The Afghan Mujahideen’s ‘Poison-Bullet’ – Then and Now

Updated: 1 day ago

The 5.45×39mm intermediate round is of course not new, it has been around since the early 70’s when it was developed in Russia for the new AK project, later called the AK-74. This potent round was nicknamed the poison-bullet by Mujahideen in Afghanistan, during the Soviet-Afghan conflict of 1979-1989, due to its tremendous wounding effects on its target. Since then, the round has only gained in popularity within the Pak-Afghan region whilst other areas of the former Soviet-Union have moved away to different cartridges such as the NATO standard 5.56×45mm. The venerable 5.45 round is still in use by a small number of militaries, most notably the Russians.


Fig. 1.1. Front face: Darra made 5.45×39mm ammunition. (Image source: Khyber Abdullah collection)


Fig. 1.2. Front face: Darra made 5.45×39mm ammunition alongside recovered spent cases from same sample. (Image source: Khyber Abdullah collection)

The 5.45×39mm round itself is called Kalakov within Pakistan and Afghanistan. This also is used interchangeably with AK-patterns which utilise the cartridge apart from the Krinkov as this refers to any short AK-pattern self-loading carbine, that follows the AKS-74U pattern. The round is also known as Triple 2 (.222) within Pakistan or دو سو بائیس (Doh-Soh-Biys) which is 222 in Urdu.


Fig. 1.3. Bottom face: Darra made 5.45×39mm ammunition alongside recovered spent cases from same sample. (Image source: Khyber Abdullah collection)


Fig. 1.4. Top face: Darra made 5.45×39mm ammunition alongside recovered spent cases from same sample. (Image source: Khyber Abdullah collection)


Fig. 1.5. Top face: Darra made 5.45×39mm ammunition. (Image source: Khyber Abdullah collection)

Although the Pak-Afghan region sits right on the ex-Soviet doorstep, the round was not always available in quantity, apart from the ammunition already left over by the Soviets during the Soviet-Afghan war. Due to this and a clampdown on global smuggling routes and methods, the price has only increased in the last 10 years until the point where it’s no longer a viable option for a combat rifle within the region, especially Pakistan. These factors pushed the ammunition-smiths, mainly of the infamous Darra Adamkhel but also in other parts of the FATA/KPK region, into fabricating and manufacturing the components necessary to assemble complete rounds. At first, these were crude and cheap using poor quality materials such as steel cases that rusted easily. However, they have worked on them until they came up with a decent enough replacement. Varying qualities are still available including steel and brass-cased types but they have managed to make a decent shooting round that can compete against the factory/ex-Soviet rounds.


Fig. 1.6. Side face: Darra made 5.45×39mm projectile alongside the rounds propellant powder. (Image source: Khyber Abdullah collection)

From what information I could gather and understand from the smiths, the following are the techniques they use to make the components. Firstly, a case similar in shape to 5.45 is taken and a form of fire-forming is then used to shape the case and bottleneck. Due to this method and their ways to trim the case head, the case heads are not always uniform. This is the simplest way to make a casing outside of using spent casings of factory ammunition. Secondly, moving on to the projectiles, this is actually a little more tricky and there are a couple of variations and techniques.


Fig. 1.7. Rear face: Darra made 5.45×39mm projectiles rear, the rear is crimped and plugged here. (Image source: Khyber Abdullah collection)

There is a solid copper machined variation which isn’t used much along with another that is lead with a copper jacket and/or a copper plug on top of the lead. The copper jacket is either plated on or it is a thin copper sheet formed to shape and lead-filled. The primers (locally called the Pataka) are nothing special, a simple soft metal cap filled with locally made ignition compound. A process that isn’t difficult at all.

It is the powder which is what we have to really look at, the powders/explosive propellant used nowadays in Darrai ammunition looks like proper ammunition grade powder. It is a protruded cylindrical/conical shape but seems dirty as it leaves plenty of carbon on the rifles action/chamber when fired. This is made locally using frankly dangerous techniques, or it is procured from either state or non-state licensed explosives manufacturers but the latter is not commonly done. After all this, they even add the red sealant to mimic sealant found on standard 7n6 5.45×39mm ammunition. Not only does this look like factory ammunition from an ex-Soviet manufacturer at a glance, it also seems to shoot relatively reliably.

A video showing the ‘Kalakov’ rounds being made

Looking at the market for 5.45 or Kalakov rounds, it is different from region to region. An original Soviet factory round of 5.45×39mm runs around Rs200 within FATA and between Rs400-Rs500 elsewhere in Pakistan, whereas this locally produced steel-cased round runs around Rs45 a round in FATA and about Rs100-120 elsewhere. Compare this with the ever-popular 5.56×45mm, a standard ‘green-tip’ M855 round runs around Rs75 a pop in FATA. Although the round isn’t favoured by many people in Pakistan anymore due to its high cost and low availability of the original factory ammunition, plus users are switching to the more readily available 5.56×45mm, the ingenuity on gun and ammunition-smiths is what is keeping the 5.45×39mm alive in Pakistan for now.


Fig. 1.8. Top face: Darra made 5.45×39mm rounds resting in a crate, post-production. (Image source: Khyber Abdullah collection)

The evolution of the Khyber gunsmith and market trade is extremely interesting. We can see that the market follows worldwide and regional trends, as well as setting their own.

Key: DAK = Darra Adamkhel, Darrai = Darra made, FATA= Federally Administered Tribal Areas, KPK = Khyber Pakhtunkhwa