Category Archives: Power Of Objects

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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“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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“Pork Bullets” and Racially Targeted Ammo

slide one-uniqueness-001-980x280image via Jihawg Ammo

One particularly ignorant ammunitions maker in Idaho released a line of pork-infused ammunition this week, claiming that the ammo would “strike fear into the hearts” of radical Muslims. From Jihawg Ammo’s website:

A natural deterrent that prevents violence just by owning it but will strike fear into the hearts of those bent upon hate, violence and murder. Jihawg Ammo is certified “Haraam” or unclean. According to the belief system of the radical Islamist becoming “unclean” during Jihad will prevent their attaining entrance into heaven. Jihawg Ammo is a natural deterrent to radical and suicidal acts of violence.

First off, the pork-infused paint is supposed to… what? Make Muslims not want to get shot? Does anyone want to get shot? Regardless of the kind of meat (or lack of meat) that the bullets were marinated in?

Second, I’m pretty sure that they made up the thing about how pork bullets would send a Muslim to hell. As HuffPo’s Senior Religion Editor, Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, said in a recent video segment:

“There’s no Muslim or any scholar who would say that this would be effective in sending a Muslim to hell. …This is like some concoction in some nut job in Idaho’s ‘ooo. Let’s do this.'”

I find this ammunition disturbing. Not only because it reveals the profound ignorance of its creators but also because of the way it is culturally pointed. These bullets are a way to dehumanize the individuals they are meant to kill — like needing to use silver bullets for werewolves. Creating this “special” ammunition is like saying that Muslims are a different kind of being altogether, requiring different ammunition.

When I attended the 2012 SHOT Show, I was struck by the sheer amount of firearms, ammo, and accessories geared toward fighting zombies. The Jihawg ammo reminds me of those ridiculous zombie guns except that the fantasy and fear created by this product reinforces racism rather than combats it. Zombie bullets neutralize some of my negative associations with firearms by undermining the implication that the guns would be used to kill people. There’s a sense of play and moral intuition at work in Zombie gun products.
Pork bullets, however, double down on the idea that firearms are objects of terror. Jihawg states this outright when they say that just knowing that these bullets exist is supposed to create a “peaceful deterrence” from “Jihadists.”
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image via Jihawg Ammo
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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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Remote controlled Firing

Huh. That’s a carbon-fiber octocopter armed with a .45 Taurus Judge revolver. I wouldn’t have selected a revolver for this little stunt. I doubt that the drone can handle the kickback (I could barely handle the kickback). Maybe that’s why there aren’t any uncut shots of the contraption firing and actually hitting anything.

Actually, I wouldn’t have done this stunt at all given the fact that creating a remote-controlled trigger is illegal in most states. From the Fish & Game code of California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, etc etc…

3003. (a) It is unlawful for any person to shoot, shoot at, or killany bird or mammal with any gun or other device accessed via an Internet connection in this state.

And by “Internet connection” they weirdly mean “remote control”:

(f) For the purposes of this section, “online shooting or spearing” means the use of a computer or any other device, equipment,software, or technology, to remotely control the aiming and discharge of any weapon, including, but not limited to, any firearm, bow and arrow, spear, slingshot, harpoon, or any other projectile device.

That would make this remote controlled car gun illegal. And the law closed down this Texas company that let you hunt and shoot game from the comfort of your own home. I think that many people have an intuitive aversion to the idea of remote controlled consumer firearms. It causes one more level of removal from the consequences of firing.

But is the action of pushing a button or clicking a mouse really all that different from the action of pulling a trigger?

Reacting to the phenomenon of online hunting, this ethics expert thinks yes:

“The problem here is . . . the distance. It increases our sense that real killing is an anonymous activity,” said Kirk O. Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. “You use something familiar, a mouse, to fire the weapon . . . much as computer games that involve shooting human or animal objects. Technically it’s possible. But as a society, do we want to do this?”

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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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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.

sleeping gun

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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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Guns and Prop Oriented Make-Believe

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 Image via LA Times, Mike Bruce / Hammer Museum. These gun-shaped sticks were collected by the son of artist Rachel Whiteread as a substitute for the toy guns he was forbidden to own.

One thing that really struck me when I was conducting interviews for my MFA thesis was the high number of people who were drawn to firearms through play and fantasy. There was the gun curator who started as a Civil War reenactor, another who specialized in ornate weaponry after a childhood admiring medieval knights, and one whose love of firearms originated with his fascination for the ray gun of Buck Rogers. But it isn’t only curators who are interested in the fantasy component of weapons — the most popular objects on display at the National Firearms Museum were the light sabers for Star Wars.

The theorist Kendall Walton has written about the ways that we use objects and play and fantasy in order to understand abstract ideas and the purpose/potential of objects. He writes:

“We are constantly inventing new games of make-believe and communicating them to each other. This doesn’t mean that we actively participate in these games. Many of them are prop rather than content oriented; our interest being not in the make-believe itself, but in the props. Thinking of the props as props in potential games of make-believe is a device for understanding them.”

I think that to many people, guns (or the idea of guns) are merely props for thinking about relationships of power and our moral obligations to others and ourselves. So many children are drawn to toy guns or biting their breakfasts into a gun-shape for similar, if less sophisticated, reasons. What they’re really doing is thinking through different power relationships. They’re trying on ways of interacting with others and the world.

That’s my theory, anyway.

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TrackingPoint Rifle: A Gun With Agency?

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Image of the TrackingPoint rifle from manufacturer’s website

When I came across the story of the TrackingPoint rifle on NPR, “A New ‘Smart Rifle’ Decides When To Shoot And Rarely Misses,” I was really looking forward to untangling the moral implications of a gun that fires when it “wants.” Based on the headline, I thought that the rifle had an auto-lock-and-fire functionality along the lines of a camera that won’t shoot until all variables are within optimal levels. Or a military drone making surgical strikes.

If this was true, the technology would be a huge leap in the direction of seceding personal moral authority to a potentially deadly machine and I was totally jazzed and anxious about what this might mean for the future of guns and gun control and the concept of objects-with-agency. However, the story is slightly different. And slightly less controversial when we get into the details. According to NPR’s Mark Dewey:

The rifle’s scope features a sophisticated color graphics display. The shooter locks a laser on the target by pushing a small button by the trigger. It’s like a video game. But here’s where it’s different: You pull the trigger but the gun decides when to shoot. It fires only when the weapon has been pointed in exactly the right place, taking into account dozens of variables, including wind, shake and distance to the target.

So, as long as the target lock is correct, the gun provides a visual indication of optimal aim. Yes, it dramatically improves the accuracy and (by implication) the deadliness of the rifle. However, the shooter still makes the decision to fire. It is still a human brain that sends the signal to the hand to depress the trigger and initiate the mechanical effect of sending a high speed projectile from the barrel.

Video highlighting the TrackingPoint’s features, from manufacturer’s website

One of the more interesting features of the rifle sight is that it can stream video of the view to a nearby device. I’ve been planning to write a post about Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema and this technology fits perfectly into Virilio’s theories about the emergence of new ways of seeing from the destructive impulse of military and war technology.

I can foresee the creation of a non-gun product made of a camera mounted on a rifle-like object that turns the world itself into a first-person-shooter video game.  The user takes aim and “shoots” real life targets but the device’s computer detects accuracy/points and records it for sharing on social media. The social cache and pride in taking out a 22-point buck could be achieved without actually killing one.

Does such a product already exist?

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