Procurement: Building Your Own Assault Rifle Out Back

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April 9, 2015: In northern Iraq Kurdish gunsmiths and metal workers are taking ISIL weapons (M-16s, M-4s, AK-47s, machine-guns and mortars) “destroyed” by coalition bombs and rebuilding them. This is because the Kurds have no regular supply of new weapons and the ISIL threat means more Kurdish men and women are being pressed into service and need weapons. What outsiders don’t understand is that this type of craftsmanship in quite common throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Local metal workers have been repairing modern firearms, and even creating working copies for over a century. These days the Kurdish gunsmiths are getting more business than they can handle but at least they are getting top dollar for their work. Most gunsmiths are not building new weapons but repairing damaged ones. The smiths use parts cannibalized from the most badly damaged weapons to make other weapons serviceable. The metal workers can make some parts or repair parts that are not too badly damaged. Some of these gunsmiths are able to tackle seemingly impossible repair jobs.

In northern Iraq the Kurds have, since the early 1990s been autonomous. The Kurds had been fighting the Arab run Iraqi government since Britain created (from pieces of the Ottoman Turk Empire) Iraq after World War I. In the early 1990s British and American warplanes kept the Iraqi troops out while American and British military trainers helped organize an effective Kurdish militia armed with weapons taken from dead Iraqis and often rebuilt by local gunsmiths. After the 2003 invasion the black market for firearms thrived as Saddam era armories were looted and the weapons sold to the highest bidder. The Kurds were not usually the highest bidder and often so desperate that they would buy damaged weapons and their gunsmiths would make these assault rifles, rifles, machine-guns and pistols operational once more.

The fighting in Afghanistan from the 1980s to the present made the world aware of the gunsmiths who had long flourished along the Pakistani-Afghan border. In part this was because of how these legendary gunsmiths were long known by Western small arms collectors and historians. That's because Afghanistan and the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan were found to contain thousands of antique rifles, most of them still in use. In the decade after 2001 about ten percent of the several hundred weapons (AK-47s and other post World War II Russian small arms and machine-guns) taken from dead or captured Taliban each month were older weapons, some from the late 19th century. Sometimes troops took cell phone photos of the older weapons and sent the images to weapons buffs back home, to see if they could trace where the weapon first came from. That’s when things got strange. That is because collectors, especially of 20th century military rifles, have compiled databases of serial numbers. It wasn't long before the troops got replies asking for another picture of a certain rifle, as its serial number either indicated the rifle didn't exist, or that that number was assigned to a different version of that rifle. These mysteries were eventually cleared up when it was found that these mystery rifles were actually copies, made by the Pushtun gunsmiths who have been doing this sort of thing for over a century. The copies were, on closer examination, of somewhat rougher finish than the Western made original, and the stamp of the arsenal and serial number usually made up.

Back the Russians showed up in the 1980s the best an Afghan could hope to have was a World War II, or World War I, era bolt action rifle. These weapons were eclipsed in the 1980s by full automatic AK-47s and the RPG rocket launcher. The young guys took to the AK, and the thrill of emptying a 30 round magazine on full automatic. Not bad for a brief firefight, and suddenly hardly anyone, except a few old timers, wanted to use the old bolt action rifle. These older rifles were so popular before the 1980s that gunsmiths found it lucrative to create working copies. After the 1980s some even created AK-47 copies as well. The flood of modern weapons in the area after the 1980s, courtesy of dead Russians, foreign aid (usually paid for by Saudi Arabia to arm their Moslem Brothers in Afghanistan) reduced the gunsmiths to doing mostly repairs.

In Africa the home-made firearms tradition is more recent. For example in Nigeria there are some cheaper, locally made, alternatives to Western firearms. These are the "Awka Guns," named after the southern city of Awka, which developed a tradition of handmade firearms in the 1960s, when it was part of the breakaway Republic of Biafra. The Biafran rebels needed weapons and Awka, which had been a center of metal working for over a thousand years, mobilized thousands of metal workers to build crude firearms. The weapons manufacturing continued after the war, mainly to supply hunters, gangsters, and anyone needing an illegal firearm for any reason. The cheapest of these weapons is basically a single shot pistol firing a .410 (10.4mm) or 20 gauge (15.6mm) shotgun shell. This is for a young thug, or a homeowner desiring protection from those thugs. Accurate enough for something within 2-3 meters (5-10 feet). Not much good for hunting. These cost $25-$40 each. The Awka gunsmiths also make full size (or sawed off) shotguns (single or double barrel), that sell for $80-$250. These could be used for hunting. There are also handmade 9mm revolvers for about $100.  These weapons are found all over the country, but mostly in the south, and mostly among those who can't afford to pay a thousand dollars or more for a factory made weapon. On the down side, these weapons are more dangerous to use, often lacking a safety switch, and prone to exploding, rather than firing, when the trigger is pulled.

The more modern copies of modern firearms made by Arab or Asian gunsmiths can also be dangerous since they are not built with modern quality-control methods in mind. They just have to look real and be capable of firing a few rounds behind the gunsmiths’ shop. Once the sale is made, anything is possible. 

 


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