I spent almost 15 years working as an international private security contractor. I’ve worked assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Kenya, and other places. But the most exciting and interesting was the 2 ½ years I worked in Iraq from 2004 to 2007.
I worked as a Personal Security Detail (PSD) team member, tactical driver, convoy escort vehicle commander, overall security team leader for $500 million in DoD reconstruction projects throughout Iraq, and finally, as the security manager and force commander at a remote project site isolated in the Mahdi Militia region of southern Iraq.
Each of those positions required me to be armed every day and gave me the honor of working with a lot of great people from the USA, Great Britain, South Africa, Nepal, Philippines, Angola, Iraq, Lebanon, and Kurdistan. It also gave me the opportunity to carry and use a wide range of weapons.
If you’re a soldier, the military decides what you will be using when you go to war. For Americans, it was some flavor of M16/M4 and the Beretta M9 pistol. For the troops from Eastern Europe, like the Georgians and Romanians, it was the AK and its derivatives. The Brits used the SA80, and the Australians had the F88 Austeyr.
There were Italian troops at the Tallil Air Base near Nasiriyah when I was there, but I never saw them carrying any weapons. They did have several nice restaurants with great food on their side of the base. I guess they had their own priorities.
As a contractor, you use whatever your employer issues to you. Although you also have the luxury of using anything else you run across as long as you can keep it running and find ammo for it. We can sit in the comfort of our homes and argue which handgun is the best for EDC or debate the AK vs the M4 all day, but when you are a security contractor in a war zone, you make the best of whatever you have.
Arming on the Cheap
Back in the Wild West days of Iraq, just after the invasion in 2003 and up through 2005, the quickest and cheapest way to arm a private security force was to hand someone a duffle bag full of cash and send them out to buy some guns and ammo on the Black Market. Guns procured this way had usually been ‘liberated’ from the Iraqi military and were generally well broken in, to put it mildly. The weapons I’ve seen acquired this way include AK variants, HK G3s, MP5s, FNs, and Browning Hi-Powers.
One guy even came up with a WWII British Sterling SMG, an open bolt design not known for its safety. A month after arriving in Iraq, our Suburban crashed on Route 1 near the Samara Overpass. The guy was next to me carrying his locked and loaded Sterling.
As we bounced off a large truck and crashed through the overpass guardrails, I was hoping he was pointing that damned Sterling somewhere beside my direction. He was facing to the rear, and all the gear in the back flew forward and hit him square in the face. He only got a concussion, and I didn’t get shot, so I put that one in the win column.
The Top 5 Contractor Guns
In my time in Iraq, five guns were issued to Western contractors, most often. I’ll cover other guns I ran across there in another section.
At one time or another, pretty much every Western security contractor was issued an AK of some kind. They were easy to procure, and ammunition was plentiful. They were also easy to operate, so even people who had never shot one before could learn to use them. Many of the ones bought off the street were in rough condition. But they were simple enough guns that our armorers could mix and match parts and get enough of them functional. The 7.62X39 cartridge was pretty good and had decent penetration against cars.
I was issued an AK on two different security contracts. We were issued the AKM version with an under-folding stock. This was because we spent a lot of time in vehicles and often had to return fire from a moving vehicle. In that situation, a folding stock is an advantage.
I was never a big fan of the AKs, but they worked well enough. Some of the other guys really liked them and spent money out of their own pockets to customize them to make them more ergonomic and effective. Like them or not, they were the most common firearm in use by contractors in Iraq.
You might think the next most common firearm issued was the M4. And that might be the case, but in my experience, it was the MP5. Every team of contractors had them, whether their primary weapons were AKs or M4s.
They weren’t much use at longer ranges or against a vehicle, but they were excellent for close quarters or covert assignments. We used them for close protection in buildings when I was doing Personal Security Details (PSD) for clients. They are compact, easy to maneuver, and far less obtrusive than an M4 or AK.
We even had some that were suppressed. The cities and villages were full of packs of feral dogs during the war. They may still be since most Iraqis don’t like dogs or keep them as pets. The dogs were hungry and vicious, and rabies wasn’t uncommon. We would take the suppressed MP5s out at night to reduce the feral dog population. They are a very nice little SMG with practically no recoil and a high rate of fire.
I have to say I like the M4. They’re ergonomic, accurate, and easy to take care of. I was glad to be issued one on a couple of different contracts. The first was a Bushmaster SBR that was semiautomatic. This was when I was doing convoy escort work. It was an SBR to make it more manageable in a vehicle.
We had Kurds working with us as shooters. They were armed with AKs and RPK squad automatic weapons. They tended to always be on full auto. Some of them weren’t the best shots, but they always put out a good volume of fire.
There was a standing order that if there was an enemy they couldn’t hit, they were supposed to come get one of the Americans, that was us, and we would take care of the guy for them. When you’re placing your shots, semi-auto is just what you need.
The second one I had was a beautiful brand new Colt selective fire M4. It was smooth as butter and a dream to shoot. I had that when I was a force commander at that remote project site outside of Nasiriya. Hostile militias surrounded us. We would stand up on the parapet behind the HESCO box perimeter at night and watch the firefights between the Shia Mahdi and Badr militias, who both wanted to be in control.
M4s were great because there was so much gear you could customize them with. We had access to EOTech sights, lights, and other goodies. Definitely my favorite of everything I had access to over there.
