KABUL — You could call him the original “lone survivor.” Assistant surgeon William Brydon was battered, bleeding and missing part of his skull when he rode alone to the garrison at Jalalabad after surviving the disastrous retreat of the besieged British army from Kabul in 1842.
Made in the dead of winter, the army’s dash for freedom through steep mountain gorges became a nightmarish battle against Mother Nature and the Afghan fighters who used handmade “jezail” muskets to snipe at the column of 16,500 troops and camp followers.
The Afghans joined a list of local peoples around the world who, against all odds, would use irregular tactics to inflict losses on better-equipped forces. If the retreat from Kabul symbolized colonial British folly, the Afghans’ jezail firearms came to symbolize the homegrown skill and tenacity that would earn them a place among the great guerrilla fighters in history.
Often made of parts from cannibalized British weapons, jezails were a hodgepodge of Eastern and Western designs, each one unique, and often decorated.
More than a century and a half later, Afghan gunsmiths are still making jezails and other rifles — some of them only suitable for display. Those rifles, along with antique jezails, are sold in the shops in Kabul and the bazaars of NATO bases. The gunmaking technique may be old-fashioned, but the jezail’s history offers timely lessons about counterinsurgency for modern soldiers.
A handcrafted legacy
Some 170 years after the British first fought in Kabul, Sher Mohammed hawks antique and replica guns in a dimly lit shop not much larger than a closet.
“These are all guns that were used during the British invasion,” said Mohammed, who inherited the business from his father more than 35 years ago. “Some are from that time, and some are new, but all show the culture of that time.”
While jezails were the early Afghan gunsmiths’ first products, they soon moved on to creating handmade copies of more modern firearms.
“Afghans began making weapons at home because we had no factories,” said Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. “The first factory wasn’t built in Kabul until 1863. Before that, even the rulers of the country relied on individual experts to craft the guns.”
The handcrafted firearm trade survived the arrival of industrial arms production, however, and continues in many ways today. Called “Khyber Pass Copies” after the region between modern Afghanistan and Pakistan where the cottage industry developed, the guns in Mohammed’s shop are mostly jezails. There are also models of later British rifles like the Martini-Henry and Lee-Enfield.
Some of the homemade weapons are better than others, with many more dangerous to their users than their targets.
With the arrival of hundreds of thousands of NATO troops, a new version of handcrafted weapon sprang up as well: the souvenir.
In a small workshop in downtown Kabul, Nisar Ahmad makes only nonfiring souvenirs now. But even those are produced in the same handcrafted way passed down for generations. Now 22, Ahmad said his father started teaching him the trade when he was 9 or 10 years old.
There may be a few more power tools involved today, but the replicas often include pieces of the original guns.
“Sometimes ... we find an old part of a gun, like a barrel, and we’ll use it on a new stock,” Ahmad said.
That can complicate efforts for inexperienced buyers to determine what’s antique and what’s new, but things like fresh wood or bright red rust can be giveaways that a gun is a replica.
Ahmad’s products are among those bought by merchants who then sell the guns in bazaars on many of the larger NATO military bases. They have become a hot item among American servicemembers looking for a striking memento or gift that conveys the long history of conflict in Afghanistan.
Potential buyers should be aware that even if the replica guns look impressive on the wall, they are unlikely to be of much, if any, monetary value back home.
“Ninety-nine percent of them are basically junk,” said Danny Clark, with Collectors Firearms in Houston, Texas. “I don’t buy any of them and I don’t know anybody who does.”
The collectors at OldGuns.net, a Utah-based website, say they’ve fielded many questions from buyers in Afghanistan about the value of such guns.
“If you are considering purchase of an ‘old gun’ in Afghanistan, buy it as something that will be meaningful as a souvenir of your time there, not with the hope that you will be able to resell it at a profit,” OldGuns warns. “Most of the guns being sold seem to be recently manufactured to meet the demand from Americans stationed there.”
