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Running Guns in Kabul

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The Arms Trade Fueling the “Never-Ending Conflict”

The stereotype of perpetual warfare in Afghanistan has plagued the country since December of 1979, when the Soviet 40th Army came pouring across the Amu Daryua. This kicked off an era of foreign-sponsored insurgency, a resulting civil war that devastated the once great city of Kabul, Taliban rule, and, currently, the second decade of a heavily U.S.-backed presence. However, this “perpetual warfare” hasn’t always been the case in Afghan history; in fact it’s a tragically unique spell of continued violence throughout the modern era.

But to fight a war — or any kind of armed conflict — arms must be acquired. We examine three of the primary small arms markets within the capital city of Kabul. We explore what’s available, in what quantities, and for how many good American dollars.

And so long as we’re discussing the arms trade in Afghanistan, we also address the legalities of purchasing a firearm in the city, along with illegal methods.

The overwhelming majority of modern small arms outside of Afghan government control are technically illegal without a special permit issued by the Ministry of the Interior. Pistol carry licenses can be acquired by private citizens, but it’s a very lengthy process involving at least two government officials to essentially take full responsibility for an applicant should there be any wrongdoing.

Private security guards can legally carry arms.

Private security guards can legally carry arms.

Self-loading rifles, such as the ever-popular Kalashnikov in numerous variants, caliber, and country of origin, are owned by various private companies that provide their own access control point security. Licenses for these rifles are somewhat easier to acquire due to their rifles belonging to private security companies, but the registration process is still arduous without at minimum bribes of some sort.

Some private civilians in the city of Kabul actually carry handguns or rifles for personal defense that are technically illegal and can be confiscated if found by ANSF authorities.
However, this is a risk that some, especially businessmen, are willing to undertake, because the security forces often can’t be depended on during an assassination attempt or kidnapping for ransom (one of the more frequent crimes conducted by organized crime syndicates).

Some businessmen risk openly carrying firearms due to kidnap and ransom threats.

Some businessmen risk openly carrying firearms due to kidnap and ransom threats.

Similar to neighboring Pakistan, there’s a civilian firearms ownership loophole. This lies with commercially available shotguns and antiques. Because both categories don’t fire modern handgun or rifle cartridges in use by the security forces of either country, they’re given a pass legally and not really considered a threat for locals to own.

In an area of the city known as Kuli-Pushta, an old-world market of tightly packed shoppers, jostling sellers, and live chickens exists, centered around a river that runs through the area. This is where a significant number of commercial shotgun shops are concentrated.

The overwhelming majority of 12- and 16-gauge shotguns that exist in these locales are Turkish imports. Names such as UTAS, Dreynayva, and Asil are quite common, even to the point where some of the models available in Kabul are the exact same that are exported to the United States.

Crazy-ass high-tech Turkish shotgun.

Crazy-ass high-tech Turkish shotgun.

Pump-actions rule the day, with various hunting configurations available in long-barrels and classic pistol-grip stocks, but the tactical market has infected the Afghan markets just as much as it has the gun show circuit in the United States. Shotguns outfitted with pathetic excuses for lights, lasers, bipods, and scopes coming out of China can be found in every shop. Some even have magazine capacities similar to commercial Saigas and Veprs in the United States.

Across the board, prices are generally in the sub-$500 range for most pieces. For example, a semi-automatic detachable magazine-fed shotgun may go for around $300, while a pump-action, tubular magazine-fed shotgun can be had for about $200. Craft-produced, break open shotguns from neighboring Pakistan can be as low as $60, but they’re certainly the bottom of the barrel when it comes to quality.

Hot garbage craft-produced shotgun.

Hot garbage craft-produced shotgun.

Although many civilians do purchase shotguns for home defense or recreation, security companies and private businesses can also be particularly fond of them purely for the reason that they don’t need to go through the process of registering them with the government. Less effective than a 7.62x39mm Kalashnikov, the shotguns can nonetheless be useful for deterring thieves or lightly armed criminals. Against a formidable adversary, such as an organized criminal element or the insurgency themselves, these shotguns don’t stand a chance at offering sufficient firepower.

Possibly the largest category are the handmade firearms that originate out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northwest Pakistan, along the border. Specifically, many of these firearms are from the Pakistani province of Peshawar, where a local gun-making community began over 100 years ago, mostly due to British colonial efforts to enforce gun control within the region. In the West, they’re known as “Khyber Pass guns” due to the trade coming through along a valley that connects travelers from Peshawar to Kabul. Locally, they’re known in Dari or Pashtu as “Darrai” guns, named after the town of Darra Adam Khel where many of them originate.

While Soviet Makarovs would never be considered safe queens, the Darrai clones are far more ghetto.

While Soviet Makarovs would never be considered safe queens, the Darrai clones are far more ghetto.

makarov cloneDarrai makarov

Quality varies from very well made to downright unsafe to fire due to loose tolerances and quality control. Within the Afghan market, they aren’t prized as much as foreign firearms coming from outside the country, with prices reflecting this opinion.

Take, for example, a Darrai Makarov copy that goes for around $300 to $400 on the local market. This is relatively inexpensive compared to an original Soviet Makarov PM that goes for over $1,000. Anything else, such as black market Beretta M9s or Walter P5s, typically begins at this $1,000 benchmark and goes up from there. Kalashnikovs are similarly priced, but the Darrai versions are much more than $400.

