In this monthly blog series, our collections team write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. In this month’s blog, Jonathan Ferguson, Interim Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, uncovers an interesting history behind this AK-47.
The Avtomat Kalashnikova or AK (strictly speaking, ‘AK-47’ was just a prototype) and its variants are found today in every active conflict zone.
It is arguably the most important firearm in the world, taking the place of the Mauser bolt-action rifle. It is certainly the most numerous. At a minimum there are 75 million examples in existence; nearly seven times as many as its nearest rival, the AR-15.
It has made its lead designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, a globally recognised name. Although the type entered Russian military service in 1949, the Cold War ensured that it did not make its combat debut until in the Vietnam War, having been supplied to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) by Russia and China.
An Interesting History
This particular AK (a ‘Type 2’ according to unofficial classification) was captured during that very conflict by U.S. Army Captain (now retired Colonel) Gregory P. Dillon, almost exactly 42 years ago. Dillon was ‘S-3’ (Operations Officer) of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Battalion, 7th Air Cavalry Regiment within the 1st Cavalry Division.
The regiment was also known as ‘1-7 Air Cavalry’ or just ‘1-7 CAV‘ for short. The 7th Cavalry had been formed as a traditional cavalry regiment after the American Civil War, but by the Vietnam era had traded horses for Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, better known as ‘Hueys’ (a corruption of its ‘UH’ designation, meaning ‘Utility Helicopter’).
The new air cavalry concept would allow infantry to move rapidly around the battlefield wherever they were most needed, and also to provide its own close air support with machine guns and rockets. You’ve seen this depicted in popular culture, most famously in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now, and most recently in the period fantasy movie Kong: Skull Island. Like its mounted forebears, the air cavalry’s intended roles were armed reconnaissance and raiding operations. However, units in Vietnam saw service in many of the major combat operations of the war, including the one that recovered this early AK. The story that follows comes from Col. Dillon himself.
In January 1966, the division was sent into the Bong Son plain, where Dillon’s unit was able to wipe out an entire North Vietnamese Army (NVA) brigade. Bong Son took place two months after the famous Battle of Ia Drang, in which Dillon also took part. That incident was immortalised in the book ‘We Were Soldiers Once….and Young’, which in turn was dramatised as ‘We Were Soldiers’ (2002). In the movie, the part of Dillon was played by ‘Mad Men’ star Jon Hamm, that of Moore by Mel Gibson. Whilst clearing enemy bunkers and searching them for weapons and useful intelligence, Dillon found and disarmed the NVA brigade’s executive officer. The officer had been armed with this rifle and a pistol. Dillon took the rifle as a memento and gave the pistol to Colonel Moore, his battalion commander.
Later, all captured AK rifles were ordered to be handed in to equip a special operation by ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnamese army ) troops. Dillon cut his name into the stock in order that no-one else (particularly, no-one not actually there at the battle) could claim to have collected it. He later saw the weapon in a newspaper article about ARVN HQ (which he has been kind enough to share with us). This was the last he heard of his war trophy until he was contacted by a US Army officer acting on my behalf.
I had shown the rifle to a student work placement from the University of Bristol (now working in the defence industry) who with the help of a friend was able to identify Col. Dillon as the original owner. I discovered that the weapon had been transferred to the British government as an example of current enemy equipment, being transferred to the Ministry of Defence Pattern Room reference collection in 1971.
The Royal Armouries was fortunate enough to receive this entire collection in 2005, greatly improving our collection of 20th-century firearms and accessories. The rifle is numbered PR.5248 (‘PR’ for ‘Pattern Room’). Col. Dillon was amazed to hear that his rifle was being preserved in a British museum, but has sadly not been able to travel to the UK to see his rifle. However, thanks to the efforts of my friend Miles Vining, he has been interviewed and his stories captured for posterity. You can hear him tell this story and others in these two YouTube videos:
- ‘We Were Soldiers” Veteran Is Reunited with his Captured AK from Vietnam‘
- ‘Vietnam War: Guns of the Viet Cong & NVA‘
Chivers, C.J., The Gun, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
Iannimico, Frank, AK-47: The Grim Reaper, (Henderson: Chipotle, 2013).
Moore, Harold G. & Galloway, Joseph L., We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, (London: Corgi, 2002).