Over the long period of the Syrian Civil War, one particular weapons system has become the most prominent on the side of opposition and rebel forces. This is the ATGM or the Anti-Tank Guided Missile. However, the topic of ATGM use has been amply covered by multiple writers so I’ll focus on something different and almost as useful- the Anti-Materiel Rifle.
The Anti-Materiel rifle as a concept is not new- it dates back to WWI when German forces realised the need of these heavy weapons in order to combat the tanks of the British Army. The first AMR was based on a scaled up Mauser infantry action.
An anti-materiel rifle (AMR) is a rifle that is designed for use against military equipment (materiel), rather than against other combatants ("anti-personnel").
Since then the most iconic AMR by far has been the Barrett “50 Cal”. It has seen conflict with multiple countries in various theatres- most notably the US- and even with terrorist groups such as the IRA in Northern Ireland. However, the idea of a craft made non factory-made anti-materiel rifle is much less common given the large chamber pressures, cartridge, and other rigours of use. It is much easier particularly in the criminal context to construct simple pistols or slam-fire shotguns. Particularly the former firing small calibre pistol rounds, given the most likely requirements of irregular and criminal groups that lack supply lines for factory made weapons. For this purpose, the conversion of blank-firing weapons to fire live ammunition is increasingly common.
This is not to say that the concept of a craft built AMR is unique to Syria- they have been recently constructed in Ukraine, the Philippines, and wider afield. These are rough weapons usually built from pre-existing machine gun receivers with only minor changes to enable the use of pistol grips, stocks, optics they are also typically very heavy, very large and inaccurate.
As the Syrian conflict continues, however, these Concepts have been refined dramatically. In my view this is down to a number of factors. This includes long experience with factory constructed AMRs in the field; Chinese, Russian, Iranian and other designs- which are regularly captured from regime forces and employed. Their use as a long range weapon able to disable enemy vehicles, ATGM launchers, IRAMs and the like is well documented and very popular by almost every side in the War.
However, parts availability, in reality the availability of a single part, is key for local AMR development: the heavy machine gun barrel.
The availability of a heavy machine gun barrel is generally essential for those wishing to build a craft made anti-materiel rifle- the barrel is usually one of the most difficult components to manufacture. Indeed, most improvised firearms of a much smaller calibre usually have a smooth bore barrel or also have to obtain one from a factory weapon.
Whilst a HMG is certainly not designed for the same purpose as an anti-materiel rifle. generally the chambering, quality etc are entirely compatible with use in a single shot rifle. In Syria, spare barrels are comparatively easy to find. Regime stocks of HMG barrels are regularly captured and obtained via corruption (This is also the case with lighter machine gun barrels such as the PK/PKT used to rebarrel Mosin-Nagant rifles). These barrels are designed to be swiftly removable from their original platform, so are trivial to reuse. They are uncommonly seen on local markets, but are comparatively plentiful on the ground.
A significant factor is the introduction of a particular factory-made AMR- the AM-50 Sayyad. As covered in a previous article, the AM-50 is an Iranian clone of an Austrian rifle (The Steyr HS .50) that whilst being reliable, accurate and generally well regarded (Besides a rather rough trigger group and sometimes problematic bolt), is also a very simple design. It is generally much more simple than semi-automatic Barrett rifles or their Russian counterparts such as the ASVK, NSV etc.
This design is basic enough that it can be copied easily (As it has been by the Iranians from the original HS.50) however, that simplicity also enables gunsmiths working in rebel held areas (Greater Idlib) to produce AM-50 pattern rifles. Rifles based on the AM-50 have become much more popular in recent years. These rifles use a mix of parts ranging from original AM-50 components in some cases, AK grips (Possible FCGs too), and locally constructed parts. (These are totally unrelated to the “Golan” series of AM-50 copies manufactured by the Assad regime, although Golan may have been captured also)
It also appears that AM-50 related developments also extend to the repair of captured AM-50 rifles (The AM-50 is known to have a design flaw with the barrel receiver mounting construction, sometimes requiring reinforcements to avoid barrel droop, particularly with heavy use). Many Idlibi made “AM-50” have shorter barrels than the original, likely due to the original HMG barrel length- whilst this will decrease accuracy and velocity, it does not appear to have been an issue.
However, this is not the only kind of AMR manufactured locally- weapons manufactured in Idlib (Usually in 12.7x108mm, and occasionally 14.5x114mm) are sometimes more complex, including magazine fed examples made from milled aluminum. These have been seen in use with factions all the way from Ansar al Tawhid to TFSA groups in Afrin. It is also known that Idlibi factions have tested 1-2 “Zagros” rifles as made by the PKK and YPG for their accuracy and functionality- these AMR are generally simpler than those constructed in Idlib but are apparently surprisingly accurate. Whilst TFSA factions have used and copied the Zagros design, they are not used in Idlib.
Unfortunately internals of Idlibi-made rifles have been very hard to come by, even when requested from those on the ground, so their safety and accuracy is unclear. That said, they have been seen multiple times in action, so it is sensible to presume that their design is good enough to be of use and trusted not to harm the user. They have advanced from single shot rifles to be magazine fed, and with slow changes in stock design, bipod mounting (Ensuring that bipod is stood off from barrel), ensuring the barrel is free floated, etc. Regardless, many rifles of differing but similar design, from a small pool of engineers, are available for purchase and appear to be regularly constructed. They fetch good prices ($1000-1500), and whilst worth less than original AMR (Original NSV and Zijiang M99, which are semi automatic, are the most valued), provide a powerful capability for factions to “reach out and touch” at range. It seems that features are customised for the user, and not particularly standardised by the small number of smiths who develop the rifles in Idlib and North Aleppo.
Anti-Materiel rifles are also commonly used with massive suppressors, patterned after the Barrett QDL externally. These appear to be effective in reducing sound signature, but as sound testing data is unavailable, it is difficult to be sure as to how effective they really are.
Harassing sniper fire is one of the most common actions in this semi-frozen conflict, and does not appear to be viewed by either side as violating the cease fire. Large calibre ammo, whilst often merely meant for HMG, is way cheaper than ATGM or even SPG-9 ammunition. It is generally less accurate than specialised precision ammo, so dual sniper teams are commonly seen to increase likelihood of shot placement. AMR are seen in use at range against human targets, heavy machine guns, rockets, and vehicles.
It's likely that over time the use of AMR in Idlib will not slow down, given their very useful capabilites and the de facto restrictions on weapons that can be used. Hence, their development will continue- local gunsmiths have already proven to be skilled at their craft, and supply of factory weapons is very unlikely to increase. The story of these powerful rifles won't end any time soon.