4. Browning Hi-Power
Everyone had a handgun as well as a rifle. Most often, it was a locally procured Browning Hi-Power. These were the original item, complete with a magazine disconnect safety and the lousy trigger that came with it.
Hi-Powers were everywhere and very easy to acquire. Since they shot the same 9mm that everything else did, ammo was plentiful as well. It was a utilitarian gun that got the job done. But it wasn’t one of my personal favorites.
5. Glock 17
The other most common contractor handgun was the G17. It was perfect for the harsh environment. We had plenty of days when there were dust storms so bad that it looked like it was foggy outside. There was always a layer of dust on everything, inside and outside. The kind of environment where a Glock really shines.
They were also light compared to the Hi-Powers, and very accurate. At one point, I had both a Glock and a Browning. I carried the Glock in my drop leg holster and left the Hi-Power in the cross-draw holster on my vest. That way, I could drop my vest and gear but still have a gun on me. I never went anywhere unarmed, including the PX and the DEFAC.
Other Guns Used by Contractors
Although the AK and M4 were the two most common battle rifles issued to contractors in Iraq, several others made appearances to one extent or the other. While never as common as other firearms, they were there nevertheless.
The G3 first entered service in 1959. Since then, around 8 million have been built. That means there are a lot of them floating around, both the genuine item and copies. I never saw an entire team equipped with them, but most teams, ours included, liked to have one or two around.
Because they shot the powerful 7.62X51 NATO round, they were much better for stopping vehicles than either an AK or an M4. We sourced out some AP rounds from the military and loaded the magazines so that every third round was AP. That made them effective for putting a round through an engine block but still effective in a firefight against unarmored enemy combatants. Ours had telescoping stocks, so they weren’t too hard to maneuver in a vehicle.
The FN/FAL is one of my favorite rifles. I just love the way they feel and shoot. But they are long at 43”, and weigh around 9.5 pounds empty. So they’re not something I would want to carry for a long time. Still, it wasn’t uncommon for one person on a team to have one in addition to their regular weapon.
Like the HK, they chambered the 7.62 NATO round, so they had great range and power. Because of their size, the only person in a vehicle who could realistically use one was the ‘Trunk Monkey.’ That was the guy who rode in an armored box in the very back of a Suburban or pickup truck and faced the rear to provide rear security.
The Trunk Monkey usually had a Russian PKM machine gun or a U.S. M240, but the FN rested by his side. It was perfect for a precision shot into an engine. They were also useful when we were stationary as a designated marksman weapon.
M240 and PKM Machine Guns
Many teams had a machine gun. They were especially important when doing convoy escorts. I was on a contract where we escorted high-value and sensitive equipment being transferred from the U.S. military to the Iraqi security forces and police. Things like AK rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and even light armored vehicles and police cars were carried on semis. Things the insurgents would have loved to destroy or get ahold of for themselves.
I was the vehicle commander for the trail vehicle on my team. That means we were the last vehicle and had to watch for everything from VBIEDs (car bombs) to vehicles full of shooters coming up behind us. We had a PKM, but some of the other teams had an M240. Either one was a very good machine gun.
I didn’t include the 1911 in the top 5 guns list simply because they weren’t that common in Iraq. The SOCOM guys used them, and a few contractors had them. But most organizations issued a 9mm because it was easy to get ammunition.
I was issued a nice Kimber 1911 on the same contract where I was issued the Colt M4. That was a very generous employer. They also sent us 30,000 rounds of .45 ACP, so ammunition wasn’t a problem. They were beautiful guns and very accurate. We had to be sure to keep them clean, but as long as we did, they worked fine.
Other contractors that saw us with them were always envious. I loved mine, but I still kept my Hi-Power stuffed in my vest holster, just in case.
I only saw a team with P90s once. We had just pulled into the Green Zone PX parking lot when three Mercedes SUVs pulled in. You could tell they were armored by the windows and the way it sounded when the team guys closed the doors.
We had stopped to watch when we saw the Mercedes, but we did a double take when we saw they were all carrying P90 PDWs (Personal Defense Weapons). That was the only time we ever saw them or P90s over there. We couldn’t tell what kind of pistols they had, but it would seem logical that they were FN 5.7 pistols, so they could use the same ammunition.
I mentioned that one of our guys had picked up a Sterling somewhere. The Sterling was designed back in 1944 but was manufactured as recently as 1988. No clue where it came from, but it could have been bouncing around since WWII. It worked, and he thought it was cool to use it instead of an MP5. It definitely wasn’t as effective, but it shot 9mm and had a certain romanticism to it.
Another one of the guys found an M1 Garand, but it was in terrible condition. Even if he could have gotten it working, there was no source for clips or ammunition.
There were lots of old Soviet-era guns around. I saw several SKS in the hands of locals. One team had a Dragunov SVD with an old Russian scope. It worked well, and I imagine it made a decent designated marksman rifle.
If you’re a ‘gun nut,’ and if you are reading this, being an international security contractor will scratch your itch. It was an experience I would gladly do again, and one of the benefits was all the cool gear I got to play around with.
But to us, they were more than range toys. They were the tools of our trade, and we used them daily. We got called mercenaries and gunslingers, but we knew which side we were on, and we were glad to be there. We may have left active duty, and we were all veterans, but we were still serving in the only way we still could.