Commonplace Weapons of the Syrian Civil War

Posted: August 9, 2015 in ATGM, Rifles, Syria, Syrian Civil War, Tanks, Weapons
Tags: , , , , ,

So, the purpose of this post is not to give any sort of analysis or insight into the why or how of the weapons used in this conflict, but rather to give a basic understanding of the what. What is used, what it is, and what it’s capabilities and limitations are. This isn’t intended to be all inclusive, nor will it cover who has what. The idea is just to be a quick reference if you see a weapon name and your unfamiliar with it or want to know slightly more about it. For the sake of continuity I will provide a Wiki link for each if you want more information.This post will cover infantry small arms, artillery, anti tank weapons, anti-air, and non-conventional weapons and will hit the high frequency items but will skip over items only rarely observed (Mosin Nagants, STG-44s) or of little consequence. I will leave the aircraft and armor of the conflict to people better versed on this topic as though I have a decent understanding of armor employment and some understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, but there are others much better acquainted.

ASSAULT RIFLES (defined as a lightweight military rifle capable of select fire that shoots an intermediate caliber round) M-16– the second most recognizable firearm on earth (after the AK47) the M-16 is foreign to Syria but appears by way of captured supplies from Iraq, private donors, Kurdish smugglers, and a host of other means. While not entirely commonplace throughout the conflict, it is widespread enough that it deserves coverage. Heavily featured among ISIL fighters and the Kurdish groups (YPG and Peshmerga), the M-16 is an American designed assault rifle that fires the high velocity but small caliber 5.56x45mm round. Commonplace is many Western militaries, the rifle has gone through numerous upgrades and advances and is produced by a host of companies and under license by other countries. It boasts a longer range than the AK-47, better armor penetration than 7.62×39, light ammunition (so more can be carried) and substantially more accurate out of the box than most of it’s Eastern competitors. It is produced in multiple variants including a carbine (M-4) full length rifle (M-16A1 through M-16A4), a designated marksman rifle (DMR) with a heavier free floating barrel, aftermarket scope, and upgraded bolt carrier group, and a mechanically different variant produced by Hechler and Koch called the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle is intended to be used in full auto much like the Soviet RPK (more on that later). It is fed by a 30 round magazine although 60 round magazines and 100 round drums are available.

AK47 The AK47 is regarded as the first full production assault rifle, borrowing heavily from the design and function of the German STG-44, it fires the intermediate caliber 7.62×39 round. Where 5.56×45 is the caliber of the Western world, 7.62×39 is the more recognizable caliber of the Eastern and developing world. The AK47 is heavier than the M-16 and fires a heavier round. It is less accurate and has a shorter range (300m effective verse the M-16s 500). It is the most common weapon of the entire Syrian Civil War and is fielded by ALL sides. It’s key selling point is that it requires very little maintenance, is very rugged, and can be cleaned with the bare minimum of tools. Very few actualAK47s exist as this was the name of the first prototypes and was only in production for a few years. The more widely fielded variants of the AK47 would be modified slightly for weight and aesthetics and go by the name AKM, made from stamped metal instead of milled. The AKM has many variants, nearly all of which can be found in Syria, including the underfolding and sidefolding stock variants, Chinese Type 56s with attached spike bayonet, and numerous more modern variants. AKs can be found in Syria from Russia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, China, Bulgaria, Egypt, and the occasional Iraqi “Tabuk” variant. It is fed by a 30 or 40 round magazine, although 75 round drums are commonplace.

AK74/AK74SU The AK-74 is the Russian response to the M-16. Chambered in 5.45×39 it is a high velocity small caliber round that has devastating effects on human tissue and decent penetration of armor. While most of the Eastern bloc either replaced or supplemented their AKMs with the AK74 this caliber never really caught on in the Middle East. It is fairly rare to see it in Syria, though it does come up occasionally. Most frequently it’s observed with the Syrian Army where general’s bodyguards carry the famed “Bin Laden gun”, the carbine variant AK-74SU (my personal favorite firearm of all time- just got one last month in semi-auto). The AK-74 features greater accuracy and longer range, while mechanically and aesthetically it is almost identical to the AKM. The recoil is negligible allowing quicker follow on shots and the lighter ammunition coupled with exclusively plastic/bakelite magazines means much more ammunition can be carried.

