KIRYAT GAT, Israel—On a balmy Friday afternoon last fall outside Tel Aviv, at a high-end restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the individuals responsible for bringing one of the world’s best-known brands into the 21st century were seated enjoying the calamari salads and red wine. There was nothing about their outward appearances to suggest they were all veterans of elite Israeli commando units, nor that the brand in question was the venerable and lethal Kalashnikov assault rifle, better known by its initials: AK-47.
The principals were from Command Arms and Accessories (CAA), a local defense firm founded in 2008 that had, up until last year, a niche business making innovative accessories and other cutting-edge platforms for existing weapons. With official licensing from the original Russian manufacturer, they are now venturing into the gun business proper with what they’ve named the “Alfa” Kalashnikov—a weapon that combines Israeli design prowess and other modern amenities with the qualities that made the old model into a global phenomenon. It is, they claim, the world’s best assault rifle. And it’s coming to America.
Presiding over the lunch was Moshe Oz, CAA’s founder and president, a boyish 49-year-old who bears a more than passing resemblance to a darker-haired Jon Bon Jovi. He also has nearly two decades of combat experience in both the Israeli army and police special counter-terror units. It was this experience as an “end user,” as he puts it, that led him and his friends to “try to do things better” when they entered the private sector. In their line of work this meant one thing: “hitting the target with greater accuracy and greater speed.”
CAA initially made its name with a product called the Roni (named after Oz’s daughter), a metal and polymer chassis that converts a handgun into a carbine submachine gun. Jerusalem’s mayor raised eyebrows after a 2015 terrorist attack when he was filmed on the streets of his city with a Roni—which many mistook for a real assault rifle. In technical terms, the larger chassis, which envelopes the handgun, provides more stability and range than a simple pistol as well as automatic shooting speed. More to the point, it’s just a lot more imposing than a simple handgun.
Amidst the busy weekend lunch rush, Oz offered to grab one from his car outside, before thinking better of it. “These people would freak out,” he said, looking around at the cream of the Tel Aviv elite, with its fair share of tech entrepreneurs, real estate developers, and finance professionals. Oz and his colleagues, on the other hand, were the type of businessmen that had, as one proffered on his cellphone, the direct number for the son of an African president. And of course there were the Russians.
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The AK-47’s origins have by now become well known, nearly elevated to the level of folklore. In the wake of World War Two, the Soviet Union launched a contest to develop its own rapid-fire rifle, similar to the groundbreaking Sturmgewehr deployed by Nazi Germany. The winner of the competition was Senior Sgt. Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, a wounded veteran of tank warfare on the Western Front. The prototype he developed was accepted in 1947 and called the Avtomat Kalashnikova—the AK-47—a compact automatic assault rifle that was quickly incorporated into the Red Army. Subsequent years would see upgraded models, usually lighter and quicker, but the weapon’s signature design—and appeal—remained constant.
C. J. Chivers, a New York Times reporter and author of the seminal 2010 best-seller The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War, chalked up this appeal to several factors. Physically, the Kalashnikov had few moving parts, was simple to take apart and put back together, and was extremely reliable and durable. Kalashnikov ammunition cartridges were smaller than other comparable rifles of the day, allowing a soldier to carry more ammo; the relatively minor recoil meant that even poorly trained fighters could shoot more accurately when they did fire. “In much of the world,” Chivers wrote in a recent retrospective, “the Kalashnikov became the everyman’s gun.” The politics and economics of the Cold War took care of the rest.
Production of the rifle expanded from the Soviet Union to other Warsaw Pact states and from there to Communist allies across the globe (China, North Korea, Yugoslavia, etc.). Tens of millions of Kalashnikovs were manufactured in massive state-owned factories, under the warped logic of planned economies. As Chivers explains, when new Kalashnikov models came into production in the 1970s, the older stockpiles were freed up for global trade—especially to non-state Third World insurgents. From the jungles of Indochina to the deserts of the Middle East and the plains of Africa, the Kalashnikov became a symbol, for many, of anti-imperialism and revolution; for others, beginning with the Palestinian militants of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games through to Osama Bin Laden and the savages of ISIS, it is synonymous with global terror. For these reasons, a Kalashnikov adorns the flags of both post-colonial Mozambique as well as bitter Israeli enemies like Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
There are, by one reckoning, at least 100 million Kalashnikov variants in circulation worldwide, one for every 70 people. The fall of the Soviet Union, in addition to the proliferation of bootleg copies, often Chinese, only accelerated the trade in these light arms. The iconic banana-clipped assault rifle has become a true global brand, a constant presence in rap songs, Hollywood movies and in one instance a gold-plated Phillipe Starck-designed table lamp.
