India has made some pretty big headlines this year.
From border skirmishes to billion-dollar defense deals, the world has been going back and forth between biting its nails to scratching its head in confusion.
Although India boasts the world’s second-largest army and third-largest economy, it’s still considered a developing country that is heavily reliant on foreign investments, particularly the international arms market.
In the last decade, India has spent more money on foreign firearms than any other nation in the world.
In fact, the country’s government recently announced that it intends to spend $18.52 billion on imported weapons by the end of 2021.
Which is strange, because India’s Ordnance Factory Board is one of largest defense equipment manufacturers in the world.
Orders are made, deals fall through, domestic products fail, and India continues to spend billions on American and Russian weapons.
What’s going on? And why is India panic-buying such an eclectic range of rifles from all over the world?
To understand this issue, we need to take a step back and review India’s territory conflicts with China, as well as the country’s struggle to produce domestic rifles.
Now, this isn’t an all-encompassing guide. That would take more than a single blog post and at least a dozen margaritas for yours truly (for the record, I’m game if you are).
But it’s important to keep up with major political events, so consider this your SparkNotes-style introduction to the Indo-Sino conflict and India’s ongoing efforts to equip its forces with functional and reliable firearms.
I’ll also throw in a fun highlight reel of a few imported small arms used by the Indian Army today. After all, guns are always the best part of any Pew Pew Tactical blog!
Table of Contents
What Does the Indian Army Look Like Today?
The Indian Army is a land-based military branch that boasts over 1 million active personnel, making it the world’s largest all-volunteer army.
Its primary mission as a national military force is to maintain peace within the country’s borders by suppressing external conflicts—such as the territorial disputes with China and Pakistan, dealing with internal security challenges, and conducting humanitarian rescue operations in times of crisis.
Unfortunately, their firearms are more than a little outdated for being such a critical component of the Indian Armed Forces—especially with China’s salami-slicing at the border.
The Why: India’s Border Disputes With China & Pakistan
Three nuclear-armed countries are shaping the future of South Asia: China, a rising global superpower; Pakistan, a nation hellbent on revising regional order; and India, the heart of this precarious geopolitical landscape.
Geographically speaking, it’s not great to be India.
China and Pakistan are slowly picking away at the country’s borders to claim more slices of the Indian pie; specifically, the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
But don’t presume that India is an innocent party; they’ve antagonized Pakistani troops and the People’s Liberation Army on more than one occasion to “prevent” unnecessary flare-ups at the border.
The source of the territorial disputes between China and India comes down to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a border that separates the two countries.
So, what’s the big deal with the LAC?
It was never negotiated by the Chinese and Indian governments. The latter didn’t even exist at the time.
British colonial administer Sir Henry McMahon devised the controversial demarcation line during the Simla Convention in 1914.
Britain had been trying to establish a boundary for north-east India since the mid-19th century.
At the time, India was still the crown jewel of the British Empire. Spices, textiles, jewels, meat-shields for the British war machine—India had it all, whether they liked it or not.
However, the British hit a stumbling block in their mapping because the trading town of Tawang was technically in Tibet, not China.
Fast-forward through the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the rise of Tibet as an independent nation, and you get the 1914 Simla Convention.
The purpose of this convention was to negotiate the official status of Tibet. Of course, the newly founded Republic of China refused to accept Tibet’s sovereignty, and negotiations quickly soured.
After failing to protest the demarcation line, the Chinese representatives left the convention in a huff, leaving their British and Tibetan counterparts to shrug and sign the agreement without them.
While China spent the next century going “WTF” and challenging the LAC with nail bats and firepower, New Delhi picked up the British map and decided, “I guess we’ll just keep using this, guys!”
After three major border disputes in 1962 (Sino-Indian War), 1967 (Chola incident), and 1987 (Sino-Indian Skirmish), India and China “agreed” to respect the LAC.
However, they still throw hands every now and then because India claims the de facto border is 3,288 km long while China is convinced it’s only 2,000 km.
How does Pakistan come into this story?
In 1947, the Indian National Congress finally kicked the British out of the territory (sort of, colonization is bad), which was then partitioned into two independent countries: Pakistan (Muslims) and India (Hindus).
To this day, the Pakistani people believe that the whole of Kashmir should belong to the nation of Pakistan, including the territory that’s administered by India.
After decades of border skirmishes and conflicts, which culminated in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the two countries finally signed the Simla Agreement in 1972, all while under the watchful eye of the United Nations.
A critical component of this agreement was the establishment of the Line of Control (LOC), which is not to be confused with the LAC, even though they’re practically the same thing and equally useless.
