‘Lufthaus B’


The Luftfaus in a transport case with preloaded ammunition cartridges. ‘Lufthaus B’


The rounds were fired in two stages with a 0.2 second gap between salvos. ‘Lufthaus B’

In 1945 the Luftfaust was designed by ‘Hugo Schneider’ of Leipzig and by the end of that year the German army were ready to field test the weapon system. The early version ‘Luftfaus A’ had only four shorter barrels however in this article we will be looking at the ‘Lufthaus B’

One thing that cannot be denied is the fact that the German military during World War II managed to develop a significant number of weapons that were precursors to many of the most impressive weapon technologies of modern warfare today. One of those weapons, the Luftfaust, was a precursor to the MANPADS, or MAN Portable Air Defense System, weapons like the Stinger, Blowpipe, or Strella. The Luftfaust, or “Air Fist”, was a recoilless shoulder-fired, rocket-propelled anti- aircraft weapon developed during the last year of the war, with large orders placed that would have marked a significant change in German weapons technologies had the war lasted another year or two. If the war had lasted into 1947, German troops would have been armed with Stg. 44’s and a variety of rocket-propelled heavy support weapons, eliminating the need for most grenades, mortars, and machine guns.

There were two versions of the Luftfaust developed. The first version was the Luftfaust-A. This weapon consisted of a bundle of four launch tubes, each capable of launching a small 2 cm diameter rocket fitted with a 90 gram projectile with a 19 gram explosive warhead. Fired in salvo, these little rockets reached a maximum velocity of 380 m/s. Unfortunately, test firings showed that while the rockets had sufficient range, they did not have sufficient dispersal inside a target kill circle to be effective against aircraft.

This lead to the Luftfaust-B, which used longer launch tubes and more of them. The Luftfaust-B mounted nine launch tubes, each 1.5 meters long, with the entire launcher assembly weighing in at 6.5 kg. When fired, the nine rounds would launch in a salvo, 0.2 seconds between each round, allowing them to form a 60 meter diameter kill pattern at a range of 500 meters, sufficient to shoot down aircraft of the day. Though heavy, the weapon produced no discernible recoil, and was fired much like a bazooka or panzerschrek, with the rear part simply laying on the shoulder.

Production of the Luftfaust-B began in March, 1945, with an order for 10,000 launch units and 4 million rocket rounds to fire through them. However, as the war concluded, only 80 were in service, being tested in combat field trials before official adoption occurred.

A weapon similar to the Luftfaust was developed as well. For ground attack aircraft, they developed the Fliegerfaust, or “Airplane Fist”. This was a hefty 6-barrelled launcher designed for mounted under the wings of aircraft. It fired six 3 cm rockets in salvo, fitted with warhead manufactured from the ammunition of the Maschinenkanone MK108, a 330 gram projectile filled with 75 grams of explosives.

While this weapon never advanced past trials, it did inspire the Hand-Fohn. This was a bundle of three launch tubes designed to fire the 7.3cm Raketen-Sprenggranate 4609, a 3.2kg rocket with a 300 gram explosive warhead, capable of attaining a speed of 360 m/s. Again, these weapon never reached the prototype stage.

All three anti-aircraft systems relied on the concept of using terminally fuzed warheads to fill a 20 to 40 meter diameter sphere with sufficient shrapnel to damage or down a plane at 500 to 600 meters range.

The Fliegerschreck
The Fliegerschreck was by the end of the war almost ready for field trials and was to use a new form of ammunition that could be used by the Panzerschreck, which enabled the Panzerschreck to be used for both the anti aircraft and anti tank roles.
The new ammunition was to contain an explosive charge and 144 small incendiary sub munitions that would be fitted to a standard rocket motor. The new warhead was ready in 1945 however none were ever issued to front line troops.
The Fliegerschreck would incorporate a new AA sighting system similar to that used by the MG 42 Machine gun
World War II Data Book Hitler’s Secret Weapons 1933-1945 -ISBN 1906626871




After countless unsuccessful experiments, lethal accidents and ineffective trials, firearms research and techniques gradually improved, and chroniclers report many types of guns—mainly used in siege warfare—with numerous names such as veuglaire, pot-de-fer, bombard, vasii, petara and so on. In the second half of the 14th century, firearms became more efficient, and it seemed obvious that cannons were the weapons of the future. Venice successfully utilized cannons against Genoa in 1378. During the Hussite war from 1415 to 1436, the Czech Hussite rebels employed firearms in combination with a mobile tactic of armored carts (wagenburg) enabling them to defeat German knights. Firearms contributed to the end of the Hundred Years’ War and allowed the French king Charles VII to defeat the English in Auray in 1385, Rouen in 1418 and Orleans in 1429. Normandy was reconquered in 1449 and Guyenne in 1451. Finally, the battle of Chatillon in 1453 was won by the French artillery. This marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War; the English, divided by the Wars of the Roses, were driven out of France, keeping only Calais. The same year saw the Turks taking Constantinople, which provoked consternation, agitation and excitement in the whole Christian world.

In that siege and seizure of the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, cannon and gunpowder achieved spectacular success. To breach the city walls, the Turks utilized heavy cannons which, if we believe the chronicler Critobulos of Imbros, shot projectiles weighing about 500 kg. Even if this is exaggerated, big cannons certainly did exist by that time and were more common in the East than in the West, doubtless because the mighty potentates of the East could better afford them. Such monsters included the Ghent bombard, called “Dulle Griet”; the large cannon “Mons Berg” which is today in Edinburgh; and the Great Gun of Mohammed II, exhibited today in London. The latter, cast in 1464 by Sultan Munir Ali, weighed 18 tons and could shoot a 300 kg stone ball to a range of one kilometer.

A certain number of technical improvements took place in the 15th century. One major step was the amelioration of powder quality. Invented about 1425, corned powder involved mixing saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur into a soggy paste, then sieving and drying it, so that each individual grain or corn contained the same and correct proportion of ingredients. The process obviated the need for mixing in the field. It also resulted in more efficient combustion, thus improving safety, power, range and accuracy.

Another important step was the development of foundries, allowing cannons to be cast in one piece in iron and bronze (copper alloyed with tin). In spite of its expense, casting was the best method to produce practical and resilient weapons with lighter weight and higher muzzle velocity. In about 1460, guns were fitted with trunnions. These were cast on both sides of the barrel and made sufficiently strong to carry the weight and bear the shock of discharge, and permit the piece to rest on a two-wheeled wooden carriage. Trunnions and wheeled mounting not only made for easier transportation and better maneuverability but also allowed the gunners to raise and lower the barrels of their pieces.

One major improvement was the introduction in about 1418 of a very efficient projectile: the solid iron shot. Coming into use gradually, the solid iron cannonball could destroy medieval crenellation, ram castle-gates, and collapse towers and masonry walls. It broke through roofs, made its way through several stories and crushed to pieces all it fell upon. One single well-aimed projectile could mow down a whole row of soldiers or cut down a splendid armored knight.