Throughout, the legendary Russian manufacturers Izhmash, based in the industrial hub of Izhevsk, never ceased production, increasingly for export to the U.S. civilian market—which is where CAA comes in.
In Oz’s telling, the relationship with the Russian manufacturers began as an advisory role. Production methods at the factory were still seemingly stuck in the 1950s. “They had heavy trucks driving over the rifles to test them,” one of Oz’s colleagues said, perhaps only half joking. CAA then obtained, a few years ago, rights to purchase and then export to the U.S. a sport version of the Kalashnikov. In 2015 the Israeli government issued CAA a permit to begin producing its own small arms. The company’s first target, so to speak, was to upgrade and modernize the Kalashnikov—with full Russian rights and permission to use the powerful brand name. “After 50 years,” Oz said, “it was time to do something different.”
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“Since the nineteenth century there hasn’t been a breakthrough. No one is shooting lasers. You have a tube, gunpowder and a bullet.” Oz laid out this general theorem on firearms a few weeks after the Friday lunch, in his office at CAA’s factory in Kiryat Gat, a working class town in southern Israel. The functional, multi-story facility is located in an industrial park on the outskirts of the city, nestled in between firms selling ceramics and bathroom fixtures. The high wall, cameras, and overall tighter security indicated that CAA was in a rather more sensitive line of work.
Employing over 70 people—mostly designers, engineers and craftsmen often working (surprisingly) by hand—the plant was already bursting at the seams. Plans were in place to move to a new, larger facility across town, a sign that business was brisk. Inside, posters touting CAA’s various products adorned the hallways, providing the best “end-user” validation an advertising budget can’t buy: Israeli army special forces and police counter-terror units, Canadian SWAT teams, U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
“The only issue with weapons is design,” Oz continued, placing by way of example his sleek Austrian-made Glock pistol on the office coffee table. “It’s all about how the weapon looks and how easy it is to use.”
What CAA had done with the Alfa was, in effect, build a modern, ergonomically-friendly platform around the traditional Kalashnikov’s hugely reliable core shooting mechanism—the “engine,” in Oz’s words. It was always this engine that set the Kalashnikov apart.
In water or sand, in extreme heat or cold, the rifle simply fired, unlike many immediate competitors—the American M-16 included—which were prone to jamming in adverse conditions. It’s not a coincidence that Israel’s version of the Navy SEALs, the elite Shayetet 13, had been using Kalashnikovs for years, at first via captured enemy stocks (Syrian, Egyptian, Palestinian) and now apparently via CAA. An urban legend in the Shayetet has it, that a commando once dropped a Kalashnikov into the sea during a training exercise. Seven years later the weapon was salvaged from the bottoms and taken to the range—where it promptly fired.
According to Oz and his partners, in addition to the customary AK reliability, the Alfa’s design now provides better accuracy and balance, and less recoil and up-kick; it’s more precise. Multiple rails give the option of fitting the latest gadgets (scopes, lasers, night vision sites, etc.) onto the rifle, making it more lethal. Unlike the old Kalashinkov that just used the Soviet caliber bullets (7.62mm), the Alfa comes, as well, in a Western caliber model (5.56mm) and a less powerful, police-friendly model (9mm)—it’s more versatile.
But far more important than any of these is that the Alfa does indeed look, for all the world, like a Kalashnikov, right down to the signature banana-shaped ammunition clip. If, as Oz said, the only issue with weapons is really design, than the Alfa is a success: an updated, 21st century version of the last century’s bloodiest and most iconic light weapon.
Multiple approaches to get an independent assessment of the Alfa’s prowess from Israeli military and government sources as well as outside experts went unanswered. The close-knit nature of Israel’s defense industry, as well as the perceived murky world of the global weapons trade, may explain the reticence. Ultimately, both the appeal and proficiency of this new weapon, as well as any possible future problems, will be made abundantly clear. CAA has big plans for the Alfa.
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The lynchpin for any weapons maker is the bottomless U.S. civilian market, which is estimated to hold anywhere from 300 million to 600 million guns and generates approximately $16 billion in yearly revenue. CAA plans to tap directly into this market by building its own factory in Florida, set to open this month. It’ll be a wholly U.S. venture run through CAA USA, a local subsidiary headed by Mikey Hartman, a Tennessee-born, retired Israeli army master sniper who once appeared on the cover of Soldier of Fortune magazine. The Alfa will then be sold under the brand name, and through a company, called Kalashnikov USA (patriotic tagline: “Russian Heritage—American Innovation”).
