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 An Ariana Media Publication 07/27/2014
 Taliban Gun Locker: The Frankengun of Wardak Province

The New York Times
08/09/2012
By C. J. Chivers

[Printer Friendly Version]

Almost no matter the place or the year, whenever analysts and arms researchers scrutinize infantry weapons circulating through a conflict, they encounter predictable finds. Time and again, the same items turn up: AK assault rifles, PK machine guns, RPG-7 shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons, and, depending on the region, a smattering of M-16 variants, Fabrique Nationale and Heckler & Koch weapons, and bolt-action or lever-action rifles from yesteryear. There are oddities, including homemade jobs. Often there are also stray vestigial arms from previous wars in the same region or from particular arms transfers to a government on the same soil. But most of these are outliers. Usually a researcher can write up a list of likely candidates, then check them off while working the beat.

And then there are the surprises, like the weapon in the photograph above.

What are you looking at?

This weapon, formerly in local Afghan hands, is held by Task Force Bobcat, an infantry unit in the First Armored Division at Combat Outpost Sayed Abad in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. A previous unit confiscated it some time ago, and it has been passed to successive American military tenants rotating through. It caught the eye of the task force’s assistant intelligence officer, First Lt. Corey Young, who e-mailed photographs of it to us this summer with a note indicating that this weapon is chambered for 7.62×39-millimeter cartridges – the standard ammunition of the Kalashnikov assault-rifle line. Lieutenant Young wanted to know what it is.

He knew one thing for sure: It’s not a Kalashnikov.

So what is it?

Let’s look past that question for a moment, as a precise identification will require substantial explanation. Instead, take note of a few practical and stylistic points, as these are clues to this weapon’s lineage and say something about its previous owner’s choices, as well as about the nature and the effects of the seemingly perennial demand in Afghanistan for infantry arms – the final point of this post.

So, then, a deconstruction.

As for this weapon’s practical points for a guerrilla fighter in the Afghan war, its minimal barrel length and short sliding stock make it very concealable, in the manner of the weapon at the bottom of this post. (Concealment has been an important consideration for an Afghan carrying a weapon in recent years, as the Western forces’ rules of engagement typically require restraint against suspected foes unless a weapon is clearly seen.)

Lieutenant Young’s e-mail also noted that this weapon’s magazine well accepts the familiar magazines of the original Kalashnikov, also making this firearm a practical choice in Afghanistan, where such magazines and the associated cartridges are abundant. Because of its compatibility with the available supply, this is a weapon that could readily be kept fed.

Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that whatever this weapon is, it has been touched up and was apparently looked after by its previous owner. The hand guard has been painted in olive drab, a gesture toward camouflage. And the makeshift sling is a brighter green, a shade commonly associated with Islam and a bit of dressing up often seen in weapons confiscated from the Taliban.

But back to the question: What is it? To get closer to the answer, let’s look within. Lieutenant Young sent a photograph of the weapons’ guts, seen below, which tell us much.

The operating system is based on a gas piston and bolt assembly strongly resembling that of a Kalashnikov (though naturally shorter) and a return spring of the same clear parentage. But the weapon is otherwise not a match. Its external features borrow from other arms. Lieutenant Young noted that the selector switch (the device that lets a shooter put the weapon in its safe, semi-automatic or automatic fire modes) resembles a Czech vz. 58, another weapon that fires Kalashnikov ammunition but is not a Kalashnikov at all.

At War had its suspicions about what these indicators might mean, so we sent the images around for confirmation. Some of this blog’s sources prefer to remain off the record, but one of the blog’s most reliable friends, Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England, came through with an answer that can be reproduced here.

The quick version is that this weapon, a cross between an assault rifle and a submachine gun, appears to be a product of the gun shops of western Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, where gunsmiths have a long tradition of churning out idiosyncratic firearms that appropriate design elements from mainstream infantry arms.

For those who don’t know about this regional industry, one old but instructive post here includes a reprint of a 1962 article in Guns Magazine by William B. Edwards, a prominent firearms writer of his time. A BBC update from 2006 is here, with a telling opening quote: “There is nothing we cannot copy.”

Mr. Ferguson’s fuller explanation of Task Force Bobcat’s unusual weapon is below. (Those not interested in the finer points of origin may skip a few paragraphs. You’ll come to the arms-trade point.)

