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January 24, 2012 7:48 AM   Subscribe

In almost every military video game that I've played, you are allowed to exchange your current weapon for a dead enemy's. Is it legal to do this in real life? More questions inside.

1. Is it legal to pick up and use enemy weapons? What about in cases of desperation, such as if you have run out of ammo?

2. What are, or are there penalties for losing or misplacing your own weapon while in action?

3. At what point are weapons assigned to individual soldiers? Before they start a mission? When they check in at their post?
posted by Senza Volto to Law & Government (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's apparently okay under some circumstances:

The President of the United States
Takes Pleasure in Presenting
The Navy Cross
To

Brian R. Chontosh
First Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps

For Services as Set Forth in the Following Citation:

For extraordinary heroism as Combined Anti-Armor Platoon Commander, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM on 25 March 2003. While leading his platoon north on Highway I toward Ad Diwaniyah, First Lieutenant Chontosh's platoon moved into a coordinated ambush of mortars, rocket propelled grenades, and automatic weapons fire. With coalition tanks blocking the road ahead, he realized his platoon was caught in a kill zone.

He had his driver move the vehicle through a breach along his flank, where he was immediately taken under fire from an entrenched machine gun. Without hesitation, First Lieutenant Chontosh ordered the driver to advance directly at the enemy position enabling his .50 caliber machine gunner to silence the enemy.

He then directed his driver into the enemy trench, where he exited his vehicle and began to clear the trench with an M16A2 service rifle and 9 millimeter pistol. His ammunition depleted, First Lieutenant Chontosh, with complete disregard for his safety, twice picked up discarded enemy rifles and continued his ferocious attack.

When a Marine following him found an enemy rocket propelled grenade launcher, First Lieutenant Chontosh used it to destroy yet another group of enemy soldiers.
When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others.

By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Chontosh reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 7:55 AM on January 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


Principle VI of the Nuremberg principles seems to say that maybe it wouldn't be allowed, specifically this:
"Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation of slave labor or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the Seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity."

IANAL though, so I am not entirely sure.
posted by Grither at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2012


There are reasons against it. I don't have a handy cite but there were stories of some US soldiers being mistaken for Germans in WWII because they were using found MP 40 submachine guns that make their own distinct sound. There's also the issue of resupplying ammunition.

But, there aren't any treaties or conventions that I'm aware of that disallow using found enemy weapons in the midst of active combat so long as those weapons themselves aren't in violation of any treaties (ie. cluster bombs or napalm).
posted by Burhanistan at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


And obviously, it likely heavily depends on whether or not you won the war in question.
posted by Grither at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think many soldiers in real life would voluntarily trade a weapon they've trained on -- probably quite extensively -- for one that they haven't. In desperation, though, I would imagine it's better than no weapon at all.

THIS IS MY RIFLE. THERE ARE MANY LIKE IT, etc etc.
posted by supercres at 7:58 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation of slave labor or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the Seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity."

IANAL though, so I am not entirely sure.


IANAL either but I suspect "plunder" is a term of art meaning something you take for personal (financial?) gain, not something you take (presumably) to enable survival.
posted by dismas at 7:58 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am aware most militaries don't allow plunder, but I'm not talking about *keeping* a weapon found off a dead enemy, just using it... uh... for the rest of the level, so to speak. >_>
posted by Senza Volto at 8:01 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm almost positive there are no national or international laws against it. Best practices or maybe rules against it, sure, but not a law. Simply because of how we've fought in the past.

Think about it this way. In close quarter combat, which is how we fought for most of our time on this planet, you'd use whatever came to hand. I'd think that would become engrained in the modern military mindset. We're creatures of our past, recent civilization notwithstanding.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:02 AM on January 24, 2012


1) Yes, though it is uncommon in the longer run (outside of battle) due to the logistical difficulties of getting regular ammunition for it, since it doesn't come through the normal supply lines. When I was in the Army ages ago, I ran the shooting range where they brought in a variety of enemy weapons and we trained up on their basic operation. Rifles and pistols only, though I wish we had done RPGs.

