The long strange trip of a Singaporean assault rifle
January 26, 2012 8:00 AM   Subscribe

The long strange trip of a Singaporean Cold-War-era assault rifle into the hands of Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and what it reveals about the unintended consequences of the global trade in small arms and ammunition. [slnyt]
posted by killdevil (9 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Nice post!

The author's blog, The Gun, is fascinating too.
posted by bonehead at 8:06 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another article by the same author, on an "1881" Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) found in Afghanistan, is worth a read as well.

Spoiler: the SMLE was designed and first produced in 1903.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:31 AM on January 26, 2012

Kadin2048: before I even read the link, I thought "Khyber Pass Copy"?
posted by mrbill at 10:25 AM on January 26, 2012

I could tell this was a C.J. Chivers piece before I even clicked. He's becoming one of my favorite Times correspondents.
posted by danny the boy at 10:26 AM on January 26, 2012

the unintended consequences

How would these unintended consequences differ from the intended? It's not like Siad Barre's government ever had absolute control over the country, their agents or it's inhabitants. Selling weapons to almost any government in Africa is akin to arming a gang that will eventually splinter, reform, change sides and attempt to generate funds through the lawless use of said weapons.

We have this cultural notion that an AK-47 or derivative will be the weapon of choice on the continent, thanks Hollywood, but it's been the dumping ground for weapons by colonizers, world war belligerents, cold war adversaries and illicit trade entrepreneurs for two centuries, so although it may be weird to find a straight-up SAR80 in the mix, I'm fairly certain that one would be able to find examples from any producing nation to include various indigenously manufactured or licensed ones as well, just like the crude yet effective homemade Tommy guns manufactured by the Vietminh you can find in your local Hanoi museum.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:47 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 12:01 PM on January 26, 2012

This reminds me of an article I read in Soldier of Fortune back in the mid 80s. An extremely rare Nazi sub-machine gun was found on an El Salvadoran rebel. I can't remember if the gun was a prototype or something with a ridiculously low production run, but I think the article came to the conclusion the gun made its way to Central American via a Soviet arms shipment.
posted by cropshy at 2:09 PM on January 26, 2012

One of Chivers' frequent points is how long-lasting modern weapons are, and I think this is something that really can't be overstated.

We're used to thinking about military weapons as being fairly short-lived, because they tend to be replaced quite frequently, both individually and in terms of models. Even rifles like the Moisin-Nagant or the SMLE, which had service lives in their countries of origin that spanned decades, were not removed from inventory because they were worn out.

We've gotten good enough at designing arms and ammunition, especially the latter, to the point where it's not unreasonable to expect a rifle placed in storage today to be ready to fire in half a century -- and probably a lot longer than that, if you were to do some minimal disassembly first to keep the springs fresh.

This clashes with the gut feeling that many of us (or at least I) have about the longevity of products designed and built in the age of planned obsolescence; where a breathtakingly expensive computer comes with recycling logos on the bottom of its case, in anticipation of the day when it's nothing more than a pile of hazardous garbage. The nature of military small arms -- the need to be extremely reliable, the need to function in a battle -- means that under normal circumstances (where they'll spend most of their time in a rack in an armory somewhere) they last practically forever. They may become obsolete, but obsolete doesn't mean that they're not still useful for their intended purpose; generally it just means that the desired purpose has changed. (E.g., the bolt-action battle rifles weren't phased out because they were bad battle rifles, but rather because it was thought desirable to give every soldier a small machine gun. The requirements changed, in other words.)

This longevity seems to be something that's not factored into arms deals, judging by where weapons turn up later on. I'm not sure exactly what the optimal solution is, but perhaps the weapon-producing countries would be wise to consider leasing rather than outright selling, at some sort of a discount to make it attractive to buyer nations. It would certainly be worth 10% off the purchase price, if we managed to keep the next generation of Taliban from being armed with M-4s or SCAR-Hs.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:49 PM on January 26, 2012

Heck, I never figured out how the bolt from a Sten ended up on my property in the US.
posted by kcds at 6:05 AM on January 27, 2012

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