SOMALIA: Weapons We Used, Weapons We Captured

By Rob Krott

The German woman was becoming a real pain. I knew we were in trouble when I saw her Birkenstock sandals. CPL Pat Cooper had rendered initial first aid to the German relief worker, while I carried another woman away from the road accident. Their Land Rover hit a roadblock, went off the road and flipped over right after passing our three vehicle convoy. We were enroute to Mogadishu from a 10th Mountain division camp near Marka at a high rate of speed because darkness was falling. CPT Dan Dobrolwski, 513th MI Brigade, quickly organized a perimeter. Although an MI officer. ‘Ski and I had both been rifle platoon leaders in the 2d Infantry Division on the Korean DMZ in ’86 and he quickly slipped back into the combat troop leader mode, commandeering an M60 machine gun and organizing vehicle shakedowns of civilian traffic entering our perimeter which crowned the roadway. Within five minutes there was a crowd of about 100 civilians lining the road. We waited for assistance that never came.

Before we pulled out to medevac the relief workers ourselves an English aid worker asked me what should be done with the weapon. Weapon? Sure enough, with all the khat chewing Somalis milling around there was a loaded G-3 laying atop the vehicle’s underside. I hastily cleared the rifle and shoved it at him telling him, “here take this, sling it muzzle down and whatever you do, don’t play with the damn thing.”

It was not the first G-3 I’d seen in the past few weeks. There were weapons all over the country. Everywhere I went there was an arms room filled with the same hodgepodge assortment of small arms captured from the local thugs. The captured, confiscated, or voluntarily surrendered weapons were predominately Kalashnikov’s as most Somali “gun men” were armed with Kalashnikov’s. I can’t endorse the Kalashnikov enough as an all-around great battle rifle for the African continent. It is ideally suited for the harsh field conditions in desert and bush environments of the Dark Continent where operator maintenance is minimal and old crankcase oil or goat fat frequently suffices for weapons lubricant. The simplistic, robust design of the Sergeant Mikhail T. Kalashnikov’s perfect peasant rifle is just the ticket for arming a bunch of illiterate, primitive tribesmen who’ve never handled anything more technologically advanced than a transistor radio. Some of these people still believe that setting a sight on a longer range increases the hitting power of the bullet. Explaining trajectory and bullet drop is akin to teaching quantum physics. While AK’s , M-16s, and G-3’s were the most common weapons I saw in Somalia there was also a wide assortment of weapons laying about including at least one example of the more common European small arms made in this century.

SGT Jako from the 10th Mountain Division S-2 (Intelligence) shop in Kismayo showed me inside the locked CONEX container where they kept a stash of captured weaponry. I almost burst into tears at the sight of badly rusted Thompson .45 submachine guns destined for the demolitions pit, knowing that even in their rough, used condition the venerable Chicago Pianos were a collectors dream. There were also stockpiles of heavily used PPSh-41s. I would guess that the stocks of both these submachine guns had been idle for some time due to ammunition shortage. While both are considered long obsolete in modern military armories they are serviceable and dependable weapons found yet in the world’s backwaters. I saw both weapons fielded later that year (1993) in Bosnia and to good effect. A heavy World War II era submachine gun may not be on par with a modern assault rifle, but in combat it sure beats throwing rocks.

In the corner beyond the Thompson’s was another “obsolete” American weapon, a very pristine M14. No doubt there were a few USMC vets of the Southeast Asia Wargames back at MARFOR headquarters who would’ve appreciated this robust weapon. I carried an M-14 (actually an M-21 sniping rifle with ART-2) in combat as late as 1986, and think it is a fine weapon. A really interesting find was a Smith and Wesson 1917 service revolver, the one chambered for .45 Long Colt but used with the .45 ACP and half moon clips. Strangely enough it had a short snub nosed barrel. The finish was 100% and the grips were pristine. It looked like it was boxed out of the factory yesterday. I am still mystified as to how it escaped damage in the sandy wastes of Somalia. Large numbers of M-16s were previously provided to Somalia by the U.S. government when Said Barre’s regime was considered a bulwark against Mengistu’s Marxist government in Ethiopia. Ironically some of our troops came under fire from these weapons with significant numbers being captured and confiscated.