About 1460, mortars were invented. A mortar is a specific kind of gun whose projectile is shot with a high, curved trajectory, between 45° and 75°, called plunging fire. Allowing gunners to lob projectiles over high walls and reach concealed objectives or targets protected behind fortifications, mortars were particularly useful in sieges. In the Middle Ages they were characterized by a short and fat bore and two big trunnions. They rested on massive timber-framed carriages without wheels, which helped them withstand the shock of firing; the recoil force was passed directly to the ground by means of the carriage. Owing to such ameliorations, artillery progressively gained dominance, particularly in siege warfare.

Individual guns, essentially scaled down artillery pieces fitted with handles for the firer, appeared after the middle of the 14th century. Various models of portable small arms were developed, such as the clopi or scopette, bombardelle, baton-de-feu, handgun, and firestick, to mention just a few.

In purely military terms, these early handguns were more of a hindrance than an asset on the battlefield, for they were expensive to produce, inaccurate, heavy, and time-consuming to load; during loading the firer was virtually defenseless. However, even as rudimentary weapons with poor range, they were effective in their way, as much for attackers as for soldiers defending a fortress.


The harquebus was a portable gun fitted with a hook that absorbed the recoil force when firing from a battlement. It was generally operated by two men, one aiming and the other igniting the propelling charge. This weapon evolved in the Renaissance to become the matchlock musket in which the fire mechanism consisted of a pivoting S-shaped arm. The upper part of the arm gripped a length of rope impregnated with a combustible substance and kept alight at one end, called the match. The lower end of the arm served as a trigger: When pressed it brought the glowing tip of the match into contact with a small quantity of gunpowder, which lay in a horizontal pan fixed beneath a small vent in the side of the barrel at its breech. When this priming ignited, its flash passed through the vent and ignited the main charge in the barrel, expelling the spherical lead bullet.

The wheel lock pistol was a small harquebus taking its name from the city Pistoia in Tuscany where the weapon was first built in the 15th century. The wheel lock system, working on the principle of a modern cigarette lighter, was reliable and easy to handle, especially for a combatant on horseback. But its mechanism was complicated and therefore expensive, and so its use was reserved for wealthy civilian hunters, rich soldiers and certain mounted troops.

Portable cannons, handguns, harquebuses and pistols were muzzle-loading and shot projectiles that could easily penetrate any armor. Because of the power of firearms, traditional Middle Age weaponry become obsolete; gradually, lances, shields and armor for both men and horses were abandoned.

The destructive power of gunpowder allowed the use of mines in siege warfare. The role of artillery and small firearms become progressively larger; the new weapons changed the nature of naval and siege warfare and transformed the physiognomy of the battlefield. This change was not a sudden revolution, however, but a slow process. Many years elapsed before firearms became widespread, and many traditional medieval weapons were still used in the 16th century.

One factor militating against artillery’s advancement in the 15th century was the amount of expensive material necessary to equip an army. Cannons and powder were very costly items and also demanded a retinue of expensive attendant specialists for design, transport and operation. Consequently firearms had to be produced in peacetime, and since the Middle Ages had rudimentary ideas of economics and fiscal science, only a few kings, dukes and high prelates possessed the financial resources to build, purchase, transport, maintain and use such expensive equipment in numbers that would have an appreciable impression in war.

Conflicts with firearms became an economic business involving qualified personnel backed up by traders, financiers and bankers as well as the creation of comprehensive industrial structures. The development of firearms meant the gradual end of feudalism. Firearms also brought about a change in the mentality of combat because they created a physical and mental distance between warriors. Traditional mounted knights, fighting each other at close range within the rules of a certain code, were progressively replaced by professional infantrymen who were anonymous targets for one another, while local rebellious castles collapsed under royal artillery’s fire. Expensive artillery helped to hasten the process by which central authority was restored.

AK a St.G 44 Knockoff?

How the St.G44 weapons work

When the trigger is pressed the hammer is released to strike the inertia firing pin. This is a wedge-shaped pin which does not have a conventional spring. It is primer retracted.

As the bullet passes the gas port in the barrel it expands into the gas chamber or cup which is screwed into the housing around the barrel and on top of it.

The gas impinges on a piston somewhat resembling the old Lewis piston and drives it to th rear. In the start of its rearward travel, the piston (which is attached to it by a fixed pin the bolt carrier) can move without interfering with the secure locking of the weapon. A gas went in the top of the casing permits the gas to escape as the gas end in the piston clears it.

After a short rearward travel the bolt carrier hook picks up the separate bolt member, mounted below it, and pulls it down and back to perform the unlocking action.

The recoil spring is mounted behind the bolt extending back to the stock. This spring is compressed as the moving members travel to the rear to extrack and eject the empty case in normal fashion and to cock the hammer.

This weapon is fitted with a disconnecter.

How the AK works

Full automatic fire. With the safety selector set on full automatic fire, a cartridge in the chamber (to chamber a cartridge initially, since the AK fires from a closed bolt, it is necessary to pull the operating handle to the rear and release it), and a loaded magazine in the weapon, the following occurs when the trigger is pulled. The safety selector lug is far enough to the rear to release the rear of the trigger, but stays directly above the rear end of the disconnector. Thus, while the trigger is free to rotate, the safety selector lug prevents the disconnector from rotating. One large multi-stranded spring is used as both hammer spring and trigger spring in the AK. [note: this is more like the MP-40, actually, but also a lot like the PPSh 41. This was two springs on the St.G. 44]

Semiautomatic fire To fire a single round from the rifle, set the weapon for semiautomatic fire by rotating the safety selector as far down as possible, and then press the trigger.

When the trigger is pressed, the semiautomatic sear and disconnector rotate. The rear end of the sear (which is actually a part of the trigger) raises the ends of the hammer-and-trigger spring. As the trigger rotates, the semiautomatic sear releases the hammer cock notch.

The hammer-and-trigger spring rotates the hammer forward, and the hammer strikes the rear and of the firing pin, pushing it forward so that it strikes the primer of the cartridge. The cartridge fires, and gasses from the cartridge flows through the gas port in the barrel into the gas cylinder and force the piston and bolt carrier assembly move to the rear, the recoil spring is compressed. The bevel in the bolt carrier cam acts on the bolt guide lug, rotating the bolt to the left and thereby unlocking the bolt.

After the bolt is unlocked, the bolt carrier and bolt move to the rear together. The bolt carrier rotates the hammer to the rear, compressing the hammer-and-trigger spring. As the hammer rotates, it rotates the disconnector, the disconnector spring forces the disconnector to engage the disconnector notch in the hammer. This holds the hammer at full cock.

The full automatic sear spring rotates the full automatic sear into engagement with the full automatic sear notch in the hammer. The full automatic sear, however, does not hold the hammer in the cocked position, since the disconnector is already performing this function. As the full automatic sear rotates, the upper and of the sear rises to obstruct the passage of the full automatic disconnector.

As the bolt moves to the rear, the extractor pulls the cartridge case from the chamber. When the case strikes the ejector, it is ejected from the receiver.

The top round in the magazine is forced upward by the follower until it is arrested by the magazine flange.