The Line of Control, a de facto border that divides Kashmir into two parts, is not legally recognized as an international boundary.
It successfully severed villages and separated families but failed to prevent ongoing armed conflict between the two countries.
Last year, India poked the dragon by annexing its section of Kashmir and allegedly launching an airstrike on a military training camp in Pakistan, triggering a new wave of border conflicts.
And that brings us back to the present!
The 2020 China-India Skirmishes
Unfortunately, the Chinese military doesn’t feel overly threatened by New Delhi’s strategy of limited engagement.
On May 5, 2020, Chinese border troops armed with nail-studded clubs attacked the Indian Army in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas.
Why nail-studded clubs?
Based upon previous rules of engagement signed in 1996 and 2005, India and China cannot use explosives or firearms within two kilometers of the LAC.
Ladakh is an interesting region, politically speaking. Even though it’s administered by India as a union territory, it has been occupied by the Chinese since 1962—and they want to claim it for good.
The 2020 China-India Skirmishes (as it is now being called) were reportedly a response to the development of Indian infrastructure along the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road in eastern Ladakh.
It was also a way for President Xi Jinping to recover his ego and gain some street cred after the Trump Administration shamed him for China’s COVID-19 response.
The initial May skirmish involved 250 men and resulted in over 100 injuries and 20 Indian casualties.
There were reportedly over 40 Chinese fatalities, but the government is keeping that info hush-hush.
You know how it is.
This incident ultimately snow-balled into an 8-week-long engagement that provoked friction points in Galwan Valley, Sikkim, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and other locations down the LAC.
Diplomatic discussions, trade issues, and global pressure finally culminated in a mutual disengagement plan that was fulfilled on July 25, 2020.
But the root of the conflict still exists because the Chinese government refuses to settle on a border.
In fact, they are purposely pushing territory “goalposts” to secure a critical trade route as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In 2019, a Pentagon assessment revealed that China is fielding some of the world’s most advanced weaponry and technology, including hypersonic missiles and nuclear weapons, on top of having a massive military force.
India, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how to manufacture rifles.
Now, don’t get me wrong. India is hardly stuck in the Stone Age. Not even close. For better or worse, they are a nuclear power and even do a little exporting themselves.
But they are definitely behind the game. And they still haven’t figured out rifles. That part wasn’t a joke or an exaggeration.
India fully expects China to continue pushing westward, exploiting potential weaknesses at the LAC, and instigating conflicts to further test the waters of conquest.
Of course, there is another issue to factor in: China is playing sugar daddy to Pakistan, enemy-of-my-enemy style, by offering economic assistance as a part of its $900 billion “New Silk Road” scheme.
Guess where some of that money’s going.
Pakistan has been running a hostile campaign against India since the early 1990s.
From stoking militancy to sending terror cells across Jammu and Kashmir’s border, Pakistan will do anything to remind India about their ambiguous claim to the territory.
India remains trapped between two aggressive adversaries, but the government isn’t giving up an inch of territory without a fight.
In an interview with The Economic Times, Gen Kapoor, the Chief of the Army Staff between 2007-2010, explained, “China and Pakistan always work in tandem. We have to be prepared to deal with them.”
Israel, one of India’s greatest allies, has spent a lot of time and money boosting India’s tech and even training Indian Special Forces. In a stand-up fight, India could probably take on Pakistan or China on an individual basis.
What India fears is a two-front assault or a true war with Pakistan backed by Chinese money and weaponry.
Can’t break peace treaties if you’re just the banker, I guess?
The Indian Army credits the successful 2020 de-escalation to their well-trained troops and the expensive arsenal they’ve purchased from Russia and the United States.
And they’re ready to spend billions more to remain a global player, despite being cornered on both sides.
Which is a convenient segue into our favorite topic: guns!
Why Did the Indian Army Reject Indigenous Rifles?
Last July, India accelerated the purchase of domestic and foreign weapons as a response to the border clashes with China.
While working under the Prime Minister’s charge for a self-sufficient India, the Defence Acquisition Council approved several arms procurement projects.
These contracts were for Su-30MKI and MiG-29 fighter aircraft from Russia, Spike anti-tank guided missiles from Israel, and Excalibur artillery rounds for M777 ultralight howitzers from the United States.
The council also granted special financial powers with a ceiling of $71.42 million to buy weapons through India’s fast-track purchasing program for guns, ammunition, BMP-2 vehicles, rockets, missiles, smart bombs, mortars, and more.
But that’s not all! The Indian government is also signing defense contracts with our frenemy Russia worth $800 million for weapons and spare parts.
