The Weapons of Somalian Pirates

(Economic Times)

2022 was quite a success for maritime safety. The number of pirate attacks dwindled down to numbers from the 1990s. I remember a decade or so ago, Somalian pirates were all anyone could talk about. I was on a MEU that did ‘anti-piracy ops, which means doing gator squares in the ocean and chasing off small boats when they randomly popped up. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as I had imagined. With the threat currently in the rearview, I’ve taken an interest in the small arms of pirates off the horn of Africa.

I’ve poured over numerous articles varying in depth about the weaponry, and most just deliver some photos making it easy to see what the current crop of pirate weapons looks like. Most people will be able to guess what the most common weapon is among the pirates, but there might be a few surprises in tow.

The AK Series – The Pirate Favorite

Russian-designed small arms are everywhere, including in numerous African states. I use the term AK series because it seems that Somalian AKs come from all around the world. Russian, Middle Eastern, and even what appears to be Chinese Type 56 platforms have flowed into Africa and Somalia over time.

Normally the AKs are beaten to hell, and it seems like most have the stocks lopped off. If they have stocks, they are typically under folders. Rust is everywhere, and it looks like they are almost as dangerous to the user as they are the intended victim. The pirates seem to have buckets of AKs, which fit since the AK was the standard rifle for Somlian military forces.


To continue our theme of Russian small arms, the pirates also seem to have an affinity for the PKM. The PKM is a belt-fed, medium machine gun chambering the 7.62x54R. It’s the third-world GPMG of choice. In reality, it’s a robust, well-made belt-fed firearm. The gun is fairly light compared to other medium machine guns and is essentially an AK series rifle flipped upside down and fed from a belt.

The PKM offers a bit more firepower and is likely a better choice for pirates on boats to fire those warning bursts. It would seem a bit inconvenient to tote on a boat, but it would also make holding the ship from recapture easier. Like the AKs, these guns seem beat to hell and have a battle-worn finish that would make 2016 cerakote guys jealous.


Finally, we get to the weapon that would strike fire into any captain. The RPG-7, aka the Ruchnoy Protivotankoviy Granatomyot, is a man-portable, reusable rocket-propelled grenade launcher. It fires a large warhead capable of penetrating armor rather well for its size. It punches through the thin skin of a commercial ship easily.


The RPG-7 is quite simple for an anti-tank weapon and is prevalent across Africa. This includes use by the Somalian military for decades. If a group of pirates in a small boat start fielding RPGs, things are potentially going to get very bad in the near future, and it’s likely their most effective weapon.

Pirate Weapons Outside the Norm

While Soviet small arms dominate the region, it’s not the only firearm that has popped up in use by pirates. In fact, a few oddballs have popped up a few times fairly frequently.


The SAR-80, or Singapore Assault Rifle, is a short-stroke gas piston gun chambered in 5.56. Its a design heavily inspired by the AR-18. The SAR-80 was fairly modern in the 1970s when it was designed. The rifle wasn’t heavily adopted by the Singapore military but was heavily exported. While it seems odd for one to reach the hands of a Somalian pirate, it’s really not when you examine their exports.

SAR-80 rifles were sent to numerous African countries, including Somalia in the 1980s. The rifles were supposed to arm Somali government forces, but as we know, a failed state rarely holds onto its firearms for very long. In fact, it’s surprising it’s not more common. A likely issue for the pirates is probably difficulty in finding ammo and magazines.


The German G3 rifle served Germany for decades as their main battle rifle. This roller delayed, HK built battle rifle chambers the 7.62 NATO cartridge and fires from a 20-round magazine. It’s a beefy, Teutonic killing machine and found its way into several pirates’ hands. These rifles have been popular in Africa, with Africa being a cold war hotspot and Europeans moving in.

European allies in Africa were armed with the rifle, and they armed their African allies with the same rifles. They’ve been popular with several official military forces and rebels. It’s not crazy to imagine they’ve been passed around and found in the hands of less reputable people.

Tokarev TT-33

The Tokarev TT-33 pistol is another Soviet Small arm, and while Soviet small arms aren’t anything new in Africa, the TT-33 is an old gun. It’s a World War 2-era firearm that is somewhat odd to be found in Africa. The 7.62x25mm Tokarev round isn’t exactly common, but Soviet small arms get sent everywhere.

What’s odd is with the several photos and reports I find I have run across, they all have lanyard loops, which might be quite handy out at sea. Especially when you don’t have a holster. The little Tok is still good enough to be threatening and capable to an unarmed crew.

Argh Mateys

The pirate threat is not necessarily over, but it’s most certainly calmed a bit. Maritime security, international response, and more have tempered the high seas near the horn of Africa. It’s fascinating the see how effective a small and mobile force can be, even without much training or organization. To me, and likely you, it’s even more fascinating to observe the weaponry they use. We are a long way from swords and blunderbusses.

Travis Pike
Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.