Ammo 2.

Back in 2007, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American soldiers were firing a billion rounds a year. That’s a lot of bullets, even by my standards. About 1,500 Iraqis were killed by US and coalition forces in 2007.[1] About 4,500 enemy fighters were killed in Afghanistan in 2007.[2] So, that would end up totaling about 6,000 enemy combatants killed in 2007 in the two wars taken together. In theory, that means that American soldiers fired a billion rounds to kill 6,000 enemies. That makes it sound like they’re just spraying around on full-auto at the first sign of trouble. Except that it isn’t true. American soldiers and Marines fire a lot, probably most, of their rounds in training. Still, that leaves us with the question of how many rounds American soldiers did fire in combat. I haven’t figured out how to track that yet. It is worth doing because it is one way of measuring what may have been the experience of Afghans and Iraqis with American soldiers. Do they just shoot up any place that gives them guff or are they obviously discriminating in their use of force? This has implications for our relationships with these people going forward.

Then, bullets are a commodity just like, say, eggs. At any given moment, production is limited to some level. When demand goes up, prices rise until production expands. The federal government can always run a deficit and just print the money it needs. In contrast, state and local governments are required to live within their means. What this meant was that the federal government came to dominate the bullet market at the expense of both hunters and police departments. I don’t know what hunters did. Maybe there are a lot more deer and bear wandering around as a result of our wars. However, faced with a shortage of bullets, police departments responded by reducing the amount of live-fire target practice and training.[3] Apparently, this began back in 2007 at the latest. How long did the training reduction continue? For that matter, is it still in effect? Administrative systems develop a certain momentum that can be difficult to change. The point here is to ask if that training reduction is in any way connected to the recent high-profile cases of police officers shooting unarmed people? Or perhaps this is just an example of “apophenia” (seeing patterns where none actually exist).[4]

Over-lapping this ammunition shortage was another associated with events of the first Obama administration. Many gun-owners were deeply suspicious of the new president on the matter of the Second Amendment.[5] This led to the buying of guns and ammunition, just as my father-in-law’s own father bought several casks of brandy as Prohibition approached. In December 2012, the massacre at Sandy Hook school led to calls[6] for much tighter regulations of guns. Lots of people bought ammunition (and probably receivers). For example, the FBI reported 2.8 million background checks in December 2012, most coming after the Sandy Hook shootings. The price of .22-cal. Long Rifle went from 5 cents a round to 12 cents a round.[7]

Little things can be made to tell you a lot. Or, at least, raise questions.

[1] See:


[3] “Noted,” The Week, 7 September 2007, p. 20.

[4] See: William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003). Amazing book. My students hate it.

[5] His derisive comments about people “holding on to their God and their guns” didn’t win him any friends among gun-owners. See: “Stuff My President Says.”

[6] Including my own e-mailed appeal to one of my two idiot Senators.

[7] This is the ammunition fired by the very popular Ruger 22-10 semi-automatic rifle. Really sweet piece of work.

The gun that made the Nineties roar.

The story of the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle can stand in for the history of the Soviet Union more generally. First, there is the story of its designer. Timofey Kalashnikov was a “kulak” (one of the well-off peasants who had profited from the pre-revolutionary regime’s “wager on the sober and the strong”). In 1919 Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born. His parents nurtured him through the Russian Civil War. In 1921 the Bolshevik Revolution ran up against the resistance to “common ownership of the means of production” by the peasant-proprietors like Timofey Kalashnikov. The Bolsheviks settled for control of the “commanding heights” of the economy, while allowing peasants and shopkeepers to retain possession of their property. They didn’t like doing this, but they recognized reality. Then Stalin came to power. In 1928 he launched the transition to real Communism. He ordered the “collectivization” of agriculture, by seizing the lands of the kulaks, and by plowing resources into building industry. The Kalashnikov family had their farm seized, then were deported to Siberia. Old Pa Kalashnikov soon died. An older brother mouthed off and got slammed into the Gulag. So Mikhail Kalashnikov grew up in fear and hardship. In 1938 Kalashnikov got drafted and learned to drive a tank; in June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union; in October 1941 Kalashnikov was badly wounded. While in hospital he became interested in weapons design and managed to get transferred to a design unit for the rest of the war. No Stalingrad for him. At the end of the war the Allies captured a bunch of German designers. The US got the great rocket scientist Werner von Braun; the Russkies got the great arms designer Hugo Schmeisser. Taken to Russia, Schmeisser “helped” design the AK-47, which—oddly—bears a marked resemblance to his own earlier design for the Wehrmacht’s “Sturmgewehr” assault rifle. So, what did Mikhail Kalashnikov add?

