There are conflicts going on in Africa today that have a direct bearing on what is happening in some gang war turfs in the United States. Those involved do not need factory-made firearms, because they can make the guns themselves. In Africa, it is an enormous and burgeoning “backyard industry.”
More to the point, these basic weapons are being produced in quantity—many of them primitive, barely functional and crudely put together. And they can kill. Most times, they do so very effectively.
Should firearms eventually be restricted from private ownership in America, there is no question that there are a lot of individuals who will follow this African tradition and start producing their own.… BECAUSE SOME OF THESE GUNS CAN BE PUT TOGETHER ON ANY BACKYARD PORCH, IT’S IMPORTANT TO TAKE A CLOSE LOOK AT THEM. THE PROLIFERATION OF PRIMITIVE FIREARMS
One needs to look very closely at how this is being done, because there are both lessons and warnings here. I have been embedded with local police, air force and army in Africa on numerous raids in what is sometimes an extremely dangerous region. Some remarkable firearm hybrids have emerged. For instance, one particularly evil-looking device was made from parts taken from a plow.
This illegal handgun, shotgun and rifle manufacturing industry continues unabated, largely because of corruption and the complicity of most governments in sub-Saharan Africa. In this regard, another point made by the venerable Nelson Mandela was that “it is very active in my own beloved country, which turns a blind eye to the appalling suffering associated with the proliferation of these weapons.”
The sad truth is that, as this article goes to print, South Africa’s much-depleted security services are fighting a low-intensity struggle in the lush farmlands of the Zululand of old, as well as other outlying areas in the interior. The numbers of victims are relatively modest: two dead in a village the day of this writing and another somewhere else the day before.
But, as in Northern Ireland in years past, some of the issues were intense enough to have involved the military—in this case, the South African Army. For many of those involved in the killings, it was, as the saying goes, “payback time.”
Those not hacked to death in these ongoing vendettas are shot with a variety of firearms, many of them homemade. And because some of these guns can be put together on any backyard porch, it’s important to take a close look at them. All are lethal. More salient, many are adaptations of the ubiquitous “Saturday night special”—the historic weapon-of-choice of many American youth gangs.
Also, this is a “big business” industry. The guns are made in makeshift facilities, with thousands produced each year. Most see ready use in a country that has one of the highest murder rates in the world (17,000 people killed last year), with many of the victims shot to death.
The majority of these firearms are cheeky adaptations of 12-bore (gauge) shotguns. It is the weapon that is most popular in less-developed regions because of the spread of its lead pellets and the impact. The rationale among those who use shot shells is that there are no telltale ballistic “fingerprints” for forensics to work with afterward.
Other firearms range from primitive adaptations of the Kalashnikov AK-47 to drilling through the barrel of a starter’s pistol so it will chamber a .38-caliber cartridge. In the long term, it probably cannot be used very often, but it will have adequately served its purpose.
Curiously, there is an astonishing number of military carbines about: AK-47s, .556 mm South African army R-4s (the South African hybrid of the Israeli Galil), an occasional FN 7.62 mm or a former Portuguese Army G3 brought across the border from Mozambique. As police operations begin to take effect, it is hoped that this illegal arsenal is thinning.THE PREFERENCE FOR 9MM PARABELLUM
The 9mm adaptation falls within the higher echelons of illegal production because of the ready availability of ammo. Legal South African arms factories produce huge supplies of Parabellum cartridges, much of it going abroad as exports.
Most of the people living in the embattled zone will disagree about the destination of this ammunition. Barely a week goes by that farmers and, increasingly, their families, aren’t killed or wounded in road ambushes or onslaughts on isolated homesteads in attacks that are taking place throughout the country.
Since the African National Congress came to power in the early 1990s, more than 3,000 members of the white farming community have been murdered. Many of those involved maintain that as the attacks increase, with scores of farmers killed each year, it’s little more than a concerted effort to drive them off their properties. They point to the fact that along the Tugela River and farther south, in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains and elsewhere, some farms have already been abandoned.