MACHINE GUNS

RPK the RPK is essentially an AK on steroids, and functions as a light machine gun. Firing the same 7.62x39mm round it is mechanically the same, but is beefed up to stand up to sustained automatic fire with a heavier and longer barrel, thicker receiver, club foot stock (easier to grip for automatic fire), bipods, and on some variants a carrying handle. It is intended to be fed by 40 round magazine or 75 round drum, though it will also take the AK 30 round magazine. It is slightly more accurate and has slightly longer range than the AKM.

PK/PKM The PK medium machine gun (also called a general purpose machine gun or GPMG) was developed to be a lightweight replacement for heavier WWII era machine guns. It is man portable though often is crewed by an assistant gunner. It fires the heavier 7.62x54R round used in the Mosin Nagant rifle and Dragunov/PSL marksman rifles. At just under 20 lbs unloaded it is actually very light for a medium machine gun (the Western M240/FN MAG weighs 27 lbs) and is the most commonly seen dedicated machine gun in Syria and again is used by ALL groups. It has a relatively low rate of fire compared to many other MMGs at roughly 650-700 rounds per minute. This has the benefit though of allowing a seasoned operator to squeeze off individual shots once they become accustomed to the trigger where a gun with a higher rate of fire cannot do this.

DShK the Soviet answer to the American M2 .50 cal (12.7x99mm) is the very similar DShK (pronounced- Doosh Kuh or Dooshk) in 12.7x108mm. This heavy machine gun functions as an anti-aircraft gun when mounted on a tripod, general purpose heavy machine gun against troops or light armored vehicles, and is often featured atop armored vehicles in the commanders cupola or coaxially mounted with the main gun (meaning it fires wherever the main gun is aimed). Far and away the most common heavy machine gun of the conflict, the DShK is commonly seen mounted in the back of pickup trucks and bongo trucks in an armored gun mount, in a setup commonly referred to as a “technical” (commercial pickup truck and heavy gun). This gun is incredibly powerful and has a range of up to 2000m. The penetrating power of this round makes it ideally for firing at troops behind cover and it is routinely observed being used to punch holes in the brick structures Syrian fighters use as firing points. It’s ability to punch through light armor and down aircraft (particularly helicopters) makes it a very useful weapon for insurgencies to level the playing field.

KPV 14.5 there is no American analog to this weapon, it is a Soviet heavy machine gun slightly heavier than the DShK, calibed in 14.5x114mm. Initially offered as an infantry weapon it was pulled from infantry service due to weight and repurposed as an anti-aircraft weapon and a tankers gun. In the Syrian conflict it fulfills the exact same role as the DShK, though less common. It is also found in double and quad mounts in which configuration it belongs to the ZPU family of anti-aircraft weapons (both towed and self-propelled).

MARKSMAN RIFLE

Dragunov/ and PSL While different weapons mechanically, they serve the same purpose, fire the same round, and function similarly. Due to constant misidentification I’m lumping them together. A purist would be irritated, but if you’re reading this, you’re not a purist. The Dragunov was the rifle that won a Soviet competition for a new highly accurate heavy caliber rifle. Often referred to as a “sniper” rifle, this nomenclature varies by nature. The West would consider the Dragunov a designated marksman rifle as it doesn’t fit the range and accuracy requirements of the West, but Eastern bloc nations consider it both a DM rifle and a sniper rifle (the official name even includes the word Снайперская or Sniper) depending on the role it is filling. Aesthetically similar to the AK, the Dragunov is mechanically different (while the PSL is essentially an AK on steroids chambered for a different caliber), firing the 7.62x54R round from a 10 round box magazine. It comes equipped with various types of optics, most notable the 4x PSO-1 scope. While not as accurate as Western DM or Sniper rifles, the Dragunov is the most commonly fielded marksman rifle in the Syrian conflict and in the hands of a skilled operator can be devastating at up to 700-800m.

GRENADES

F-1 Far and away the most commonly seen grenades in Syria (and much of the Middle East) the F-1 is a WWII era fragmentation grenade based loosely off the French grenade of the same name. Unlike in the movies, while grenades are incredibly lethal, fragmentation grenades do not cause massive flames and gaseous explosions, but rather a relatively minor explosion that sends shards of metal in all directions. Anyone unprotected within roughly 5m of the grenade is likely to die and anyone within 15m is likely to be wounded (fatal and wounding zones respectively). This grenade has the stereotypical/cartoon body style with pre-segmented metal to increase fragmentation.

