Weapons: Buy American Even If It Hurts

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June 23, 2016: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is seeking American firms to manufacture Russian designed infantry weapons (assault rifles, sniper rifles and various types of machine-guns) because many of the armed forces and rebel groups SOCOM deals with overseas prefers the easier to maintain, although less accurate, Russian designed weapons. Russia, and before that the Soviet Union, sold or gave away nearly a hundred million such weapons since the late 1940s creating a huge market of users familiar with and particular to Russian designed weapons. In the past the United States (mainly the CIA and the Special Forces) simply bought these weapons on the black market or legally (sort of) from the dozens of countries that build them (under license or otherwise). Since the 1990s China has been a major supplier.

Spending all that Department of Defense department or CIA money on foreign weapons was never politically popular in the United States and SOCOM was pressured to try and find American manufacturers. The problem was that no American manufacturer can to set up plants in the United States to build these weapons at anywhere near the much lower prices foreign built weapons go for. The SOCOM effort will document this fact and probably reduce the political pressure to “buy American” for a while.

In the United States there was always a collectors market for original versions of some of these weapons, especially the AK-47 type rifles. In 2015 the American distributor of AK-47 type weapons (Russian Weapons Company), was cut off from its source of weapons when the 2014 sanctions against Russia went into effect. In response the firm has renamed itself Kalashnikov USA and arranged for an American manufacturer to build copies of the AK-47 (without the ability to fire automatically) and other Russian designed small arms. The American made models use higher quality materials and some design tweaks (like a threaded barrel so that a suppressor can be added) to make it more marketable. Kalashnikov USA and the Russian manufacturer agree that the American firm is independent and the patent infringement issue was ignored.

A Russian firm Izhmash (Izhevsk Mechanical Works) holds the patents for the AK-47 and has had little success in trying to force companies in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Israel, China and the United States to pay licensing fees for the AK-47s they produce. Even a reorganization and name change, to Kalashnikov Group, did not help. The Kalashnikov Group now handles all research and manufacturing of weapons based on the original AK-47 design. Yet the most common defense foreign builders use against patent infringement charges is that they have developed a much improved rifle that has only a superficial similarity to the Izhmash/ Kalashnikov Group AK-47. Some claim that Russia abandoned the AK-47 design in the 1970s, when they switched to the 5.45mm AK-74. Actually, the original AK-47 design was replaced in 1963, at least in Russia, by the similar (in appearance) AKM. But the Russians never gave up their legal rights to the AK-47 design.

Izhmash was originally founded in 1807 by the Czarist government as an arsenal for the production of military weapons. In the 1920s, the firm (now owned by the Soviet Union) began to produce motorcycles as well, and later, automobiles. But it continued to be a major manufacturer of Russian military rifles, machine-guns and pistols.

During the Soviet period (1923-91), there were patent laws on the books, but these were generally not observed, especially when it came to foreign technology. The Soviets would respect patents when it suited their purposes (that is, it was cheaper to get help from the patent holder to implement a technology, than it was to just steal it and figure it out), but generally the concept of intellectual property was ignored. Having allowed that kind of thinking to gain some traction the Russians have had a hard time enforcing rights to Soviet era Russian inventions in a post-Soviet world. For over a decade Izhmash tried to shut down all the unlicensed manufacturers of AK-47/74 weapons but was unsuccessful. Now, for all practical purposes, the Kalashnikov Group tolerates the patent infringement and tries to make what deals it can.

This all began with a Russian World War II veteran, Mikhail Kalashnikov, who came up with a brilliant rifle design that so impressed his bosses that they named it after him. AK means Avtomat Kalashnikova which literally translates as “Kalashnikov Automatic”. This was no fluke. Kalashnikov had always been into mechanical things and grew up in Siberia where rural folk could own a rifle for hunting. So he was familiar with how rifles operated in addition to being a mechanical genius. Kalashnikov was conscripted in 1938 and because of his small size was assigned to a tank unit. There his ingenuity and mechanical skills came to the notice of his superiors, who praised and encouraged him. He was badly wounded in combat in 1941 and while he spent six months recuperating came up with some brilliant ideas for a new rifle design, instigated by complaints he heard from wounded infantry soldiers. He wrote to the senior officers who had praised his skills before the war and was transferred to a weapons development organization. Among his many innovations and designs over the next five years was the AK-47, which began replacing all older infantry rifles in 1949. Kalashnikov died in 2013 but until the end he hunted and innovated, backing things like the new AK-12 assault rifle the Kalashnikov Group has developed for the 21st century Russian military. In the end the creator of the AK-47 was very American in his outlook.

 


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