REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK, No. 2. The Dated Rifles of Afghanistan
Propaganda and hype surround the Kalashnikov line, but one part of the legend is irrefutable: the better-made variants of the rifle have an extraordinary durability in the field. This has given the weapons a longevity in combat that is peerless for weapons in their class, and helped fuel the AK-47 legend.
Over the years, I have inventoried Kalashnikovs and their ammunition wherever time has permitted and the people who store or carry them have allowed me to get in close and take notes and make images. This has been, and is, part of a larger inquiry to try to determine which weapons and ammunition are prevalent where, and to trace, where possible, their origins and means of travel.
Usually recording the information was simple and straight-forward. Sometimes it has created uncomfortable situations, as it did in Uganda when I was on vacation a few years ago, and a group of UPDF soldiers grew enraged and threatened to arrest me. At times the habit of documenting small arms and munitions has been journalistically productive, and my habit has led me to other searches, as when decades-old Chinese 7x62.39mm ammunition, purchased by the U.S. Army, began appearing in Afghan bunkers in 2007. (The ammunition sampling in that case helped unravel what federal prosecutors later called a conspiracy by the precocious young gun-runner, Efraim Diveroli, and his AEY firm in Miami Beach, to defraud the Pentagon.)
The investigation of AEY’s activities took many months, and the firm’s behavior and trail revealed itself slowly. But sometimes my habit produced facts of immediate value. This is because a rifle’s or a cartridge’s markings, with the right reference material, can tell stories. On most Kalashnikovs, the left side of the receiver carries identifying marks — a factory stamp, a serial number, sometimes a date of manufacture. I’ll post more at another time about how serial numbers can be organized by manufacturers in ways that can be deliberately deceptive. But even weapons bearing markings intended to deceive can still speak.
The photo above provides an example. The stamped triangle with the arrow inside is the factory marking from the enormous small-arms manufacturing complex in Izhevsk, Russia. That triangle-and-arrow, along with this rifle’s 1954 date stamp and its solid-steel machined receiver, mark it as one of the AK-47s manufactured in the Kalashnikov line’s earliest years, when the Soviet Union was busily arming Soviet ground forces with their first assault rifles.
What makes that interesting? This particular rifle was more than a half-century old that day I made this picture, and it was not in a reserve armory or a museum. It was still in active use, and was carried on this day, a few years ago, by an Afghan soldier on a joint Afghan-American patrol in Ghazni Province. Can you think of tools that last this long, or that you expect to? Your pickup truck? Cell phone? Refrigerator? Television? Laptop? Do you own anything that was manufactured in the 1950s and still is in regular, active use in your life? Sure, there are examples. (The original toilets in older buildings are one; older electric lamps are another, although many antique lamps have been rewired by their owners, so maybe they don’t count.) When set against almost all products, the list is not large.
As weapons go, the Kalashnikov is not alone in lasting this long. Many rifles and pistols from an earlier era — the old Lee-Enfields are but one example — are still fully functional. But in the main these weapons were not automatics, and were of a more simple design. In a post we’ll likely publish this week in the At War blog, I’ll publish from a large set of photos of the varied rifles in use by the Taliban in Marja, Afghanistan. Many of the rifles predate World War Two, and one is nearly a century old. The post on At War will describe how the weapons were collected, and what they might tell us. I’ll then post more images here.