The rearward movement of the bolt carrier and the bolt is arrested by the rear wall of the receiver Forward movement of these parts are caused by the decompression of the recoil spring.

As the bolt carrier moves forward, the top cartridge in the magazine is stripped from the magazine and forced into the chamber.

As the bolt approaches the barrel face, the first stage in the rotation of the bolt to the right takes place. At the same time, the extractor engages the extractor groove of the cartridge case. As the bolt carrier moves to the extreme forward position, it produces the final rotation of the bolt to the right, locking the bolt.

After the bolt is locked, but while the bolt carrier is still a short distance from the extreme forward position, the full automatic disconnector (which is integral with the bolt carrier) strikes the upper end of the full automatic sear, and rotates the sear forward. This action moves the full automatic sear away from the hammer, so that the hammer will not be prevented from firing.

The next round is fired by releasing the trigger, and then pressing it again. When the trigger is released, the hammer-and-trigger spring rotates the disconnector and semi-automatic sear to the sear, disengaging the disconnector from the disconnector notch in the hammer. The trigger-and-hammer spring rotates the hammer until the hammer cock notch engages the semi-automatic sear. This is accompanied by an audible click.

When the trigger is again pressed, the semiautomatic sear releases the hammer cock notch. The hammer once again strikes the firing pin, and the entire operating cycle of the automatic mechanism is repeated.

Automatic fire To fire the rifle automatically, set the selector at full automatic fire by rotating the indicator until it is opposite the Cyrillic letters AB on the receiver, and press the trigger.

When the trigger is pressed, it rotates the trigger pin. The disconnector, because it is prevented from rotating by the selector lever, does not engage the disconnector notch in the hammer.

As the trigger rotates, the semiautomatic sear releases the hammer cock notch. The hammer-and-trigger spring rotates the hammer, which strikes the firing pin forcibly. The round is fired. The powder gasses act on the gas piston, thrusting the operating rod to the rear, opening the bolt, extracting and ejecting the cartridge case, and cocking the hammer.

The full automatic sear engages the full automatic sear notch in the hammer, holding the hammer at full cock.

The top round in the magazine is raised by the follower.

As the bolt carrier and the bolt are moved forward by the recoil spring, the round is fed into the chamber and the bolt is locked.

When the bolt carrier is a short distance from the extreme forward position, the full automatic disconnector strikes the upper end of the full automatic sear and rotates the sear, releasing the hammer. The hammer strikes the firing pin, firing the next round.

Sturmgewehr MP-44 Part I: Mechanics

Kalashnikov vs Sturmgewehr!

AKs against their Makers I



By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union was ramping up for what its leaders mistakenly thought would be a quick war in Afghanistan. At first the AK seemed to be one of the superpower’s main military assets, but the rifle later proved to be in part responsible for its defeat. The catastrophic Soviet defeat following a ten-year guerrilla war eventually led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of cheap AKs throughout the Middle East.

The Vietnam War gave the AK its credibility, and the Afghanistan war would spread it around the region, placing it in the hands of terrorists and insurgents who embraced it as the budding icon of anti-imperialism.

The war that Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev later called “our country’s Vietnam” had roots as far back as the 1920s, when Afghanistan became the first nation to recognize the newly minted Soviet Communist regime after the Bolshevik Revolution. The two nations shared a common border and maintained friendly relations. Soviet aid and advisors were a constant feature in Afghanistan for the next fifty years. During the cold war, both East and West curried favor with the Afghans. The Soviets, for example, built a large irrigation project south of Jalalabad, and the United States constructed roads and an airfield at Kandahar.

By the 1970s, Communism was growing worldwide, boosted by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Other countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia turned Communist. In Cuba, the Communist revolution under Fidel Castro was stronger than ever despite CIA efforts to shake his hold. The Soviet Union was spreading its Marxist doctrine to the Congo, Egypt, Syria, and Latin America.

In April 1978, members of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (DRA) assassinated Prime Minister Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan during a coup supported by the Soviet Union. Although the new government enjoyed popular support, it was poorly organized and run. The following year, unknown assassins (presumably encouraged by Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin) smothered President Nur Muhammad Taraki in his sleep and Amin became president. Amin was warm to Soviet help but not as willing as his predecessor to be the superpower’s puppet.

By the fall of 1979, the Soviet Union had set its sights on taking over Afghanistan by military force. Although many reasons have been suggested for an invasion, ranging from helping a neighboring Communist regime to a closer military presence in the Persian Gulf area where the world’s oil tankers traveled, the situation in nearby Iran was also a factor. The country was in the midst of an Islamic revolution, throwing out the corrupt U.S.-backed government of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and installing the Islamic hard-liner Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Although the new regime was an enemy of the United States, it was not friendly to the Soviet Union either and presented another loss of influence to the Soviets and little hope of Communist inroads.

On Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet army, with planning help from the DRA, rolled three divisions across the border and quickly took control of airfields around Kabul as well as the telecommunications infrastructure. In a set of clever ploys, Soviet advisors hosted a party for Afghan government leaders at the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul, and Soviet military advisors held a similar fete for upper-level Afghan military officers. At the conclusion of both galas, all the Afghan guests were taken prisoner. That same day, Soviet soldiers dressed as Afghan soldiers stormed the presidential palace, killing President Amin. Within days, more than fifty thousand Soviet troops were in Afghanistan, with all the major cities under their control.

Strategically, the invasion had been brilliant, with only sixty-six Soviet soldiers killed, most of them due to non-combat-related accidents. The Soviet strategy was to maintain control of major cities with their own forces and have the Afghan army seek out and destroy rural-based opposition groups, known as mujahideen, who were scattered throughout the countryside, mainly in the mountains. Soviet planners, elated by a quick victory and little resistance, anticipated a stay of no more than three years.

The mujahideen, which literally means “strugglers” in Arabic but also translates as “holy warriors,” sought U.S. assistance against the Soviet invaders. They opposed the Soviets largely on nationalistic grounds; they were not willing to be taken over by any outside force. They also garnered strong support from influential local imams for whom the Marxist ideology of atheism was abhorrent. Hundreds of small bands were formed. Even some DRA soldiers joined the mujahideen fighters.

President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to supply the mujahideen with weapons and funds for their fight against the Soviets. The weapons would be funneled through Pakistan, which was uneasy about having the Soviets next door in Afghanistan. Moreover, as the war continued and the Soviets bombed and destroyed rural villages, millions of Afghans found themselves living in refugee camps bordering Pakistan and Iran, which made it difficult if not impossible to maintain the borders’ integrity. Both nations supported the mujahideen movement.

The Soviets with their tanks, airpower, and AKs vastly outgunned the mujahideen, who were relegated in the early years to whatever weapons they could scrounge or take from captured Soviet convoys and army caches. Their situation changed for the better when one of the first CIA shipments arrived, less than two weeks after the Soviet invasion, containing thousands of bolt-action .303 Lee-Enfield rifles, the British counterpart of the venerable but outmoded M1. Howard Hart, who was the CIA’s chief in Pakistan, believed that the old Enfield rifles were superior to the Soviet AK. Orders went out to sources in Greece, India, and wherever else they could be found for delivery to Karachi. The CIA also shipped rocket-propelled grenade launchers, portable enough for guerrillas to carry in the field, and capable of stopping a Soviet tank.