RGD-5 the replacement for the F-1, the RGD-5 is more or less just a modernized F-1, adopting a smooth outer shell and a different (greater) explosive composition, it offers roughly the same degree of lethality and wounding as the F-1 while utilizing the same fuze. Very common among all parties in the conflict.

ARTILLERY/MORTARS (note- there are MANY types of artillery used in Syria. I will only address the five I think are most common)

D-30 Probably the most commonly used non-Western artillery piece in the world, the D-30 is found in arsenals from North Korea to African rebels to both the Syrian army and opposition. A 122mm towed howitzer it is capable of firing accurately (with a trained crew) over 15 kilometers. It can accept a variety of ammunition and is relatively easy to use, with instructions for use available in both English and Russian with a simple google search. An untrained crew can get decent enough to shell an area (say several hundred meters square) and a trained crew could put rounds within 10m of their target. While normally it would be crewed by 5-7 people, in a pinch a single user can operate it (very slowly), useful for reducing the number of people to be killed in case of counter-battery fire. In Syria, it is quite often used by the opposition as a line of site weapon, dropping the elevation and firing rounds directly at a building or fortification.

D-74 similar to the D-30 in that it fires a 122mm projectile, the D-74 is a field gun instead of a howitzer and fires a heavier projectile a further distance (up to 23km). No longer produced, it was the mainstay of Soviet artillery corps for year (as well as heavier 152mm guns). Similar to the D-30 it requires roughly the same crew but can be operated (slowly by one). It is employed the same as the D-30 and is found in the hands of both government and opposition forces.

BM-37 82mm mortar the types of mortars in use in Syria are too many to enumerate but the most commonly found are variants of the Soviet 82mm mortar. Much like the D-30, variations of 82mm mortar systems and their ammunition can be found all over world. Where artillery relies on other direct fire, at close range, or long distance by firing at a relatively low arcing trajectory, mortar fire is intended for much closer targets and fires at an extremely high trajectory (this diagram should help explain ). This makes mortars ideal for dealing with targets that are in “dead” space, or area that cannot be hit by direct fire or the lower arc of artillery. Mortars are also generally light and easy to emplace making them ideal for urban warfare where they can be quickly moved.

BM-30 Smerch The Smerch (Russian: Смерч or “Whirlwind) is rocket artillery known as MLRS (Multiple Rocket Launcher System). What makes the Smerch noteworthy is for one, only government forces have them in any great number and for two, they are widely used to fire cluster munitions of anti-personnel or anti-tank mines. The SAA will use these systems when they have opposition groups about to break and retreat to fire minefields as an area denial weapon forcing the routed troops to either turn and fight at a disadvantageous position or risk death through the minefield. Unlike conventional minefields, there is no ability to map where these mines fall so collection of the munitions is risky and many unintentional deaths will occur afterwards. The Smerch is vehicle mounted and has a maximum range of 70km but accuracy peters off as range increases. It fires twelve 300mm rockets.

BM-21 Grad similar to the Smerch in function, the Grad is a smaller (122mm) truck mounted MRLS but by far the most common in the Syrian conflict. It is a 40 barrel launcher that can be salvoed at 2 rockets per second (20 seconds for all 40) or fired individually. Range is roughly 20km. Those familiar with WWII may compare these to Soviet Katyusha’s or German Nebelwerfer. Essentially, it is a (usually) truck drawn system with racks of rockets on back that are volley fired at a target (using a relatively low arcing trajectory like conventional artillery).

ANTI AIRCRAFT ARTILLERY

ZU-23-2 widely fielded as both an anti-aircraft gun and a direct fire weapon mounted on the back of heavier trucks, this double barreled 23mm autocannon fires an incredibly heavy round that is devesating to low flying aircraft, helicopters, medium skinned armored vehicles, dismounted infantry, and even troops behind thick cover like concrete apartment blocks. Intended for use as an AA gun, it quickly found dual use in a ground roll and that is where it is most commonly observed in Syria. 23 refers to the caliber and 2 refers to the number of barrels. Most useful in single shot where the heavy round can put to good use chipping away at defensive positions, in full auto it can fire as fast as 2000 rounds per minute (though in reality it cannot be loaded that fast). It’s effective firing range is over 2500 meters making it an ideal standoff weapon when your enemy only has small arms available, allowing for support by fire positions to suppress enemy infantry as your own infantry maneuvers on the enemy. It is common practice for this weapon to come with spare barrel to replace after heavy firing. After 100 rounds each barrel is considered too hot for further firing and is generally replaced to avoid cookoffs. The barrels are rated at between 8,000-10,000 rounds a piece before needing to be discarded. It is unlikely that this actually occurs in Syria and the barrels are probably in continuous use well after their service life.

