issue for the army for nearly 75 years and–interesting trivia–is the state gun of Utah). The front railing of the crib was designed to emulate the stocks of two 1895 Winchester lever-action rifles, the crib poles are made of steel rifle barrels, the headboard features Browning’s “buckmark” insignia and cut-outs of the Auto 5 shotgun. There are additional, subtler gun details that you can read about at Guns and Tactics but rest assured that  a great deal of thought, planning, and design ingenuity went into this piece.

The crib was created by gun-lover Aaron Coston when he learned that his wife was expecting their first child. He built it specifically to highlight the aesthetic and formal aspects of Browning’s designs:

…so many youth these days are indoctrinated with the idea that guns are bad. Guns are evil, and they’re only used to hurt people. I wanted my child to offer the contrasting truth as he grew up, that guns are beautiful, they aren’t evil, and the best time to start was right away.

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This crib points out an interesting aspect of our built environment and the way that we use objects to train our minds. Coston thinks that placing his child in the environment of the Browning Crib-–because it is a well-crafted, beautiful object—will encourage the child to appreciate the beauty of guns. So the crib is a teaching tool, a device that lets this dad tell a particular narrative about the place of firearms in society and culture. But it is also a way for Coston to affirm his own relationship with firearms and it probably serves as a reminder to him and his wife that guns are very much a part of their lives and the life they want to give their child.

I’m been writing a fair number of posts lately on guns and children and war toys. I think I’m so fascinated by this because objects created for children can reveal underlying social ideas about what makes a good life and a good human being. What are the objects that will train future citizens to be awesome? How should they think about those objects? As this crib demonstrates, there is a (not insignificant) portion of the US population that sees firearms as meaningful tools for citizenry.

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John Browning Crib designed by Aaron Coston, images and information via Guns and Tactics

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Comfort Gun: A Hot Water Bottle That Packs Heat

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Comfort Gun by Francis North, images via Fast.Co

Spotted this gem of a design on Co.Design this morning, adding support to my theory that UK designers/critics are just more comfortable than USers using guns and gun-forms to provoke critical thought.

The Comfort Gun is a hot water bottle that effectively puns on the ritual of sleeping with a pistol beneath one’s pillow. I know people who actually do this. And I have observed that gun possession generally has a strong talismanic aspect– some gun owners are afforded great psychological safety from just knowing that their Colt/Glock/Beretta is close at hand.

But what I love about this design is the way that it flipped this ritual into the space of the cozy and banal practice of sleeping with a hot water bottle. Instead of the sense of preparedness, intrigue, and danger that I associate with the gun-beneath-the-pillow, Comfort Gun makes me think of Grannies in flanel nightgowns and warm glasses of milk. And then my brain jumbles all these impressions together until I have burly gangsters in flannel nightgowns and cozy Grannies holding smoking guns.

It does this, in part, through the color palette certainly (though there are no shortage of fully operational pink firearms) but also the small quarter-inch edge around the pistol-shape. This was probably a result of the vacum-forming process but serves as the main cue indicating a non-operational gun. In my mind, that quarter-inch rim acts like the frame of a painting, removing the form of the thing from the use of the thing. Very interesting.

Kudos to designer Francis North. More information on this design and designer here.

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Designing the Humanity Out of War: VIDEO of How to Kill People

Remember way back when we talked about George Nelson’s anti-weapons tv show from 1960? Well, the magic of Youtube has made this critical gem available to us all.

Now, Nelson was no lonelygirl15 and the production values are miserable by today’s standards but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded. Things get really interesting when Nelson pulls out a snub-nosed revolver at 13:10 (just after his shout-out to da Vinci). He also discusses the creation of drones around 18:48. Towards the end of the spot, he even calls out the toy industry for teaching our children about the importance of weapons. But one particular phrase continues to stick with me:

“Modern design has a sleek deadliness

unmatched in all recorded history.”

Nelson’s ideas are no less pertinent for our own time. Designers still create objects for war and nations still allocate a large amount of resources for the creation of novel or improved forms of killing. Those improvements further distance those killing from those killed. But does the safety of greater remove come at a price?

 Thank you to gnelsonfoundation for uploading.

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Style over Substance: Re-Designing AR-15s To Undermine Gun Control Bill

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Above: AR-15 rifle with a telescoping stock and pistol grip. This gun is an “assault rifle.”

compliant ar15AR-15 with a compliant stock and no pistol grip. This gun is not an “assault rifle.”
(Photo by Cindy Schultz / Times Union) via Times Union

Oh, the futility of legislating gun styling! The NY SAFE Act signed into law by Governor Cuomo was created to limit the sale and ownership of assault weapons, primarily those based on the AK-47 or AR-15 design. However, the bill defines assault weapons not on their lethality but on the largely superficial aspects of military weapons such as bayonet mounts or a pistol grip on the stock. It’s like outlawing guns that are grey.

Gun makers are just going to change how they look and sell the same firearm for more money because it can “pass the ban.” As Rick Karlin in the Times Union so aptly observed:

The modifications aren’t particularly difficult for gunsmiths, who also point out that the AR-15-style rifle, first developed for military use in the late 1950s, has a modular design that makes it easy to add or remove different features.

I suppose that the law could function as a symbolic gesture expressing New York State’s preference for the elimination/control of guns that aren’t associated with hunting. There’s something to be said for affirming a group’s inclination to denounce the kind of weapons that we so often hear about in mass tragedies.

Perhaps the differences between hunting rifles and “assault weapons” can only be found in styling and cultural association. If the ban was based on lethality rather than military features, it would certainly impact more than a few dozen models of gun.

If you’re interested to learn exactly what counts as an assault rifle, here is an illustrated list (PDF) courtesy of NY State.

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