by Rory Hynes
The past 65 years have seen great changes in the field of warfare. The thing powering this change has been the development and access to firearms; here this article tries to show which have carried favor and why. Sadly I cannot guarantee a high level of accuracy in the statistics of how many guns have been produced, this is much to do with the fact that for every one licensed gun produced three knock-offs will be made in a jungle clearing somewhere. Hence the order is as accurate as possible with the data available but estimates have had to be made.
The Pulemyot Kalashnikova, or “Kalashnikov’s Machinegun” is a general purpose machine designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, the father of the efficient and rugged infantry weaponry which shaped history in the second half of the twentieth century.
With over 1,000,000 built in six different variations and hundreds of thousands more in unofficial foreign variations the PKM is the template for delivering 750 rounds a minute of 54mm bullets. It has long been favored by guerrilla groups and militias because of its adaptability and ease of use due its ability to be mounted on a tripod, on the top of a vehicle or in the hands of a soldier providing suppressive fire. It has featured in every major conflict since the Vietnam War and is still in production in Russia.
An iconic pistol with a lifespan longer than any military sidearm, originally developed by the legendary John Browning at Colt one hundred years ago, the 1911 has had at least 2 million official copies produced in its lifetime (This is a very conservative estimate). It was in full usage by the US military for 79 years and is still used today (the majority is the 1926 model M1911A). Users have ranged from the Soviet Union (given as aid during the war) to Nazi Germany (captured) and now all the way from Haiti to Luxembourg.
It has appeared in 295 films and is probably one of the most timeless pieces of engineering in firearm history.
The Heckler & Koch MP5 has been the choice of most law enforcement and special operations agencies since its development in 1966 in West Germany. Its countless variants (over 50) have dominated the small arms market for Special Forces and homeland security and is only now being challenged by its successor the UMP. Ironically the German Army did not adopt the MP5 but, likely due to economic reasons, licensed its rival: the Israeli UZI submachine gun.
The reason for the MP5′s success is that Heckler & Koch successfully scaled down their G3 battle rifle for use in close-quarters and urban environments. It has been used by more Special Forces teams than any other gun.
The Ying to Kalashnikov’s Yang, the FAL was in the arsenal of every NATO country during the cold war, but this Belgian battle rifle once called “The right arm of the Free World” has now trickled down into the hands of most militias and informal defense forces. Its lasting appeal has come from its ability of fire accurately to a length of 600m and an automatic firing rate of up to 700 rounds per minute.
It is the 20th century classic for a post-war battle rifle and at least 2 million have been produced (official variants) and its users have varied from Filipino Islamic fundamentalists (MILF) all the way to the British Army.
Product of West Germany, the Heckler & Koch G3 is an invention born from the final years of World War 2. One of the first, among the FAL and AR-10, to be built with NATO specifications in mind and a participate in the arms race of the late fifties to equip western nations with a battle rifle.
It was produced in great numbers when the Bundeswehr (German army) adopted it in 1959 with further development by Spanish firm CETME. The G3 is parallel to the AK-47 in how post-Cold War sudden unneeded surpluses were distributed globally by private agents and governments. Because of this it has been fought with in the Colonial war of Mozambique all the way to the Drug war of Mexico.
Originally developed by Armalite in 1956 as the AR-10 with the new revolutionary selective fire (semi-automatic and automatic firing modes) they failed to impress the US military enough to become the standard infantry full-auto rifle. However Armalite decided to produce 100 prototype models for arms dealer Samuel Cummings to display to foreign forces to secure international sales. Cummings almost sold 7500 AR-10s to Nicaragua but when Nicaragua’s chief military commander, General Anastasia Somoza, personally conducted an endurance trial the bolt sheared off and skimmed passed his head. The entire order was canceled after this and Armalite was in dire straits.
In order to keep the company on its feet Armalite’s chief engineer Eugene Stoner turned his attention to fully automatic weapons and the AR-15 was born. The rights to it were immediately sold to Colt who were successful in making the US military adopt it as the M16 rifle. This was the iconic rifle of the US forces in Vietnam and has evolved into the M4 carbine of today.
Ruchnoy Protivotankovyy Granatomyot is the most widely used anti-tank weapon in the world. Believed by many to have the title “Rocket-Propelled Grenade,” although descriptive, this is a backronym formed by the acronym for the official Russian title. Over 9,000,000 licensed RPG-7s have been made under the designs originating from the Soviet Union shortly after WW2. Still being produced today this iconic weapon is often seen next to its Soviet comrades the PKM and AK-47 as the low cost choice for effective warfare. Even the USA is now using it to train the Afghan National Police due to their abundance in the hills of Afghanistan.
A gun that was given its most iconic look in the hands of Tony Montana shooting up gangsters in pastel suits along the shores of Miami. One of Israel’s most famous exports, the UZI was first manufactured in 1951 and the more recognized variations – Mini, Micro – were developed in 1982 and ’83. They found favor with more than 90 countries’ armed forces and even more in special operations and security units.
The main rival to the MP5, the UZI has managed to fill the holes in the market the MP5 leaves, concealable, lightweight with a high rate of fire. Because of this they have produced over ten million worldwide.
The only shotgun on this list and outstrips all other shotguns in terms of popularity. At least 10 million of these 1951 pump-action models have been officially rolled out the gates of Remington-licensed factories due to their ability to fire up to a 28 gauge cartridge and cheapness to produce. They are equally popular with civilians and the military and so are present in probably every single US government department requiring firearms. They are represented in half of the nations comprising the G20 (although China’s usage is unlicensed) and has appeared in almost 80 films. What is interesting is how prolific this gun is without being present in any major conflicts that haven’t had some sort of sanction from the UN (e.g. no rebellions and militias).
Another product of Mikhail Kalashnikov, Avtomat Kalashnikova model of 1947 is the most famous weapon on this list, if not of all time. Designed by Kalashnikov after he witnessed through his own eyes the power of the German submachine guns and assault rifles such as the MP40 and STG44 and how woefully unequipped the Red Army was to match them. Thus the Soviets launched a competition to design the assault rifle for the military of the USSR.
With the horrendous conditions of the eastern front in his mind, Kalashnikov created the most reliable gun ever seen. Put into service in 1947 and adopted by the entire military in 1949, the AK-47 saw its first action in the Chinese communist revolution.
Definitely the least surprising entry on this list the AK-47 and AK type rifles have been produced in numbers as high as 100 million, appear on the flag of Mozambique and were Russia and Ukraine’s greatest export post-Cold war – as Nicolas Cage/arms dealer Yuri Orlov put it: “No one was lining up to buy their cars.”