The New York Times wrote a rather, well, interesting piece on the American consumption of Kalashnikovs, or more specifically, Saiga rifles and shotguns made by Izhmash in Russia.
Izhmash, as you may or may not know, recently went bankrupt. As Russia’s primary armory for more than 200 years, the state stepped in to manage and reorganize the company so that it stays afloat between large military contracts. Izhmash is now part of the state-run holding company Russian Technologies.
It’s commercial business that’s keeping the lights on at Izmash. While Russian Technologies has marked the calendar for their upcoming $613 billion program to rebuild the Russian military infrastructure, from small arms to big, but until Izhmash is called in to begin mass-production of the new AK-12, it’s us, regular people, largely Americans that are Izhmash’s lifeline.
In fact, in this past year alone, sales of Izhmash firearms to the U.S. rose 50 percent, compared to an overall growth in gun sales nationally by 14 percent during the same period. The private small arms market is worth $4.3 billion a year in the U.S., and Russia plays no insignificant part in that. Currently 70 percent of Izmash’s product are rifles for export, almost half of which go to the U.S.
The problem isn’t Russian sales to the U.S., its sales to everyone else. There is little demand for new Russian-made AK-pattern rifles, not just because the guns are reliable, durable, and long-lived, but rather cheaper Chinese competition. Importing firearm from China has been prohibited since 1994, so there is a market here for Russian AKs. If not for that ban, things could be very different. China’s small arms are gaining quite the reputation outside of the U.S. for their quality in recent years.
It doesn’t hurt American sales that Saiga rifles and shotguns are available in so many different varieties. While they are imported in sporting rifle configuration, they cater to a large portion of the shooting community with models chambered in 5.45x39mm, 5.56x45mm, 7.62x39mm, .308 Winchester, 12 gauge, 20 gauge and .410 bore.
The popularity of AKs in the U.S. is so large that they have an aftermarket for them that is almost as large as for the ARs. An aftermarket for Saigas is almost necessary, since Saigas, as imported, don’t have many of the features that people look for in semi-automatic rifles, namely, a pistol grip, a standard, non-Monte Carlo buttstock, and the ability to use inexpensive surplus magazines.
Arsenal, one importer of Saigas, converts and refinishes the sporters to look more like real AKs. Naturally these guns don’t have a fun button and remain semi-automatic. They also command a price premium that puts them out of the range of what most people expect to pay for an AK-pattern rifle.
Still, we have to think that no matter how popular Saigas are in the U.S., current commercial sales can’t possibly be enough to keep Izhmash busy. They’re an enormous armory; an entire city dedicated to manufacturing. The AK-12 needs to start rolling off the line; not just for Russia’s military, but for export as well.
Historically, Russia has kept their more advanced small arms to themselves. While they were arming themselves with AKMs, they were exporting SKSes. Many of their more interesting rifles have never left the country, like the Nikonov, the Vikhr and the AK-107 and -108. Even their newest Saiga 12 would be extremely welcome in the U.S., although we expect to see those soon enough. If Izhmash decided to sporterize and pistolize the 9mm AK for U.S. export gun dealers would not be able to keep them in stock.
Right now, guns are a big deal, and people are stocking up for a whole host of reasons; the only thing keeping Izhmash from selling more guns to Americans right now is Izhmash.