The massive amounts of surplus firearms left over from the Mujahideen era and, of course, everything left over from the old Afghan Army’s collapse when the Najibullah government fell in 1992 made for a large black market. During the insurgency against the Soviets, the CIA and Saudi Arabia pumped hundreds of thousands of firearms into the country through proxies in Pakistan. This armed the Mujahideen with everything from surplus Lee Enfield No.4s to Norinco Type 56s Kalashnikov copies. Much of this supply is still left over and currently being used on a daily basis within the country, not only by private security forces but also the insurgency.

While Soviet Makarovs would never be considered safe queens, the Darrai clones are far more ghetto.

While Soviet Makarovs would never be considered safe queens, the Darrai clones are far more ghetto.

The current Taliban and so-called Islamic State-Khorasan insurgency uses a gaggle of small arms that are also procured through the black market — augmented with arms captured or outright purchased from the Afghan security forces. This even includes surplus M16A4s recently supplied to the Afghan Uniformed Police force. The largest difference between what the insurgency buys and what the private security sector buys is that the insurgency has a much more offensive and militant-based operational requirement that includes items such as RPGs and PKMs.

Talibs are often most concerned with heavy weaponry.

Talibs are often most concerned with heavy weaponry.

There’s a market sector that’s most often peddled to tourists or Afghans looking for decorations. These guns range from the traditional Afghan flintlock rifles that were prevalent in the 19th century to the single-shot breech-loading Martini Henrys that were actually produced in Kabul under Amir Abdur Rahman Khan during the 1890s. Mixed in between these two indigenously manufactured firearms are various foreign rifles and handguns that were either commercially brought into the country, used as military aid to Afghan forces, or actually left behind and captured during the Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 1800s and early 1900s.

Legitimate antique guns (such as the Martini Henry on top) aren’t subject to regulation. However, it’s often hard to determine the actual lineage, due to bootlegs pictured below.

Legitimate antique guns (such as the Martini Henry on top) aren’t subject to regulation. However, it’s often hard to determine the actual lineage, due to bootlegs pictured below.

We encountered Austrian 1867 Werndl-Holub single-shot rifles, Martini Henrys configured for sporting use, and even a semi-automatic Winchester 1907. Although Lee Enfields were quite prevalent among the Mujahideen of the 1980s, we didn’t see any for sale in Kabul itself.

enfield riflemartini henry rifle

One reason is that ammunition is still readily available and can be perceived as a modern firearm by the government. But more importantly, the tourist market, consisting of American or European customers, have import restrictions when it comes to the year a firearm was produced. In the United States, guns produced in or before 1898 aren’t technically considered a firearm anymore and aren’t subject to firearms importation regulations. Many ISAF members and contractors send these antiques back to their respective countries through the mail.

But there were a finite number of firearms in Afghanistan made prior to 1898. So how do the sellers on Chicken Street cope with this demand? Similar to the handmade “Darrari” firearms that replicate modern small arms designs and are popular throughout the market, older designs are also copied, stamped with appropriate dates, and peddled to tourists as antiques — when in fact they were quite possibly made the same year as they were bought in the 2000s.

To the untrained eye, the differences aren’t noticeable from an original. With some knowledge of the local mistakes and history of the designs being copied, the differences become readily apparent. On Martinis a common mistake is that the stamped “N” is backward in the word Enfield. In addition, some of the marks and manufacturing techniques are just unlike anything usually found coming out of a large-scale arms producing facility.

Along with original rifles and copies for sale, there are also completely honest fakes of the traditional Afghan “Jezails.” These are usually non-firing examples simply made for folks to hang up on living room walls. But whether an original, fake, or decorative piece, the current antique market is dwindling. Tied directly to the security situation, currently there are less contractors, less NGO workers, less businessmen, and more importantly less ISAF personnel on large bases who might potentially purchase these old rifles.

Relatively speaking, commercial ammunition for self-loading rifles and handguns is in short supply in Afghanistan. A 50-round box of Chinese 9x18mm Makarov along with two spare magazines actually costs as much as the firearm itself: $300 on the black market.

This is actually a real predicament within the Afghan firearms community, both for private security and civilians. Because ammunition is so difficult to come by, actual practical application and training with firearms is relatively non-existent.

Real 9x18 on right, totally out of spec Darrai 9x18 on left.

Real 9×18 on right, totally out of spec Darrai 9×18 on left.

This has led to many misconceptions about small arms operation, and serious safety concerns. The four cardinal rules of firearms safety are basically non-existent as well. On multiple occasions just walking around the city, this author has had firearms pointed directly at him inadvertently, simply because the users don’t realize the importance of muzzle awareness.

Adding to this issue is the fact that there aren’t any open shooting ranges to go in the city, apart from driving out into rural areas or celebratory fire during cricket matches.

The lack of security and instability that currently exists throughout the country lends itself to both the civilian and black market arms trade, despite the strict Afghan government regulations that are in place. Although not a “flourishing” black market, small arms are very accessible by those in the country with the capital, connections, and cunning to skirt any of the government laws. The antique market is left alone for the most part, mostly due to the lack of any real threat to Afghan security forces from the arms being sold.


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