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June 17, 2019: Since 2014, when the United States put sanctions on Russia (for invading Ukraine and threatening other neighbors) one of the major losers have been Russian weapons and ammunition manufacturers. Before 2014 these firms counted the U.S. Army as a major customer because the army handled the purchase of Russian weapons and ammo for everyone in the U.S. government who needed such items. This included the army, marines, SOCOM (Special Operations Command), the CIA and some others. Most of the Russian designed weapons and their ammo were purchased for use as foreign aid to allies who preferred the cheaper Russian weapons. Russia was not always the low bidder, but they were always competitive. Now that lucrative export market seems gone for good as non-Russian suppliers, including more American ones, fill the need in every way and with less political and diplomatic drama.

Alternate sources of ammo, especially the heavily used 7.62x39 AK-47 round, are the most popular. Most AK-47 users depend on the volume of fire, not accuracy, to get results. Moreover, most 7.62x39 ammo has a short shelf life because it was manufactured as originally intended for the AK-47. That is using a steel, not brass, case and a cheaper (corrosive) primer. This stuff tends to work no matter how cheap the components or manufacturing standards are, but deteriorates if stockpiled for future use. The steel case ammo was real cheap but had a very short shelf life. In wartime, this didn’t matter because newly manufactured ammo was meant to be used quickly. After the Cold War ended, stockpiled steel case ammo was found to be very unreliable. As a result, there was a growing quantity of higher quality 7.62x39 ammo (brass cartridges, non-corrosive primer) produced. Some Russian firms produce high-end stuff for domestic and (mostly) export customers. Russian weapons manufacturers do the same with these classic, and still in-demand weapons. Alas for Russia, the Americans had become a major customer for 7.62x39 ammo, buying in bulk and then distributing the ammo and weapons to foreign aid recipients worldwide. There was also a large commercial market in America for quality 7.62x39 rounds.

Many of the American allies receiving 7.62x39 ammo and weapons that use it, had been Russian customers. Until 2014 they still were, indirectly, with the Americans acting as distributors. Much to the chagrin of the Russians the Americans quickly found other suppliers after 2014, although sometimes at a higher cost. That changed over the last five years and now the U.S. Department of Defense is encouraging American firms to manufacture some of these classic Russian designed weapons.

This trend was clearly underway back in 2016 when SOCOM openly sought out American firms willing 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 preferred the easier to maintain, although less accurate, Russian designs. But SOCOM had also found that higher quality versions of these weapons performed better without losing the reliability and simplicity of the originals. Some American firms had already been manufacturing commercial (for hunters and collectors) grade Russian weapons but SOCOM was looking for less expensive and mass-produced versions.

Even before the Cold War ended there were plenty of nations producing the AK-47 and ammo for it. This was all because 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. North Korea produces its own AK-47 variant and some East European nations produce high-quality models.

Spending all that Department of Defense Department or CIA money on foreign weapons was never politically popular in the United States, and after 2014 SOCOM was pressured to try and find American manufacturers. The problem was that no American manufacturer can 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 documented this fact and that reduced the political pressure to “buy American” for a while. In the meantime, the army, which was still acting as the purchasing agent and distributor of foreign weapons and ammo, quickly found an American firm, Orbital ATK (a division of Northrup Grumman) that had a network of foreign ammo suppliers. This network, even leaving out Russian and Chinese firms, was still extensive enough to supply all the Americans needed and at prices similar to what the Russian stuff cost. These non-Russian suppliers have been so satisfactory that there is little reason to resume using Russian firms once the sanctions are lifted. Same with the Russian designed weapons.

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 because of the 2014 sanctions. 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 and modern variations. These post-1991 designs are patented and those patents tend to hold up in the count. The most common defense foreign builders use against AK-47 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. At the same time, until the early 1990s (and the dissolution of the Soviet Union), Russia did not respect most foreign patents.

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. For example when 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. Generally, the concept of intellectual property was ignored in the Soviet Union. 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 which 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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