As we continue to chart the AK variants of the world, we head to the Valley of the Roses in central Bulgaria, home to the Arsenal Factory and the notorious Bulgarian AK-47.
If I had to list some of my favorite countries in the world, Bulgaria would certainly be amongst them. I’ve lived there, worked there, and vacationed there.
From incredible food and mind-blowing nature and hospitable locals and the homemade Rakia brandy that they’re keen for you to try, Bulgaria is a massively underrated and overlooked country.
However, from nation-states and gun enthusiasts to soldiers and insurgents worldwide, one of the things most synonymous with this Balkan country is the Bulgarian AK47 produced by the Arsenal Plant in the town of Kazanlak.
“Bulgarian weapons dealers and military officials I’ve talked to brag about the Bulgarian “kalashnik” being the best quality.”– In praise of the AK-47: Russia unveils statue of Mikhail Kalashnikov.
Like the bulk of most AK variants, the Bulgarian Kalashnikov was born in the Cold War. However, it found itself in some particular hot conflicts during and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Today, we’ll go behind the barrel of this iconic weapon, from its origins to its impact in global warzones and its position in the civilian arms market.
I’ll also be sharing some unique images from my own trip to Kazanlak, the home of the Bulgarian Kalashnikov, that I made recently.
Now, prepare to meet the Bulgarian AK!
The History of The Bulgarian AK47
Firstly, I want to correct a common mistake. Bulgaria was not a Soviet Republic. Although it was a Soviet satellite state heavily influenced by the Kremlin, it was the independent Bulgarian People’s Republic and operated under a Socialist political system.
After a brief period as an ally of Nazi Germany, Bulgaria was thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire when Soviet troops crossed the Danube and occupied the country.
In the post-war years, the Kremlin installed a pro-USSR government and laid the foundations for the strategically vital Bulgaria to become a loyal, Soviet-allied state,
But by the 1950s, tensions with the West were surging, and the Cold War was in full effect. Bulgaria needed an army to defend itself, and that army needed a service weapon.
Until the 1960s, the Bulgarian People’s Army used Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles until the Soviets decided that the armies of the Warsaw Pact needed to begin domestically producing their own AK variants.
And Bulgaria had just the place to do it. Let me introduce you to a gun manufacturer known simply as Arsenal.
Arsenal Bulgaria: Factory 10
Originally opened in 1878, the Arsenal Factory moved to the town of Kazanlak in the mountainous region of central Bulgaria.
Before the Communists came, Arsenal was called the State Military Factory and was the main arms manufacturer responsible for the production and maintenance of practically all weapons and equipment used by the Bulgarian military and security services.
Under the new Communist regime, the factory was nationalized and rebranded to the uninspiring but easy-to-remember name of “Factory 10”.
In 1956, the Arsenal AK journey began when the plant produced Kalashnikovs made from parts kits imported from the USSR.
Within a few years, Factory 10 had the skills, materials, and production equipment to make their own domestic AKs under license from the Soviet Union.
Over the next few decades, Factory 10 churned out more AKs than they knew what to do with. (Remember that! It’s a surprise tool that will help us later!)
Mikhail Kalashnikov himself visited the plant and, upon inspecting a Factory 10 AK, said it was the best variant of a Kalashnikov he’d ever seen. Apart from his own Russian variant, that is.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, Ceausescu was shot dead with his country’s own Romanian AK, and the USSR was beginning to fragment violently.
In comparison, the Bulgarian communist collapse was relatively bloodless. Not counting the crippling poverty and brutal Mafia-led crimewave, and subsequent power struggle that followed.
By 1991, Factory 10 was history. The weapons plant became a joint-stock company called Arsenal JSco, although you may know it better as simply Arsenal AD.
What Makes a Bulgarian AK Unique?
Compared to the various other AK variant-manufacturing countries, Bulgaria has placed what is arguably the most significant focus on the AK-74 variant of the Kalashnikov.
In addition, the Arsenal plant has remained old school by sticking to the process of manufacturing milled receivers rather than the stamped variety.
And, of course, who can forget their instantly-recognizable muzzle breaks, sleek side folding stocks, and unique gas blocks at a 90-degree angle?
These days, the Arsenal Factory is a major employer for Kazanlak and the surrounding towns and a major player in the global arms industry and the civilian gun sector in Bulgaria.
Sports shooting and hunting are popular pastimes for Bulgarians, and gun licenses aren’t difficult to obtain.
To cater for the market, there’s a range of Arsenal AK variants designed for civilians, which are designated as follows:
- AR prefix: For military use.
- SA prefix: For civilian use.
