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The History of the Iraqi AK Tabuk Rifle

The Worst of the Lot

Wherever you go in the world, everyone knows what AK47 (or just Kalashnikov) means. From Indian soldier to Columbian drug cartel member, from Saudi prince to U.S. Marine, everybody knows this rifle and often has a very personal story about it to share.

Over the last 70 years, different countries and groups all around the globe have used AKs. These rifles symbolized freedom and terror, resistance, and oppression. There’s no other weapon that inspired so many books, songs, art objects, and exhibitions, while creating so much controversy.

What many uninformed people don’t know is that most of the Kalashnikovs circulating the world have nothing to do with Russia or Soviet Union — when I worked in Iraq as an armorer, out of several thousand AKs I inspected only about a dozen that were manufactured in the Soviet Union.

iraqi ak leaf sight

Your quality control doesn’t matter if a rifle isn’t maintained. And when quality control goes down? Just look.

NOT JUST RUSSIA
Everything else came from all around the world: China, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Poland, Bulgaria, or one of 20 other countries that produced different AK variants. Most of those countries received direct transfers of technology from the Soviet Union in the early ’50s, but some had a more intricate path to manufacturing Kalashnikov rifles. Arguably, Iraq had the weirdest path — what they produced was essentially a copy of a pirated copy, exactly like the DVDs you can buy at any Iraqi market.

iraqi ak bolt

Broken bolts are far from unheard of when we’re talking about the Tabuk.

YUGOSLAVIAN ROOTS
In the late ’70s, Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq and started a war with Iran. Iran was big and powerful; Iraq was small, but quite rich at the time, so Saddam thought he had a chance. He just needed one thing — weapons.

Despite the fact that Saddam pretended to be a socialist, the Soviet Union didn’t want to give too many goodies to another lunatic, who might change sides tomorrow. So, Saddam had no choice but to shop around. Other Warsaw Pact countries did what the Kremlin told them to, so the country where Saddam ended up with his shopping list was Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia is one of a very few countries in the world that started making AKs without any direct technology transfer from the Russians. In fact, since the late ’40s Yugoslavia had a strained relationship with Soviet Union, so their path to Kalashnikov manufacturing was quite exotic.

In 1959, two Albanian solders with two AK-47 rifles crossed the border, deserting into Yugoslavia. Rifles eventually ended up at the “Zastava” weapons factory. Yugoslavian engineers did some research and tried to make copies of the rifles using sulphur castings.

Eventually, after Yugoslavia bought another 2,000 AKs from an unknown African dictator, they had enough data and knowledge gained during reverse engineering to start manufacturing their own Kalashnikov variants.

The grenade sight closes the gas port when deployed to maximize rifle grenade range.

MAKING THE TABUK
In 1979, the Zastava factory agreed to help the new Iraqi dictator with his grand plans and by 1980, they built a weapon manufacturing factory in Bir Muhammad, Babil province, south of Baghdad. And the Yugoslavians did a tremendous job. When you see early Iraqi-made guns from 1980 to 1984, they look really nice — fit and finish are great, parts are heat treated properly, and even markings on the receiver are neat and sleek.

All Iraqi AKs were named “Tabuk,” after the ancient battle from Islamic history. Early Tabuks are exact copies of the Yugo M70B1, which itself has a lot of interesting features. The easiest thing to notice is the three vent holes on the handguard instead of two that the normal AK would have.

The second most significant feature is a grenade sight on the gas tube. When you lift the sight up, it cuts off the barrel’s gas port, stopping the flow of gas to the piston and turning your AK into a really heavy bolt-action rifle.

More. Broken. Sights

The idea was that you could launch rifle grenades using blank rounds. Recoil of the grenade was so violent that Yugoslavian engineers added a special receiver cover retaining system. On Yugo AKs, before you remove the cover, you first must press a button on the left side of the receiver to unlock it. Also, Yugoslavian rifles had flip-up nights sights integrated into the front sight post and rear sight.

CLONING GONE TOO FAR
Iraqis copied everything to a T, including barrels without any chrome lining in them. And while it wasn’t a problem for relatively disciplined Yugoslavian soldiers, who actually cleaned their weapons on occasion, in Iraq those barrels inevitably rotted away.

These days, when you inspect a barrel of an Iraqi AK, you often feel like a plumber trying to clean the pipes at a crackhouse. Once, I tried to completely clean the barrel of an old Iraqi AK just for the hell of it, but after 40 minutes and 60 patches I had to give up. Other than that, early Iraqi AKs are pretty solid and reliable workhorses. But later in the ’80s, as the war with Iran was going nowhere, money dried up and the quality slowly went down.

When I did my research, I asked many Iraqis about the quality of their indigenes Kalashnikov variant. Since I don’t speak Arabic, conversations were usually pretty brief:

“Tell me, habibi, is Iraqi Kalashnikov good?”

“Eeeee?”

“Iraqi Tabuk – mafi mushkele?” (Iraqi AK – no problem?)

“Yes, yes, my friend.”