The Soviets fought using the methods expected of any large army of the day. In many respects, they mimicked the U.S. program in Vietnam. They delivered massive firepower from bombers, helicopters, fixed artillery, and tanks upon a town, completely dominating the area, and then dispatched ground troops who fired their AKs at anything that moved until the town fell under their control. Mopping up was largely unnecessary because the massive shellings took care of any resistance save a few stragglers. The Soviets’ scorched-earth strategy was considered a form of “migratory genocide.” By destroying villages and forcing people into exile, they hoped to sap the rural support that fed the mujahideen.

Initially, the outgunned mujahideen were shaken by the Soviet tactics and the firepower delivered by a new version of the AK that was making its way onto the battlefield. The mujahideen so feared this mysterious this new rifle and its odd-sized cartridge that they called it “poison bullet” because of its almost supernatural destructive power. The new bullet was not only smaller than previous AK rounds, many of which the mujahideen had captured during raids, but it was also more deadly—even more so than the M-16 round that had prompted its development.

Soviet weapons designers had taken note of the small, high-velocity 5.56mm bullet used in the M-16 when they saw firsthand in Vietnam its destructive bone-cracking power. The truth was that Soviet military officials were not completely happy with the AK, and they were looking for a change. Although the intermediate round was a major step forward, many troops could not keep the rifle on target during full automatic fire because of the strong recoil.

Kalashnikov, well aware of the move by the United States to a smaller bullet, was ready to embrace the new order. Later, he wrote, “Our foreign colleagues [U.S. arms designers] had already been working along this line, so the Russian command decided to do so in this country. Of course, I could not stand idle in this situation and rest on my laurels. In a way, the earned reputation won’t allow you to stop working. On the contrary, it makes you take up new projects as long as you have the strength.”

Through the passing of time, Kalashnikov now characterizes himself as gung-ho on the new, smaller bullet, but at the time, he, like many of his Western counterparts, was still not convinced that smaller was better. Despite the forensic and anecdotal data, many conventional arms designers had trouble believing that a smaller bullet could produce greater destruction. However, Kalashnikov was a team player and threw himself into modifying his AK to accommodate the smaller round. Moreover, he wanted to make certain that the legacy of the AK design would continue.

Making a smaller-caliber weapon did not mean simply using a narrower barrel, he learned. As in the AR-15, small-diameter barrels tended to retain water, but this was overcome. Other changes were necessary, too, for the basic AK design to be used. This included changing the bolt head, improving the extractor, and changing the magazine to a steel-and-fiberglass composite.

These changes were all doable. Kalashnikov’s main challenge was not technical but political. He had to convince the other teams working on the small-bullet project that the AK design, once modified, was still viable and could handle the new bullet. After all, the United States had changed to a radically new gun design in order to accommodate the 5.56mm cartridge, and the AK itself was born to shoot the new intermediate round. Maybe a change was in order now that the AK was going on twenty years old. Some Kalashnikov competitors had likened the AK design to a lemon that had been squeezed dry with nothing left to offer, and this riled the arms designer.

Kalashnikov’s main challengers were engineers from another design group known as TsNIITochmash, the Central Institute for Precision Machine Building, who were also modifying an AKM to shoot the small bullet. They went a step further, however. By the mid-1960s, they had developed a way to virtually eliminate recoil in the AKM, which used the intermediate round. The AL-7, as it was called, employed a counter-recoil system that almost perfectly matched the recoil from each round with a spring balanced in the opposite direction, thereby eliminating any backward motion. The two forces nearly canceled each other.

Unfortunately, the AL-7, completed in 1972, required substantial changes to existing factory lines, and was rejected as too expensive to produce. With this group out of the running, a newly named AK-74 (again, for the year it was accepted), which fired a 5.45 × 39mm bullet, closer in size to the M-16 round, was put into service and began replacing the older intermediate-cartridge-firing rifle. Unlike previous rifles, it used all polymer in the buttstock and grip, components known as “furniture,” which had previously been made of wood. This change offered a much lighter weapon.

The Soviets had another winning rifle. It was light like the M-16, used the smaller more lethal bullet, yet maintained the legendary Kalashnikov reliability. The new AK-74 with muzzle brake had about half the recoil of an M-16 and about two-thirds that of the previous AK. Reduced recoil offered less skillful soldiers the ability to keep their weapons fixed closer on target during rapid fire. The new firearm and lighter bullets also allowed soldiers to carry twice as much ammunition into battle.

Again, Western intelligence underestimated the Soviet weapon’s importance. When reports about the new rifle filtered in during the late 1970s, analysts believed the new rifles (and a light machine gun known as the RPK-74) would be issued only to special squads because of the logistical headache of issuing new weapons and ammunition to all Soviet troops. This underestimation of the weapon’s importance may have been due to the belief that Soviet production capacity was still low or their technical ability poor. Nevertheless, the Soviets were committed to the new weapon and the timing was fortuitous. Phased in during the Afghanistan war, this new rifle became a fixture in the conflict as stories of its destructiveness spread throughout the rebel ranks.

The new bullet consisted of a thin-jacketed point with an airspace in the middle. As the bullet entered the human body, the impact bent and deformed the tip because the airspace offered no structural strength to keep it intact. As it penetrated, the bullet usually came apart, fragmenting and inflicting extreme damage to tissues and organs. Western intelligence knew few details about the new bullet until Galen L. Geer, a correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine in Afghanistan, wrote about it in a two-part series for the September and October 1980 issues. Not only did he obtain the new rounds, but he and Soldier of Fortune editor and publisher Robert K. Brown delivered two rounds to an unnamed U.S. government agency (“not the CIA,” noted Brown) and beat the CIA. Geer also visited many hospitals in Pakistan and reported seeing extraordinarily large wounds. He believed the injuries were the result of rounds shattering entire bone sections. He was correct. In addition, he reported wounded fighters with limb wounds only, because those with more extensive body wounds rarely survived the trip to a hospital.

Realizing that they could not win by fighting the Soviets’ type of war, the mujahideen altered their tactics. At the first signs of bombing, they would leave the area and hide in the mountains, often in caves. They would return hours, days, or even weeks later to surprise the unprepared Soviet soldiers now complacent in the belief that they had complete control of the town. The mujahideen could not engage the Soviets in head-to-head combat, because their old, long-range, single-shot Enfields and even some semiautomatic M-14s they had obtained were no match for the rapid-firing AK, but they could fight them as guerrillas.

The old way of war was officially dead.

