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China Is Exporting Its Newest Military Rifle

March 2, 2023
From left to right: Type 56-2, AR 191, two handguns, Type 56, SAR 191. Via Chinese state media.

Having fully recovered from the pandemic-era downswing arms shows have returned in massive scale across Asia. IDEX 2023 lived up to its hype as the Arab world’s best known “defense” industry gathering and Chinese exhibitors built a sizable indoor presence. An unexpected appearance was CJAIE or China Jing An Import & Export Corporation the legal arms dealer that oversees deliveries for Norinco’s arsenal. (Along with products of other Chinese manufacturers.) Thanks to the familiar zealous media coverage by Chinese broadcasters interesting details were gleaned from CJAIE’s participation: the brand new QBZ-series of modular assault rifles are now offered to end users outside China as the “Automatic Rifle/Short Automatic Rifle 191.”

The QBZ-191 was first spotted with PLA infantry during a 2019 parade. It was assumed the small arm, which is patterned after current-generation modular rifles, would replace its bullpup predecessor the QBZ-95. Almost four years later and Chinese soldiers still train with their bullpup rifles introduced during the 1990s. But the 5.8x42mm QBZ-191, along with its siblings in a family that includes a marksman rifle, is issued to the airborne who are now busy with large-scale assaults on their newer Z-8L helicopters. Members of the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison have been issued the same small arm (together with ZBL-09 8×8 APCs) but there are scarce signs the QBZ-191 is set to become standardized for all military branches. The border guards, for example, still carry the unique QBZ-03, which is chambered for the same ammunition as the QBZ-191. The QBZ-191 and its variants are separate from Norinco’s CS/LR17 multi-caliber assault rifles that were export approved in the mid-2010s.

At IDEX 2023 in Abu Dhabi the spacious CJAIE stand displayed an entire wall holding small arms, including a rare Type 56 assault rifle (Norinco’s well-known copy of the AK-47) with rails added to its dust cover and a barrel without an underfolding ice pick bayonet, that featured the 191 in two barrel lengths. The 191 shouldn’t be mistaken for an AR-pattern small arm as it has nothing in common with the US design. To identify the 191 it’s important to recognize its adjustable stock with a triangular gap between the shoulder rest and a high strength grip. Its lower receiver is also distinctive for a shallow magazine well and a charging handle underneath the ejection port. There’s also a large magazine release in front of the trigger guard. The length of rail over the weapon’s furniture offers enough space for whatever optics the soldier needs to mount.

A close up of the QBZ-191 issued to airborne units. Via Chinese state media.

A third 191 variant on display at CJAIE’s stand was the “Designated Marksman Rifle/DAR 193” with an elongated barrel, a bipod, and a large optic. It was laid next to an LM12 minigun and a copy of the Mk. 19 automatic grenade launcher. These are all products manufactured by Norinco’s small arms subsidiaries. Chinese import/export companies are able to supply any government or quasi-government entity with a full range of US small arms and their ammunition from the M4 and M16A2 infantry rifles, the M14 battle rifle, the M249 squad automatic weapon, the FN MAG light machine gun, the Browning heavy machine gun, and underbarrel grenade launchers. Adding the 191/193 family to its catalog is a rare move for CJAIE as these small arms are chambered for a unique caliber, the 5.8x42mm round, that’s not available outside China. When it came to the earlier QBZ-series of bullpups these were offered for export as small arms chambered for NATO 5.56x45mm ammunition. Production of these rifles was even transferred to Myanmar and Sudan.

The Middle East, along with the rest of the Arab world, remains a huge market for Chinese military products. The UAE on its own is a regional partner of China and has a firm “defense cooperation” track record where it either acquires premium weapon systems such as artillery or drones or purchases Chinese-made arms in bulk to support Abu Dhabi’s faraway allies. This particular relationship has revived hopes for China’s state-owned manufacturers to export military equipment in profitable volumes to the Middle East and North Africa as it chips away from the once unassailable market share held by US “defense-industrial” manufacturers.

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