Demand for the guns is so high, factory has shifted to civilian production.
IZHEVSK, RUSSIA - The nickname of this town, home of the factory that makes Kalashnikov rifles, is the "Armory of Russia." Over the years, it has armed a good number of other countries, too, as the lathes and presses of the Izhevsk Machine Works clanged around the clock to forge AK-47s and similar guns for insurgents and armies around the world.
But these days, many of Izhevsk's weapons are headed somewhere else: the United States.
Despite the gun's violent history -- or perhaps because of it -- U.S. hunters and gun enthusiasts are snapping up tens of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles and shotguns. Demand is so brisk that the factory has shifted its focus from military to civilian manufacture over the past two years. U.S. sales of the civilian versions, sold under the brand name Saiga, rose by 50 percent last year, according to officials at the factory, known as Izhmash.
Overall, the United States is the world's biggest market for civilian guns -- partly because of its comparatively lenient gun ownership laws.
Russian weapons accounted for a tiny portion of the $4.3 billion U.S. gun market last year, but Saiga sales rose far faster than the overall growth rate of 14 percent in 2011.
"I bought a Saiga because it was made in Russia, right beside its big brothers, the AKs," said Josh Laura, a garage door installer and former Marine in Maryville, Tenn. "No rifle in the world has been as reliable as this one."
Selling rifles to Americans and other civilians is fundamental to the efforts to save Izhmash, which has made Kalashnikovs since soon after their invention in 1947 but is now struggling.
Quality and versatility
Demand for new military guns in the Kalashnikov family has evaporated. Simple, durable and relatively inexpensive to manufacture, about 100 million have been produced over the decades, or about one for every 70 people on earth. Inventories are overflowing, used AK weapons have flooded the market, and cheap knockoffs are stealing many customers.
For U.S. gun enthusiasts, an authentic Russian-made Kalashnikov is appealing not only for its historical importance, but also because of its reliability.
"The quality and versatility far surpassed anything else on the market," said Terry Sandlin, an electrician in Scottsburg, Ind., who has three Saigas -- two shotguns and a rifle.
Although the civilian versions cannot fire bursts of bullets with a single trigger pull, it otherwise shares many features of military guns. Izhmash works with an importer who modifies weapons to add pistol grips or large-capacity magazines in states where those features are legal.
Maksim V. Kuzyuk, a board member of Izhmash and former chief executive, said he studied the global market for small arms before deciding to focus on the United States.
"Typically, an American family will have five or six short- and long-barreled guns," said Kuzyuk, a former director of the Boston Consulting Group in Moscow. "Some collectors have more than 20 guns."
And in the United States, Izhmash cannot be underpriced by Chinese competitors. The federal government has forbidden most imports of Chinese handguns and rifles since 1994.
Selling Saigas in the United States is integral to the enterprise's evolving business model of making single-shot civilian guns to occupy workers and equipment in between government orders for fully automatic assault rifles. About 70 percent of the factory's output is now civilian rifles. Of the civilian arms, about 40 percent are exported to the United States.
That means U.S. consumers are now buying about the same number of Kalashnikov-style weapons from Izhmash as the Russian army and police.
Although AK pattern rifles are used every day in global conflicts, very few are bought from Izhmash because of the ready availability of used guns as well as licensed and bootleg copies. The Russian army isn't planning many new orders until the new AK-12 is widely available.
The sales of civilian rifles in the United States are helping to pay for the factory's retooling for the AK-12, ultimately making it less expensive for the Kremlin.
Owen Martin, owner of Snake Hound Machine, a gunsmith in Manchester, N.H., that specializes in Kalashnikov rifles, said that, by the same token, Russian military orders were helping keep down the price of AKs he and others buy in the United States.
"It means our guns are cheaper," he said. "Nobody perceives it as unpatriotic."
U.S. gun sales rose sharply after President Obama's election in 2009 and the onset of the recession. Sales of semiautomatic rifles, in particular, benefited from concern that Obama would seek to more tightly regulate rifles with features resembling military weapons, according to Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Izhmash benefits from U.S. gun laws that are looser than in its home market. In Russia, consumers can buy a long-barreled firearm only with a police permit, which requires a clean criminal sheet, a diploma from a gun safety course and a medical certificate of sanity. In the United States, laws vary by state, but buyers often need to clear only an FBI background check.