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The Jezail
Afghanistan’s Kentucky rifle

The English invaded Afghanistan from India three times in the 1800s. These were Sepoy armies, Indian men led by Englishmen, trained to fight in tight ranks, and armed with the Brown Bess musket. Sepoys were physically small, and their weapons had to be scaled down to make them easier to handle. But in other respects they were as good as British regulars, sometimes better. Individually inaccurate, soldiers of the day fired terrifying volleys, spewing hundreds of bullets at close range.

In the American war for independence, colonial militias found a way to fight British heavy infantry. They spread out under cover of rough terrain and shot up the tightly packed English ranks with hunting weapons like the Kentucky rifle. Volleys of poorly aimed musket balls were wasted on skirmishing militiamen, especially at the long ranges permitted by the Kentucky rifle. The experience in America might have prepared the English for Afghanistan. But when Afghan tribal militias started picking them off with the Jezail, the English still had no tactical answer. An entire British army was wiped out retreating from Kabul to Jallalabad in 1842.

The Jezail was a style of musket common in Muslim lands. Because the lock mechanism was complicated, many were just removed from captured Brown Bess muskets. The distinctive curved butt must have been clenched between the right arm and side, not braced up against the shoulder. The stock was hand-carved, the long barrel hand-wrought, and sometimes rifled. The Jezail was for fighting, not hunting, so the bore was larger than that of the Kentucky rifle. The kit included a horn bipod and lead balls cast to fit the barrel tightly. In a weirdly appropriate physical metaphor, Afghans made the powder pouch from a camel’s scrotum. Combined, a long barrel and tight-fitting ball made the Jezail more accurate than the Brown Bess. Many Jezails were ornately engraved to mirror the beauty and lethality tribal warriors felt they possessed themselves.

Today, Pashtun workshops hand make copies of current military rifles like the Armalite and Kalishnikov. A tribesman without a rifle is emasculated and ashamed, so a disarmed Afghan village has at least one assault rifle per adult male, just no artillery. Afghans no longer shoot accurately and carefully like they did with the Jezail, though, they use the AK47 “spray and pray” technique.