NOTE: This article is the property of SWAT magazine and is posted here with their permission. It is copyrighted and may not be copied or used in any way without the permission of SWAT magazine.
Guns and Gear of the Civilian Contractor in Iraq
Being a Civilian Contractor providing security has to be one of the most unique occupations ever. The term “mercenary” gets thrown around quite a bit and although it may technically be correct it doesn’t adequately describe the professionalism of most of the people in the industry. Yes there are guys who are doing this purely for the money but so are the folks flipping hamburgers and they don’t get to carry a machine gun everyday. This is really an historic event no matter if you are here to put notches in your gun belt, make some money, test your skills, or soak up the sunshine and fresh air.
The life of the Civilian Contractor is glamorized quite a bit more than it deserves. Although teams do get into scrapes from time to time the good ones spend as much time avoiding confrontations as they do training for them. The bad ones just spend a lot of time picking up broken pieces. It is an unforgiving environment on men and equipment and this article will give some of my opinions on the do’s and don’ts for equipment selection.
Civilian Contracting in the security field is at times very scary, tiresome, boring, exhilarating, dangerous, monotonous, laughable, and above all rewarding jobs a person could ever have. I am going to share my perspectives as a former SWAT Cop and current tactical trainer (www.TacticalResponse.com) about the guns and gear of the typical Civilian Contractor. I have no military background and not only do I not know what color the boathouse in Hereford is, I don’t know where the lake is either.
Besides the ever popular “How many people have you killed?” the question “What kind of guns do you carry?” is usually second. As for personal weapons most of the teams I see carry 7.62x39 AKs of various origins or an MP-5 as their long guns and typically a 9mm Browning Hi-Power clone of some sort for a handgun. Other common long guns are FALs and G3s from less than stellar third world manufacturers. Why so many AKs? Because those are the guns that are available and there are plenty to go around.
Handguns like Tariqs and CZs can also be found but the locally manufactured version of the Hi-Power is by far the most common. Most of the Hi-Power clones floating around are not much more than scrap metal. They were not high quality when they were new and the years have taken their toll on them mechanically. Magazines for pistols are rare. I assume the military only issued one magazine per gun so what you find are boxes of Hi-Powers with no magazines because guys have taken extra mags to fill their pouches. You will see crates and crates of useless handguns because of robbed magazines. In stark contrast there are more AK mags in this country than grains of sand.
I have seen pistols carried in every conceivable manner here. Tactical “drop leg” holsters are by far the most popular and many PSD operators wear them close to the front of their leg instead of on the side so they are easier to reach while seated since they are most likely to be engaged or shoot back from a moving vehicle. The Safariland 6004 is the most sought after of the style and my personal choice for tactical missions. Locally produced leather shoulder rigs are also popular but because most of the users have never worn them, nor have the makers, they are typically adjusted improperly, or cannot be adjusted correctly because of design flaws. Many of the Iraqis that carry pistols just stick them in the waistband of their pants. They don’t chamber them so they feel it is safe. I have personally used Blade-Tech belt holsters in the U.S, Central America, Europe, and now the Middle East. When my pistol is not in my 6004 it is in my Blade-Tech and I have no regrets.
As usual the AKs work. It seems that no matter how beaten, rusted, and abused these guns are they continue to function. I thought I might see some of the 5.45mm AKs in theater but I haven’t yet. The street price for AKs is from two to four hundred dollars depending on quality. When my contract started we were issued new AKs and plenty of magazines and ammo. I never felt as if I had been slighted because I didn’t have an M-4 and many teams are a long way from supply lines and having AKs and readily available ammunition is not a bad thing.
Other common indigenous weapons are the PKM which is a belt fed 7.62x54 that falls into the General Purpose Machine Gun category and the RPK that is drum or magazine fed Squad Automatic Weapon equivalent. Like their AK counterpart these guns just keep running. Both are highly sought after because they are cheap and reliable. PKMs can be had for less than one thousand dollars and RPKs for less than four hundred dollars.
Aside from the locally procured firearms you mostly see AR-15s in some type of short barreled configuration and Glock model 19s. I really don’t mind AKs and I have carried one, as well as an RPK, here many times. My handgun of choice however is a Glock 19 and I was glad to get one in country. I know there are many folks who don’t care for Glocks but I am a true believer in them and in particular the Model 19. They are unaffected by the conditions in Iraq and they continue to function. I went to the range one day after neglecting to clean my Glock for some time. When I fired the first shot dust seemed to explode out of every crack in the gun and it just kept working.