AKs against their Makers II




Another tactic of the mujahideen was to exploit the Afghan topography. The country is crisscrossed by roads that wind through mountain passes, and the Soviets were bound by their vehicles to stay on these routes. In one particular instance, in October 1980, the mujahideen heard of a convoy heading north from Bagram Air Base and crossing the Panjshir valley bridge. The convoy was to return that evening. About two hundred mujahideen armed with RPGs, mortars, and heavy machine guns set up an ambush. In the late afternoon, as the sun was setting, they waited until half of the convoy had passed over the bridge. Then they attacked the entire length of the convoy. Startled Soviet soldiers abandoned their vehicles and, realizing they were close to the air base, rushed to the river to escape home. Almost at their leisure, the mujahideen fighters were able to pick the convoy clean, taking weapons and other supplies under the cover of darkness.

The mujahideen received food and other supplies from local villages despite the Soviets’ continued scorched-earth policies that leveled towns believed friendly to the guerrillas. The Soviets’ plan to have the Afghan army root out the mujahideen failed as these soldiers often supported the rebels. This support grew as the Soviets’ treatment of villagers and those in larger towns grew more brutal.

Nevertheless, by the early 1980s, the Soviets appeared to be winning. At least it looked as if they could outlast the mujahideen, who were still short of modern weapons, especially assault rifles, save for those taken during ambushes and weapons caches raids. But the CIA began to funnel massive aid to the mujahideen through Pakistan. In 1981, the guerrilla movement received only about $30 million, but by 1984 the amount had soared to $200 million, according to later congressional testimony. President Reagan also negotiated a deal with the Saudi royal family to match the CIA’s funding.

The mujahideen were still terrified of the new AK and its “poison bullet,” and pleaded for these arms from the United States to achieve parity with the Soviet invaders. The CIA’s Hart finally relented and ordered hundreds of thousands of AKs, mainly from China, where production of the Soviet weapon was booming. China and the Soviet Union had had an ideological falling-out during the 1960s, and the Chinese were eager to use the Soviets’ own weapon against them in the Afghan conflict. (China and Afghanistan also share a forty-seven-mile border.) Not only did they sell the 7.62mm AK called the Type 56, but they had introduced in 1981 the 5.56mm Type 81, an AK model that used the same 5.56mm round as the M-16, another poke in the eye to the Soviets. A year later, China brought on the market their 5.45mm Type 81, which was a direct competitor to the new Soviet assault rifle. AKs and their variants also poured in from Poland, where dissident army officers sold Soviet weapons to the CIA. Other nations such as Egypt and Turkey sold older Soviet and other weapons to the CIA for delivery to Afghan guerrillas.

The CIA favored Soviet weapons because of their reliability, low cost, and availability. In addition, Soviet weapons in the hands of the mujahideen would not appear to be U.S.-supplied, thus giving the CIA deniability. As history would later show, Hart’s decision to buy AKs for the mujahideen may have been the most important single contribution to the spread of the weapon.

So many weapons, millions by some estimates, were passing through Pakistan that no one could keep an accurate count. The same with money; nobody could keep track of all the secret deals, payoffs, and bribes that surrounded the CIA’s covert operation. Years later, in congressional testimony, CIA officials estimated that by 1984, $200 million had been sent to the mujahideen and that by 1988 the amount reached $2 billion through CIA channels alone. It had turned into the largest covert shipment of arms, and supplies, and money by the CIA since the Vietnam War.

The covert pipeline managed by the CIA usually entered Pakistan through Islamabad or Karachi. From there, arms went to staging areas in the towns of Quetta and Peshawar near the Afghan border, then into Afghanistan.

Islamabad, the center of CIA activity in Pakistan, became an arms bazaar, a wide-open and sometimes lawless town awash in weapons, where quick money could be made easily. While most of the funds destined for the mujahideen reached them, much money and many weapons went astray. In payment for their help, the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that country’s CIA counterpart, took a cut of the money and arms flowing through their country. AKs were sold to those inside Pakistan, including thugs, criminal gangs, and citizens who wanted protection in a region that was becoming dangerous. Many weapons also found their way to Islamic revolutionaries in Iran.

The mujahideen themselves sold some AKs and used the money for medical supplies and food. They also stockpiled weapons and ammunition to be used after the Soviets left. Convoys of mujahideen supplies from Pakistan needed protection from the Soviets and civilian gangs who roamed the no-man’s-land in the border area of Tora Bora. Private truckers hauling for the mujahideen were given AKs to protect their loads. These drivers, who were paid by the mujahideen or the CIA to deliver weapons to Afghanistan’s interior, would return to Pakistan with empty trucks. To help defray their costs, they sometimes hauled heroin and other drugs produced in Afghanistan. These convoys often paid gangs, drug kingpins, or local strongmen for protection. Their weapon of choice was the AK because of its low cost and reliability. Drug dealers and their gangs, who became an integral part of the arms pipeline, also chose the AK. The name Kalashnikov became well known in the region as people began to call their favorite gun by the inventor’s name.

As more and more AKs flooded the region, street prices dropped, and even more people bought them on the black market. Indeed, one of the ways in which the CIA hoped to monitor the arms shipments and prevent wholesale weapons skimming by the Pakistanis was to keep an eye on prices. If they dropped too far and too quickly it would be a sign of dumping on the market. Later, the ISI was found to be skimming, including several instances involving sending weapons offshore and then back to Pakistan for sale, as well as selling back the CIA its own weapons.

AKs were seen on the streets of most Pakistani and Afghan towns as ordinary citizens armed themselves for personal protection in a region now abounding in small arms. The simple-to-use and easy-to-maintain AK—both older and new models—became the most ubiquitous weapon in the region, and all versions coexisted side by side. To avoid confusion, the Soviets cleverly placed a long smooth groove in the buttstock of the 5.45mm model so that even in the dark soldiers could tell which weapon they were holding and feed it the correct ammunition.

The newly delivered AKs offered the mujahideen an opportunity to better their tactics. One successful technique was to start a landslide on a mountain route to block it before a convoy arrived. To make it look like a natural occurrence and not a deliberate ploy, they used small rocks instead of huge boulders. The convoy would stop, and when Soviet soldiers got out to clear the roads, the mujahideen would pounce, AKs in hand, and open up at close range, spending hundreds of rounds in minutes. The guerrillas would pick up Soviet weapons and whatever else they could carry and scurry back into the mountains. Although the Soviets still had greater long-range firepower and air support, their troops quickly became demoralized at the mujahideen’s hit-and-run tactics that turned their own assault weapons against them. To be sure, the AK was not the only weapon used successfully by the mujahideen. The CIA also supplied Stinger Human-Portable Air-Defense System, or MANPAD, missiles. These shoulder-fired guided missiles were effective against low-flying Soviet helicopters, although they were not supplied until later in 1986 during the war’s peak years. The AK remained the most used weapon in the region.

Despite the graft, corruption, and skimming that occurred, the CIA-run arms pipeline was effective. During the course of the war, Afghanistan became the world’s largest arms recipient in relation to the size of its population, according to the United Nations. With help from the ISI, the United States delivered perhaps as many as four hundred thousand AKs to the mujahideen. The ISI had access to an additional three million Kalashnikovs from pipeline operations, some of which made it to the rebels and some of which were sold on the black market. Hundreds of thousands more AKs entered the area from other countries now that the pipeline infrastructure had been established.