It seemed like there was one of everything. SKS carbines were piled on top of M-1 Garands which leaned against Mannlicher-Carcanos, flanked by Czech LMGs and rusting Mausers. Besides the G-3s there were also a few MG 42s. The myriad collection of weapons bespoke Somalia’s tortured path on its way from feudal state to nationhood and back to tribal chaos. I noted a few .303 Lee-Enfield No. 4 rifles. Millions of these rifles were made in England, the U.S. (by Savage Arms Co.). Canada, Australia and India. These were undoubtedly left behind in British Somaliland, used in Orde Wingate’s Abyssinia campaign, or issued during the post-war protectorate. The British ruled all of Somalia after the war until the Italians returned as the UN trustees in 1950. Somalia being a former Italian colony there were large quantities of Italian weapons. Several examples of the Beretta Model 38/42 submachine gun (differing from the 38A by its lack of a cooling jacket) were captured in Kismayo. The precision machining and finishing on the pre-war Model 38A’s was eliminated during the war to ease the manufacturing process. But, even with a stamped tubular receiver it proved to be a reliable and robust submachine gun. I know of only one reference to the Breda Model 1935PG 6.5mm rifles. The Breda was a substandard rifle built for export in the late 1930’’ ( a 7mm variant was sold to Costa Rica in 1937) and many were shipped to Ethiopia. I kept my eye out for one of these rifles. I have yet to even find a photo of one and am beginning to think it is a chimera. The bolt-action 6.5mm M91 Carcano rifles and carbines, however, were well represented with hundreds of examples, mostly in poor to junk condition. With the wide availability of various select fire weapons, especially Kalashnikov’s, I assume most were carried by herdsmen. Interestingly, it was this area of the world where it was determined there was a need for a larger caliber replacement for the 6.5mm. It was in the course of their campaign to subdue Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia defended by Spear carrying tribesmen that the Italians decided the 6.5mm was not enough of a man-stopper. The 7.35mm cartridge was introduced but with the advent of World War II the Italians thought it unwise to switch calibers and most of the 7.35mm Carcanos (M1938) were sold to Finland. Some were re-barrelled with 6.5mm barrels by the Italians. Near the end of World War II limited quantities of these weapons were re-chambered for 7.92mm Mauser. The Germans, who were pressing anything that launched a bullet into service, re-designated the 6.5mm rifles as the Gew 209(I) and the 7.35mm rifles as Gew 231(I) and rebored them for 7.92mm. Due to the increase chamber pressures generated by the 7.92mm Mauser cartridge it is unsafe to fire these weapons. I also saw several M59 Beretta rifles, in my opinion, one of the better Italian made weapons. When the U.S. adopted the M-14 the Italians decided to adapt its M-1 Garand (made under license by Beretta). The resulting weapon was an M-1 chambered to fire the NATO 7.62 round, modified to fire bursts, and fitted with a 20-round magazine and a grenade launcher / muzzle brake.

Later, back in Mogadishu I had the opportunity to examine a Breda Model 30 Italian Light Machine Gun.. The Breda, although one of the first machine gun made with a quick change barrel and, while exhibiting excellent workmanship, was a badly flawed design. A delayed blowback operating gun with a recoiling barrel (like the Italian 1914 Revelli) it has a large bolt with multiple locking lugs. The magazine is permanently attached and is loaded with a twenty-round “horse-shoe” charger of brass or cardboard. On top of the receiver is an oilpan and pump. Because of faulty loading and ejecting inherent in its design, weapons oil is injected onto the rounds and they’re fed through the side loading fixed-box magazine. It obviously didn’t fare too well in the sandy wastes of Ethiopia and Libya.. leading to the old joke about the Italian Army making better shoes than machineguns. When ‘Ski and I disassembled the weapon, which was in remarkably immaculate condition, we found the parts were serial numbered and they all matched. This was a museum quality piece. We attempted to arrange for its shipment to the U.S., but to no avail. It would be destroyed like several other museum pieces, including some priceless Wilkinson sabers which went into the demolition pit with everything else.

Large quantities of captured/confiscated weapons were shipped to the Embassy Compound where they were destroyed. Unfortunately the preponderance of weaponry was tempting. An Army lieutenant was arrested attempting to ship home an AK-47. A few troops I talked to displayed their “drop guns” - pistols such as Lugers, WWII-era Berettas, and Baby Brownings —acquired in Somalia and carried for personal protection or to insure they could produce captured weapons from dead bodies after a fire fight if needed. It’s too bad our troops worried as much about surviving the Monday Morning quarterbacks as they did surviving combat patrols. Despite the availability of many suitable weapons the well-deserving soldiers and marines of Operation Restore Hope were restricted from bringing home a legal war trophy.