During visits to KwaZulu-Natal since 2007, I was to see a lot of evidence of this trend for myself. Farm killings are only part of it: There are more people dying violently in South African cities today than in any other country in the world outside a war zone, with the single exception of Mexico.THERE ARE MORE PEOPLE DYING VIOLENTLY IN SOUTH AFRICAN CITIES TODAY THAN IN ANY OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD OUTSIDE A WAR ZONE, WITH THE SINGLE EXCEPTION OF MEXICO. IMPROVISATION SUPERSEDES SAFETY
Despite an increased security presence in much of South Africa, criminals have become more active. And as long as these dissident elements are hunted by the South African Police Service, they are obliged to turn to their own resources to acquire weapons. Apart from those stolen, there have been some remarkable homemade adaptations.
It was found that technical expertise, while basic, was largely improvised and very rarely involved machines. In the countryside, where many of these “workshops” are situated, there is often no electricity.
The tools can be as rudimentary as a hammer, a hacksaw and a file, together with a young boy who provides the muscle to drive a set of cowhide bellows over a charcoal fire.
The author was shown a starting pistol that had been made into an effective single-shot weapon. It was .22 long-rifle caliber and had been used in a political assassination that was big news at the time. A prominent political figure of Zulu ancestry had been shot behind the ear from a range of inches. The man died instantly.
A few more of the weapons I handled were nothing short of dangerous. One or two had fairly large gaps between the receiver and the barrel (which, when the shooter is on the move, are usually carried separately). Alternatively, the cartridges were so loose-fitting that the gun emitted a sheet of flame from the breech.
“Often, if the piping is too big for the cartridge, a short length of wire is wound around the base of the brass to keep it in position,” a police officer familiar with the illegal trade in firearms told me. “This is often the case with the 9mm Parabellum pistol.”
The most basic system, he reckoned, was to improvise and have two lengths of ordinary metal piping, one fitting neatly into the other. A small, sharp piece of steel—the firing pin—would be soldered to one end. With the cartridge in place, you literally banged one section of the “gun” hard against the other. Obviously, you need to take great care where it is pointing just then.
“Tricky, but it works, although not always if you’ve been drinking, which is often the case,” said Mike P., another policeman who did not want to be identified because he is still involved in ballistics work. Also, he added, “you have to know how to hold it … fingers have been severed in the past.”
A new development, he explained, had been to take toy pistols or revolvers—the kind children play with—and drill out the barrels for use in bank holdups (for which South Africa is now a world leader).
If, for instance, an AK is not available, the 9mm Para is still the preferred caliber. Another armorer said these improvised firearms worked very well for five or six rounds, after which the barrels tended to split.ADDING BITE TO THE BULLET
It is generally accepted in Natal that the best homemade weapons were, for a long time, made by a fugitive known to the police as “Dum-Dum” Dumisane. He was appropriately named: Having eluded the police for years, he taught his associates how to nip off the tip of a bullet, which always results in the victim being seriously wounded. It says a lot that the inappropriately named “dum- dum” bullet was banned generations ago by the Geneva Convention.
Dumisane is also a bit of shotgun boffin. One of his creations was recovered while I was there. It was 12 gauge and could be fired as a handgun. (Those who have tried it say you need strong wrists.)NO SHORTAGE OF SHOTGUNS
About half the weapons brought in while I spent time with the South African police were 12-gauge shotguns that were factory manufactured or improvised. An officer pointed out that ammunition was plentiful; just about every farmhouse has a box or two of shells. More significantly, in close quarters, it is difficult to miss your target—whether or not you’ve had a few beers.
Quite a few members of the police with whom I worked out of Margate Airport had taken fire from these improvised weapons; several had ended up in the hospital with serious wounds. One had taken the full impact of a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun in the chest. Even though he was wearing body armor, the blast knocked him down, half concussed. Apart from a bruise the size of a plate that stayed with him for months, he wasn’t badly hurt. But just 6 inches higher, he reckoned, and he would have taken it full in the face.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al J. Venter is a foreign correspondent with decades of experience of covering wars, army mutinies, insurrections and revolutions in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central America. His latest book is Mercenaries: Putting the World to Rights with Hired Guns, published in the United States and Britain by Casemate. He is also the author of Cops Cheating Death, a comprehensive work detailing the invention and use of body armor. It also includes a chapter about Masaad Ayoob’s narrow scrape with his Maker.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.