Weapons: The AK-47 Ammo Crises


February6, 2007: Gun runners worldwide were shocked late last year when the found the price of the favorite ammunition, the 7.62x39 (diameter and length, in millimeters) round used in the AK-47, doubled in price. For decades, this 7.62x39 was the cheapest rifle ammo available, selling for as low as ten cents per round. Even the highest quality ones rarely sold for more than twenty cents a round. But suddenly, hardly anything was under twenty cents, and the reason was massive orders from the United States. The Americans were laying in supplies for their Iraq and Afghan allies. Both of these nations had been working down supplies left over from Cold War era stockpiles, but all that stuff was pretty much gone, and there was still lots of fighting going on. Moreover, those crazy Americans were insisting that Afghan and Iraqi security personnel learn to shoot their AK-47s accurately. That took a lot of ammo.

The 7.62x39 round has an interesting history. It was developed during World War II, for the SKS, a "light rifle" (or "carbine") to arm combat support troops. The United States had a similar weapon, the M-1 Carbine, which fired an even weaker 7.62mm (.30 caliber) round. The 7.62x39 was basically a shorter version of the standard 7.62x54 Russian rifle round. Most nations had one of these "full powered" 7.62mm rounds for their rifles and machine-guns. The Germans also developed a short rifle round, the 7.92x33. But this round was used in the first assault guns, the Sturmgewehr 44. At a glance, this weapon looks like an AK-47, but it is less reliable and sturdy, and quite different mechanically. The Russian AK-47 appeared in 1947, and became immensely popular. Not because of its accuracy, but because the weapon could deliver automatic fire that was easy to control (the rifle did not jump around as much as other automatic rifles), and the weapon rarely jammed. Since the Russians did not give their troops much practice shooting their rifles, it was important to have one that a soldier could just "spray and pray." This tactic actually made military sense. Moreover, experience revealed that nearly all infantry firefights were at ranges of under 500 meters (and most of those were under a hundred meters.) The 7.92x33 round was accurate at ranges of under 500 meters, and that was all that was needed.

When the Germans introduced the Sturmgewehr 44, on a test basis, in 1943, they sent officers to observe how the weapon, and its users, performed in combat. It was found that even inexperienced troops felt more confident with that much fire power. They also noted that a few dozen German soldiers firing their Sturmgewehr 44s, were often nearly invincible. The Russian troops were either hit, or dived for cover, and the Germans won the fight.

That sort of thing went both ways. For over a year, German troops had been on the receiving end of this, as masses of Russian troops were armed the PPD submacinegun. This weapon fired the even weaker 7.62x25 round, which was basically a pistol round. The bullet from the 7.62x25 would more often wound than kill, and it took several hits to definitely bring down an enemy soldier. But a few hundred Russian troops armed with the PPD (usually equipped with a 71 round drum magazine), firing at German positions, certainly caused the Germans to keep their heads down. The more powerful 7.92x33 German assault gun round was more likely to hurt the victim, and better at shooting through walls, doors and floors. After World War II, Russia developed the AK-47, and used the 7.62x39 round they already had. The 7.62x39 had similar performance to the Sturmgewehr 44s 7.92x33 round. The AK-47 was more durable, and cheaper to manufacture.

Fifty years ago, an American inventor (Gene Stoner) came up with a new assault gun design, using a high powered 5.56x45 round in what became the M-16. This 5.56mm round was lighter, with a hundred rounds weighing 3.5 pounds (with magazines). This compared to 6.1 pounds for a full size 7.62x51 round, or 4.7 pounds for the AK-47s 7.62x39. Lighter ammo, meant you could carry more ammo. That's important to the infantry, because they have to haul their weapons and ammo around the battlefield.

But after Vietnam, things began to change. The United States went for an all-volunteer army, and that meant troops who were in longer, and could be better trained to use their weapons. It became customary to use automatic fire only in emergencies. The M-16 was more useful firing single shots, and the 30 round magazine meant you could do so for a long time before having to reload. Here, the less accurate AK-47 was at a disadvantage. But not for the people who were most often using AK-47s. The end of the Cold War in 1991, put tens of millions of surplus AK-47s on the world arms markets. Most of the people who ended up getting those weapons had little military training, and preferred the "pray and spray" of full auto fire.

But American troops found that the AK-47 was accurate enough for close combat. Not as accurate as the M-16, but accurate enough. American Special Forces would often carry AK-47s on missions where they could get ammo from dead opponents, and not give themselves by firing M-16s (which made a sound quite different than that of the AK-47). The the Russians stopped using the 7.62x39 round in the 1970s (and switched to the 5.45x39 for their version of the M-16), and many other major armed forces have followed suit. But the 7.62x39 remains popular with irregular troops. Over 70 million weapons (mostly AK-47 clones) have been manufactured in the last sixty years, and the majority of those weapons are apparently still in working order. Thus the large quantity of 7.62x39 ammo still being produced. But these bullets are mostly going to people who shoot, rather than aim. That's what the AK-47 is good for, but other, lighter, assault rifles, using faster moving rounds (like the 5.56mm) are more accurate, use lighter ammo, have proved more popular with troops who aim their fire.

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