2) In general, it is heavily drilled into soldiers not to lose their weapon. It is common in training to tie your weapons to yourself with a bit of cord so they don't get lost. In combat it is also considered bad to lose a weapon, as then the enemy has access to it. If you read the book "We Were Soldiers Once, and Young", which you should as it is excellent, it recounts a story of an M16 rifle that was dropped by a wounded or killed soldier during a battle in Vietnam, and the efforts the other soldiers (and the platoon leader, if I remember correctly) went to to get it back, to the point of trying to run out into fire to get it.

3) Individual weapons are assigned in garrison, so pretty much as soon as you join your unit. You typically get a particular type of weapon depending on your job - for example, a machine gunner will get the machine gun and a pistol; the grenadier will get a rifle and a grenade launcher (which may be attached to the rifle), etc. You have a card that is like the library card for only your weapon. They are kept in a large secure room (the armory) and there is an armorer who collects cards, check the serial numbers, and then hands you your weapon. In combat, you just carry it with you all the time, so you typically memorize the serial number so you know which is yours.
posted by procrastination at 8:04 AM on January 24, 2012 [12 favorites]


Previously.

In short, American soldiers are unlikely to do this as anything but a desperation move, as anything they're likely to scavenge this way is almost certainly going to be inferior to their standard issue equipment. Further, unlike in FPS games, ammo is not all-purpose or interchangeable, and the odds are very, very low that whatever the enemy is using will work with your gun and vice versa.
posted by valkyryn at 8:14 AM on January 24, 2012


Some notes on Grither's quote:
plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity."

Military property is neither public nor private; it is government-owned.

And certainly, in the OP, military necessity is implied.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:14 AM on January 24, 2012


I'm answering based on memoirs of WWII and Vietnam, so take this with a grain of salt and remember that some soldiers might have picked up habits that were theoretically illegal. (E.g., lots of people report smoking marijuana in Vietnam, but I'm pretty sure that's not condoned.)

1. American soldiers probably wouldn't pick up enemy guns except temporarily in desperation because of the resupply, training, and friendly-fire problems described above. However, I think it was common to take guns and (in the WWII Pacific theatre) swords as souvenirs. For larger things like artillery, vehicles, and supplies, it's absolutely done to capture and use enemy materiel if you can. And apparently the Viet Cong would just take anything they could find, in combat or out.

2. Whether you get punished for losing your weapon depends on the circumstances. Obviously, in training or on base, if you just left it in a ditch somewhere or sold it to a local that would be a big problem, but it seems like there's a lot of room for mitigating circumstances in combat. There's a memoir of a corpsman in Vietnam who often describes leaving his patients' bags and weapons behind order to make them easier to carry. For example, the guy carrying the machine gun (I think an M60, so 25lbs without ammunition) got shot and they just left the machine gun where it was set up. Someone else might have gone to retrieve the gun later, but nobody gave the corpsman or his patient any trouble for abandoning it. Another time they were trying to evacuate more people than the helicopter could lift, so they threw a bunch of stuff overboard including some rifles and the ammunition for them.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:27 AM on January 24, 2012


In short, American soldiers are unlikely to do this as anything but a desperation move, as anything they're likely to scavenge this way is almost certainly going to be inferior to their standard issue equipment.

History suggests this is at least partly false. The reason that the first videogames the OP mentions included this in the first place was almost certainly a callback to Vietnam, when US soldiers often seemed to prefer the simpler, more reliable AK, probably since it could survive the humid and harsh conditions of the jungle better than the more "sophisticated" but also delicate US weapons. At least, this is the legend as depicted in, like, every Vietnam movie ever, but I believe it has at least some basis in fact: I think we have all seen photos of US troops in Vietnam wielding Kalashnikov rifles, as well as newsreels.

Mikhail Kalashnikov himself was interviewed on TV a few years ago, and I specifically remember the old coot bragging about how US troops in Iraq were doing the same thing for the same reason, and I have definitely noticed this at least twice in newsreel footage. Again, I don't know how widespread it is, but he seems at least partially correct:

Example around the 2min mark. (Warning: kinda violent.)

