By Lluís Pérez Expósito
Venezuela’s interest in acquiring a new service rifle came after increased tensions between the Hugo Chavez government and the US. Prior to Chavez’s arrival in power, Venezuela had been very firmly established as a US partner in the region, and that extended to defence matters. Venezuela’s military was configured to be NATO compliant, and while the standard service rifle was still the locally produced 7.62x51mm FN FAL, attempts had been made to transition to the FN FNC instead. Though a license was seemingly never procured, significant numbers were acquired from FN, and these still see use to this day.
After Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, Venezuela’s policies and diplomacy veered closer and closer to those of Cuba, China, and Russia. With both an increased need for an intermediate cartridge assault rifle for mass issue as well as changing diplomatic allegiances, the Chavez administration finally settled on the AK-103 rifle, and signed a contract with Rosoboronexport in May 2005. The order included the purchase of 100,000 fully assembled rifles, their respective accessories, 74 million rounds of 7.62x39mm ammunition, 2000 spare parts sets, 50 jig sets, 2000 instruction manuals, 5 training simulators and the full license, data package and technical assistance to set up a production facility within the “Gerencia Metalmecánica”, the main production center of state-owned defence industry conglomerate CAVIM, or Compañía Anónima Venezolana de Industrias Militares in Maracay, state of Aragua.
The reason for choosing 7.62x39mm as a standard cartridge, as opposed to some other more modern offerings in the Russian and Chinese spheres of influence, such as 5.45x39mm, can only be speculated on. Ostensibly, defence compatibility with Cuba (who never transitioned to 5.45×39 and still uses 7.62x39mm AKMs as standard rifles) would have been a big factor, however, a strong case can be made that, considering the Venezuelan terrain, with dense jungles and sprawling metropolitan areas, and combat often taking place at short ranges with abundant cover, the higher penetrating abilities of ball 7.62x39mm would make it a more sensible choice.
The Russian produced pilot batch, made at Izhmash, was delivered in three stages with the first 30.000 units arriving in Venezuela in June 2006, the second batch of 32.000 in August and the remaining 38.000 in November. This initial batch of rifles has apparently lasted for a long time, with Russian-produced units having been spotted in abundance to the date of writing of this article (18/05/2020). Production in Venezuela was slow to take up, with the first 3.000 units assembled in Venezuela (albeit with some or all Russian parts) being delivered only in June 2013.
Full production is a hotly contested topic. The government last claimed the factory would be fully operational by late 2019, adding that it would be able to fulfill a quota of 25,000 units produced per year. These comments have not been confirmed nor retracted as of May 2020. It does bear mentioning that these comments were not the first of the sort, all proving false in the past. However, a video released by official media in April 2020 shows crates of AK-103s, marked in Spanish as CAVIM produced rifles, being delivered to military academies, which would indicate full Venezuelan production. There has been skepticism to the potential validity of these crate markings, and rifle markings were not observable in this instance.
What exactly is the AK-103?
The AK-103 is a select fire, gas operated assault rifle using a long stroke piston and a 2 lug rotating bolt. It has an external configuration identical to the current Russian service rifle, the AK-74M, but chambered in 7.62×39. This means the rifle has a folding, yet full profile, black polymer stock with a standard cleaning kit container, and a purposefully designed stock release button set on the buttplate under the cleaning kit compartment, which impinges on the stock fold position retainer hook. It also comes standard with a dovetail optics rail on the left side of the receiver. The barrel is standard 16.3 In. (415mm) in length and integrates an AK-74 style muzzle brake and bayonet lug.
One modification that is not present on all AK-103 rifles, but does seem to be present in all Venezuelan AK-103s, is the addition of a small spring-loaded plunger sitting perpendicularly on the dust cover retaining lug. This feature is meant to prevent dust cover and/or recoil spring self-ejection under increased recoil from rifle grenades and big bore chamberings such as 12 gauge (in the case of the Saiga 12 family of self loading shotguns). This modification is poorly documented, but it seems as though it’s intended to be a new industry standard for the AK family of exports.
The Russian-made AK-103 shipped with AK-74 pattern (6×5) double-edged bayonets, 4-cell canvas magazine pouches, a standard canvas sling, buttstock stored cleaning kit, polymer grease bottle and black polymer 7.62x39mm magazines. Whether the pouches have remained in production in Venezuela remains unclear. The canvas magazine pouches have seen use ceremonially, and sporadically in the field as well, mostly as an expansion to the issued web gear’s arguably lacking magazine capacity.
The April 2020 video shows the rifles being delivered in crates of 6, each with its own bayonet and 5 magazines, though whether this has always been the case is sadly unverifiable at this point.
Screengrabs of the April 2020 video showing CAVIM AK-103’s being delivered to a military academy.