…and what are they purchasing domestically? Ammunition for Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers, cruise missiles, and armaments upgrades for infantry combat vehicles.
India manufactures fairly advanced weaponry for its armed forces, but most of its firearms are imported from the United States and Russia—and the Indian Army is grateful.
What the heck is going?
The Ordnance Factory Board
Before we tear apart India’s rifles, we need to examine the Ordnance Factory Board and its contentious relationship with the Indian Army.
The Indian Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) is a military-industrial complex that encompasses over 41 factories scattered throughout the country.
It functions under the Department of Defence Production, a sector of India’s Ministry of Defence, and is the world’s largest defense equipment manufacturer for uniforms, tents, ammunition, tanks, and armored vehicles.
Today, the OFB is proud of its contributions to the three Sino-Indo conflicts of the 1900s.
But they have been struggling to absorb the technological advancements of the 21st century, forcing the government to rely on the international arms market.
The Indian Army complains that OFB weapons are overpriced, inferior in quality, and routinely delayed.
According to a report, the quality issues are so bad that there is at least one ammunition-related accident per week, simply because the OFB fails to take ownership with respect to material, process, and quality assurance.
The OFB counters that its factories are being hindered by a corrupt government set-up and inconsistent orders.
They’re probably both right.
But it doesn’t change the fact that the OFB has never produced a functioning and reliable infantry rifle.
As of 2020, the Department of Defence Production has decided to go corporate with the OFB, despite employee protests.
The department hopes the new structure will change the terms of funding, order flow, product quality, and bureaucratic control.
It’ll be interesting to see how this move influences the future of domestic small arms production in India.
Path to the Faulty INSAS
The Indian Army realized they were facing a serious defense problem while fighting the Chinese in 1962.
At the time, they were using Lee-Enfield .303 bolt action rifles, which were effective but horribly outdated next to China’s AK-47 knock-offs, the Type 56.
After the war, the OFB’s Ishapore Rifle Factory was tasked with developing a new weapon to phase out the Lee-Enfield.
Their answer was the 7.62x51mm Ishapore 2A (or Rifle 7.62mm 2A), which was basically a flawed rip-off of the Lee-Enfield and the Belgian FN-FAL.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation later tried to produce a fully-automatic rifle by modifying the Ishapore 2A, but the recoil was so intense that the gun would point skyward as soon as the trigger was pulled.
They quickly abandoned the project.
Although production of the Ishapore 2A/2A1 was finally discontinued in 1975, the Indian Army continued to utilize these obsolete rifles well throughout the 80s; in fact, they’re still used by Indian police today.
And this is where we get to the Indian Small Arms System rifle (INSAS), the standard infantry weapon of the Indian Armed Forces.
After a few deals fell through, the Indian Government pushed the OFB to develop the INSAS.
This 5.56mm caliber rifle is a Frankenstein weapon based on several contemporary rifle designs, particularly the AKM.
For example, the design includes the basic gas-operated action of the Kalashnikov pattern, and the charging handle located on the left side of the forearm is similar to the German HK G3.
What can I say? The OFB has always borrowed from the West.
During this time, NATO allies were interested in 5.56mm weapons for three reasons:
- Lower caliber bullets theoretically allow soldiers to carry more weight.
- The 5.56 NATO cartridge is more effective at killing within its effective range than the 7.62×51.
- Lower recoil means higher hit probability.
The OFB’s grand plan was to create a trio of INSAS weapons: a standard rifle, a squad automatic rifle (LMG), and a carbine. By 1997, only the rifle and LMG were ready for mass production.
Soldiers frequently complain because the standard rifle regularly jams, has terrible stopping power, sprays oil in the user’s eyes (really?), and suffers parts breakage—particularly in cold weather.
There are also reports that the rifle fires on full-auto even when it’s set for three-round bursts.
The Indian Army has been stuck with that rifle for the last 30 years due to bureaucratic nonsense. And yes, it has been responsible for avoidable deaths.
The Army Rejects Domestic INSAS Replacements
In 2011, the Indian Army requested a new supply of multi-caliber assault rifles to replace the outdated INSAS. The Indian government tried its best to keep the project in-house as part of their “Make in India” initiative.
It didn’t go well.
The Indian Army rejected two indigenously manufactured rifles—the Excalibur and a 7.62x51mm NATO prototype manufactured by Rifle Factory Ishapore—citing quality concerns and failed firing tests.
Because the army’s requirements were not met indigenously, the Indian government cleared the purchase of 185,000 imported assault rifles, upsetting domestic manufacturers.