By 1985, the war was reaching a stalemate despite the large number of Soviet ground troops in Afghanistan, estimated to have peaked at 100,000 men. With other troops and support, that number probably reached 175,000.

Regardless of the large troop numbers, the Soviets could not beat the mujahideen. They found themselves spending 85 percent of their resources guarding cities, airfields, and supply depots, which left only 15 percent to chase after the mujahideen. The massive CIA/ISI arms pipeline kept the rebels well stocked, and more than half of all Soviet soldiers at some point were hospitalized for diseases such as cholera and hepatitis. In addition, although the Soviet government kept most of the casualty information hidden from the public and put a positive spin on the conflict, negative reports began to filter back. Soviet citizens grew weary of what was becoming a no-win war.

The Soviet Politburo was little help in formulating an end to the war. During the conflict, the Soviet Union lost three leaders in quick succession to illness and death—Leonid Brezhnev, who had begun the war, Konstantin Chernenko, and then Yuri Andropov—and it seemed as if no one had the energy to move the process along until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Wanting to end the war with a decisive victory, Gorbachev ordered massive attacks, but after several bloody battles, including one particularly brutal engagement at Jalalabad, the Soviet leader sought a negotiated way out of the morass.

A deal brokered by the United Nations allowed the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan and save face. The agreement specified that the Russians had entered Afghanistan to aid a friendly government, the DRA, but now threats to its well-being were diminished and a Soviet force was no longer necessary. Calling it “Afghanization”—Afghans deciding the best course for Afghanistan—Gorbachev insisted that the agreement call for Pakistan not to interfere in Afghan affairs and to sever aid to anti-Soviet groups.

Economically, the war’s drain on the faltering Soviet financial system had been enormous, perhaps $2.7 billion annually from 1980 on. Moreover, approximately twenty-two thousand Soviets were killed and seventy-five thousand wounded. The Soviet invasion decimated Afghanistan. About ninety thousand Afghan combatants died, with an equal number wounded. More than 1.3 million Afghan citizens perished. One-third to one-half of the country’s net worth was damaged or destroyed. Agricultural production dropped by 50 percent and livestock losses were 50 percent, mainly due to Soviet bombings and towns leveled with no people left to care for the animals or tend the land. As many as five thousand of the nation’s fifteen thousand villages were destroyed or made unlivable. United Nations estimates suggest that 70 percent of paved roads were destroyed.

Gatling Gun in (non) Use


British Gatling guns in action at the battle of Ulundi.

In 1875, a group of Native American tribes left the reservations the government had designated for them in the western territories along the Rocky Mountains, and tensions between the American government and the region’s native populations soared. President Grant issued an ultimatum: Return to the reservations by the New Year, he said, or be considered an enemy force. Several tribes formed a coalition under a spiritual leader, Sitting Bull, and defied the president’s demand. In spring 1876, a large American contingent set out to subdue the refusing tribes. The United States Seventh Cavalry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, was among the units assigned.

On June 25, after several weeks in the field, Colonel Custer’s column came upon an Indian encampment on the Rosebud River in territory now part of the state of Montana. Thinking the encampment was small and vulnerable, the colonel decided to attack from two sides. He ordered Major Marcus A. Reno, his senior subordinate, to advance on the camp with three cavalry companies from the south. Colonel Custer planned to swing round to the north with five more companies and trap the Indians between his forces. Two other elements, including his logistics train, were given supporting roles. Major Reno began his advance but quickly discovered the native camp was not as small as he had believed, and occupied by a large number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The divided American cavalry was no match. Major Reno withdrew under fire and fell back into the protection of cottonwoods and undergrowth, where the cavalrymen dismounted and fought from the ground. Colonel Custer’s assessment of the size and readiness of the native force had been wrong. He had come upon the camp of Sitting Bull and much of the defiant native coalition, which had many more warriors than the United States Army’s scouts in the field had detected in the weeks before the campaign. Major Reno’s command soon found its position among the cottonwoods untenable; the troops retreated farther, scrambling across the river and leaving behind their dead and more than a dozen of their unwounded fellow soldiers. They dashed pell-mell to the comparative safety of a hilltop. There, to their great fortune, they were met by one of the other detachments of American soldiers. These combined American forces began to dig in, anticipating a large Indian attack. The Indians’ attention, however, had been diverted from the major’s weakened command. It had turned to Colonel Custer.

The regimental commander’s detachment, with slightly more than two hundred cavalrymen, had continued unknowingly toward the river camp. It was quickly enveloped. From their hilltop, Major Reno’s men heard some of the resulting ferocity, including the booms of volley fire during the brief time Colonel Custer’s group managed to fight as a unit and resist. Caught by the Indians in unfamiliar terrain and out of the reach of reinforcements, the soldiers were pinned down, then overrun. It was a highly unusual event. The Indians had been elusive. Combat with them was usually swift and fleeting. In this case, however, a small American contingent had collided with the indigenous warriors during a brief period when they were massed. The battle was over in an hour or less. Every man in the colonel’s command was killed. The victorious Cheyenne and Sioux stripped many of the dead soldiers of their clothes and mutilated and scalped corpses. Precisely what happened between the moment when Major Reno’s detachment galloped away and the time when the last man in Colonel Custer’s contingent fell has never been fully known; no cavalrymen survived to tell. But the disposition of the dead soldiers, discovered when another American unit came upon them the next day, and the available Indian accounts, indicated that Colonel Custer’s group made a wall with the carcasses of dead horses, to little effect, and tried to fight off an Indian charge by the old tactic of volleyed rifle fire. Rifles were not enough. The charge broke the lines. Pandemonium followed, with panicked soldiers dropping weapons and scattering on foot, only to be hacked down by pursuing horsemen.

Colonel Custer, young and intense, had been a public personality. His defeat ignited controversy and an investigation. The investigation found many grounds for criticism of the colonel’s decisions, among them that he had been offered Gatling guns, but had left them behind as he rode off to campaign. Thinking they would slow his movement, he opted to plunge into the Indian territory with cavalry armed with single-shot Model 1873 Springfield rifles, and not any rapid-fire arms. The army had recently issued the Springfields; their slower rate of fire was seen as a means to reduce ammunition consumption in distant territories, where resupply was slow and difficult. Colonel Custer fit the old model of officer who rejected the value of machine-gun fire. His position had merit: The Indians’ superior speed and mobility made it difficult for American units to bring firepower to bear on them, and his Gatlings would have been pulled along on carriages, no doubt slowing his advance as he reconnoitered territory. But at his command, the American government’s plans to bring its material superiority against its enemies were turned upside down. Instead of being able to concentrate fire against a concentrated Indian force, densely packed and in the open, Colonel Custer’s soldiers were armed with rifles designed to help preserve their bullets. Red Horse, a surviving Indian chief, was surprised by the Americans’ weakness. The Sioux, he said, drove Colonel Custer’s isolated cavalrymen:

… into confusion; these soldiers became foolish, many throwing away their guns and raising their hands “Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners.” The Sioux did not take a single soldier prisoner, but killed all of them; none were alive for even a few minutes. Those different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt, two cartridges were gone; out of the other five.

