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  • Weapon of Choice: Small Arms and the Culture of Military Innovation by Matthew Ford
  • Giacomo Macola (bio)
Weapon of Choice: Small Arms and the Culture of Military Innovation. By Matthew Ford. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 264. Hardcover $39.95.

Matthew Ford's densely researched volume uses small arms development after WWII as a prism through which to understand broader processes of western military innovation. Adopting a thoroughly constructivist perspective, Weapon of Choice systematically foregrounds the variety of social actors and interests involved in the design and selection of modern rifles and ammunition. As a sociology of military innovation, Weapon of Choice succeeds admirably.

The book's first substantive chapter offers a pithy discussion of the ways in which the study of technological change has been revolutionized by approaches associated with the social shaping of technology. SST insights are then applied to military innovation in the book's subsequent chapters, each of which focuses on successive phases of small arms development and their main protagonists. Concentrating on soldier perspectives on their weapons and tactics during the Second World War, Chapter 2 explores different understandings of the relative importance of marksmanship and firepower, as well as the significance of social divisions within the ranks of the Allied Armies. These factors—Ford maintains—go a long way toward explaining why neither the American nor the British armies emerged from the conflict with fully automatic weapons as their standard service rifles. [End Page 487]

The initial impetus to develop a new assault rifle after WWII emanated from British engineers, the focus of the book's third chapter. Their efforts at mediating between different constituencies and their authority-enhancing devices vis-à-vis a General Staff still wedded to the overarching importance of marksmanship to battlefield outcomes are central to Ford's analysis, which is especially noteworthy for demonstrating the engineers' skills in "reconfigur[ing] the user's thinking in such a way as to avoid the suggestion that engineers know better than users" (p. 55). However, since the future balance of technical power within the emerging NATO was at stake, British engineers came up against their American peers in the late 1940s. With Anglo-American engineers finding themselves at loggerheads over the question of the ammunition caliber for the prospective new automatic rifle, the services of wound ballistics experts were summoned (Chapter 4). But the findings of scientists were no less contested, socially situated, and open to bureaucratic manipulation than those of engineers. Thus in the event, the ultimate choice in favor of the standardization of ammunition—one which resulted in the British Army adopting the 7.62 mm Belgian-made Fabrique Nationale FAL in 1950s—was left to the recently reelected Churchill to make. The main argument of Chapter 5, then, is that temporary closure for the British politico-military establishment was achieved through a political decision divorced from actual battlefield evidence and the opinion of British experts.

The Belgian company FN is central to the story told in the book's last substantive two chapters. Chapter 6 explores the tactics it deployed to persuade the whole of NATO to adopt its improved type of 5.56 mm ammunition during the standardization trials of 1979–80. By so doing, it shows that although U.S. officials had enough power to push forward their understanding of lethality and shape the agenda of the trials, they were not in a position entirely to control their outcome. The final chapter of the book discusses the 1999 adoption of the FN's Minimi LMG by the British Army to cast light on ongoing changes in soldier-industry relationships. Its powerful conclusion is that—in the context of the privatization of the British defense sector—arms manufacturers are finding it increasingly easy to treat soldiers as consumers and sell their wares by appealing to the desire for status and identity of such Special Forces as the Parachute Regiment. Neither the privileging of elite units over the rest of the British infantry nor the former's increasing vulnerability to the marketing activities of manufacturers augurs well for the future performance and democratic accountability of the British armed forces as a whole.

The insight that "weapon...