Supported by a small arms cottage industry, Darra Adam Khel is a centre of the illegal arms trade in Pakistan. Darra (meaning pass), as it is universally known, is a unique place and much has been written about it. It has also featured in the international news as well as documentaries. However behind the façade of shops selling weapons and ammunition is the population of a small town, most of them desperately poor, trying to make the only living they know in a trade that is outside the law and in its current form will remain marginalized and undeveloped. This became obvious to me when I first set foot in Darra 20 years ago. I wasn’t the first from my family to have entered the pass of the Adam Khel branch of the Afridis. In 1950 my father was commanding the Kohat Brigade and would have frequently driven through it to the headquarters of 9 (Frontier) Division in Peshawar but it was probably less notorious then.
In 1999, I was assigned the responsibility of finding export markets for our defense industry and in the process my organization also explored the potential of the smaller manufacturers in the private sector. A brigadier on my staff had a novel idea: that we evaluate the potential of the arms manufacturers in Darra. In the years before the dark cloud of militancy spread over the Tribal Areas, Darra was safe. Though the streets occasionally resonated to the sound of guns being tested by customers on the roadside, Darra had a strong Jirga [council] who banished anyone creating trouble. Therefore we were escorted by only a pair of soldiers from the Frontier Constabulary to ward off curious bystanders and Awas Khan, a retired Afridi JCO from the brigadier’s regiment who knew some of the arms merchants.
Darra was like any other small town that had grown out of a village. Astride the road connecting Peshawar to Kohat were shops selling groceries, fresh and dried fruit, vegetables, cloth, hardware and household goods. The only difference was that closer to the town centre, every third or fourth shop displayed arms and ammunition and the narrow and not-so-clean alleys were lined with small workshops manufacturing wooden stocks and butts, bolts, trigger groups, as well as the processes that go into manufacturing rifles and pistols. Walking down one of these alleys, I passed by workers handling dangerous chemicals for electroplating with no rubber gloves or goggles; others were tempering bolts and barrels in coal-fired open furnaces and inhaling poisonous carbon monoxide; and yet others were inserting primers into cartridge cases with a punch and hammer, seemingly oblivious to the danger of losing their fingers, or worse, being blinded if a primer exploded. The alley reeked of chemicals, low grade sulfuric coal and human waste.
I stopped by a room where a man was sitting comfortably on the ground surrounded by brass cases, bullets and a small pile of gunpowder that had been extracted from Russian 23 mm antiaircraft rounds. This type of powder is unsuitable for small arms ammunition because it has too much explosive power and is highly corrosive. Filling gunpowder into a cartridge case is an exact science – a few grains less or more affects accuracy as well as recoil. I enquired through a translator as to how he measured the correct amount. He didn’t, as was obvious from his reply. “I line the cases up in this box,” he said showing me a wooden tray in which 100 empty bass cases were standing upright. “Then I pour the barood [powder] with this funnel,” which he had made from an empty cigarette box, “and I give the box a gentle shake that levels the barood equally in all the cases.” I gave him a pat and a smile and moved on. I was disappointed to see that the entire process was very rudimentary and that he was not even using simple presses and dyes that gun enthusiasts in the West use to reload their own ammunition.
The larger workshops with heavier machinery were on the outskirts of the town but not all the manufacturing took place in Darra e.g. the machining of the aluminum bodies of modern pistols like the 9mm Beretta M9 were done on CAD machines in Sialkot and Gujranwala. By the end of the day it was obvious that it would be an uphill task to transform this cottage industry to a level where it could compete in the international market against hundreds of manufacturers. The Turkish small arms industry alone has close to 136 large and small enterprises in the government and private sector, manufacturing quality small arms.
It wasn’t that the artisans lacked the capability. They could not only copy weapons to near perfection, they could also re-engineer a design – e.g. an AK-47 could be replicated so as to fire shotgun ammunition. The barrel of a Soviet 7.62 mm Degtyaryov machinegun could be adapted for a high quality hunting rifle and the wooden butts of shotguns made from roots of walnut trees were a piece of art, as also the engraving on the barrels and receivers. The issue was the absence of quality control. The international market demands “drop in parts” i.e. any component should be able to fit another weapon of similar make and type but in Darra, the gunsmiths sitting with their pliers, files and vices, worked the parts to fit with a final tap of a hammer. The weapons looked like the originals and worked fine but they were not up to international standards and I doubt if they could absorb sustained firing. The electroplating was also poor and the finish wore off after some use.
