Uzi: from mainstay to relic

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAIFA, Israel - The Uzi submachine gun, the weapon that became a trademark of Israel's firearms industry and a symbol of bravado on battlefields and movie screens, is becoming a relic within the institution that introduced the gun nearly a half-century ago: the Israeli army.

Front-line soldiers abandoned the Uzi two decades ago for the American M-16. This year, the army's special forces stopped training with the Uzi and have turned to more modern firearms.

Israel Military Industries, a for-profit company owned and run by the Israeli Defense Ministry, plans to continue manufacturing and selling the Uzi, and the gun's official end as an army mainstay came without notice or mourning.

"Old technology has to be phased out at some point," says Iddo Gal, son of the gun's inventor, Uziel Gal, a German immigrant who died in 2002 at age 79. "There are very few weapons that held on for so long."

Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, says some soldiers on guard duty still use the Uzi but that as of this year it is no longer part of official training.

"It is part of our historical legacy," he says. "Its heyday was a while ago."

The Uzi has long been known not just as military equipment, but also as the weapon of choice for Hollywood bad guys, macho security guards, South American drug lords and commandos who do the dirty work of war.

Uziel Gal used to say that the Uzi silhouette was as well known as the symbols for Playboy, Coke and Nike. But the inventor and self-taught mechanical engineer who avoided the limelight wasn't seeking bragging rights.

The weapon, he once said, was a necessary invention of the times. He began designing it in 1948, months before Israel became a nation, when he worked in a secret machine shop as part of the Jewish underground. He completed a prototype around 1950. The army put it into service five years later.

Gal designed the weapon to have seven parts, fewer than half the number that others of the time required. To this day, middle-age army reservists say they can assemble and disassemble the Uzi blindfolded. It was functional, durable, cheap to build, didn't jam in desert dust storms, could be fired with one hand and weighed 7.7 pounds throughout its history. It was useful for close-in fighting but inaccurate at more than 50 yards.

The weapon was made of steel stamped from metal sheets, reflecting the limited technology and resources of the new state.

"It was supposed to provide a contribution to a new society," Iddo Gal says during an interview at his home in Haifa, in northern Israel, where he teaches courses on government and psychology at the University of Haifa and is working on a book about his father. "Now it has evolved into something that it was never meant to be."

Gal, 52, says he is proud of his father's invention, even when people ask in whispered tones, as if he were part of a mob family, whether he is the son of the inventor of the Uzi. No matter how the Uzi is used or seen today, Gal says, it "was useful to the country."

Israeli soldiers first used it in combat in 1956, during the war in the Sinai against Egypt. Paratroopers loved the weapon, which was easy to strap under their suits while jumping from planes and equally as easy to conceal and carry.

It was taken out of service for front-line combatants in the early 1980s and replaced with the M-16, which is accurate up to 1,000 yards. The Uzi's compact nature and rapid firing ability still made it popular among special forces engaged in close-quarter combat.

Viewers of action films such as Delta Force, Dogs of War and The Terminator are well acquainted with the Uzi. Adding to the lore was a widely published photo of a U.S. Secret Service agent brandishing an Uzi moments after President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981.

The Israeli army is gradually phasing out the M-16 for a newer, more compact assault rifle, the Tavor, also made by Israel Military Industries. It's snub-nosed with a barrel about an inch shorter than the Uzi's, can fire 900 rounds per minute to the Uzi's 600 and can accommodate laser-guided sights.

The Uzi, Israel's first military export, was sold during the 1960s to developing countries, where the gun found its way onto the black market and into the hands of criminals. Israel Military Industries has manufactured more than 1.5 million Uzis.

Outside Israel, two companies had been licensed to produce the fully automatic Uzi. One, in Belgium, stopped production in 1973, and the other, in South Africa, ended production in 1975.

Israel still sells the Uzi to governments, but not to its own citizens unless they have permits as security guards. Uzis made in the United States are unlicensed semiautomatics.

"In the past 10 to 15 years, it has mainly been used by noncombatants for self-defense," says Yiftah Shapir, an analyst at Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and an expert on gun technology. "It looks nice and is very easy to fire."

But, noting the gun's poor accuracy, he adds, "Of course, if you want to hit the target, it is not the right weapon."

The Uzi "is still very favorable with illegal arms smugglers," says Shapir, who trained with the Uzi when he served in the army in 1969. But "it is 1950s technology."

The Uzi was considered a technological leap for its time, replacing cumbersome and complicated weapons prone to accidents and breakdowns. But with its open-bolt design, it sometimes fires when dropped, a defect corrected in newer weapons such as the M-16.

Uziel Gal never quite understood why or how the weapon he invented became a symbol, either of military might or criminal enterprise. He had four sets of business cards listing variations of his name to obscure his connection to the Uzi, not because he was ashamed but because he felt conversations would be skewed by his fame.

He was born in Germany in 1923 and moved with his family to Britain in 1933, at the onset of Nazi power. He moved to Palestine in 1936 when his father immigrated, and he became involved in the fight for statehood during the British Mandate. He was jailed for two years by the British when he was found with a gun.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Uziel Gal went to officer training school, where he showed off a design of a gun that would later become his trademark. The army selected it and named it in Gal's honor.

Gal served in the army for 27 years, mostly with Israel Military Industries developing weapons. Retired, he moved to the Philadelphia area in 1976 to help care for his daughter, Tamar, who was being treated for neurological disorders. He remained there working on gun designs for Israel and private companies until he died of pancreatic cancer in September 2002. He is buried in Israel.

Iddo Gal says that his father, being a soldier, understood what the troops needed. In 1948, they were fighting with a hodgepodge of modified German and British guns, some considered obsolete. He also knew that Israel at that time couldn't produce anything too complicated.

Dinner table discussions about guns focused on their parts, not on their mystique or ability to kill. There were no guns in the house. The family photo album has two pictures of Gal with weapons, a palm-sized replica of an Uzi and an old prototype of the gun.

Gal owned 40 to 50 guns, mostly pistols, which he used to take apart and study. Iddo Gal sold the guns to two private dealers after his father died.

Even in Israel, the Uzi has become a trivia question. When Iddo Gal's daughter, Naama, began her army service two years ago, her commander asked the unit who had invented the Uzi and was ready to admonish the new troops for being ignorant of their own history.

Naama, now 21, foiled him. When the incredulous officer demanded to know how she was the only one who knew the answer, she smiled and said, "He's my grandfather."

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