In the Beginning: Importing Russian 7.62x39mm Ammo

By Bob Jensen


To start, my name is Bob Jensen and BWest was my company. It was originally founded to do business in China with anything concerning guns and ammo.

I was invited to accompany a friend for a visit to Russia. This was immediately after the political fall of the USSR. I obtained an opportunity to speak to the highest officials in the Russian gun industry. This resulted in contacts with ammo and gun factories and I began importing Russian ammo and guns. BWest initially imported almost all of the guns and ammo from Russia.

I visited the IJ-70 (Makarov) plant and negotiated purchase of 65,000 IJ-70 pistols, but I had special requirements. I asked for .380 ACP in lieu of the 9x18mm Makarov caliber. I requested the double stack magazine. I had no interest in the 9x18 and another importer bought that variation. I imported samples of target rifles from the 7.52x54mm military sniper rifle to a range of .22 rimfires, from junior trainers up to the Olympic grade, including the Biathlon rifles. I had bout a dozen of the Biathlons and still own one.

I was very interested in the commercial rather than the military surplus market. At my request, the first shipments of 7.62x39 ammo had hollow point bullets, so they could be sold as suitable for hunting and target ammunition, rather than military surplus. What follows is the story of how BWest began importing Russian 7.62x39mm ammo. It is somewhat convoluted and happened almost 20 years ago, so please bear with me.

My little brother is 12 years younger and one of the most brilliant people I know. Out of High School he had scholarships from Notre Dame to his doctorate at Yale. He specialized in U.S. political history, so it was no great surprise that he was invited to teach at the University in Moscow. This was about 1987 or 1988. I wanted to visit so bad it was unreal, but there was no way at that time.

When the USSR collapsed a customer in my gun shop approached me with the proposition that I accompany him to Russia. He was a collector and thought he might find some of the Model 95 Winchesters sold to the Czar. Also, he thought the Russians had done some work in making synthetic semi precious stones. It sounded great to me, so I went.

Now, put everything that happened in the context that no one in Russia had a job or money and everyone was anxious to get an American dollar. The parks were lined with people who had anything they owned displayed in the hopes of getting an American dollar. Churches had been stripped of icons; anything of value was for sale. On a train I brushed by a Russian military officer and mumbled a quick excuse me. He looked at me and said American? I said yes and he whipped off his hat, extended it to me and said, "Five dollars?"

Some of the main streets in Moscow were lined with tables stacked with everything imaginable. I bought some lacquered boxes, nested dolls and even a couple of metal icons.

My friend had a contact in Moscow, so we had a car and driver. Decrepit was only a start to describe that ancient Lahta. The driver was a doctor who owned a car and thus had a means of making some money. He also spoke English very well. We were flagged down a couple times by the police and the driver handed over some small sum. I asked about this and the Doctor said that is the only income the cops have and that is standard procedure. Every once in a while we would stop and put in a little oil.

We stopped in a line at a gas station to get fuel and I mentioned getting oil.
"They don't have any," was the answer.
"So where do you get it," I enquired?
"From my neighbor who brings home a pint in his lunchbox from the factory every day."

Fueling was interesting. First one stood in line to pay for a chit for about 10 liters of gasoline. The cars lined up and each got the gas either in the car or in a can. The reason? Fuel left overnight would probably be siphoned and stolen. The station had several pumps, but only one had fuel. I noticed that no cars had windshield wipers and asked why. "Because they would be stolen, so we only put them on when it is raining" was the answer.

While chatting with the Doctor, he asked what I did. I answered that I was in the gun business and had been importing surplus 7.62x39mm ammo from China, but the quality was poor. "I'll see what I can do," he said.

The next day he said he had arranged a meeting for me. I was taken to a large Government building and escorted to a conference room. About 10 men, half in uniform, were around the table. I learned later that this group was at the top of the Government Military Commission.

"What can we do for you?" was the opening question. I responded that I had been getting Chinese surplus ammo for about five cents a round, but the quality was poor and I had hopes the Russian quality was superior. "We have no surplus, but we will sell you new ammo for 22 cents a round" was the answer. That was pretty much the end of the meeting.

As we broke up one of the civilian dressed members called me aside and said he would like to meet with me at his office the next day. I went and found out that this guy headed a bureau that essentially did quality assurance and his thought was that if we bought any ammo he could assure the quality, for which he could make some money. He mentioned that his department even checked the quality of the Russian OLYMP .22 ammo. Wow! I knew something about that. I told him that I had once tried out for the Olympics and knew what that ammo was. "Well," he said, "would you like to tour our Olympic training facility?" Guess what I said.

The next day I was driven to the facility. It was essentially shut down, but I did see one shooter at the pistol line talking to his coach. All the top people there formed an entourage and I was given a complete tour with appropriate description of how they trained. After that we had a lunch for about a dozen, for which the American paid.

After the lunch, one of the group wearing a suit came up to me and introduced himself. He said he worked at the OLYMP ammo facility and would I like to take a tour of that? Three guesses as to my answer.

The next day he showed up in a very nice car and we drive about 20 miles to the centerfire ammunition plant, located in a nearby town named Klimovsk. The Russians were determined to win lots of gold at the Olympics, so every single facet of making this ammo was perfected and cost was no object.

I later learned that in the Russian factories people knew only their own job. At every station of the tour I kept asked questions that revealed knowledge about the ammo that astonished them. They told me everything except one thing. When I asked what the bullet lube was, that was a secret.

We then drove a few miles to the rimfire plant and again I got the grand tour. This plant made several grades of ammo, all the way from the cheapest Jr. steel to the highest Temp with which the Olympic shooters practiced.

We weren't finished. I was then taken to the 7.62x39mm ammo plant and it really opened my eyes. There were 12 production lines with raw materials at one end and finished cases of ammo out the other. Each line could turn out about 150 rounds a minute. No reciprocal punch presses. Every stage was like a big bottling machine with a couple dozen stations. Wow!

At the end of the tour I was taken to a large office building and we walked up about three flights of stairs. Through a tiny office and then through what looked like a coat room. Finally, we entered a large office with a long conference table. In the corner was a huge desk with four or five colored phones. This was the office of the plant director. My tour guide was the number two guy on the totem pole. We became good friends and we correspond to this day. Anyway, the plant director asked what he could do for me.

"Not much," I said, "as the military commission already told me they had no five cent surplus and new ammo cost 22 cents a round."
He replied, "I will declare all the surplus you want for five cents a round. How much will you buy?"

A lot of millions, as it turned out. It was only much later that I found out the quality guy had called the factory and told them there was an American interested in buying ammunition. That is why the factory sent the #2 guy to pick me up. Simply amazing luck that I had nothing to do with.

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