The original batch of rifles came from Russia with classic cotton canvas two-point AKM-type slings, which have seen extensive use with Venezuelan forces. Additional slings of identical design made in both black and OD green nylon have been produced locally and issued as well. There is also myriad of commercial, craft and improvised solutions observed in use by service members.
One of the main attractions of the AK-103 platform in the international market is its ability to use the same 7.62x39mm ammunition and magazines that many countries have used for decades, which many potential customers might already have significant stocks of. This was not, however, a factor in the case of Venezuela, which had never fielded AK variants prior to the 103 purchase. To that effect, the Venezuelan service rifles have been spotted in use almost exclusively with black polymer, second generation (ribless) 30-round magazines, also licensed by CAVIM, these are marked “7.62×39” on the left side.
There is, however, a notable exception to this. Starting in 2020, the Venezuelan military and police have been receiving shipments of older pattern AKs in 7.62x39mm, accompanied by both stamped steel 30-round magazines, and red fiberglass (“bakelite”) magazines from Cuba. These have started to filter into the system, and some of these magazines can be seen used interchangeably with the AK-103, especially with F.A.ES (Fuerzas de Acciones ESpeciales) of the PNB (Policía Nacional Bolivariana), The Police Special Forces, who have been the primary recipients of these Cuban rifles, along with the Bolivarian Militia. Additionally, elite units have seen making use of commercial aftermarket magazines, such as PMAGS.
Shortened M203-style underbarrel grenade launchers have been observed affixed under the rifles with proprietary mounts. There exist two types of such mounts. One, replacing the lower handguard, involves a housing made out of sheet metal, similar in concept to that used in the M16A1 and A2. A newer version involves a quick-release bracket system that attaches directly to the barrel at two different spots, keeping the original handguard set intact.
The GRLA-40 “PB” (“Pasabalas” or bore-through”) is an all-polymer grenade design that can slip over the standard AK-103 muzzle brake and be detonated by a standard ball 7.62×39 round. It has an alleged 250 Meter maximum range and an explosive radius of 10 meters in its HE variant, with inert non-firing (“Práctica”) and inert firing (“Ejercicio”) also available.
GRLA-40 PB in use.
However, rifle grenades of any sort are not often observed in use with Venezuelan troops, with the FANB (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana) having opted for the Milkor MGL 40 mm revolving grenade launcher in later years for grenadier roles.
It is also interesting to note that the official literature by CAVIM makes a point to describe and show how the AK-103 can be fitted with a GP-25 grenade launcher, despite the fact that these were never purchased by Venezuela, as far as we know. It might be the case that a potential purchase was discussed and eventually fell through.
The FANB issues two different types of optics for the AK-103; the unmagnified PK-AV, made under custom order by BelOMO (Belorusskoe Optiko-Mechanichesckoye Obyedinenie) out of Belarus, and the 3.5 magnification PO 3.5x21P, this time a standard offering, also by BelOMO.
Although these are the standard offerings contemplated for the AK-103 by the FANB, many other commercial offerings have been seen in use, especially with PNB F.A.ES.
Alternative optics are attached via a dovetail to a picatinny L-shaped mount designed and produced locally by CAVIM, and designated “Adaptador Caribe”.
One of the alternative optic solutions that bears special attention is the Cuban designed and produced VILMA (VIsor Lumínico para Matar Agresores). These have been observed in small numbers and used almost exclusively by marine units, which would indicate these have been issued by the government, given the fact that marines almost never use non-issue firearm accessories and that these optics are not commercially available.
The VILMA is an unmagnified red-dot sight, which in Cuban service is usually installed with a front sight substitute mount, but the FANB opted instead to use a more rearward mount via the Caribe mount. It stands to reason that, for this reason, the Venezuelan VILMA models were specifically adapted, although this could not be independently verified.
Vilma in Venezuelan use.
Unfortunately, there is very little explicit information or photographic evidence available to compare and contrast. However, thanks to pictures from official instruction manuals and incidental pictures that happen to include close-up shots of rifles, we have been able to ascertain what the original Russian contract rifle markings look like.
On the left side of the receiver, the markings read “AK-103” and “7.62×39 mm.” Further back, over the optics rail, “Fuerza Armada Venezolana” can be read. On the trunnion, the Izhevsk proofmark can be seen, followed by “F.A.N.” (presumably, Fuerza Armada Nacional) and the serial number.
On the right side of the receiver, by the bottom front corner next to the handguard, is the Venezuelan coat of arms. The Fire selector is marked S for “Seguro” (Safe), R “Repetición” (Fully Automatic), and T “Tiro a tiro” (Semi Automatic).
Additionally, the sight markings have been altered from what we have come to expect from Russian AKs; instead of a “П” for the battle setting, they display an “A”.
