To trace possible Iranian support for militant forces across the Middle East, look for the telltale silhouette of the Type 73 machine gun.
The weapon appears to be a staple of covert Iranian aid to armed groups.
The Type 73 is North Korean in origin and first appeared in the 1970s. The 23-pound, 7.62-millimeter weapon blends the basic layout of the Russian PKM machine gun with the feeding system from the Czech Vz.52. “The arrangement allows gunners to load the weapons with belts of ammunition or large magazines,” Joseph Trevithick noted in a 2016 article. “When fitted, the magazines stick out of the top, giving the firearms a distinctly dated appearance.”
Small Arms Defense Journal called the Type 73 “probably one of the most unknown mass-produced automatic weapons in the world.”
Even within the mist of secrecy regarding North Korean firearms, the Type 73 is still clouded in mystery. Vague pictures showing parts of the Type 73 as soldiers carried them were released from time to time in North Korean propaganda films, but no details were ever released. The Type 73 was occasionally spotted in the surveillance photos taken by South Korean or U.S. forces.
The reason for the rarity of sightings is, of course, their obsessive secrecy; so top secret in fact, that most of North Korea’s indigenous weapons have no printed manual. Armorers or mechanics have to learn, memorize, and if one really wants to have some kind of manual to refer to, he has to hand-write one. Manuals like this are one-of-the-kind, and hard to get out of North Korea.
The Type 73 was never very popular in North Korean service, and starting in 1982 Pyongyang quickly replaced the weapon with the more-conventional Type 82. But facing a shortage of machine guns during the bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran imported a large number of Type 73s.
“In the years that followed, Iranian factories made improvements and built copies of many of the designs,” Trevithick reported. Tehran now apparently ships those copies to militant groups.
“As conflict spread across the Middle East after the Arab Spring in 2011, North Korea stepped up small-arms shipments to Libya and Syria, according to arms researchers,” The Wall Street Journal reported. According to the newspaper, Type 73s have also turned up in battles in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, “likely via Iran.”
Western forces on several occasions in recent years have intercepted ships hauling illicit cargoes comprising Type 73s, among other weapons. Armament Research Services in 2016 documented the Type 73 in the hands of several Iran-backed militant groups.
Images from Iraq show the Type 73 primarily in the hands of Iraqi Shi’a militias, particularly Badr Brigade forces, which have operated under direction from, and with substantial military support from, Iran. Other groups have also acquired limited examples of the Type 73, including the Al-Imam Ali Brigade and the Christian Babylon Brigades.
The Type 73 has also been documented in the hands of the Syrian Arab Army operating near Palmyra, Syria. A recent video from the Al-Masirah channel shows the Type 73 in the hands of a Houthi fighter in Taiz governorate.
There are two reasons for the weapon’s new popularity, Trevithick explained. “If Iran is indeed the source, officials probably chose to ship the weapons in the first place simply because they were available. Since the guns use the same cartridges and ammunition belts as the much more common PKM, militants would have little trouble using the Type 73s.”
“Soon, the uncommon Type 73 might become much better known to military experts and independent observers. As the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen grinds on, the machine guns might end up a much more common sight in the Middle East and East Africa — and maybe beyond — with or without any direct connection to Iran.”