September 15, 2010, 12:44 pm
What’s Inside a Taliban Gun Locker?
By C.J. CHIVERS (external - login to view)C.J. Chivers Taliban equipment confiscated from caches or collected after firefights.
Since last year, The New York Times and At War have taken several different looks at insurgent arms and munitions in Afghanistan (external - login to view), which can yield information about how insurgents equip themselves (external - login to view) and fight, and how the Taliban has been able to maintain itself as a viable force (external - login to view) for more than 15 years.
The New York Times
Today the blog will turn back to this pursuit with another sampling of data from Marja, the area in Helmand Province that has seen some of the most sustained insurgent fighting of 2010. In this case, early this summer, the civilian law enforcement liaison working with the Marines of Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, along with the battalion’s gunner, had in their custody 26 firearms and an RPG-7 launcher captured from Taliban fighters or collected from caches.
Of these weapons, 12 were variants of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, 8 were bolt-action rifles from World War II or earlier, 4 were variants of the PK machine gun, and 2 were small semiautomatic pistols. This was in some ways a typical mix for Afghanistan, although the ratio of bolt-action rifles was higher than what many units outside of Helmand Province have seen.
The ratio is interesting and aligns with the experience of patrolling in and near Marja and other contested areas nearby. Insurgents in Helmand Province seem to have used bolt-action rifles more than in many regions of Afghanistan. Whether this indicates a pressure on the supply of assault rifles and their ammunition or a preference for the longer effective ranges of Lee-Enfield and Mosin-Nagant rifles is not clear. But the longer range of bolt-action rifles compared with assault rifles, and their relative abundance in Helmand Province, is a reason this particular acreage of Afghanistan has a reputation as being plagued by a more dangerous set of Afghan marksmen, and even a few snipers, as seen in this video (external - login to view). For those who have been under fire in Helmand, finding that a large fraction of captured rifles are Lee-Enfields or Mosin-Nagants is not surprising. This battalion’s battlefield collections fit its Marines’ experiences on patrol.
Moving past these ratios, the characteristics of individual weapons also provided clues to the Taliban’s behavior and state of equipment and supply, and to the nature of the infantry arms loose in the Afghan countryside. Note the stock of one of the machine guns, below.
C.J. Chivers for The New York Times A machine gun with a cracked stock and a jury-rigged repair.
As was typical of many older PK-variant machine guns, the stock was made of laminated wood — plywood, essentially. And some time ago it had been snapped. But whoever was responsible for it had cobbled it back in place with the help of two strips of sheet metal and a handful of light nails. There was still play in the stock, and this would undermine its accuracy. But the weapon could be used.
Does this say something of the insurgents’ resourcefulness? Or of the insurgency’s limited means? Maybe both.
Now look at this assault rifle, below, an original AK-47 with a solid steel receiver. Its date and factory stampings reveal that it had been manufactured in 1954 in the Soviet Union’s main Kalashnikov plant at the mammoth gunworks at Izhevsk.
C.J. Chivers An AK-47 assault rifle; pitted, weathered, stock removed, but still functional.
Look at it closely. Its exterior is heavily pitted and corroded. I disassembled this rifle, and inside, where it most counts, its operating system — the integrated gas piston and bolt carrier, the trigger assembly, etc. — had been oiled and were only lightly pitted. Someone had been tending to its guts, if not its skin.
In Marja, which is a populated patch of steppe astride a huge irrigation works built decades ago by the United States, the Marines sometimes find weapons hidden in canals. This weapon could have been submerged for some time before being retrieved for use, and considering what it seems to have been through, that 1954 manufacturing stamp impresses. The weapon, a rifle that came off assembly lines a year after Stalin died, was fully functional at age 56 and was still in service this year in war against the West.
Does that seem old? Now look at the date stamps on one of the bolt-action Lee-Enfields, below.
C.J. Chivers The factory stampings on a Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle. Made by the Crown, in Taliban service now.
You read that right: 1915.
This rifle was made while Kitchener’s New Army was being drilled and sent to the
Western Front. It was 95 years old when it changed hands once again, and ended up in the custody of the Marines.
The paired Lee-Enfields and Kalashnikovs in Marja say as much about the nature of these weapons, and their ammunition, as they do about the Taliban. The Lee-Enfield and Kalashnikov lines were made by the millions, and both are noted for reliability and durability. These two facts have made them, in the eyes of people who carry or face them in war after war, either remarkable tools or a scourge.
And along with the Mosin-Nagant rifles that also turn up in Taliban caches, they and their ammunition are markers of old empires and the standardization of cartridges that accompanied war in the 20th century. That leads to the next point: Cartridge standardization between units and among allies — meaning, fielding many weapons that all fire the same ammunition — was intended to make logistics less complicated for conventional armies and their nations.
It has been a boon for insurgents, too.
For the 24 rifles and machine guns in the locker, produced in multiple nations over many decades, only three types of cartridges are required to feed them — the Lee-Enfields fire the .303, the Kalashnikovs fire the 7.62×39-millimeter round, and the PK machine guns and Mosin-Nagant fire the 7.62×54R round that has been issued to Slavic forces since the 1890s in Imperial Russia.
All of these facts and factors might seem arcane. They are not.
Together the technical qualities of these rifles and the thinking behind them, along with the quality of their manufacture and the relative simplicity of their ammunition resupply, have helped a largely illiterate insurgent movement not just to exert its will on its own country, but also to stand up to the most sophisticated military in the world.