That question brings us to our second theme, the Soviet system of industrial production. There was a Soviet-era joke that ran: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Even the best-rewarded Soviet workers weren’t always delighted with their situations. A lot of people did sloppy, crude work, chipping at the vodka bottle during the work day. As a result, the AK-47 is garbage by Western engineering standards. It isn’t very accurate: it has an effective range of only 200-300 yards. It is crudely made, rather than engineered so that the pieces fit tightly together. Perversely, herein lies one of its virtues. You can get it dirty; you can forget to oil it; and you can blaze away at something without cleaning out the carbon build-up: it still fires. Then, it is stubby, especially with the butt-stock folded forward, and light, only about ten pounds. Herein lies a second virtue. Short and light made it the weapon-of-choice for both child-soldiers and terrorists. Short, light, and reliable made untrained, even moronic, soldiers a deadly enemy. In sum, it is a weapon perfectly adapted for war in the Third World.

Third, there is the story of the Communism versus Capitalism. Colt only manufactured as many M-16s as the market demanded. The Soviets manufactured stuff to keep their workers employed, without any regard for what the market wanted. As a result, there are 10 million M-16s, but there may be 100 million AK-47s. The Soviets gave the surplus arms away to “movements of national liberation” all around the globe during the Cold War. Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are awash in these things.

As for Kalashnikov, he had all the rewards and special privileges reserved for a “Hero of the Soviet Union” heaped upon him: he was rich enough to buy a vacuum cleaner, a refrigerator, and even a car. All were built on the same lines as the AK-47. No wonder the place folded up.

See: C.J. Chivers, The Gun (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).

The Arms Barometer

Great attention has focused on the dangers posed by Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). However, more than 80 percent of the violent conflicts waged during the 1990s employed only “small arms” (weapons ranging from pistols to RPGs). Consequently, the availability of small arms is a matter of real concern. How many guns are there circulating in the world? A lot. The Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, runs an annual Small Arms Survey. The 2002 edition estimates that there are about 640 million small arms worldwide. Some of these guns are newly manufactured. About 8 million new guns were produced in 2000 alone. Some of them are used guns left over from earlier conflicts. Back in 2002, there were estimated to be about half a million small arms in Cambodia, which the Cambodians were busy selling all over the place through the conduit of Thailand.

The “belle of the ball” in small wars appears to be the old AK-47. (See my post on “The Gun That Made the Nineties Roar.”) The black market price of an AK-47 works as a barometer of conflict in a particular society. When the price is really low (say $40 for a used, but functional assault rifle), every little thug in the neighborhood can afford one. Violent robberies and the settlement of petty quarrels by means of homicide spread like wildfire. This is typically the case in the aftermath of some conflict, when the demand for guns has fallen sharply. A price range between $230 and $400 per weapon is the normal market price. Prices above $1,000 a weapon indicate a desperate, time-sensitive demand for weapons. Civil war is about to break out, so people will pay any price to get an assault rifle.

What do local market prices tell us about the state of civil peace in various countries around the world? Well, in 2002, an AK-47 sold for $15 in Mozambique, $40 in Cambodia, $90 in Sudan and Afghanistan, and $100 in both Nigeria and Nicaragua. Happy days were here again in these places after bitter wars. Other places, not so much. At the same time that the price of an AK-47 fell below market level in those places, they were bringing $800 each in Columbia, $1,200 in Bangladesh, $2,400 in Kashmir, $3,000 on the West Bank (more than twice as high as in 1999), and $3,800 in Bihar state in India. This indicated that a new catastrophe loomed over South Asia. It wouldn’t have to turn into a nuclear war to be deadly.

It is worth noting that the “merchants of death” aren’t always, or even mostly, Western industrial nations. One of the key forms of industrialization pursued by developing economies appears to be an arms industry. Many developing countries seem to want to alter their balance of payments by producing arms for sale abroad in a burgeoning world market, rather than importing arms in exchange for other exports. Small producers of arms now include Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Portugal, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Columbia, Mexico, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Australia. To some extent, these countries obtain the means to produce arms by attracting European arms manufacturers to license factories in the developing countries. Take the example of Heckler and Koch. The German-based firm licensed factories in Greece and Iran. However, Greece exported some of the weapons manufactured in the licensed factory to Libya. Reportedly, Libya transferred some of these Heckler and Koch weapons to Lebanon. The Iranian Heckler and Koch factory exported some of their weapons to the Sudan. From Sudan the weapons went to Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt.

I suppose that somebody could use the AH-47 index to run a futures market in No Future.


Don Peck, “The World in Numbers: The Gun Trade,” Atlantic, December 2002, pp. 46-47.