And finally, gun people are notoriously persnickety about weapons, and soldiers justly paranoid and even superstitious about their favored equipment, and so there will always be soldiers who grow married to a certain weapon and will use it at any opportunity. Perhaps especially if they are of the edge-seeking personality type that isn't thrilled with "standard issue" anything.

Another modern example.

So take that as a little bit of counter-data anecdote.

(PS: I enjoyed typing counter<strike just then.)
posted by rokusan at 8:36 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The first run of M-16s issued during the Vietnam war were shit. There were US Marines and soldiers who grabbed AK-47's off the battlefield and used them as a primary weapon because they didn't jam every 2nd shot and were easier to clean. This was against the rules, of course.

The distinctive sound of various weapons is an issue. But, from what I've read, this was common enough that it was known not to assume AK-47 fire came from the Vietnamese.

I don't know if a similar thing happened in WWI or not, when Canadian soldiers were sent to the front lines with a weapon that might fire 3 times before blowing up. I do know that an awful lot of Canadians died.
posted by QIbHom at 8:37 AM on January 24, 2012


Now that booby trapping and improvised explosive devices are more common, there might be a very good reason to *not* randomly pick up weapons you come across these days in the places where US military folks are fighting.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:39 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


rokusan, the soldiers with the AKs in that video are not US soldiers. They are likely Iraqis, instead. You can tell as they don't have any US patches on their uniform, nor the velcro to hold them on. They also don't have camo covers on their helmets, which is super unusual outside training for US forces.
posted by procrastination at 8:49 AM on January 24, 2012


Okay, maybe my quick search produced one bad example. But I have definitely seen it. Why isn't there a "search old newsreels" website?

I believe the Australian is actually Australian, however. ;)
posted by rokusan at 8:56 AM on January 24, 2012


rokusan:

Mikhail Kalashnikov himself was interviewed on TV a few years ago, and I specifically remember the old coot bragging about how US troops in Iraq were doing the same thing for the same reason, and I have definitely noticed this at least twice in newsreel footage. Again, I don't know how widespread it is, but he seems at least partially correct:

Example around the 2min mark . (Warning: kinda violent.)


Just to point out, the soldier pictured firing an AK at 2:04 onwards in that video is Iraqi, he's wearing US 'chocolate-chip' desert fatigues, a helmet without a camouflage cover and has shoulder epaulettes, all indicating he is not US forces.

Echoing above - use of enemy weapons is generally an in extremis measure, although some exceptions are special forces operating behind enemy line (who use the best tool for the job and have less potential for friendly fire incidents due to small size and familiarity with each other) and units where discipline is breaking down or prolonged fighting without a break has led to forces defaulting to whatever they see as most reliable (US forces in very muddy conditions in Vietnam for example).
posted by Happy Dave at 9:16 AM on January 24, 2012


While I was not infantry, I spent a lot of time with infantry - all of whom were frequently in firefights - while overseas. AFAIK, none of them ever used an AK or other weapon in a firefight. I mean I'm sure it's happened? Things go wrong. But no one's going to sling their M4 and pick up a discarded AK.

AKs are freaking heavy, by the way. I held an ANA soldier's weapon for a bit and it was like CRAZY heavier than my M16, much less the M4s that infantry were issued.
posted by kavasa at 9:24 AM on January 24, 2012


It's doubtful that the average infantryman or marine will be outside the logistic loop such that they need to pick up an enemy weapon for anything other than amusement.

That said, modern firearms can chew through ammo quickly. Ammo is heavy and magazines are bulky, so a typical soldier might only be carrying 200-odd rounds at any time. Elite soldiers operating deep enough in enemy territory might be more inclined to pick up guns and ammo. There are guns designed to be able to use "battlefield pickup" magazines.
posted by Mercaptan at 10:02 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


FWIW, in 18th and 19th Century wars, it was entirely common for troops who had overrun an enemy artillery position to turn the guns around and use them on the spot against the enemy. Not sure how practical this is now, given the variations and vagaries of different artillery pieces.

...Now if only someone would come out with a pre-20th Century FPS game...
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:19 AM on January 24, 2012


During WWII the germans made extensive use of captured enemy weaponry. Gaining Control of BRNO in Checkslovikia (sp?) was a primary reason for invading there. On the Eastern front the russian submachineguns were in high demand by german troops and generally better than the german models (for the time and place anyway).