No one can say with certitude how the battle might have gone if Colonel Custer had arrived for the fight with rapid-fire weapons. Historians argue both sides, some taking his position. If Colonel Custer had brought his Gatlings, he might not have reached Sitting Bull’s encampment that day. But Colonel Henry J. Hunt, the former chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac, excoriated Custer posthumously for failing to bring the weapons that he had been issued. The Gatlings, he said, would have kept the Sioux and the Cheyenne attackers at bay.

At the Custer massacre Reno reached the neighboring “bluffs” and saved his command … Custer, when attacked by overwhelming numbers, tried to do so, failed, and his command was exterminated. A battery or half-battery of Gatlings would have been a moving “bluff,” with power to fight and specially fit for keeping “swarms” of Indians in check. The guns would not have “staggered about” from weariness after a forced long march, as Sitting Bull describes our soldiers to have done. Nor would they have lacked the rapidity of fire which that chief claimed. Under their protection our men could have moved about in comparative safety, or at least to cover. The presence of such a battery would have probably saved the command.

Colonel Hunt did not mention the Russian experience three years earlier, moving from oasis to oasis across the Central Asian steppe, where, like the men under Colonel Custer’s command, the Russian and Cossack detachments risked encountering a mobilized indigenous foe on unfamiliar terrain. Outside Khiva, the Russian Gatling guns had stopped a charge cold, as surely as if it had hit a wall. Colonel Custer never had the chance to try. Colonel Hunt fumed at the thought of an officer leaving a Gatling gun battery behind in war. He suggested it was an oversight so galling it could be considered illegal, a dereliction of an officer’s oath to follow the orders of the government that gave him authority and paid his wage.

I know of no good reason why one should have not been on the ground, if they had been kept mounted in accordance with the expressed will of Congress.

Not all of the American army’s officers failed to use the guns. Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard used a pair of Gatlings in 1877 in the campaign that ultimately forced Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce onto a reservation. The guns were carried in packs on mules, and General Howard’s troops were well enough drilled that they were able to rush them forward when the general caught a band of retreating Indians crossing the Clearwater River near Kamiah, in what is now Idaho. “The whole force was put to a brisk run to the river crossing,” wrote Thomas A. Sutherland, a newspaper correspondent covering the campaign. “General Howard with Captain Jackson was the first to reach the destination, as the road taken by Whipple was more circuitous. The Gatling gun was hurried into position and under command of Captain Wilkinson did good work in driving the Indian sharpshooters from their different breastworks on the mountains opposite.”

That encounter was not on the order of what Colonel Custer had faced. It fell to British soldiers to show what an outnumbered force, equipped with modern weapons, might do when faced with a native charge. In spite of high-ranking objections, British curiosity about Gatling’s weapons had been significant enough that machine guns were being sent out with expeditions and units on colonial duty. Their arrival coincided with fresh troubles in the crown’s empire. When the British invaded Zululand in 1879 with a large force, they brought with them several Gatlings, including the British army’s first Gatling battery, which was under command of J. F. Owen, the officer who had criticized Captain Rogers’s enthusiasm for machine guns four years before in London. Owen had been promoted to major, and his guns were used in skirmishes and several battles. Two were present for the war’s final large battle, at Ulundi.

In early July, the British moved toward Ulundi, the Zulu capital, and set up camp nearby. The British commander, Frederic Thesiger, Lord Chelmsford, sent a message demanding that the Zulu king surrender the artillery pieces and roughly one thousand rifles that his fighters had captured after a stinging defeat of the British earlier in the year at Isandlwana. The king did not reply, and British watering parties came under fire. On the morning of July 4, Lord Chelmsford ordered his roughly five thousand troops to battle. His units marched across the Mahlabathini plain, passing the chopped-up corpses of their comrades who had been killed in skirmishes the previous day. As they drew near the huts of the seat of government, which were ahead behind high grass, they were entering what in any other circumstance but this—a technological mismatch of drilled European troops with modern weapons facing indigenous Africans with shields and spears—would have been an inescapable trap, much like what Colonel Custer had faced three years before. The British walked into an encirclement, outnumbered several times.

As the mounted men scrambled out of the donga, the inGobama-khosi regiment rose from the midst of the grass and, as if on signal, other regiments appeared at wide intervals on either side. The silent black masses parted the waving grass, displayed their shields and began to move forward, joining the regiments coming down from the heights as they reached them, until the center of the basin was ringed with dark groupings.

The British formed a square and watched, tightening ranks and readying weapons. The Zulu defenders, estimated to be twenty thousand men, merged and stamped their feet, harassed lightly by the Seventeenth Lancers, a unit of British cavalrymen, who opened fire and peppered the walls of Zulu warriors as their horses cantered in the shrinking open space. The Lancers were outnumbered by thousands. The enclosing circle grew smaller. The British cavalry taunted the Zulus, but they knew, like Colonel Custer’s men, that they would have small chance in a head-to-head fight. They withdrew within the square as the larger clash became imminent. The Zulus advanced slowly until the British artillery opened fire. Then the Zulus broke forward at a run.

For all of his professions of humanitarianism and assurances that machine guns could serve as such a powerful deterrent that they would make wars safe, Richard Gatling had never addressed this.

The battalion opened fire with rifle fire and the rattling bursts from the Gatling guns stitched the crashing volleys together. Regiment after regiment surged forward, and the lines began to melt away in the hail of bullets scything the slopes. Succeeding waves charged over the contorted bodies that littered the grass, and shining faces of the warriors, with gleaming eyes and set teeth, bobbed up and down over the rims of their shields. Raw courage had brought them that far, but bravery alone could not force a way through the crescendo of fire, and the warriors sank to their knees to crash full length in the dust or tumble head over heels in mid-stride. Not a Zulu reached within thirty yards of the British lines.

The Gatling guns had jammed several times, but were still effective. A charge by the Zulu reserve was broken, and then Lord Chelmsford ordered the cavalry back out, to pursue. The Seventeenth Lancers cheered as they bore down on their retreating victims, and cut them with lances and swords. The Zulu charges had been broken in thirty minutes. Most of the mopping up was completed within the hour. Several of the British soldiers had brought champagne on the march, and now, with clusters of African bodies glistening on the field, and the British killing the wounded in vengeance for past defeats, some men shared warm toasts. Lord Chelmsford ordered Ulundi to be set afire. His command had left its camp before 7:00 A.M. It faced the Zulu charge at 9:00 A.M. “Ulundi was burning at noon,” he telegraphed home.The British, with their superior firepower, had completed the destruction of the Zulu nation in a morning, though they were on enemy terrain and outnumbered roughly four to one. One British officer and ten enlisted men were killed. The rout had reached proportions almost absurd, but was also demonstrative of what rapid-fire weapons could do when applied to people who did not have them, or who were ordered in the open by commanders who did not appreciate how machine gunnery worked. Colonel Custer had left his guns behind. The killing at Ulundi had shown their utility in what one officer called “wars with people who wear not trousers.” They would not be left behind anymore.

