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Son Of Tabuk: Exploring Saddam’s Strange Guns



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Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq fell 20 years ago, and over the years, many secrets of his reign were uncovered. But we still don’t really know much about the small arms industry of Saddam’s era. 

Engineers and managers of Iraq’s military factories vanished without a trace, and there was never much official information available. In a previous article, the Tabuk AK was covered, the main service rifle of the Iraqi military. But there was another, arguably more famous rifle in Saddam’s Iraq.

Everyone who remembers the 2003 invasion likely can recall pictures of U.S. servicemen with gold-plated AKs — definitely a great trophy. Exactly the same rifles were gifted to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and to this day, those golden weapons reside in the Abdeen Palace Museum in Cairo. Another rifle like that was presented to the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz bin Fahd Al Saud, by Saddam himself.

But, if you glance just beyond the bling, even without the gold, this AK itself is absolutely unique and not a direct copy of any other design.

THE RIFLE WITH MANY NAMES

As an armorer and security contractor, I’ve seen and repaired dozens of those rifles all over Iraq, and there was even a time when one of those AKs was stored by the bedside. Word on the street is that it was created specifically for Saddam’s Republican Guard, his most elite units led by his son, Qusay Hussein. 

The legend seems plausible — even the guns that weren’t gold-plated often had a special recess on the handguard for a small gold coin, something you wouldn’t generally expect to see on mere general-issue service rifles.

While field stripping is the same as any other AK, the son of Tabuk has several features unique to this model. Note muzzle device and front sight/gas block.

Many Iraqis were asked about this gun, but it was never discovered if it had any official designation within the Iraqi military. A factory brochure just called it “short assault rifle “Tabuk.” But Iraqis have a whole bunch of names for it.

More eloquent and educated Iraqi gun enthusiasts call it “The Son of Tabuk,” which makes sense. It is, essentially, a heavily modified, shorter version of the Iraqi Tabuk rifle, itself a licensed copy of the Yugoslavian M70 Kalashnikov variant.

Other Iraqis, when you ask them about the name of this rifle, would give you a smug smirk and after a few seconds of hesitation, will reveal the name — “Osama.” Yes, that Osama: Osama bin Laden. The reason for that nickname is quite simple — before Osama joined SpongeBob in his life under the sea in 2011, he was constantly seen in propaganda videos with a short-barreled Soviet AK variant called AKS74U, chambered for 5.45×39 with a side folding stock.

Saddam’s AK can be found with both a regular AK-pattern front trunnion, as well as the bulged, RPK-type.

Since most people aren’t real Kalashnikov connoisseurs, they ignore trivial details like caliber and type of the folding stock and simply call all short-barrel AKs “Osama.” Like Kleenex. 

But the “short Tabuk” isn’t a direct derivative of any Soviet or Yugoslavian AK variant. The features of this rifle come from several different origins. Some short Tabuks have standard AK receivers, and some have reinforced RPK-pattern receivers. 

Brown plastic handguards look Bulgarian, and the flash hider doesn’t really look like anything. The front sight gas block combo actually strongly resembles the Finnish RK62, which is often called “Valmet,” or its descendant, the Israeli Galil.

Note center rifle’s handguard, missing its signature gold coin.

THE HELP FROM A FELLOW GUNSMITH

While repairing some weapons in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the short Tabuks was missing a screw on the side of the front sight that kept it in place. Fixing this front sight ended up being a real pain. A driver was asked to bring me to a construction store in order to find a matching screw, but when the driver heard that it was a gun part, he decided to do it properly and go to an actual gun shop.

We headed to the Citadel, a 6,000-year-old fortress overlooking the center of the city. Right next to it, there’s an entire street filled with military shops full of tactical accessories of questionable quality, tons of fake 5.11 clothing as well as some guns and ammo.

Blinged-out, gold-plated guns are some of the most coveted Middle Eastern trophies.

With no screws on-hand, every vendor respectfully sent us to the same place down the road. The name “Bahtiar” was said multiple times. Finally, the inquiries ended in the basement of an old sandstone building, where an impressive display of weaponry met anyone who wanted to see Bahtiar the Great, the most famous gunsmith of Erbil.

During the war with ISIS, Bahtiar was repairing weapons of the local militia for free. He worked in this basement for over 30 years and was interviewed by BBC and other media outlets, including sometime RECOIL contributor, Miles Vining.

