Phillip Killicoat did an economic cross-country analysis of the AK-47 small arms market over time.
There are an estimated 75million AK-47 assault rifles on the global market. There are roughly 25million more AK-74 and other Kalashnikov weapons. The elastic supply means that the arms market easily responds to surges in demand when states fall into civil war.
One finding is that the price of AK-47s is lower in warzones than in peaceful countries. AK-47s are cheapest in Africa.
“The pervasiveness of this weapon may be explained in large part by its simplicity. The AK-47 was initially designed for ease of operation and repair by glove-wearing Soviet soldiers in arctic conditions. Its breathtaking simplicity means that it can also be operated by child soldiers in the African desert. Kalashnikovs are a weapon of choice for armed forces and non-state actors alike. They are to be found in the arsenals of armed and special forces of more than 80 countries.
…The AK-47’s popularity is generally attributed to its functional characteristics; ease of operation, robustness to mistreatment and negligible failure rate. The weapon’s weaknesses – it is considerably less accurate, less safe for users, and has a smaller range than equivalently calibrated weapons – are usually overlooked, or considered to be less important than the benefits of its simplicity.”
There are a number of reasons for the AK-47s dominance in the small arms market.
– Arms Control
Better enforcement and control raise prices. Governments that can effectively control border, the black market, and criminal organizations are strong governments and not threatened by civil war. AK-47s are most expensive in peaceful governments due to the difficulty of smuggling weapons or attaining government permission to own them.
Governments that cannot control the market are precisely the governments that fall into civil war. Where governments are weak, individuals seek weapons and protection for themselves. The arms market quickly identifies these locations and floods them with weapons like AK-47s.
Most weapons are foreign in origin. Africa has more neighboring states than the world average (3.4 vs 2.1) and weaker law enforcement.
– Path dependency
The Soviet Union mass-produced the weapon and crowded out better rifles. Once the AKs circulated during the Cold War, it becomes too expensive to switch to different weapon. The AK-47 uses a common skillset and ammunition that are readily available in times of conflict. Other rifles are not as flexible for users.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was not as significant as believed. The belief was that the Soviets carefully doled out AKs to communist insurgencies, but when it collapsed, arms traders dumped Soviet surplus stocks on the world market for profit. This is not entirely true. The global AK arms market was already established. Some additional weapons were sold from former Soviet Republics, but it was not a flood.
This study also shows the problems with ineffective Arms Control mechanisms.