It’s worth mentioning that some of these markings are notably obsolete, especially the coat of arms, which displays a horse facing towards the right. This would have been correct at the time of the signing of the contract, however, it would have been incorrect already by delivery of the first rifles as on March 7th of 2006, a law was passed to change the coat of arms to have the horse face left, to reflect the country’s newfound socialist direction. It stands to reason to assume this has been addressed in rifles put together in Venezuela, however, no photographic evidence to that effect exists, and all markings we have been able to examine show the obsolete coat of arms.
Additionally, “FAN” would have been an incorrect nomenclature, as in 2009 the name was changed to FANB. Recent pictures show that, at the very least, units produced with the FAN marking have not been updated, it remains to be confirmed if new production models have been adjusted.
As a sidenote, it bears mentioning that there have been confirmed reports of commercial Izhevsk AK pattern firearms (namely AK-74M pattern semi automatic rifles and Saiga 12 gauge pattern shotguns) exported to civilian markets bearing all of the Venezuelan receiver markings as well as additional export ones. The AK receiver being potentially a universal piece that can be assembled in several calibers, these would presumably be repurposed Venezuelan contract overruns. It’s interesting to note that in these weapons the “AK-103” marking has been crossed off but no attempts seem to have been in order to deface the Venezuelan crest or property tags or to translate the safety settings.
The AK-103 has made its way as the workhorse of all Venezuelan security agencies, with the exception of the Bolivarian Militia. Army, Navy, Air Force, National Guard and Police all use it in overwhelming majority for all types of operations, with some other weapon systems of the same class being found only in elite formations of each branch.
The AK-103 has been generally well received by the troops. It’s proven to be a reliable, dependable, durable tool that copes well with the aggressive environment of the Venezuelan tropical climate.
The only notable exception to this seems to be the lackluster quality of the painted on finish, which tends to peel quite dramatically leaving many of the more well used units in an almost “in the white” finish state.
At the same time, the well used condition of many AKs lends credence to the myth of it’s dependability, with the original batch guns, at this point over 13 years old, keep being used very much actively and harshly. CAVIM has reported a minimum guaranteed lifespan of 20,000 rounds per rifle.
The AK has permeated Venezuelan popular culture and has now become synonymous with the military, professionalism and firepower. It is a highly desired weapon by criminals and rebels, who will seek to capture them specifically, often by use of ambushes on small patrols, killing soldiers and taking their AKs.
The slowness and clumsiness of the Venezuelan government to start full indigenous production of the rifle has, however, been duly noted and is often brought up and mocked even within loyalist military circles. While neither the Venezuelan government nor CAVIM have commented on the situation, there had long been unofficial rumours claiming stalling and delays on the russian end stunted the establishment of full production at CAVIM.
In 2015, Rosoboronexport pressed charges against Sergey Popelnyukhov, Russian senator and president of Stroyinvestengineering Su-848, company which Rosoboronexport would have outsourced the Venezuelan AK-103 contract to. Popelnyukhov, was sentenced to 7 years in prison after having declared guilty, on February 27 2017, of embezzling over 1100 million roubles from the AK-103 contract, the money would have been taken by Popelnyukov from Rosoboronexport and rerouted to other ventures and accounts of Popelnyukhov’s, rather handed to Izhmash, the weapons’ OEM.
This story would seem to correlate with the rumours in Venezuela and justify the delays in production, as well as perhaps help explain why Izhmash would so readily and willingly release Venezuelan property marked AKs to the commercial market.
Be that as it may, local production of this and other weapon systems has been a big talking point from a government eager to prove to its enemies both foreign and domestic, that it’s able and willing to fulfill its own defence needs in a way it may not have before. The reality is, however, that the blunder of slow AK production is hardly the only such example of limited production capabilities on display in Venezuela, with many such other basic items like uniforms, load bearing equipment, armor, being produced in small numbers in Venezuela and then supplemented in great part by Chinese or Russian production.
The AK-103 was the first of many steps taken to rearrange the Venezuelan military from a NATO configuration, to more Russian and Chinese friendly standards, though with very unique characteristics. Shortly after the AK contract was signed, in May 2006 the Bush administration instituted an arms embargo over Venezuela, the first of many steps in the way to isolate and punish the Bolivarian Republic, henceforth considered an enemy. It may be a stretch to link the AK contract as the direct cause of the arms embargo, but it cannot be disregarded as a significant catalyst, in that sense, this contract may have helped seal the fate of Venezuela as a geopolitical threat to the US for years to come, for better or for worse.
Overall, it’s fair to say the AK-103 has cemented its place as a Latin American institution, and it’s unlikely it will be replaced for the foreseeable future, especially if the claims of fully autonomous venezuelan production can be verified in the future. We look forward to seeing production numbers, quality reports and markings from these new units.