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The Business of Guns

Skirting Sanctions, First American-Made AK-47s to Hit U.S. Shelves

A domestic manufacturer steps in after geopolitics halt the import of the Russian rifle.

Nearly one year after international sanctions halted the import of AK-47s from Russian arms-manufacturer Kalashnikov Concern, Americans can once again buy newly minted models of the world’s most famous assault rifle, after the Russian company’s former importer overhauled its business to manufacture the weapons on U.S. soil.

Under the slogan “Russian Heritage, American Innovation,” Kalashnikov USA (KUSA) announced this week that its new U.S.–built Kalashnikov models are now available for purchase through more than 50 retailers nationwide. KUSA offers four models, all “built on the classic AK-47 rifle and shotgun platforms with a focus on designing firearms for the American shooter,” according to a company press release.

Kalashnikov Concern was among the many Russian companies targeted by U.S. economic sanctions imposed in July 2014 as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. The import ban on the AK-47, long one of the most widely used and recognizable rifles in the world, resulted in a surge of demand for the weapons across the country, more than doubling their average resale price. Prior to the ban, the U.S. market accounted for about 90 percent of Kalashnikov export sales worldwide, according to a company statement in February. In 2012, the New York Times reported, approximately 40 percent of the civilian arms produced by Kalashnikov were exported to the U.S..

Pennsylvania-based Russian Weapons Company became Kalashnikov’s exclusive North American distributor in 2012, and in January 2014 signed a five-year agreement to sell up to 200,000 rifles annually in the U.S. and Canada.

But after sanctions were imposed in 2014, RWC rebranded itself Kalashnikov USA and announced plans to convert its business from importing the weapons to manufacturing “our own AK-47s and shotguns under the Kalashnikov brand,” said CEO Tom Chivers at January’s SHOT Show in Las Vegas.

What’s not clear is whether Kalashnikov USA’s models are officially licensed from Kalashnikov Concern, or whether such a license would violate U.S. sanctions. KUSA could not be reached for comment for this story.

Kalashnikov Concern, for its part, has said it has neither an objection to nor involvement in Kalashnikov USA. But there is at least one vocal Russian critic of the new arrangement. Yelena Kalashnikov, the daughter of rifle designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, told Russia’s Interfax news agency she was “bewildered” by RWC’s decision to manufacture the rifles in the U.S., which she worried amounted to “other people us[ing] what doesn’t belong to them.”

“It’s clear that our weapons should remain ours,” she said.

Kalashnikov himself never secured a patent for the rifle’s design, which the Soviet Union licensed to foreign manufacturers in China and Eastern Europe. According to the Associated Press, Kalashnikov Concern, then known as the Izhevsk Machine Works, finally obtained a state patent for the AK-47 in 1997. Anatoly Isaikin, chief of Russia’s state arms trader Rosoboronexport, announced in 2009 that Russia would step up enforcement of the Kalashnikov copyright, citing “financial losses” and a “tarnished brand,” according to the AP.

Designed in the 1940s by the late Kalashnikov, a Red Army engineer, the AK-47 has become the most ubiquitous firearm in the world due to its low cost and reliability. According to World Bank research, the AK-47 and its variants account for approximately one-fifth of the world’s 500 million firearms.

“Their quality bears no comparison to a Kalashnikov produced in Russia,” Isaikin has said of the weapons produced by unlicensed foreign manufacturers.

[Photo: Flickr user brian.ch]