Weaponomics: The Economics of Revolutions and Small Arms

C.J. Chivers, the NY Times War Correspondent and author of The Gun, has published a fascinating account of the limited supply and sky rocketing prices of small arms in Lybia.

Photo by C.J. Chivers/The New York Times

Chivers writes

This spring in eastern Libya, the prices for Kalashnikovs and FN FAL rifles crested at top-dollar war prices – as much as $2,500 for a rifle in good condition. Even heavily used specimens fetched more than $1,500 each, said Alaadin Alsharkasy, one of the organizers of rebel weapon purchases in Benghazi, the rebel capital.

What does all of this mean? At market prices, the rebels are paying as much as nearly $70,000 to equip perhaps 30 men with weapons for battle. And given that much of this money has been paid to fellow Libyans who are not exposed to the fighting but profit from it, these prices have been a source of anger among those who are actually taking the physical risks in this war.

C.J’s article reminded me of a masters thesis1 I came across some time ago. In his thesis, entitled ‘Weaponomics: The Economics of Small Arms’, Philip Killicoat attempted to create a model to predict the prices of assault rifles in African conflicts. His regression model used the following variables …

This attempt at modeling weapons prices was valiant, but Philip did not understand, or ignored, that a new AK-74 is going to be worth a lot more than a rusted beat up and stock-less AK, such as the one pictured above. This combined with his low sample of AK-47 prices, just 335 AK-47 rifle prices were observed, meant proving his hypothesis was not going to be possible. One thing that Killicoat said stuck in my mind …

Assault rifles may therefore be considered a proxy for the cost of specific capital required to mount a rebel movement.

In the case of Libya, the cost is going to be high as fitting out a 30 man platoon with rifles is costing $70,000.

  1. Killicoat, P. (2006, September). Weaponomics The Economics of Small Arms 

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • Mark

    Time to load up the yacht and set sail for Lybia!!!

  • charliegibsonsucks

    Back when the Libya rebellion first broke on the news (we have multiple 24hr new stations on where I work) I mentioned to a co-worker that I hoped that we would not sent troops into Libya. But I hoped that the US would support the rebellion. My co-worker asked “How are we going to do that?” I replayed “Easy, fly some C-130 Hercules overhead, escorted by some F-16’s and kick crates of AK’s, PKM’s, with ammunition out the back end on parachute. Then the rebels can finish Muammar Gaddafi off them self”

  • From an economic science point of view it’s irrelevant.

    The market price is the marginal price. It says nothing about how much demand has already been satisfied or at what price.

    The average price of all sold (not merely offered) weapons would be much more relevant for “the cost … to mount a rebel movement”.

    Most Libyan rebel weapons were captured, the (monetary) cost of their rebel movement was thus tiny.

    • Sven, yes and no. The price represents the cost to add a new armed rebel to the mix. Captured weapons will decrease demand and decrease price. The high price means that not enough weapons are being captured, OR the captured weapons are being sold to middlemen who artificially reducing supply to keep prices high.

  • Он

    Two things that Philp also forgot is the affect of having a conflict surrounded by Western forces. Forces that just won’t let anybody sell arms to the fighting powers/tribes/sections of the country. He also forgot the reverse effect of this, which is if you have a Western power supporting and arming you, then you’d pretty much be set. However, his model still holds interest and merit.

  • subase

    Gives a better idea of how illegal weapon dealing is so lucrative.

  • Jim

    What the world needs now, is guns, sweet guns. No not just for some, but for everyone.

  • Amarante

    In Brazil drug dealers pay more than USD 8.000,00 for just one rifle.

  • Lance

    More proof these Islamist cant win if they cant even issue weapons to troops for there cause and even make stock for there weapons it be too dangerous to shoot those weapons.

    You should see some of there pick ups that have BMP APC turrets on the back.

  • Ken

    None of this is surprising. Ask Uncle Sam.

  • jamieb

    This figure is more crazy when you consider people in egypt make $700 per year, I expect libya and tunsia are similar. The average folks couldn’t buy a $2,500 gun. Hell people in the us with 120k jobs balk at $1500 guns.

    A 2500 gun in the sahara is like a 450,000 gun in the us.

    This begs where is the money comming for buying these guns. I have heard full auto aks are $50-100 in sub sahara africa.

  • Burst

    I suspect that these elevated prices are also a peephole into the presumed outcomes. Prices would be slashed if they thought the rebels really would be running things soon.

  • Sev

    wow, I wonder whats the recoil like, firing the AK without a grip or stock

  • Tony

    oh to be an arms dealer in a sellers market

  • armed_partisan

    This is why intelligence agencies are supposed to handle this kind of thing, and why an airforce is a bad choice for this kind of work. Scalpels, not sledge hammers. One missile launch costs more than a half dozen crates of small arms and the ammo to go with them, and it’s men on the ground, not missiles in the air, that win wars.

    Vietnam showed that a tiny nation of rice farmers with rifles could best the efforts of three world powers with the most advanced warfighting technology the world has ever seen in only 40 years. I don’t know why we need to learn how to do this over and over.

    Of course, if the US had better intelligence in Libya, we probably wouldn’t be there at all.

  • Mechman

    I figured the costs were ridiculously inflated when I saw a rebel carrying a machine gun stripped out of a tank and firing it without any furniture.

  • subase

    Even in this market you probably wouldn’t be able to sell an AR-15.

  • Lance

    The main problem Steve is that Most of Qaddafi’s force are not surrendering or giving new weapons to the rebels.

  • Bob Z Moose

    It seems like Libyan rebels will use just about everything they can get their hands on (as evidenced by the photo on this blog of the Gew. 98 with one of the best homemade stocks evah!).

  • SKSlover

    How many old-timey weapons does the US have stored away? M3’s and carbines from korea, m14’s and m60’s from Nam… why don’t we sell most of them for low prices? if we made a bit of money off of it, (and got space for more weapons >:D ) then it would be better than letting them sit there forever.. just my $0.02.

  • subase

    I’m guessing the idea is to have the weakest and smallest possible force take control of the country, this allows foreign interests alot of influence. In my view allowing huge small arms shipments to reach the population will just make whoever wins more difficult to control. Like some African nations where everyone has an AK and more importantly knows how to use it.

  • Laftrick

    The cost of US surplus weapons is not the question, we have it but we have limited ammo for it. A front war plus public pressure has driven available stocks of US military ammo to such lows that Israel is currently supplying a LOT of the ammo shot by US soldiers.

    If we are to arm any rebels Nywhere it would have to be with sov bloc caliber weapons as there is enough manufacturing capacity world wide to support the use of those calibers at an economic rate.

    Remember in the 1980’s Oli North testified to the Congress that he could buy new AKs with spares and ammo from the Chinese for between fifty and seventy five dollars a weapon. There is no reason to believe that with the ChiCom army changing to a newer model that those prices are not out of reach. Remember there are some twenty two nations which build the AK platform. Competition is fierce and heavily subsidized by governments.

  • charliegibsonsucks


    A French military official in Paris confirmed Wednesday that weapons had been dropped to the rebels in western Libya after the French newspaper Le Figaro, citing an intelligence memo and unnamed officials, said France airlifted crates full of assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and Milan anti-tank missiles to rebels in the western mountains.

  • charliegibsonsucks

    U.K. supplies body armour to Libyan rebels
    Weapons air-dropped to rebels, France acknowledges