ZSU-23-4 Shilka Much like the ZU-23-2, the Shilka utilizes the same 23mm autocannos, but mounts four instead of two and is self-propelled in a turret on a nondescript tank hull. Combined with a small radar set, the Shilka is absolutely devastating to low flying aircraft, with double the rate of fire of the ZU-23-2 (double the guns) coming in at nearly 4,000 rounds per minute. As with most other anti-air artillery however, it finds it’s biggest use against other medium skinned armored targets, infantry, and of course in the urban setting destroying fortifications and the cover infantry use to hide behind. The knowledge of this weapons existence in a given environment is enough to ensure that SyAAF helicopters will not come in range, and it’s armored hull means it can be used much closer to enemy forces with protection against small arms fire, though is still vulnerable to anti-tank weapons.

ZPU As referenced earlier, the ZPU family of weapons consists of towed and self-propelled double and quad mounted KPV 14.7mm heavy machine guns. Their functionality is the same as that of the ZU and ZSU family but with a smaller caliber.

MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense Systems)

SA-7 Grail The Grail is one of the first Soviet produced MANPADS to gain widespread acceptance and is among the most common such weapon in the world. Utilizing a rudimentary passive infrared tracking system, the Grail has a range of 4,200m and a maximum altitude of 2,300m making it primarily useful against helicopters or low flying aircraft. The SAA owns an substantial number of these weapons but exact numbers are unknown. An unknown quantity are believed to have been captured by opposition members, but I could not find definitive proof on that.

[SA-16/18/24 Igla] A more advanced form of MANPADS the Igla is in use by the SAA and is rumored to have been captured by opposition groups. With a longer range and altitude, (5,200m range and 3,500m altitude) the Igla is useful against a wider array of aerial threats including drones, jets, and nearly all helicopters as well as faster than previous MANPADS at roughly Mach 2. Some versions have significant resistance to countermeasures including flares and jamming. Other improvements include a secondary charge to set off any remaining fuel and a vastly improved infrared seeker.

FN-6 the Flying Crossbow is a Chinese MANPADS intended for use against helicopters (or the rare low flying jet) with a range of 6,000m and a maxium altitude of 3,500 meters. These weapons are believed to have fallen into the hands of ISIL by way of Sudan who sold them to opposition groups in Syria. At least two Iraqi helicopters are believed to have been downed by the FN-6. This weapon utilizes infrared homing to find and hit its target and is designed to ignore flares, though heavy flare employment may defeat it.

ANTI TANK WEAPONS (covering ATGM, recoilless rifles, and dumb rockets)

SPG-9 The SPG-9 is a Soviet man portable, tripod or vehicle mounted 73mm recoilless rifle. A recoilless rifle is essentially a heavy caliber weapon that fires a large round long distance utilizing a long barreled tube that negates recoil by dumping the hot gasses out the back (making behind the gun a deadly place to be). In Syria, this weapon is used to fire high explosive rounds at armored vehicles and punch holes in covered positions. Substantially more accurate and with a longer range (800m) than handheld anti-tank weapons like the RPG-7, the SPG-9 is commonly mounted on the back of pickup trucks in the “techincal” manner described with heavy machine guns. The SPG-9 is the replacement for the older B-10 recoilless rifle

B-10 Less common than the SPG-9 the B-10 is the older recoilless rifle in use with Soviet forces following the Second World War. It is functionally the same as the SPG-9 although the range is substantially less (400m) and the caliber is different (82mm). Ammunition for this weapon is much harder to source than the more plentiful 73mm ammunition for the SPG-9.

