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Last Updated: Monday, 5 December 2005, 13:08 GMT
AK-47: Iconic weapon
Chechen child with wooden AK-47
The AK-47 is one of the world's most distinctive guns
All this week, BBC World Service's The World Today programme is looking at the stories behind one of the world's most iconic weapons, the AK-47, and talking to the people who trade in it, the people who carry it, and the people whose lives have been destroyed by it.

The global trade in small arms is big business - it involves almost 1,250 companies operating in at least 92 countries producing weapons, parts or ammunition.

The most popular, and perhaps the most iconic, of all these weapons is the AK-47 assault rifle. Its distinctive shape and widespread use made it an icon of violence in the 20th Century.

In the film Jackie Brown, gunrunner Ordell Robbie calls the AK-47 "the very best there is... accept no substitutes".

But away from the glamour of the big screen, NGOs lament the deadly toll exacted by small arms.

The Small Arms Survey 2005 suggested small arms - meaning personal weapons also including pistols, machine guns, grenades, portable anti-tank systems and mortars - were responsible for some 60-90% of direct war deaths, estimated at 100,000 for 2003.

And estimates suggest small arms are implicated in more than 1,000 deaths every day.

"Small arms cause big losses," Louise Frechette, the UN deputy director-general, has said.

Illicit exports

The AK-47 assault rifle is durable, simple to use, and, with only nine parts, easy to dismantle and maintain. It can fire 600 rounds a minute, with each bullet still potentially lethal at distances of more than a kilometre (2/3 mile).

Indian officer looks through a display of AK-47 automatic weapons in Srinagar, part of a cache of weapons seized through the 1990s
Stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947
Designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov while wounded in hospital - though he has said he wished he invented the lawnmower instead
Produced in greater numbers than any other 20th-Century assault rifle
Fires 600 rounds a minute
Estimated 70-100m in the world
The AK47 has spawned many derivatives, such as the Chinese-manufactured Type 56

It is estimated that 70-100 million Kalashnikov rifles - comprising the AK-47 and AK-74 - have been made worldwide, dwarfing the US-made M-16 at seven million.

The US, UK, France, Russia, and China are responsible for 88% of reported conventional arms exports. In the US alone, the small arms trade accounts for a huge $14bn (8bn) of exports. The figure in the UK is $4.6bn.

But this trade often ends up being illegally exploited.

These lethal weapons are relatively cheap, highly portable, and easily concealable - characteristics that make small arms particularly susceptible to illicit trafficking. They are often sold illegally in exchange for hard currency or goods such as diamonds, drugs, or other contraband.

In all, estimates of the black market trade in small arms range from $2bn to $10bn a year. The charity Oxfam estimates that between 80% and 90% of all illegal small arms start in the sanctioned trade.

In 2001 the UN launched a Programme of Action to combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms. The programme sets out a series of measures that governments should take internationally, nationally and regionally to control small arms, but it is not legally binding.

In a World Today discussion, defence export consultant Elizabeth Carter commented that there was a lack of awareness about the new measures, and that even weapons manufacturers are confused about the new export controls.

Meanwhile, Paul Eavin, director of the arms-control NGO Saferworld, said one of the biggest sources for the illicit arms trade was theft from state and police armouries.

Developed nations also need to recognise their central role in the trade, he said.

"We would certainly argue that from countries like Britain, there are still too many exports to countries like Colombia, Nepal, Saudi Arabia - and those exports shouldn't be taking place."

AK-47 is broadcast on BBC World Service's World Today programme every day until 8 December at 2300 GMT.

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