A much more common occurance in combat is 'trading up' as casualities occur and soldiers acquire a more desirable model. This was very common for thompson submachineguns in WWII-your squadmate who had one got wounded/killed and so you discarded your rifle and picked up that, or you acquired pistols to supplemant your rifle/machinegun/whatever that you weren't officially issued (shotguns were highly desired and very rare among front line troops in this way).

As is said above there are lots of good reasons to stick with your armies stuff if possible though.
posted by bartonlong at 10:35 AM on January 24, 2012


The Gun by C.J. Chivers is a history of the AK-47 and has an interesting and extensive discussion on combat rifles in Vietnam, and mentions American troops preferring discarded enemy AK-47s to their own, less reliable rifles.

Most of the examples in this thread talk about US troops, but if you were in an army that wasn't backed by the supply chain might of the world's largest economy, your calculus would be a lot different. If you read accounts of the Eastern Front during World War II, where poorly-trained and worse-supplied troops were frequently rushed into battle on both sides of the conflict, scavenging weapons from the enemy was absolutely common behavior. Even more so in civil wars, guerilla conflicts, or other battles involving extra-governmental armies.
posted by psycheslamp at 11:01 AM on January 24, 2012


There are some special circumstances where "enemy" weapons might be issued. I believe that US SOCOM maintains a small stock of AK-types (-47, -74, etc.) for use behind enemy lines, with the idea that ammunition for them might be more easily obtainable, I suppose. I can't find any cites for this, though.

I've spoken to people who have seen individuals that they assumed to be SF (of some sort) carrying "native" weapons. I don't know (and the people in question did not ask) whether they had been issued them from inventory or if they had acquired them via some other means, though. (It is considered bad form to ask the transient dudes with facial hair and irregular weapons a lot of questions.)

But even if there's no interest by someone in a typical infantry unit in picking up discarded enemy weapons for reuse, I have been told that there's a significant effort put on retrieving discarded weapons and destroying them, either in place or by bringing them back for disposal. (This is anecdotal, but I was told that heavy weapons and explosives are typically destroyed in-place, while personal weapons are taken back and destroyed. This makes sense.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:15 AM on January 24, 2012


In short, American soldiers are unlikely to do this as anything but a desperation move, as anything they're likely to scavenge this way is almost certainly going to be inferior to their standard issue equipment.

I know that the AK has a much longer range than the smaller calibre Allied rifles, so I would not bet against our lads using one to return fire if the opportunity/need arose ...
posted by GeeEmm at 1:56 PM on January 24, 2012


The listed effective range of the AK is 350m vs. the M-16's 460m. I distinctly recall this being pointed out as an advantage during basic training. The caliber *is* smaller, but it has a much larger charge and a longer barrel to increase it's effective range.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:16 PM on January 24, 2012


The AK47s and AK74s we used for familiarization on the range I ran were much less accurate than our M16A2s. For me, I think it was that the iron sights were pushed far up on the barrel, making it harder to get a sight picture and then the length between the front and rear sight was relatively short, which adversely effects accuracy. I also fired an Israeli Galil at one point, and it has the same basic construction as an AK but has the iron sights on the rear cover closer to the shooter's eye, providing longer distance between the sights. It was also much less accurate than our M16s because the cover the rear sight was mounted on was somewhat loose, as it was removable, so the rear sight could jiggle a bit. I suppose that is why the AK sights were pushed forward, to keep them off that looser cover.

The M16A2s we had could shoot quite a long way. The iron sights adjusted out to 800 meters, and prone shooting out in the desert one time I was hitting man-sized targets at that range (oh, for the good eyes of youth). The newer M4s are shorter and aren't quite as accurate at range, so I understand in Afghanistan they have brought back the older M14 for longer range engagements.

The AK74 was really fun to shoot, though. It had a big muzzle brake and you could go full auto and still control the fire very well. You couldn't really shoot much beyond about 200 meters, though, even on single shot.
posted by procrastination at 6:38 PM on January 24, 2012


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