The Excalibur, an “improved” INSAS rifle, didn’t impress the Indian Army during testing.
Remember the INSAS trio? The Excalibur is essentially a byproduct of that ancient project.
Nevertheless, it was inducted into service as an interim assault rifle until the government could import literally anything better.
But if you haven’t noticed, the Indian Army has trouble phasing out bad weapons.
Soldiers were probably a little pressed to learn that something better than the INSAS (what a low bar) had existed all along, even if it was “operationally inadequate.”
And now they’re stuck with it.
This gas-operated, selective-fire weapon is still being used by soldiers in the Indian Army for battlefield engagements and close-quarter combat.
At least it has a polycarbonate magazine, so it’s less likely to crack in extreme temperatures—unlike the INSAS magazine.
The Future of Domestic Rifle Development
In the last four years, India has been designing, manufacturing, testing, and tossing out countless rifle models for any number of reasons.
There are several projects currently in the pipeline, even some that are joint products with other countries, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be inducted into service.
Just last month, India’s exciting AK-203 program was indefinitely delayed due to COVID-19 and pricing disagreements.
The future of indigenous small arms rifle development in India is perpetually in flux.
Based on current events, the country needs to drastically overhaul its factories and keep importing until they get better results.
5 Imported Rifles Of The Indian Army
Alright, I’ve trashed the OFB enough. Let’s move on to something more fun.
India has some pretty gnarly artillery after shaking hands with Russia, Israel, and the United States.
These purchases serve two critical functions: They are reliable weaponry for the Indian Army, and they serve as excellent testing and evaluation subjects for the OFB and any other domestic manufacturers trying to design a functioning rifle.
Now that we’ve toiled through the struggles of India’s domestic small arms program, we can sit back and appreciate this collection of imported guns that are being used by the Indian Army of today.
Again, this is not a comprehensive list by any standard. But it’ll give you an idea of how far India is willing to go to adequately arm its troops.
Spoiler alert: the answer is all over the world.
Are you feeling giddy, yet? I’ll also include some exciting purchases that are coming down the pipeline as a treat!
1. IWI Tavor X95 (Israel)
The IWI Tavor X95 is a 5.56mm Israeli bullpup assault rifle designed and produced by Israel Weapon Industries (IWI).
In 2011, India ordered 12,000 Tavor X95 rifles after finding success with the Tavor TAR-21. By 2018, the X95 was a standard-issue weapon of the Israeli infantry and the Para Commandos of the Indian Army.
There are several benefits to using a bullpup rifle. Because it’s held close to the body, a user is less likely to experience fatigue from extensive shooting—pretty important in battle.
Even better? It’s super comfortable to shoot, and recoil is rarely an issue.
The X95 is a compact weapon with an overall length of 26”, making it suitable for close-quarter combat and employment from inside vehicles.
The Indian Army quickly discovered that the X95 was far more effective than the AKM and M16 due to its small size, light weight, durability, ergonomics, and ease of maintenance.
All very important things when you’re withstanding battlefield conditions.
Of course, the OFB tried to manufacture their own Tavor X95, which they called Zittara, but it was DOA.
If you would like to learn more about the Tavor X95, you can check out our on-hands review. That’s right; we got to play with an X95.
Or, if you’re curious to learn more about bullpups, take a gander at the 9 Best Bullpup Rifles & Shotguns.
2. Sig Sauer 716i Tread (United States)
The Sig Sauer 716i Tread is a battle rifle variant of the SIG516 that is chambered for 7.62x51mm NATO rounds and AR-10 pattern magazines.
In February 2019, India signed an order with the United States for 72,400 Sig Sauer 716i rifles to replace the INSAS. It was fulfilled in 2020 through India’s Fast Track Procedure (FTP) program.
The Indian 716i models are configured a little differently than the commercial rifle to reflect the country’s requirements and regulations.
For example, the variant is reportedly capable of fully automatic fire and comes with a Picatinny rail on the handguard.
This rifle could be a little heavy for some, coming in at about 8.5 pounds (sans magazine), but it isn’t as large or clunky as most AR-10 variants.
It boasts exceptional ergonomics, ambidextrous controls, and a reliable direct impingement operating system. The 716i is also extremely customizable and is even equipped with a free-floating M-LOK handguard.
Following the crisis in 2020, India put in a second order for 72,000 SIG 716i assault rifles, which are destined for the Indian Army’s Northern Command.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
One of our own recently got to play with the Sig Sauer 716i Tread and he loved it so much he isn’t giving it back. No, really. Johnny, you better share with us!