There is a current trend for ultra short barreled ARs in theatre. They certainly have a “cool guy” factor. It is my personal opinion that if you can use a 14.5 inch barreled rifle you should. If you must go shorter than that I do not recommend any less than 11.5 inches, not one inch shorter. I have seen problem after problem with short barreled rifles in country. While weapon reliability is my primary concern when muzzle velocities on ARs drop below their optimum threshold they loose their tendency for projectile fragmentation and cavitation. That makes them about as potent as .22 Long Rifles.
You see one of two versions of ARs in-country. One of my team mates, a former Marine, insists on the first type. It is plain with no accessories and he wouldn’t even let Chesty Puller add one item to it. I fall into category number two. I have a rail system with “all kinds of junk” bolted to it. I can’t help it, I am a “gadget guy” and I always have been. The gadgets I use however are tested and retested prior to use. My AR has not failed for any reason and it has been under hard use at the range as well as in practical application.
Although it is time consuming and complicated some companies have figured out the secret combination to the legal importation of guns. Our team is issued Glock 19s and Bushmaster M-4s. My personal Glock 19 and M-4 are fitted with XS Big Dot sights. I have a Streamlight M-6 on my Glock as well. Having quality modern equipment to do the job with is great. Aside from the personal weapons we have new FN M-249 Squad Automatic Weapons, and FN M-240 General Purpose Machine guns.
My team has had 100% reliability with our Bushmasters and Glocks. Our FN belt feds have been horrible. After a disastrous break in session at the range we took them to a professional in country armorer. It was his personal opinion that the guns were not assembled with new Mil-Spec parts inside. Even after the replacement of the questionable parts we have had two guns malfunction at the worst possible times. I will be sticking to my RPK and PKM from now on.
Nearly every manufacturer of nylon gear is represented here in Iraq. Mostly you see gear from Blackhawk Products group followed by everyone else in a distant second place. Being a gear aficionado I have been able to spot some of the specialty gear and the super high quality stuff make by the smaller companies like SOE, Specter Gear and Blue Force Gear. I always want to walk over and strike up a conversation but most of the Civilian Contractors that work security were issued a permanent scowl in their orientation apparently.
There is also a lot of nylon gear in country made from manufacturers using questionable materials and manufacturing techniques. There are also small “mom and pop” type sewing shops popping up to try to make gear. It is horrible and is typically made by people who know what it is supposed to look like and yet with no concept of how it will be used. While teaching the handgun portion in a PSD class filled with Iraqis their holsters literally fell apart after two days on the range. Total junk!
The most intriguing body armor I have seen is the type the British Military wears. It has a small rifle plate that is offset to the left. It is too far to the left in my opinion. Most people do not grasp human anatomy very well and many think your heart is where you put your hand when you recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Although it is indeed slightly to the left it is, for tactical purposes, in the center of the chest. Body armor should have robust rifle plates that are large enough to cover your vital organs. This is certainly a case where bigger is better.
Plate carriers are also popular. Many people tend to think you only need plates so that is what they wear. Some civilian contractors not in the security field must wear body armor for general safety reasons. I have seen quite a few of these “office types” strolling around with their plate carriers on but no plates in them. I used to have trouble getting my officers to wear body armor but this mindset in a combat zone is just silly.
I personally recommend operators avoid plate carriers. Even though you are most likely to be shot by a rifle in Iraq soft full wrap armor still provides valuable protection. One of our teams got hit and full wrap soft armor would have prevented some internal trauma from bullet fragments because the AK rounds decelerated after going through his car. He is replacing his plate carrier now. A full body armor system like the Warhammer or RAV (Releasable Assault Vest) by Paraclete also allows you more “real estate” to attach smoke, hand grenades, and other implements of destruction. Full wrap armor is too hot you say? I am sure it is hotter in hell.
My personal body armor is a Warhammer. It is in my opinion the best body armor carrier for anyone in harm’s way that carries an M-4. It has 6 internal magazine pouches and is covered with M.O.L.L.E. webbing to attach a plethora of pockets and pouches available from a myriad of manufacturers.
Most everyone in an occupation that has them carrying a gun appreciates new gear. It is important to realize that Mindset, Tactics, and Skill outweigh the importance of high speed low drag equipment. Many people spend much more money on gear than practice ammunition or training. That doesn’t mean you can skimp on equipment though! Your gear has to be able to withstand a beating and a lifetime warranty while standing in the middle of the desert with a piece of broken “Gucci gear” will not console you. Hopefully we all understand that in the end it is the Mindset that makes the Warrior but gear that works makes him a more effective Warrior.
James “Jay” Hunt, a member of the author’s team and the newest member of the Tactical Response cadre, was killed in an ambush in Baghdad Iraq April 20th, 2005. Rest in Peace Brother.