Suppose you want to know the difference between a Cold War-era Factory 10 Kalashnikov and a modern Arsenal variant. In that case, it’s easy to do so with a quick look at the logo stamped into the front trunnion of the weapon:
- Factory 10 Bulgarian AK: Old school variants will either feature the number 10 inside concentric circles ((10)) or a “double circle 10” logo.
- Arsenal AD Kalashnikov: Modern weapons will be marked as AKK.
Remember the part about Factory 10 producing an insane amount of Kalashnikovs for a country that hadn’t seen a hot conflict since 1944? Well, this played a huge role in Arsenal’s post-Cold War impact on modern warfare.
Arsenal’s Global Impact On Modern Warfare
By the 1990s, the Cold War was well and truly over. With their former Eastern Bloc allies all in complete disarray and racked by ethnic conflict and economic fallout, Bulgaria was in trouble.
The Bulgarian economy was in tatters, and with the prospect of world war III an increasingly distant memory, the new democratic government saw an opportunity in its domestic weapons.
Thus began the global export of Bulgarian AK-47 and AK-74 variants worldwide. But as well as state-level, sales were also made to nefarious arms dealers such as Viktor Bout (the man on whom Lord of War was based on), who visited the country in the 1990s.
As a result, the Bulgarian Kalashnikov found a new home in military, paramilitary and insurgent forces worldwide.
A prime example is India. The Indian military and paramilitary forces, like Border Police, use hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian AKs as standard service rifles.
The quality of the weapon has also led to it being used by forces in Iraq, Libya, UAE, Yemen, Sudan, Serbia, Honduras, and even Egypt.
Two of those countries, Egypt and Serbia, manufacture their own domestic AKs in the form of the Zastava and the Maadi Yet, they still incorporate the high-quality Bulgarian AK.
Like any arms export to a conflict zone, many of the Bulgarian AKs sent abroad have fallen into enemy hands.
The Bulgarian Kalashnikov has equally been seen in the hands of Taliban rebels to Iraqi insurgents and the local military, police, and paramilitary forces fighting them.
The Story of Bulgarian Kalashnikov Imports To The United States
From the battlefields of Libya and the Russian-Georgian War, the Bulgarian AK47 has equally found a fond place in the hearts of American gun owners and Kalashnikov enthusiasts.
As civilian gun ownership in Bulgaria was strictly controlled under Communism, the first civilian AK variants were produced in the early 1990s when Arsenal was privatized.
The first Bulgarian AK variant that Americans could get their hands on was the SA-93. SA stood for semi-automatic, and 93 was the year of its creation.
It came to the U.S. in 1994. However, this sporting rifle-style milled AK was vastly different from the military version of the Bulgarian AK many of us recognized. For example:
- The standard AK pistol grip was replaced with a wooden thumbhole stock.
- The Kalashnikov bayonet lug was removed.
- There was no threading on the barrel.
Despite their sporting rifle configuration, these imported Arsenal AKs are highly sought after amongst gun lovers in the United States. They can fetch north of $1,000, which is quite an increase from their original price in the mid-1990s (around $380).
Seeing the potential in the U.S. market, Arsenal began to export their new self-loading hunting rifles, which were heavily influenced by the AK-74.
Between 1994 and 1998, the U.S. saw an influx of Arsenal SLR-95 and SLR-96 variant milled receiver rifles being imported. Compared to the SA-93, the differences were huge. Such as:
- a 90-degree Gas Block
- a non-vented Gas Tube
- a synthetic thumbhole stock
To cater to increased demand, Arsenal set up a U.S. company (Arsenal Inc.) based in the heart of gun country: Las Vegas, Nevada.
Their next Bulgarian Kalashnikov important was the variants of the single stack SLR-101. Then, after a fairly long import hiatus, Arsenal resumed business in a way we were all waiting for.
The latest imports were essentially military-grade Bulgarian AKs. The thumbhole stock was gone, and the pistol grip and folding stock were back. This variant also boasted threaded barrels, double-stack magazines, and bayonet lugs.
The story of Arsenal’s exports to the civilian market is full of various models and configurations. My personal favorite? The SLR107. This is essentially a stamped receiver Bulgarian AKM.
In Summary, Kazanlak is the Real Home of Guns N’ Roses
As well as notorious assault rifles, the town of Kazanlak is equally as well-known for being Bulgaria’s main producer of rose oil, making it the true home of guns and roses!
From soldiers and police forces to guerrillas and gun enthusiasts, the Bulgarian AK-47 has become one of this Balkan country’s most sought-after exports.
From its rich operational history and exceptionally-high quality to its glowing reviews from Mikhail Kalashnikov, it’s not difficult to see why.