Saturday, February 19, 2011

The rifles of the Khyber Pass

Bob emails to point out a fascinating article in the New York Times about the strange and wondrous rifles being captured by our troops in Afghanistan.  Lee Enfields with strange markings, leading to some interesting sleuthing:
We made photographs of the rifles’ markings and pushed them through the satellite connection to the e-mail address of a curator of the Royal Armouries Museum in the United Kingdom – perhaps the most readily accessible bank of knowledge on infantry rifles in the world. (Lee-Enfields were for several decades the standard infantry arms of British units and their colonial partners. They have been manufactured in several countries and have had a wide distribution, and due to their diverse markings an expert eye is at times required to trace one to its likely point of origin.) In this case, the curator at the arms museum, Jonathan Ferguson, swiftly solved the puzzle. There would be no tracing these rifles to conventional factories, because no conventional factories were involved. Task Force Iron had captured Pakistani knock-offs of the British empire’s former standard arm.
Both rifles would appear to be locally made copies, commonly known as “Khyber Pass” guns. The fit, finish, and form of individual parts are all “off,” but the dead giveaways on each are the markings. The first rifle bears a supposed manufacture date of 1881. The SMLE was not approved until 1902, the Mk.III* that this is purporting to be not until 1916! If this were a conversion of the old long Lee-Enfield or the original Lee-Metford this would be evident in the markings, and the mark number would be IV rather than III. This is all academic however, since even the original Lee-Metford was only approved in 1888 – seven years after this rifle was supposedly made!

The second rifle has a spurious Birmingham Small Arms Company mark (wrong size, uneven lettering) below a weird and wonderful logo of some kind – certainly not the BSA logo (two crossed rifles).

The gunsmiths of Pakistan are a famous phenomenon, and have been widely documented over the past decades. In a network of small shops and factories along Pakistan’s western frontier, local tradesmen have for generations produced handmade copies of well-established infantry arms, and helped keep Pashtun tribesmen supplied. Their weapons are available, along with original items (often pilfered from government units), in local bazaars. These weapons appear to be the product of this trade, although it is hard to tell by visual inspection when exactly they were made. They could have been produced a few years ago, or many decades back.
Which leads us (via Isegoria) to why the famous marksmanship of the Afghanistan tribes seems to be no more:

Back before the Russians showed up, in the 1980s, the best an Afghan could hope to have was a World War II, or World War I, era bolt action rifle. These weapons were eclipsed in the 1980s by full automatic AK-47s and the RPG rocket launcher. The young guys took to the AK, and the thrill of emptying a 30 round magazine on full automatic. Not bad for a brief firefight, and suddenly hardly anyone, except a few old timers, wanted to use the old bolt action rifle.

What was not noticed much outside of Afghanistan, was that this shift in weaponry brought to an end a long Afghan tradition of precision, long range shooting. Before the 1980s, this skill was treasured for both hunting and warfare. When doing neither, Afghan men played games centered on marksmanship. One, for example, involved a group of men chipping in and buying a goat. The animal was then tethered to a rock, often on a hill, and then the half dozen or so men moved several hundred meters away and drew lots to see who would fire in what order. The first man to drop the goat, won it. Since Afghanistan was the poorest nation in Asia, ammo was expensive, and older men taught the young boys all the proper moves needed to get that first shot off accurately.

During the 1980s, Saudi Arabia spent billions of dollars to arm Afghans with all the AK-47s and ammo they could use, and they used lots of it. But rarely for target practice.
Good thing, too.  And Bob once more points out that you'll soon be able to buy brand spanking new #4 Lee Enfields.  Want.

UPDATE 20 February 2011 13:54: Sean D. Sorrentino connects the dots:
You mean guns aren’t that hard to build? Any guy with enough time and talent could build a gun? And CNC machines, which are available in most machine shops, would make it even easier?  Then why are the gun grabbers so hell bent on making guns so hard to get? It’s almost as if they want to divide the world into the law abiding victims and the criminal predators.


NotClauswitz said...

And everybody's so all hotted-up about the oral tradition - this is it in action. It's a bit like the consonantal-shift that rendered the Vedas unintelligible and mere noises now, a pointer-back to a provenance that doesn't exist. We read a language that is not merely dead but un-dead, shambling down a dusty path living in a shadow half-light.

TOTWTYTR said...

What you describe is much like went on in the early frontier of this country. Ammunition was scarce and expensive, rifles were slow to load and fire. A miss of a game animal meant loss of a meal, a miss of a hostile Indian meant the loss of a scalp.

Marksmanship was a valued skill in the early days of the republic. The British discovered that the hard way at the Battle of New Orleans and the Mexicans rediscovered it, again the hard way, at the Battle of the Alamo. Many of the people who fought and died were Kentuckians and Tennesseans who brought the rifles and skills with them.

It's probably fortunate for our troops that the skill has died out in Afghanistan. Or at least died out to a large extent.

TOTWTYTR said...

What a great gift a new Enfield would be for the Lovely and Enfield loving Mrs. Borepatch!

Just thought I'd mention it.

Tam said...

More than one US importer has been spoofed recently by Khyber Pass "Enfields".

Their agent overseas gets told a tale of old British rifles recently found at some armory out in the sticks. Over a couple of bottles of black market whiskey, they get shown some genuine Lee Metfords or Enfields. They strike a deal to buy the lot, and when the container gets opened in the customs bonded warehouse, they find that they've just bought a tractor-trailer load of back alley Peshawari scrap less authentic than a Luis Vuitton bag in a New York flea market.

Borepatch said...

TOTWTYTR, or even an old one. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Of course, selling the pre-1899 dated ones as paper-free antiques and the rest as C&Rs (direct to C&R FFLs) is a violation of the Gun Control Act, something that is seldom noticed...