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How Much For A Kalashnikov?

By Taylor Marvin

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a UCSD history professor who had recently traveled to Lebanon. While there he met a Syrian friend, who urged him not to travel to Syria for fear of “armed gangs” roaming the streets. The professor I spoke with was puzzled: did his Syrian friend mean to say that the overwhelmingly non-violent anti-government protesters who have been demonstrating against the brutal Syrian regime were armed and violent? Yes, his friend replied, explaining that anyone in Syria could buy an AK-47 for $2,500. Laying aside the interesting question of why the professor’s Syrian friend chose to relate the Assad regime’s anti-protester propaganda, how reliable is this price? Can you get an AK-47 in Syria for $2,500, a price many times an average worker’s monthly salary?

First off, why the AK? The AK-47 and its myriad variants are overwhelmingly the predominant human weapon of the last half century. First invented in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, the AK was designed to be easy to manufacture inexpensively, exceedingly simple to operate, and virtually indestructible. The design Soviet weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov eventually settled upon fit these requirements perfectly. Manufactured from stamped steel and with few parts, the AK line’s effectiveness and reliability became legendary — there are many stories about the AK’s ability to fire when packed with mud or sand, an effectiveness that was an obvious contrast to the notorious unreliability of American Vietnam-era M16s. Throughout the Cold War the Soviets widely exported the inexpensive AK to client states at extremely low cost, distributing staggering numbers of individual weapons throughout the world: 100 million AK variants are estimated to have been produced, compared to 8 million of the comparable American M16. The huge numbers of AKs produced and the widespread availability of its 7.62 x 39mm ammunition, combined with its easy of use, have made it extremely popular in armed conflicts, and AKs are featured on the flags of both Mozambique and Hezbollah.

Interestingly, the $2,500 price reported by my professor’s Syrian friend is actually abnormally high. AK-47s are typically much cheaper simply because so many have been produced that even the high demand doesn’t overwhelm the supply. Over 100 million AK variants have been produced. However, only one tenth of this number were legally produced in Soviet arms factories or under license — the rest are unlicensed locally produced copies. The wide proliferation of locally produced AK variants have dramatically lowered their retail prices. For example, in small rural Kenyan town in 1986 an AK could be purchased for 15 cows. By 2005 the price had fallen to four cows. Today’s prices for AK variants vary widely by location. Figures are taken from Killicoat, 2007 and given in 2005 US dollars:

  • Asia: $631
  • Africa and Middle East: $ 267
  • Eastern Europe and former Soviet States: $574
  • Americas: $442
  • Western Europe: $ 990

Hmmm. That would put our $2,500 well over the 1986-2005 average, especially for the Middle East. However, on second though this disparity does make sense. World prices have been increasing, averaging $534 in 2005 from a low of $448 in 1990 (though the sample size for 1990 is much smaller and potentially problematic). Additionally, the Syrian police state has done a much better job than its often anarchic neighbors at restricting small arms imports. This supply bottleneck would imply a higher Syrian retail price much closer to the Western European, rather then Middle East, average. Additionally, AK prices vary considerably by variant. A short-barreled version, once favored by Soviet special forces and made famous by frequent appearance in videos by Osama bin Laden, regularly costs twice as much as more common long-barrel variants. If my professor’s Syrian friend is referencing the price for a short-barreled variant the figure he gave is actually low.

Similarly, it’s well documented that when people are nervous about the future small arms prices rise dramatically. For example, in Lebanon in 2005 an AK-47 cost roughly $300. By the start of the Israel- Hizbollah War in the summer of 2006 the price had risen to over $900. Today the Lebanon price is even higher: as of May an AK in good condition cost $1,600, according to reporting by Time. A short-barreled special forces variant costs up to $3,750. Time also notes that the majority of small arms sold today in Lebanon are shipped to Syria to fill demand there. It’s likely that these weapons are resold for even higher prices once they’re smuggled into Syria. This makes the $2,500 figure credible or even low, even though it’s far above the world retail price. Though the vast majority of Syrian democratic protesters are unarmed (and non-violence is a stated goal of the movement) at least some Syrians are willing to pay a large sum for firearms.

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