That day, Bahtiar was out, so his son was on duty, repairing someone’s RPG-7 grenade launcher. I asked my translator to say that I need a screw to repair an AK and showed him the sample. The young man put down RPG-7 and answered, graciously hiding his complete disappointment in my [lack of] gunsmithing skills: “You’re mistaken, Kalashnikov rifles do not use screws like that.”

When the young man was shown a picture of the short Tabuk, he had an immediate change of heart. He retrieved a large box with spare parts from under his workbench, and said: “Take anything you want, my friend, it is free for you. That screw on the front sight is indeed a pain in the ass.”

IRAQI QUALITY CONTROL

But the biggest problem with short Tabuks wasn’t proprietary parts. It was an overall diminishing quality of arms that followed the constant decline of the Saddam regime.

Once, when working in the Maysan province of Iraq, there was an especially rusty short Tabuk. It was abandoned at the bottom of a broken and crooked metal box, and I honestly felt bad for this gun. It was covered with rust, probably neglected for decades. After removing all the rust and putting it all back together, it was discovered the bolt carrier wouldn’t even move unless the charging handle was pushed up while being pulled back at the same time.

Valmet-ish front sight with its problematic screw.

Everything was inspected — bolt, locking lugs, gas tube — until the bolt carrier. The factory workers simply forgot to remove a chunk of metal from the bottom/right of the bolt carrier. So, unless you tilted the carrier left while charging, it wouldn’t move.

The gun couldn’t even function properly right from the factory, but still managed to pass quality control and was actually issued to some unfortunate soldier. It took 40 minutes of grinding to polish the bolt carrier into spec, and the rifle finally started working properly — for the first time in 30 years.

Another time, in Kirkuk, an even better example of Saddam-era Iraqi craftsmanship was found. After removing the muzzle device from this unfortunate short Tabuk, something I’d never seen before was discovered — a second gas port right on the muzzle thread itself. The worker at the factory drilled the gas port in the barrel and probably soon realized he was off by almost 2 inches.

Without much hesitation, instead of scrapping the barrel, this worker drilled a second hole, this time in the right place, and sent it down the assembly line. The rifle with two gas ports passed all the quality assurance and made it to the arsenal of elite Iraqi forces.

The last example of amazing quality was, perhaps, the most unusual Iraqi rifle I’ve stumbled upon in my life, a late production short Tabuk with a set of features never seen anywhere else. Instead of a brown handguard, it had a yellow one. And the muzzle device didn’t look like anything normal either. It was manufactured in 2002, just one year before Saddam’s regime fully collapsed. 

It was in good condition, but you could remove the barrel pin (which normally requires a press) with the push of a pencil. As a result, the barrel moved in the front trunnion and the headspace was completely off. When you fired it, the case would rupture and break apart, and the broken shell would stay in the chamber, preventing new rounds from feeding.

Everyone needs a spare gas port in their life.

The worst thing about this is that you can’t really see it unless you try to load a round in the chamber, and at this point, it’s usually too late to do anything. Also, you can’t extract the broken shell without specialized tools. This gun was retired from service, and there’s still hope that someday it’ll end up in the museum.

LOOSE ROUNDS

Every time you go to a museum, you see weapons — swords, spears, bows, arrows, or perhaps some flintlock pistols. Weapons can tell you a lot about the society they came from. Political affiliations with other countries, level of technology, and manufacturing capabilities — weapons can answer those questions if you’re ready to look for the answers.

The worst of the bunch. The finger-tight barrel pin resulted in excessive headspace and a deadlined rifle.

The short Tabuk is just another artifact of modern Iraqi history. Under Saddam’s rule, the technological capabilities of a once-great country were declining, especially after the failed invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Factory employees, many of whom worked in the defense sector to legally avoid military service, didn’t care about their jobs. Sanctions and international isolation didn’t help either.

But there’s also a positive takeaway from the story of “Son of Tabuk.” Dictators always fall; it doesn’t matter how big they think they are, and the weapons of their elite guard will inevitably end up in the hand of the peasants they once oppressed. 

About The Author

Vladimir Onokoy is a small arms subject matter expert and firearms instructor. Over the years, he worked in 16 different countries as a security contractor, armorer, instructor, firearms industry sales representative, product manager, and consultant.

His articles were published in RECOIL, The Firearm Blog, Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, and Silah Report, and contributed to the Vickers Guide: Kalashnikov, Volumes 1 and 2. To contact him, email: [email protected].

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