Sometimes conversations had a bit more substance, and most Iraqis generally agreed that a Tabuk is fine, but a Russian AK is slightly better. Considering the fact that the same people who expressed this opinion often plug barrels of their guns while on duty with paper and patches “to keep them clean from sand,” and use their AKs as a makeshift folding chairs, I really wanted to talk to someone with a little bit more knowledge and experience.

FIRSTHAND KNOWLEDGE
Over time, I found several Iraqis who spoke English well and gave me a more in-depth perspective. My first serious conversation was with a very big and very kind Iraqi, who had a glorious mustache and reminded me of fat, fluffy cat sunbathing in the first sunny days of spring. He wasn’t a gun guy, so mostly we talked about prices in Basra restaurants and how difficult it is to afford buying a house these days — he has no choice, because he must finally move away from his mother-in-law who is, according to him, “worse than ISIS.”

When we finally got to the topic of Iraqi AKs, I learned that in his experience, a Tabuk worked fine, but was substantially heavier than other AKs. This became a serious problem during shoot and move exercises as well as other movements.

And he was right — for some reason, most Yugoslavian and Iraqi AKs have a reinforced front trunnion and receiver. Russians did it on the RPK, which is a light machine gun, but it’s not entirely clear why Yugoslavians thought it necessary for an ordinary assault rifle.

The second Iraqi I asked about Tabuks was an older gentleman who looked and sounded a lot like Sean Connery. He was very well educated, full of wisdom, and because of his age, got a full taste of Saddam’s reign of terror.

Under Hussein, he was imprisoned and tortured by Saddam’s secret police, escaped to Europe, lived in Spain, but eventually had to move to the UAE — his wife didn’t want to live in Europe, and he had to trade Barcelona for Dubai.

When I asked him about the quality of Iraqi AKs, he paused for a second, adjusted his glasses, and said: “Without a slightest doubt, young man, in a long bygone era of prosperity, before Saddam came to power, Iraq, among other virtues, was famous for many high-quality industrial products … however, small arms were not among those products.” I certainly could have not said it better, but I was lucky to meet another amazing Iraqi who gave me more information than I expected.

QUALITY CONTROL AND THE LACK THEREOF
One day I was visiting a facility and noticed something unusual about the weapons — they were all exceptionally clean and even oiled, which is unheard of in Iraq. I really wanted to meet the shift leader responsible for that miracle, and he didn’t disappoint.

The shift leader lamented that early Tabuks are pretty good, but they rust easily and overheat slightly faster compared to other AK variants. My personal experience with Iraqi AKs is quite extensive, and those weapons had more issues than simple rust or overheating. At least twice, I’ve seen factory rear sights installed upside down.

There was a rifle with a mag catch that was so out of spec that mags were wobbling up and down to the point where the bolt couldn’t pick up new rounds from the magazine. I’ve seen dozens of broken rear sights due to poor heat treating, gas tube retaining levers that no one even tried to properly flare at the factory, broken folding stocks, bolts missing 30 percent of the locking lug’s surface, and chambers so rusty you can’t even load the weapon. In other words, the quality of Iraqi rifles went down fast following a demise of the country under Saddam’s rule.

iraqi ak stock

Handguards with three vent holes instead of the traditional two make Tabuks and Yugo AKs easy to recognize at a glance.

THE END OF THE LINE
In 1989, following the end of the Iraq-Iran war, Iraqis substantially simplified the design of their rifles, getting rid of the grenade sight, flip-up night sights, and receiver cover retaining mechanism — basically, everything that made the Tabuk special. Production of Tabuks continued until 2003, when coalition forces entered Baghdad, putting an end to Iraqi firearms manufacturing. Unfortunately, very few Tabuks were brought back as war trophies. Thankfully, a company called Two Rivers Arms based in Oklahoma started manufacturing semi-automatic replicas of Tabuk rifles with an incredible attention to detail. Their weapons were used in the movie American Sniper, and currently several Tabuk variants are available on their website.

iraqi ak sights

LOOSE ROUNDS
The history of AKs is fascinating. Looking at those Iraqi rifles and seeing how dramatically their quality declined over time, one could see the whole modern history of Iraq. From a rich and prosperous state with advanced manufacturing capabilities in the early ’80s, under the rule of Saddam, Iraq slowly descended into the abyss of destitution, poverty, corruption, and authoritarian rule. Without proper maintenance and repair, most Iraqi-made rifles are now rotting away and falling apart.

They changed owners, saw horrors of Iran-Iraq war and Kurdish genocide, and were used by the Mahdi army, ISIS, Iraqi military, and security contractors from all over the world. So if you come across an Iraqi AK on your next contract or deployment, be nice to it, give it a good clean, and put some oil in it — those tough rusty rifles have been through enough already.

About the Author

Vladimir Onokoy is a Russian-born defense industry specialist, gun writer, and firearms instructor. Over the years, he’s worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and 12 other countries as a security contractor, armorer, firearms industry sales representative, product manager, and consultant. Onokoy has published several articles and also created several video series such as Gun Myths, Kalashnikov: Around the World, Larry Vickers in Russia, and Kalashnikov: Evolution that are available on YouTube. If you need to contact him, you can email [email protected].


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