While most people wouldn’t know anything about the firearms of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines, Pakistan’s weapon manufacturing is world-famous, but for all the wrong reasons. The term “Khyber Pass” is often used in the US to describe a low-quality AK made from mismatched parts or to make fun of a poorly made handgun or a rifle.
But the reality of Pakistan firearms manufacturing is different from the picture many people like to imagine: a barbaric horde of uneducated craftsmen making rudimentary firearms with primitive tools and no modern technology in the remote mountain caves. In my experience, that industry is much more complex and interesting, and it is quickly advancing, just like the rest of the world.
Pakistani Firearms @ TFB:
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- TFB B-Side Podcast: Pakistani Firearms with TFB Writer Vladimir Onokoy
- WDS 2022: BW20 Family of Weapons from Pakistan
I was very lucky to visit Pakistan seven times in recent years, and thanks to my friends there, had a chance to see this fascinating industry myself. Also, in Afghanistan, I inspected and repaired dozens of craft-made AKs and my very first TFB article was dedicated to this harrowing experience.
Pakistani craft-made guns didn’t always have that reputation. In the 19 century, those guns were prised possessions fit for kings and sultans. In the National History Museum of Oman, you can still find many beautifully decorated Martini-Henry rifles and carbines made sometime in the 19 century in Pakistan.
On this placard from the Omani museum, we can see the misspelled name of a settlement that performed the majority of the firearms manufacturing – Darra Adam Khel. In Pakistan, “Darra”, and not “Khyber Pass” is the common umbrella term for the guns manufactured in this region.
To this day, Darra Adam Khel remains to be the unofficial capital of the Pakistani craft-made firearms industry. But when exactly things changed? And when the term “Darra” became a synonym for “cheap copy”? It happened gradually, as firearms technology developed. Martini-Henrys were relatively easy to produce, and production technology was simple, therefore, the quality didn’t suffer too much. Later on, when bolt-action rifles became popular, Darra could hardly compete with Lee-Enfields and Mausers.
Soviet invasion of 1979 brought a lot of new weapons into the region – AKs, TT and Makarov pistols. Darra became a huge repair shop for the guns damaged during the war. Many refugees sought jobs in the firearms industry, and, at the same time, the demand for weapons grew among the civilian population.
That is when Darra became a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to buy a firearm and is on a shoestring budget. “Just as good” became a motto for many generations of customers who could not afford imported guns and shopped for guns exclusively in Darra.
But in recent years, things have changed. Customers in Pakistan are becoming more educated, there are plenty of imported firearms available, and the Darra industry had to keep up.
By 2021, the government of KPK province, where Darra is located, decided to help the local firearms industry and establish more control over it. They opened an industrial park in the capital city of the province, Peshawar. Many companies opened their branches in that estate. Last fall, I visited it, and it was probably the friendliest gun manufacturing facility I’ve ever seen.
Normally, any gun factory, especially outside of the US, will be secluded and protected with walls and fences, checkpoints, and guards. But here in Peshawar you just walk into a very large walled compound and start wandering among dozens, if not hundreds of small workshops.
Nobody gives you a second look, and if you ask, people will gladly talk to you about their jobs and products. In some shops, workers still cling to the old technological process, when one gunsmith makes every single part from scratch. The quality of the final product depends on the skill of a particular individual.
Other shops have modern injection molding equipment and make polymer magazines as well as Glock copies and accessories such as pistol grips and handguards.
Walking around the industrial park, you see how different ages of technology are separated by just a narrow street or an interior wall within one building. Everyone is very welcoming, but you still need to be careful. The testing and QC in some of the factories are quite rudimentary. At the end of our journey, we came across a larger facility that had a sign on the door that was leading to the main production space.
I can’t read Pashto, so I asked my friend what does it mean. Apparently, it says: “be careful when opening the door, weapon testing might be in progress”. When we entered, I realized that weapons are normally test fired through the corridor that we used to come in. So if you’re not careful, you can get shot when entering the building by a quality assurance engineer. Just another reminder to listen to your local friends.
The most advanced shops have CNC machines and often manufacture AR15 upper and lower receivers. The AR15 production and overall popularity of the platform are growing.
One significant factor that contributes to that is quite obvious – over the last two decades, every year, a large number of M4s and M16s and their components fall off the truck in neighboring Afghanistan. Then, plenty of components and spare parts, as well as complete rifles, mysteriously end up in Pakistan.
So when you’re buying a Pakistani-made AR, there is a big chance it will have an original FN hammer-forged chrome-lined barrel, mil-spec trigger group, and real Magpul furniture.
And, if you know the right people, you might purchase an AR with a locally made semi-auto lower and MK18 Mod 1 upper. And if you really know what you’re doing, you might end up owning a “Pakistani” AR with L119A1 upper (the rifle of British SAS and SF) and locally made lower.
In other words, Pakistan is the land of opportunities for a knowledgeable gun enthusiast.
So, what the future holds for the Pakistan firearms industry?
Right now, the state-owned government industry is slowly beginning to support small firearms manufacturers, and provide them with the right technology, better quality raw materials, and most importantly, education. In my opinion, the collaboration between state and private manufacturers can transform Pakistan’s firearms industry and change its image both in Pakistan and worldwide.