Some of the people who justly deserved a war trophy were the U.S. Marines (India Battery, 3/11) who manned several of the camouflage net covered sandbag outposts guarding the Embassy’s outer wall and the main outer gate to the U.S. Embassy Compound. I spent a little time wandering around the perimeter and getting to know the leathernecks responsible for the security of my work site and the area where I slept (quite comfortably) in a GP Medium tent. The positions were all 2-man positions which included night vision devices and an M249 SAW (squad automatic weapon). While some automatic weapons positions had range cards others did not; it seemed to be a gunner prerogative rather than a result of SOP (standard operating procedures) or orders from their tactical small unit leaders. Then again some had non-existent fields of fire and most of the marines I spoke to eschewed the M249 SAW, citing inaccuracy. They preferred their M16A2’s..”every Marine a rifleman.” Fine with me as I always knew where to find a squad automatic, and I much prefer a SAW or an M60 to a “16 any day. From their outpost on the Embassy wall’s southwest corner they had a good view of a Somalia “prison.” Nighttime executions were a common event with the Marines holding front row seats ... no tickets required. LCPL Jessie Nunez told me he engaged a Somali armed with an RPG crawling over the Embassy wall just across the street from this “prison.” Despite the occasional “sniper” rounds thudding into their sandbags and the nightly spectacle of nearby Somali versus Somali firefights they spent most of their day shifts bored by routine and harassed by Somalis begging for food.

Perimeter security and reaction teams were handled by these marines and personnel from Force Service Support Group guard force. Additionally there were sniper posts located on top of various buildings in the compound as well as on K-7, a building outside the Embassy - considered key terrain because of its commanding height and fields of fire. Marines (artillerymen from Echo Battery 2/12 Marines) attached to the 3/11 Marines also performed mounted and dismounted patrols outside the Embassy and the airfield.

At approximately 0130 10 January, 1993, a fifteen man patrol traveling in Humvees spotted what appeared to be armed Somalis, the patrol dismounted near K-7. Moving stealthily down the alleyway while hugging the walls they were fired upon by an unknown number of Somalis. Going to ground most of the patrol quickly burned off some rounds, but the whole firefight was over quickly; the lieutenant screaming ceasefire before some of the Marines were even able to fire their weapons. The snipers from K-7 engaged multiple targets using either a .50 Barrett or a Remington 700, (no one would confirm which) and claimed two kills (later confirmed). The patrol accounted for another confirmed and a probable. Marines I spoke to remarked favorably on both weapons.

U.S. weapons which saw the most duty in Somalia were the M16A2 - which performed well, but required more attention in keeping out sand than other weapons - and the Beretta M92F 9mm pistol: not as well liked as its forebear the trustworthy and easy to use M1911A1 .45 ACP. I had opportunity to carry Colt and Beretta pistols in Somalia, but not the weapons mentioned. I was alternately armed with a Colt Officer’s model .45 ACP and an Egyptian “Helwan” copy of the 1951 Beretta 9mm. The .45 began jamming on me due (I believe) to the temperature change affecting the Blazer CCI hollowpoints I was loading. While my Pakistani 9mm ammo worked okay the Helwan’s eight-shot single-stack magazine was next to useless. It continually filled with sand, despite my best efforts to keep it clean. Pistols became a problem for many in Somalia. I saw a female naval officer (an 0-6 Captain, if I remember correctly) fumble with her pistol. She had wrangled a trip ashore and a “joy ride” through Mogadishu. Both her and the male subordinate accompanying her were so fat and out of shape they had problems climbing into the back of a 2 1/2 ton truck. She had to be helped to load her pistol. There were too many of such “officers” and not enough “shooters.” Lieutenant colonels and majors literally swarmed about the Embassy compound, all moving with that air of brisk, self-important military efficiency inherent to minor staff officers. All off to carry out some obscure staff function in an office identified with a string of acronymal letters. I have never before seen so many field grade officers in such a concentrated space. I think they outnumbered the grunts. Because most of these staff types all carried pistols there was a clearing barrel at the inner wall of the Embassy compound. A sign said, “No Negligent Discharges (or You will Fry!)” A reference to the consequences of any less-than-mundane action in the modern zero-defects army. A scorecard was kept on a piece of MRE cardboard and identified negligent discharges (they are no longer considered “accidents”) by service and country. It was removed at the behest of some colonel. The numbers were beginning to look embarrassing anyway.