Fortunately, Johnny did help us complete a hands-on review, so check it out to learn more about this flawless rifle.
He also teased us with this video detailing why the 716i Tread should be your new favorite AR-10:
3. AK-103 (Russia)
The AK-103 is an early 2000s assault rifle that is a derivative of the Soviet-era AK-74 and the AKM, another popular—if outdated—firearm utilized by the Indian Army.
This weapon vaunts several improvements over the obsolete INSAS (again, a low bar), and is currently being used by the Indian Army, Naval Special Forces, MARCOS, and the police.
The AK-103 has a three-round burst feature for full auto and single shot and is chambered for 7.62 x39mm 30-round magazines.
Its designer, Mikail Kalashnikov, wanted to manufacture a successor to the AKM rifle that was reliable, accurate and customizable, while still achieving significant weight reduction.
After all, a lighter gun allows a soldier to carry more rounds for the same weight. That’s a big deal when you’re stuck at the border.
The AK-103 is a little heavier than the AKM at 7.5 pounds, but it’s still lighter than the Sig Sauer 716i Tread, its sort-of rival in India, but only because the US and Russia are making it A Thing.
Kalashnikov was able to drop additional weight by manufacturing the rifle with high-strength plastic components, including the handguards, stock, forearm, and pistol grip.
Like other rifles in the AK-100 series, the AK-103 has folding stocks and is select fire—so long as you don’t order an American model, anyway.
It also has a Picatinny rail for mounting scopes, lasers, lights, knife-bayonets, etc. Don’t lie, you’d try attaching a bayonet or a grenade launcher if you could.
In 2019, India and Russia nearly signed an agreement to allow for the indigenous production of 65,000 AK-103s through the OFB; however, India decided to push for 750,000 AK-203s instead.
It pissed off Russia, who was already feeling slighted by India’s purchase of the Sig Sauer 716i Tread, but it’s probably a good move for India. They’re already stuck in the past as it is.
The AK-203 is a 7.62x39mm variant of the AK-100 series and is joint-venture between Kalashnikov Concern, the OFB, and Rosoboronexport.
An initial batch of rifles was delivered to India in December 2019.
Sadly, the Indian manufacturing project has been stalled in the wake of COVID-19.
4. CAR 816 (United Arab Emirates)
The CAR 816 (or Caracal Sultan) is a 5.56x45mm carbine that is produced by Caracal International, a small arms manufacturer in the United Arab Emirates.
India has reportedly just closed a deal to purchase 93,895 CAR 816s through its Fast Track Procurement program.
Ideally, these close-quarter carbines will replace the 9mm British Sterling 1A1, a WW2 relic that should have been phased out decades ago, as well as its Indian derivatives, the SAF Carbine 1A and SAF Carbine 2A1.
Caracal’s carbine pattern for the CAR 816 was “inspired” by the lightweight AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
Indian soldiers will probably be really happy with this model because it clocks in at 7.4 pounds with three gas settings, a short-stroke push rod gas piston design, and a firing rate of 750-950 rpm—a big improvement over the Sterling variations.
5. Minerva Scorpio TGT (Italy)
After the skirmish with Pakistan in 2019, India decided to expedite a fresh order of bolt-action sniper rifles that are “convenient to carry and operate,” as per their small arms requirements.
The Minerva Scorpio TGT features several high-end components and is chambered in .338 Lapua Magnum.
Its design incorporates Victrix Armaments’ Fully Modular Rifle Chassis, three locking lug action, a detachable muzzle brake, folding speed with open and closed locked positions, and an Arrow 03 multi-adjustable buttstock.
The Minerva Scorpio TGT will replace the Dragunovs, which were purchased from Russia in the early 90s and lack modern features like bipods and Picatinny rails.
And that brings our review to a close!
Hopefully, this article gives you a better understanding of India’s border conflicts and why the Indian government is spending billions of dollars on the international arms market.
India wants to be recognized as a regional power with global influence.
But the government can’t achieve this goal, let alone its “Make in India” campaign, without replacing and upgrading its grossly outdated weapons inventory.
It’s just not feasible for a country embroiled in two territorial disputes that have persisted for over a century.
The government might be able to achieve success domestically by establishing a level playing field between the OFB and private manufacturing companies.
Unfortunately, that venture would likely dissolve into a bureaucratic nightmare.
For now, all we can do is sit back and watch how the corporatization of the OFB unfolds.
Do you have any thoughts or questions about the firearms being used by the Indian Army? Are you a history buff wanting to add to the conversation? Please feel free to comment below!