"Danger! Journalist doing math" has long been a newsroom warning. But similar caution should be applied to reporters writing about guns. Take the Russian assault rifle that journalists frequently refer to as the AK-47. What they usually mean is the AKM.
That's because the Avtomat Kalashnikova obrazets 1947g (AK-47), named for the year that the Soviet Union standardized its production, was replaced by the Modernizirovannyi Avtomat Kalashnikova (AKM) in 1959.
The two are almost indistinguishable. But the AKM has a rectangular metal recess – about the size of a small rubber eraser – in each side of the receiver (the main part in the middle), above the magazine. For military experts who study photos of guns, a Kalashnikov without that little recess is so rare that they would likely save the photo, if not post it on their wall.
Journalists with military trade publications, and even popular recreational magazines such as Field & Stream, generally do distinguish between the AKM and the AK-47. But lay journalists' failure to recognize this difference contributes to the view – propagated by the National Rifle Association – that mainstream journalists just don't know their guns.
Other weapons are also frequently misidentified, but a few basic points about firearms can help journalists get them right. Take the difference between a semiautomatic and an automatic: An automatic reloads and fires to "spray" bullets for as long as the trigger is pulled; a semiautomatic also reloads automatically, but fires only one shot each time the trigger is pulled. Automatic firearms have been illegal in the United States since 1934. The 1994 assault weapons law bans a small number of semiautomatic firearms.
Most military firearms are fully automatic. Submachine guns like the Israeli-made Uzi are small, concealable weapons that can shoot many bullets at short range. An automatic rifle such as the AKM is a longer, more accurate weapon with greater range. A machine gun without the "sub" is heavier still. For everybody but Rambo or GI Joe, it requires two soldiers to carry it and its long belts of ammunition.
One fact that should not escape any journalist heading into a war zone is that both the American M-16 and the AKM fire small but fast-moving bullets that can penetrate a standard "bulletproof" vest. Such a vest would stop almost all civilian rounds. That's why military-designed body armor is recommended.
It's obvious why war correspondents should know about body armor. But why should journalists bother with the details about firearms? For one thing, accurate identification of weapons in war zones is usually the first step toward determining their origins. In Rwanda, for example, AKMs and South African R-4s were common weapons of genocide. Egypt sold AKMs and South Africa sold R-4s to Rwanda directly, despite the country's litany of prior human rights abuses.
Besides, whether you're dealing with ballots or bullets, rifles or referenda, it is always better to be right.