In 2009 I was a Special Forces Weapons Sergeant deployed to Tal Afar, Iraq. Being a Weapons Sergeant of course, I liked all the toys. We got to play with all manner of pistols, sub-machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, machine guns, mortar systems, and more. Being overseas with 24/7 access to connex containers filled with ammo and our own range was any gun nut’s dream.
We also had an arms room filled with captured foreign weapons. This included a handful of Russian SVD Dragonov sniper rifles. As someone who served as a sniper and attended the Army Sniper course at Ft. Benning, I had a particular interest in this rifle and in learning how it (along with the baffling PSO-1 scope) worked.
The SVD fires the 7.62×54 Rimmed cartridge, the same as the Russian PKM machine gun. However, precision rifles require precision ammunition. The bullet is just as important as the rifle, both designed to create consistent results when fired. The US Army’s M24 and SR-25 can be fired with normal 7.62 ammunition that the M240B machine gun fires, but that would only be in an emergency. An American sniper needs 7.62×51 LR rounds to maintain accuracy at long range.
According to the library of gun books that I lugged around with me, the SVD also fired specialized ammunition, a light ball round which you can tell apart from normal 7.62x54R ammo by its silver tip. I managed to scrounge up some of these rounds buried somewhere in the arms room, grabbed an SVD, and headed out to the range to figure this thing out.
Once I radioed up that the range was hot, I set up a target and attempted to bore sight the rifle. Finally, I loaded up a magazine of 7.62x54R light ball ammunition and settled into a stable firing position. At the bottom of my breath, I let the trigger break. The hammer fell but nothing happened. Looking away from the scope I suddenly noticed gray smoke curling out from the ejection port. Attempting to clear the rifle, I found the bolt solidly locked into place. At that point, I notified my buddy out on the range that something was wrong and that my rifle might cook off a round.
After stepping away for a few minutes, I came back and again attempted to clear the rifle and make it safe, but to no avail. This was the point at which my friend and I started joking about the big rubber mallet that Weapons Sergeants carry around, and laughing about how I was to fix the damn thing. Frustrated, I returned to the arms room, grabbed another SVD and headed back to the range. I loaded it up, pulled the trigger, and was met with the exact same result! Smoke coming out of the chamber and the bolt now completely locked in the forward position. What the hell?
Taking both guns back to the arms room, I worked them over and over with various cleaning solvents and some 18B brute strength to try to get them back into operation. I managed to free the bolt on one of the two guns but was unable to extract the bullet, even after filling the barrel with gun oil, leaving it overnight, and then trying to tap it out with a cleaning rod and the aforementioned mallet.
By now I was getting suspicious.
One of the other books I lugged around on deployment was about MACV-SOG. The Studies and Observations Group pulled off some of the most dangerous missions of the Vietnam War, often deploying in small six-man recon teams deep into Laos and Cambodia. MACV-SOG was a joint project between the US Army Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency.
I recalled that they were involved in something called Project Eldest Son, in which CIA technicians would sabotage eastern bloc ammunition and then give it to SOG recon teams to circulate into Viet Cong and NVA arms caches. Sometimes they would take an AK-47 bullet designed to explode in the user’s face and stick it into the magazine of a dead enemy after a ambush. Other times they would leave out entire cases of sabotaged ammunition for the enemy to find. Eldest Son not only killed communists, but also spread fear and doubt within the Vietnamese forces about the war material they were getting from the Russians.
I never did get those SVD’s fixed. The ammunition had welded itself inside the chamber of the rifle. Not only was the ammunition not functional, but it also destroyed the rifle when fired. Note that these bullets were silver tipped 7.62x54R to be fired from sniper rifles, specifically. I ended up taking apart one of the rounds that I hadn’t fired and found it was filled with black powder, nothing particularly suspicious about that.
It wasn’t until about four years later that I finally got to the bottom of it while having a conversation with a former CIA paramilitary contractor. He mentioned that they were given ammunition that had been sabotaged in this manner and told to drop the rounds alongside roads or wherever else that the enemy would find it.
Not only had the CIA recycled an old program to sabotage enemy ammunition and weapons, but they also had the foresight to know that this ammunition would eventually find its way into the hands of Americans, particularly big dumb ones like me. Rather than design the rounds to explode in your face, they instead merely rendered the weapon system inoperable.
And for that, I thank you, Mr. CIA man.