Your mystery piece (which reminds me of the post-apocalyptic video game Fallout) is a Pakistani “Khyber Pass” design. Whilst there are several short-barreled Russian and Chinese AK variants of this basic form factor, none resemble this in detail, and all (save the iconic AKS-74U and subvariants) are chambered for pistol cartridges. This would be a bit of a handful.

Instead, this is clearly inspired by the 5.56mm HK53 (essentially an MP5 in an assault rifle calibre) – they’ve copied the sliding stock, barrel length, pistol grip, even the basic style of flash-hider.

For comparison’s sake, the video of an HK53 below shows many of the features that Mr. Ferguson described.

Mr. Ferguson added:

As an aside, I note that the AK is of course gas-operated, the HK53 is roller-delayed blowback. The channels for the sliding stock are the rails that the rollers run on inside the gun – so with this Frankenstein’s monster “AK53,” they’ve had to mill/file solid metal channels and attach them to the outside. Far simpler would have been to utilise an existing AKS under-folder or AKS-74 side-folder stock, or to replicate either of those as we know they do. What I’m getting at is that they are aping the HK53 for style points, basically! I can’t speak to how effective the finished product might be – if they’ve spent time on getting the gas system right, there’s every chance it’s functional.

And that leads to a question: Will this weapon work? And if so, how well? Because of its barrel length and relatively small mass over all, this weapon would certainly be expected to be inaccurate beyond a very short range, and would be difficult to handle. (The weight of its apparently solid-steel receiver might offset some of its kick, to a degree.) Nonetheless, it could be a menacing enough hybrid for many insurgent uses, though not of much value in the longer-range firefights common in Afghanistan. Showing up with this for that kind of fight, against a well-trained conventional unit, would be a very good way to get dead.

But in a discussion about the arms trade, this weapon serves as a means for making a point about the intensity of the arms demand in Afghanistan, and the multiple sources for satisfying it.

Firearms are like any other product of the industrial age. With the right machines, the right work force and the right raw materials, they can be manufactured locally. These days, most people imagine military small arms as the output of specialized factories and modern bureaucracies. That is certainly true – in most cases. But before the cold war divided the planet into a pair of militarized blocs, East and West, with small arms organized around standardized cartridges and standardized firearms to fire them, arms production often rested on the work of local gunsmiths and local gun works. Pick your nation of yesteryear, and this was often how it kitted out soldiers for war. The tradition has endured here and there, though its output is less recognized and less often remarked upon than the output of the sprawling gun works and the bureaucracies that support them, right down to the brochures. (There are many curious examples of the coexistence of these two very different manufacturing processes. Even East Germany, under Communist rule and Soviet occupation, allowed some of its formerly private gunsmiths to make components for standard arms made in the centralized factory in Wiesa.)

Pakistan’s tribal frontier has retained this once international tradition, and continues to produce an array of sometimes cannily reconsidered weapons to satisfy regional demand, even as other nations import firearms in conventional patterns by the tens of thousands for distribution throughout Afghanistan.

And so Task Force Bobcat’s weapon is a reminder. Even if the arms trade into Afghanistan was more closely regulated, and excess arms were gathered up, and the inventories of state arms were more controlled, there would still be weapons moving through Afghanistan. Demand is that high. Local ingenuity is that persistent. Thus, this Frankengun.

An endnote: Task Force Bobcat’s holdings include other interesting arms as well, returning the conversation to the predictable and the familiar. Below is a solid-steel receiver Kalashnikov – an original AK-47, or a convincing reproduction – with a date stamp of 1951. If this arm is authentic (and this blog and Mr. Ferguson both thought it looked legit), it is the oldest verified Kalashnikov At War has seen in the Afghan war. Given that mass production of AK-47s did not begin until 1949, they don’t get much older or more rare than this.

Below is another staple of Afghan wars, a reworked British infantry arm from a few eras back. In this case, Mr. Ferguson said, it appears to be a Martini-Metford cavalry carbine, which would make it, if authentic, a product manufactured before World War I.

The weapon is missing its forward stock, rendering it difficult to fire, much less to fire repeatedly. But perhaps it was once wrapped in leather or cloth, which was removed before mounting. Note the makeshift sling, another testament to local scrounging and ingenuity. “The bicycle chain,” Mr. Ferguson wrote, “is a nice touch!”

The makeshift front sight? Less so. As persistent as weapons are in Afghanistan, there are still behaviors, and decisions, that are grounds for shaking your head. Not that that matters. This rifle was captured, Lieutenant Young said, from an Afghan who applied it to the task of trying to waylay a convoy. Some things do not change.

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