It wasn’t that the artisans lacked the capability. They could not only copy weapons to near perfection, they could also re-engineer a design
My organization also faced a dilemma in assisting an industry that was not regulated, or even legal for that matter. Homemade AKs and TTs had no potential for export and any effort in improving their quality or material could not be justified. In spite of this, we obtained funding from the Export Promotion Bureau and sent a group of manufacturers to one of the large gun fairs in Germany. Chaperoned by the brigadier and Awas Khan, the Afridis went in their traditional garb with big, well starched turbans and were quite a sensation.
When they arrived back loaded with brochures of world-famous gun makers, I asked them about their experience and what they had learnt. “Hum to kuain ke mendak hai. Pehli daffa pata chala hai ke finish kia hoti hai.” [We are like frogs in a well whose vision of the world is just the narrow view of the sky. For the first time we understood how weapons should be crafted and finished].
My organization suggested to the government of KPK [then NWFP] to form cooperatives of the arms manufacturers, just as the Turks had done, and assist them through various methods including establishing a proofing house for testing and certifying barrels and parts. While they were receptive to the idea, they were not prepared to extend support until the arms manufacturers moved to Peshawar where they could be monitored and controlled. But the traders of Darra were reluctant because they did not pay for electricity.
The business in manufacturing replicas picked up and we also found international buyers for muzzle loaders attractively finished with inlay and engraving. Darra also had a potential for tourism – gun enthusiasts who would pay a price for visiting the Arms Bazaar
We then had a small breakthrough. I received an unusual request from the army to find an international buyer for some millions of rounds of .303 ammunition. I wondered if in this age of more sophisticated ammunition calibers and weapons, there might be anyone interested in this obsolete caliber. However, within a few months we were in contact with Val Forgett, the owner of Gibbs Rifle Company, who was in the business of selling vintage weapons and replicas in the United States. In his visit to Pakistan, I learnt from Val that many gun enthusiasts and collectors in USA owned and fired .303 caliber weapons. Val did a sample test of the ammunition, was satisfied with a failure rate of 2-3 rounds in 1,000 and purchased the whole consignment.
The one place that I knew would interest Val was Darra and with some trepidation he agreed to accompany me after I told him that foreigners from Islamabad frequently visited the town to purchase made-to-order shotguns and sporting rifles with intricate hand engraving. One of the most enterprising dealers in Darra was Shoaib, a “Pass” Afridi with a sharp business sense. After a round of the arms shops in the bazaar, he invited us to his hujra [house] on the outskirts where in a lovely small garden surrounded by high walls, he had laid out an array of weapons and armoury. Apart from Israeli Uzis, Soviet AK-47s and Dragunov Sniper Rifles, there was a mouthwatering array of older weapons including German 9 mm Mauser Broomhandle pistols and Mauser 8 mm rifles that the Afghan Army was equipped with after the Second World War. There were also US manufactured weapons of the same period including .38 mm Walther PPKs and .45 caliber Colt 1911 Pistols, and .45 mm Thompson submachineguns with big drum magazines like the ones used by the gangsters on the streets of Chicago during the days of Prohibition. In between were the odd French Ingram submachine gun and the British Sten gun. However, what Val was particularly interested in were vintage weapons dating back to the early 1900s and older, that the British India Army was equipped with, like the Martini–Henry, Martini–Enfield and Lee–Enfield rifles. Except for a few rare originals on the market, the rest were all “Pass copies”, i.e. manufactured in the workshops in Darra and elsewhere in the Frontier during the years that the Tribals were contesting the British India Army. Val was willing to import as many of these replicas into the States as possible.