The Musket in Korea


A Korean musketeer during the Imjin War, 1592 – 1598.

Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun Collector’s Edition

Korea is not known as a military power, and most historians will be surprised to learn that this small country, dwarfed by China and Japan, developed one of the most effective musket-based armies of the seventeenth-century world.

Firearms had been used in Korea long before the introduction of the musket in the late 1500s. Korean archaeologists have unearthed many guns from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Some were imported from China, but the Koreans also made their own gunpowder weapons, some of which were impressive enough to be presented as tribute gifts by the Korean court to the Ming emperor. In fact, Koreans seem to have employed some kind of volley principle with guns by 1447, when the Korean king Sejong the Great instructed his gunners to shoot their “fire barrels” in squads of five, taking turns firing and loading.” We have much to learn about early firearms in Korea, but what does seem clear is that Korean firearms warfare was revolutionized after 1592, when Japan invaded Korea.

The invasion set off one of the most destructive wars in East Asian history, a conflict that Kenneth Swope has called the First Great East Asian War. For six years, Ming China, a newly unified Japan, and Korea fought bitterly in the Korean Peninsula and its waters. At first, Japanese musketeers proved overwhelming. As the Korean prime minister Yu Songnyong (1542–1607) lamented, “When [our] soldiers are lined up against the enemy ranks, our arrows do not reach the enemy while their musket balls rain down upon us.” Korean and Chinese sources show that Japanese musketeers employed the volley technique.

Ming forces helped the Koreans push the Japanese back, but the war lasted until the death of Hideyoshi in 1598, and the bitter experience shocked Koreans into military reform, a process that continued well into the tumultuous seventeenth century. At the heart of their reorganizations was the musket. As one of the great reformers put it, Koreans must do precisely as the Chinese had done and learn from the Japanese: “In recent times in China they did not have muskets; they first learned about them from the Wokou pirates in Zhejiang Province. Qi Jiguang trained troops in their use for several years until they [muskets] became one of the skills of the Chinese, who subsequently used them to defeat the Japanese.” In the same way, he said, Koreans must learn from foreigners how to improve their military.

Historian Hyeok Hweon Kang compellingly argues that King Seonjo (r. 1567–1608) became a “zealous proponent” of the musket. King Seonjo ordered that Japanese musketeers be captured alive so they could instruct the Koreans, and he established a new standing army called the Military Training Agency, whose core units were musketeers. His preference for musketeers irritated archers, who believed that they practiced a venerable and noble art. Once, when the king bestowed upon the musketeers a gift of thirty horses, proclaiming that they had conducted a drill better than the archers, some archers resigned in protest. King Seonjo’s interest in the musket extended even to design: he developed a rapid-fire version himself.

Korean musketeers were trained in Qi Jiguang’s volley technique. A Korean drill manual of 1607, based closely on Qi Jiguang’s Ji xiao xin shu, notes that “every musketeer squad should either divide into two musketeers per layer or one and deliver fire in five volleys or in ten.” Another manual, first published in 1649, elaborates further, again, based very closely (usually verbatim) on Qi Jiguang’s work: “When the enemy approaches to within a hundred paces, a signal gun is fired and a conch is blown, at which the soldiers stand. Then a gong is sounded, the conch stops blowing, and the heavenly swan [a double-reed horn] is sounded, at which the musketeers fire in concert, either all at once or in five volleys.” Korean reforms built explicitly on Qi Jiguang’s work, but his manuals are at times challenging, presupposing a familiarity with the very techniques he proposes. As we’ve seen, although he refers frequently to musketry volley techniques, he doesn’t lay out the procedures in detail.

So Korean military manuals filled in the blanks, interpreting, explaining, and commenting on the Qi manuals. They even contain diagrams that present the clearest explanation of the East Asian musketry volley technique that has yet been discovered. One diagram, for example, shows a team of musketeers halfway through a volley sequence. Just as in Qi Jiguang’s teams, this Korean squad has ten musketeers and a team leader. The men stand in two lines, with the team leader standing between them. The two empty circles denote a place where no men are currently standing. They have left their position, marched to the front of their respective lines, and are currently firing at the enemy. When the team leader gives a signal, they will return to their place to reload, while the musketeers behind them will march to the fore and fire. The sequence can go on indefinitely.

The method is different from European methods, in which the musketeer in the front row fired and then went to the back of his line to reload. To be sure, European commanders experimented with various ways of effecting his return to the rear, but in general that’s how it worked: shoot, then go to the back and start reloading. In the Korean diagram, however, the musketeers step to the front, fire, and then return to their original position to reload while the next shooters step to the front, and so on. Was this the way that Qi Jiguang’s musketry teams worked? It’s not clear, but it’s likely. After all, the Koreans learned the volley technique from Chinese Southern Troops, who were trained and organized according to Qi Jiguang’s methods. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that the Koreans developed this technique on their own or perhaps even conceived and systematized it with the help of other foreigners—Japanese or Dutch. The Korean military reforms were carried out with the help of many foreign experts.

An early test of Korea’s new musketry corps came in 1619, when ten thousand Korean musketeers were sent to help the Ming against the Manchus in the famous Battle of Sarhu. The Manchu cavalry overwhelmed the allies, striking lightning blows to the main Korean musketry corps, who were hindered by unfavorable wind. Yet one division of Korean musketeers, fighting under Ming commander Du Song, managed to fell many Manchus by firing in volleys before being forced to give up the attack because their Chinese allies surrendered. Over the following years, the de facto king of Korea, Prince Kwanghae (r. 1608–1623), strove to learn from this episode, realizing that against such powerful horsemen—and the Manchus had the best cavalry in the world—musketeers had to be supported by traditionally armed support troops. So musketeers trained in concert with spear and cavalry units to create a more robust force. That force was tested when the Manchus invaded Korea in 1627 and again in 1636. The Koreans lost both wars, but their musketeers performed well, inducing respect in Manchu leaders. The first emperor of the newly declared Qing dynasty, Hong Taiji (r. 1626–1643), wrote: “The Koreans are incapable on horseback but do not transgress the principles of the military arts. They excel at infantry fighting, especially in musketeer tactics.”

Thus the Koreans, like the Japanese and the Chinese, not only integrated muskets into their armed forces, but also employed the volley technique and had systematized drill. The fact that all three East Asian powers so successfully adapted muskets—with the Chinese employing the musketry volley technique perhaps before the Europeans themselves—suggests that East Asia was far from militarily stagnant in the 1500s. East Asians were eager to learn about new technologies developed in Europe, but they also found instruction and inspiration in their own military institutions and traditions. Some Sinophone historians refer to this period as the era of Sino-Western military hybridization.

It continued into the following century. During the 1600s, even as Japan relaxed into an era of peace (in which, some have famously, if controversially, argued, it “gave up the gun”), China exploded into sustained and bitter conflict, which ensnared Korea as well.

Some of that conflict involved Europeans. The two most expansive European powers of the seventeenth century—the Russians and the Dutch—both fought wars against the forces of China, and they both lost.