According to U.S. military officials, in the first five months of 2014 customs inspectors stationed in Afghanistan cleared nearly 700 antique and replica firearms for shipment to the United States.
“Until now I didn’t know you could mail things like that home, but it all really intrigues me,” U.S. Army Sgt. Iraq Blackledge said while admiring guns and knives at a shop at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul.
The Afghan shop owner, Mohammad, said business at the base bazaars has been tapering off as troop levels drop. “It used to be that I would sell two or three guns a day,” he said. “But now it is lucky if I sell two or three a week.”
An enduring symbol
Compared to the American Kentucky rifle by some experts, the original jezails were long-barreled muskets featuring distinctly curved stocks, often lavishly decorated with brass or shell.
“The jezail was at least as accurate as the Kentucky rifle, insofar as although it was not rifled, it had a very long barrel, was handmade to suit the owner’s specifications, and like so many frontier peoples, Afghans learned to handle weapons from a very young age, rendering such hardy men remarkably adept at striking a target at considerable ranges,” said Gregory Fremont-Barnes, a lecturer at the United Kingdom’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
Jezails — typically of .50 to .75 caliber and with either a matchlock or flintlock firing mechanism — were deadly at ranges up to 500 yards, compared with the 200-yard range of the British smoothbore “Brown Bess” flintlock muskets, which were designed to be fired in mass volleys by troops in formation.
Few single aspects of those early British imperial conquests have come to symbolize the unsustainable cost of protracted counterinsurgencies like the Afghan jezail.
It not only paved the way for a long history of handmade firearms in Afghanistan, it also left an indelible mark on the British, whose experience would help form the foundation of Western counterinsurgency studies.
Rudyard Kipling, who most famously chronicled the years of British colonialism in works of fiction such as “Kim” and “The Jungle Book,” immortalized the jezail as an example of how local insurgencies can effectively drain better-resourced forces.
Referring to the downfall of well-educated British troops in a poem appropriately titled “Arithmetic on the Frontier,” Kipling wrote:
A scrimmage in a Border Station-
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
By the second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878, both the British and many Afghans were using (and making) more modern rifles. But use of the jezail persisted, and the war provided the backdrop for perhaps the most famous fictional victim of an Afghan jezail — a victim familiar to millions of Americans.
Sherlock Holmes’ inseparable companion Dr. Watson was wounded by the weapon while serving in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The sidekick in Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective novels was injured during the Battle of Maiwand, a real battle that occurred in 1880 and proved to be a disastrous rout for the outnumbered British troops.
“The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster,” Watson says in “A Study in Scarlet.”
The modern Sherlock Holmes movies starring Jude Law as Watson also make prominent mention of his injury and his service in Afghanistan. In the books, Watson clearly makes reference to the “jezail bullet” wound that still aches years later.
Like the hunting rifle used by American militias during their war for independence, the jezail had a long range that was essential to the tactics employed by the Afghans, who had to make up for the fact they couldn’t meet the British head-on on the battlefield.
“The Afghans almost always employed guerrilla tactics: hit-and-run, ambushes, raids, sniping and so on as this suited the ground and the fact that until they created a conventional army ... they could not field formed units of equal standing with the British,” Fremont-Barnes said. “It therefore made far more sense to ‘play to their strengths’ by employing irregular tactics.”
In the past decade, Taliban and other insurgents have turned to homemade explosives, ambushes and other irregular tactics to inflict serious casualties on NATO and Afghan government forces.
The potential parallels between the colonial British occupations and the modern NATO experience are so numerous they have become almost cliché after 13 years of international intervention in Afghanistan. But as the Taliban insurgency lingers, the lessons from Afghanistan’s long history of conflict remain as poignant as ever.
“The British experience in Afghanistan — or least the first two wars — demonstrates that a highly motivated guerrilla fighter, even when only armed with a simple weapon and little in the way of food and other provision, can either prevail over or at the very least exact terrific damage upon a much better-armed and disciplined force,” Fremont-Barnes said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.