RPG-7 Arguably the most widely used anti-tank weapon in the world, the RPG-7 was designed to be incredibly easy to operate and maintain, is available in a wide range of munitions, and can be found in the arsenals of nation states, insurgencies, and even criminal gangs. The RPG-7 functions similar to a recoilless rifle, in that it funnels much of the explosive gases out the back of the weapon, but unlike the SPG-9 and B-10, the RPG-7 utilizes a “booster” to punch the warhead out of the barrel and slightly away from the operator before the main motor kicks in and speeds the weapon up to it’s maxium speed (roughly 300m a second) far enough away from the operator that it doesn’t incinerate them ( here is a diagram that shows the pieces ). Available in numerous anti-armor variations including tandem charge to defeat reactive are slat armor, the most common warheads are the very recognizable PG-7 anti-armor and the OG-7V anti-personnel (fragmentation) warhead. The weapon is highly susceptible to cross winds and has a very limited effective range (200m). It is occasionally given greater range when meant to be used for harassing fire where accuracy is less important than constant barrage, by elevating the muzzle and arcing the round, function as a (wildly inaccurate) man portable artillery piece). The RPG-7 is most commonly found with either a 2.7x telescopic site or a night vision device. The most common anti-armor weapon in Syria.

RPG-18 Nearly a direct copy of the US M72 LAW, the RPG-18 in a single shot 62mm disposable anti-tank weapon. It is substantially lighter (4 lbs to the RPG-7’s 15 lbs) and less unwieldly than the RPG-7, which allows it to be carried by numerous members of a squad instead of having a single dedicated RPG-7 gunner who may be killed or have his weapon disabled. This weapon is less common in Syria but still occasionally observed. It’s maximum range is 200m with a timed self-destruct mechanism that prevents it being fired being this distance. It is substantially slower then the RPG-7 (110m per second) but fills the operational needs in terms of armor penetration. It cannot be reloaded.

RPG-29 One of the most modern Eastern bloc man portable anti-armor weapons, the RPG-29 is probably the most lethal man-portable system commonly used in Syria. Longer and heavier than the RPG-7, it is reloadable, and fires a variety of 105mm munitions including anti-armor tandem warheads and thermobaric rounds for anti-personnel use. It can be fired from the shoulder with an effective range of 500m (2.5x that of the RPG-7) or from a tripod assembly (less common in Syria) for 800m. A wide variety of optics are available for it and it is among one of the most highly prized weapons in the Syrian conflict, capable of single shot mobility or catastrophic kills on more advanced tanks like the T-72.

M-79 The M79 is a Yugoslav made 90mm anti-tank weapon, provided to opposition members by third party groups. Unlike the front-loading RPG-7, the Osa is loaded by screwing a warhead into the back of the weapon. It is functional very similar to the RPG-29, has a 350m effective range, can accept a variety of warheads, and commonly comes equipped with a 3.5x telescopic site.

9k111 Fagot The Soviet Fagot (English: Bassoon) is a wire guided anti-tank missile, effective up to 2,500m with a 3.5lb warhead. After firing, the user guides the weapon to it’s target by a series of commands sent via electricity through the wire, allowing the user to correct moving and follow a moving target. This weapon exists in Syrian arsenals but is not as commonly seen in this conflict.

9m113 Konkurs The Konkurs was developed alongside the Fagot as a heavier warhead wire guided missile with a longer range (roughly 4,000m). It has a slightly faster speed (200m per second) and is comparable in many regards to the US TOW missile system. This weapon system is fairly common among all actors in the Syrian Civil War.

9m133 Kornet The heaviest of all Soviet crew served anti tank guided missiles, the Konkurs is not wire guided but rather laser guided. The user simply keeps the target visually sighted and the Konkurs flies along a laser pathway to the target, in a similar manner to the Fagot and Konkurs. With a 15lb warhead and a range of 5,000m the Kornet is one of the most lethal anti-tank weapons available in Syria.

TOW and Toophan The American TOW missile (and Iranian copy the Toophan, field by Hezbollah and known to have been captured by Jabhat al Nusra) is regarded as the most accurate wire guided missile fielded today. In use by numerous militaries around the world, both from a static position, from a helicopter and mounted on armored vehicle, the TOW missile launcher pushes a 13 lb warhead up to 4,200 meters and is capable of taking out the heaviest armored threats in Syria. The TOW and it’s Iranian copy the Toophan are often confused for each other as they are aesthetically nearly identical and often only identifiable on close inspection.

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