Since the Somalia mission was a UN operation there were troops from all over the world: Sweden, France, Canada, Italy, Botswana, Morocco, and Pakistan - to name just a few. Of course all the contingents were armed with their own national weapons. While some, like the Botswanans and Moroccans, carried weapons purchased from other countries, most carried native manufactured weapons. The intelligence unit I was working with shared a building, the old library annex, in the outer Embassy compound with some Australians. Over 900 Australians (wearing those funny looking hats) were deployed in support of Restore Hope, and took over U.S. responsibilities in Baidoa. For the Australians it was the largest deployment of Aussie troops since their participation in the Vietnam war. Although their officers were equipped with well-worn Browning 9mm Hi-Powers the diggers were carrying brand spankin’ new AUG variants.

One of the most significant changes in Australian Defence Force (ADF) weaponry had just come about. After extensive test trials the Australian Government armed its troops with a new small arms weapons system designed to serve the ADF into the 21st century: the Austrian 5.56mm Steyr AUG (Armee Universal Gewehr) “bullpup”. The Austeyr (Australian Steyr) is manufactured under license in Australia with three models in production: the Austeyr F88, the Austeyr F88-C (Carbine) with a barrel 4” or 100mm shorter than the standard F88 rifle, and the Austeyr F88-S which lacks the integral 1.5 power sight, allowing the mounting of the AN/PVS-4 Night Vision Sight. Some of the Aussies commented that they’d prefer to have their SLRs or M-16s rather than the Austeyr. A female MP I spoke to liked it because of its shorter length and perception of lighter weight.

A few days after the Australian contingent was reinforced I went up to Baidoa as they were taking over the mission there and I watched some Aussies prep for a patrol. Along with some inquisitive Diggers I inspected some captured “technical” vehicles (pickup trucks with machine guns on improvised mounted) at Baidoa. Besides the usual shot-up Toyota trucks (one of which mounted a 106 mm recoiless) were a Flat 6614 APC (which mounts a 12.7mm machine gun) and a Detroit built truck mounting an AA gun. The technicals were captured by the 15th MEU USMC. The one mounted with a recoiless was used to kill 25 civilians and painted on the side was a slogan in Somali, which translated as, “We must Kill and Loot, Nobody will survive when we attack.” Another “technical” was emblazoned: “Ruthlessness and Gold in my Religion.” The next day one of the diggers in Baidoa discharged his Austeyr in the back of a vehicle. The round struck the barrel of his mate’s Austeyr splintering the round and wounding two others with the fragments.

After visiting the Aussies in Baidoa it only seemed logical to check out the Belgians in Kismayo, a port city south of Mogadishu, where Somali workers unload grain shipments. I flew into the air-strip there where 10th Mountain Division troops on top of the terminal building watched the access road to Kismayo airport and the troop barracks in the terminal building. The security detachment was well armed with M16s, M203s, a Mk 19 grenade launcher, as well as an M24 sniper rifle. The access road was blocked with 55-gallon drums filled with rocks and sand. The security detachment had a stand off distance of a few hundred yards to engage any “suicide car bomber.” No more Beirut’s. Designed for possible future conversion to .300 Winchester Magnum the M24 was built around the M118 Special Ball 7.62mm NATO “sniper” cartridge and on the Remington Arms commercial M70 long bolt action and the M40 custom trigger. The M24 Sniper Weapon system (including a Leopold Ultra M3 10X sighting telescope) was first issued in 1987 and was soon fielded to all infantry, ranger, and special forces units. It accounted itself well in Panama and later in the Persian Gulf.