He arrived at an agreement with some of the larger arms dealers whom we knew could deliver – and they scoured the Tribal Areas, the settled districts of KPK and even as far down south as Sindh for replicas. They “smelt” a large stock in the armory of the Jam of Lasbela, but couldn’t get access. Over the next few months, they managed to acquire a sizeable number, which were stripped, refurbished, attractively packed and loaded into containers. We than ran into the problem of getting permission to export in spite of an import permit from the US Department of Commerce that Val had arranged. The objection was from our Archaeology Department who balked at the idea of “antique” weapons being exported. They appreciated what we were trying to do and wanted to help but were constrained by the rules. Finally we managed to convince them that the weapons were replicas (and not genuine antiques) by showing them the difference in their marking with those on the originals. The replicas were poorly marked and in most cases the year of manufacture stamped on them did not correlate to the stamp of the cypher of the reigning British monarch. Before being sold in the US, Val had the weapons deactivated because they were too dangerous to fire.
The business in manufacturing replicas picked up and we also found international buyers for muzzle loaders attractively finished with inlay and engraving. Darra also had a potential for tourism – gun enthusiasts who would pay a price for visiting the Arms Bazaar and an opportunity for firing a variety of weapons especially of Soviet designs that had flooded the market at the end of the war in Afghanistan. In fact we organized two very successful day tours of Darra by groups of foreigners from Islamabad. Shoaib was a great salesman and put on his best. The visitors handled an array of new and vintage weapons laid out for display and fired a variety of Soviet era weapons into a hill side behind Shoaib’s hujra. The highlight was a firing display with a 30mm Grenade Launcher and a 23mm Heavy Machinegun. In the best Pashtun tradition, the tour ended with a sumptuous lunch of local cuisine.
Our effort was to gradually shift the cottage industry in Darra away from the illegal arms trade but the Coalition vs Taliban conflict intensified along with a demand for lethal weapons. The shops in Darra now started displaying British Bullpup, Italian Beretta AR70/90 and American M4 rifles, German MP5s and Israeli Uzi submachine guns, and a variety of other modern firearms, mostly from Afghanistan but some off the backend of containers transiting through Pakistan to Kabul. However, vintage weapons were still in demand in the streets of Kabul as “Khyber Pass Copies” and purchased by American soldiers as souvenirs.
Darra subsequently went through bad times. Off and on the militants seized control. Its streets and alleys became a battleground when the security forces went in and the market was forced to close a number of times. Sadly, Shoaib got caught in the crossfire and died a tragic death but his brothers continued the business. I haven’t been back to visit Darra, but I read that the industry revived and is back to manufacturing relatively cheap and low standard copies of AK-47s and TT Pistols, as well as pump-action shotguns for security companies. However on order and at a price, they can also manufacture the latest American M-16 rifle as well as high quality shotguns – and the hand engraving is still superb.
With the merger of the erstwhile Tribal Areas, the future of Darra is uncertain but maybe the solution lies in it reverting to manufacturing vintage and antique weapons and related memorabilia for the international market.
Whenever I hear about Darra, I am reminded of a particular visit from Shoaib. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, he said with an impish smile, “Mere pass kuch hai.” [I have something]. “What is it?” I enquired. “It’s called Blowpipe”, he replied. It was a British shoulder-fired surface-to-air (SAM) missile that was supplied to the Mujahideen even before the Stingers. With a straight face I asked him “How many?” “One launcher and five missiles,” he replied. “How much?” I enquired. He quoted USD 5,000 for the launcher and USD 1,700 per missile. “And what am I going to do with this weapon?” I asked. He suggested innocently that our military factories could copy them for our army. During the Falkland War of 1982, British troops fired 99 Blowpipes but downed only two aircraft – including one of their own Harriers. Their soldiers were of the opinion that it was more dangerous to friend than to foe. I paused and then asked him, “Have you heard of Guantanamo Bay?” “Kha Ji!” [Yes] he replied. “The Americans are trying to recover the Stingers that they supplied to the Mujahideen,” I continued, “and if they come to know that you are selling SAMs, that is where you will end up.” He looked troubled. “The weapon is obsolete,” I explained. “Find a deep well and throw the lot in”.
“Kha ji! Kha ji!” he exclaimed and backed out of my office.