Pumping out Alfa Kalashnikovs into the massive U.S. gun market seems like a winning business proposition. Not even U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia after the seizure of Crimea in 2014, including the original Kalashnikov makers, has evidently dimmed the enthusiasm. And CAA is at pains to stress that it’s all done according to U.S. laws (laws that the new Trump administration and its allies in Congress and the National Rifle Association have already begun relaxing). As one of Oz’s colleagues said with no small amount of amazement, “You’ll be able to go to Wal Mart and buy some milk, and pick up an Alfa too.” Suggested retail price? $1,700.
The symbolism of a Kalashnikov on U.S. soil isn’t lost on CAA either. “For the intelligent [weapons] consumer, what do they want? They want an M-16, or [its close cousin] the AR-15, they want a shotgun, some want an [Israeli] Uzi, some get a Beretta [Italian]—and now you can buy a Russian Kalashnikov,” Oz observed, ticking off the names of the gun world’s strongest brands.
Hearing Oz tell it, there was no difference between assault rifles and other consumer goods—cars, soda, shaving blades, etc, ad infinitum. People in the weapons industry, like any other industry, were simply trying to make the best product possible. But still—wasn’t there an ethical obligation?
Oz, like most Israelis, was a firm believer in the maxim that guns don’t kill people, bad people with guns kill people—and therefore good people needed guns too. He was all for sensible gun regulations like criminal background checks on potential buyers. But he also emphasized that protection was crucial as well, “defending like we do in Israel at schools, shopping centers, and other public institutions. Armed citizens can solve the problem, stopping an attack from turning into a mass casualty shooting.” This was indeed the Israeli way. And besides, Oz went on, there were hundreds of millions of guns already in circulation. “If someone wants to do an attack, they’ll get their hands on a weapon. We [Israel] just had a lot of knife terror attacks. No one is arguing that we need to stop making knives, right?”
This was an expected line of argument perhaps, coming as it did from a person in his current line of work. But what of his previous career in the Israeli security forces? Wasn’t there a fear that he would wake up one morning to find that one of his weapons had gotten into the hands of a terrorist?
“There is a concern, but you don’t wake up in the morning worrying about it,” Oz replied steadily. “We’re one of hundreds of weapons producers in the world, and we’re small too. But we’ll do everything possible that it won’t happen. But if we sell it to someone and he sells it on…”
After a short pause, he added: “This is the industry.”
It was the industry, both writ large globally and for Israel in particular. Having an advanced, indigenous production capacity was a central pillar of Israeli’s security strategy: being able to defend itself, by itself. As one lawyer in Tel Aviv who specializes in defense exports told me on condition of anonymity, “the Israeli legacy is that we can only trust and depend on ourselves.”
The domestic defense industry is also, it has to be mentioned, a major economic driver. Israel’s defense exports stood at $5.7 billion in 2015, accounting for 14 percent of total exports. For all those Israelis like Oz and his colleagues who retire from mandatory military service with, shall we say, very particular skillsets, it is a major source of employment. Indeed, according to Defense Ministry figures, nearly 1400 arms dealers are registered in Israel, with 198,000 export permits issued to individuals or companies.
In recent years some questions have been raised regarding what type of unsavory states these Israeli companies are in bed with. As the lawyer in Tel Aviv laid out to me, there was a stringent oversight process in place to safeguard against such abuses, tasked by law to a unit inside the Defense Ministry called the Defense Exports Control Agency (DECA), but also taking into account the views of the Foreign Ministry and if need be the Prime Minister’s Office. There was, he said, a need to balance “moral considerations against diplomatic and economic considerations. I’ve seen it happen where the government decides to stop selling to a country because we don’t want Israeli technology to be used to put down a population.” Fines have also been meted out by the government for violations, particularly to those exporters who fudge the all-important End User Certificates (identifying where a certain export is headed).
And yet, Israel is no saint—there are few genuine saints in the weapons trade. As Dubi Lavi, DECA’s former chief, told the Haaretz daily last year, “There are some non-democratic countries to which we approve exports, just as the rest of the world does. I don’t believe defense exports go only to democracies. Not from here and not from elsewhere, including enlightened countries.”
Which brings us back to CAA and the Alfa’s impending rise. While the U.S. civilian market is the primary focus, the firm does have a side business plan for its new assault rifle: setting up factories in countries that want to turn their aging AK stocks into state-of-the-art Alfas. “Refurbishment,” Oz calls it, wherein the barrel and some other older parts are used to build the new rifle. Given that there are millions upon millions of Kalashnikovs in official military circulation, the reach of this side of CAA’s business is, in a literal sense, global.
C. J. Chivers, the New York Times reporter, described the Kalashnikov as nothing short of a “disruptive technology that flooded the world almost three generations ago” becoming “a ready amplifier of evil and rage.” One can only hope that the Alfa Kalashnikov has a less disruptive, less bloody, future than its forerunner’s legendary past.