When I helicoptered into Kismayo I noticed a flurry of activity. The Belgian paratroopers at the port had taken casualties in a flurry of grenade attacks in the past 24 hours. On the ride through town the driver of the Humvee tossed me his M16, but happily the trip was uneventful. The paratroopers wearing maroon berets with SAS “Who Dares Wins” cap badges and armed with FNC 80 Para folding stock carbines (and little else) had encountered an ambush just a few hours before. A Belgian Paratrooper I chatted with showed me the shrapnel wounds dotting his leg received in the ambush earlier. The doc had simply dug out the frags, gave him some aspirin, swabbed the holes with mercurochrome, and sent him back to duty to monitor patrol reports. Another had been wounded in the top of the head while firing from the prone - a preventable injury if Lee Paras had worn helmets. The FNC 80 is a good weapon for paratroops with its folding metal stock with rubber buttplate. Unlike many other FN rifles the recoil spring is in the piston rod assembly.

Just a few years previous to the United Nations intervention in Somalia the Italians, the former colonial masters of Somalia, were armed with a variety of weapons including the Beretta 12S 9mm submachine gun, the BM59 series of rifles, the 5.56mm AR70/.223 assault rifle made by Pietro Beretta SpA, and the SC70, the folding stock carbine version of the AR70/.223. While sold in limited numbers to Jordan and Malaysia, the AR70 (resembling the SIG 530-1 externally) and SC70 “special troops carbine” was fielded solely by Italian special operations forces. The development of the AR70/90 was prompted by defects in the design of the AR 70 and after the Italian Army announced competitive trials for a new service rifle in 1984 Beretta produced the AR70/90 in 1985 and introduced it into service in 1990. So the Italians were carrying rifles that had only been in their inventory for 2-3 years.

French Foreign Legionnaires, many from the garrison in nearby Djibouti, in their berets, short-shorts, and sunglasses were easily recognized by their FA-MAS (Fusil Automatique - Manufacture d’ Armees de St. Etienne) 5.56mm bullpup rifles. Called Le Clarion (the bugle) by the French troops because of its unconventional design, it is a good infantry weapon, especially suited to accurate fire from the prone position with its 25-round magazine and integral bipod. The short overall length (30”) also makes it ideal for vehicle mounted troops. The French were the first to field a bullpup rifle, and unlike subsequent bullpup rifles (the Steyr AUG and British L85A1) the FA-MAS is the only one which allows rapid reconfiguration to a left-shoulder firing weapon. Somalia was my first opportunity to see the FA-FAMAS in action and two very bored Legionnaires were keen to accommodate my curiosity. One thing of note: their magazine change was conducted with the weak or non-firing hand, something I’ve always done with a magazine-fed select fire weapon, but alien to some people.

Swedish troops, most headquartered at the “Swedish Hospital” which supported the UN mission, wore US desert pattern “chocolate-Chip” battle dress uniforms but were armed with the M45(B) Carl Gustav 9mm (kulspruta pistol submachine gun aka “Swedish L”. Influenced by their Finnish M31 Suomi submachine guns (manufactured under license by Sweden’s Husquvarna Vapenfabrik as the Model 37-38) and impressed by the success of crude but effective World War II submachine guns such as the British Sten and the Soviet PPSh-41 and PPS-43, the M45, was developed in the 1944 as a mass-produced, inexpensive weapon. While a well-made high quality weapon simple and uncomplicated in design, the fully-automatic M45 firing its 9mm pistol cartridge is only effective to about fifty meters. Still, an adequate weapon for military police guarding a hospital.

It seems like everybody in Somalia was fired at. The first time some Somali thug sent some rounds my way it was three short bursts of automatic, and nobody could locate the shooter. Sometimes shots were actually exchanged and some Somalis killed while other times it was anybody’s guess if the fire was even aimed directly at us, or just burned off into the air as harassment as we drove pass. With the distinct possibility of being perforated with some of the habitual (and at times somewhat desultory) gunfire, riding around Mogadishu and traveling throughout Somalia was not without its perils. But for a weapons aficionado attached to U.S. special operations it was still a hell of a good time.

Rob Krott, a former Army officer (Infantry and Special Forces units) studied East African cultures at Harvard University. A Swahili speaker with on-the -ground time in the area of operations he was hired as a Dept. of the Army civilian consultant and assigned as the Assistant Team Chief, Somali Linguist Team, in December ’92, deploying to Somalia in January ’93.

For further reading on Operation Restore Hope in Somalia the author recommends; Losing Mogadishu by Jonathan Stevenson and Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V2N11 (August 1999)
and was posted online on February 12, 2016


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