Mikhail Kalashnikov’s legendary AK rifle has heavily influenced the design of other military service rifles over years. One such service rifle that duplicates many of the basic features of the Kalashnikov design is the Israeli-manufactured Galil. In the decades since first being introduced, the Galil family of rifles has seen combat around the world with a variety of military and security forces. Galil rifles have been used in the jungles of Central America, the deserts of the Middle East, and the mountains of central Asia. Even a small number of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations have made use of the Galil over the years.

Estonia, one of the more recent nations to join the NATO alliance, adopted the Galil to serve as the primary service rifle for its defense force. Estonia regained its independence in 1991, after decades of occupation by the former Soviet Union, and had to build its armed forces from scratch. A small amount of Soviet small arms, including various types of AK rifles, were left behind by Soviet forces, but Estonia instead looked toward the west and built its defense force following NATO standards. Estonia had no domestic military arms manufacturing base and it had to rely on other nations for weapons. Estonia has close military ties to the United States, Israel and a number of European nations and has subsequently sourced its weaponry from them all. Estonia selected the Galil, made by Israel Weapons Industries (IWI), as its standard 5.56mm NATO rifle.

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It is an interesting fact that in choosing the Galil the Estonia defense forces were now armed with a service rifle that was at least in part inspired by the AK rifles carried by the Soviet troops that had once occupied their country. But it is the characteristics shared by both rifles that made the Galil a desirable choice. Both the AK and the Galil perform well in the harshest of combat environments; they are affordable to purchase due to their relative ease of manufacture and it is very easy to train soldiers how to use them effectively. It is for these reasons that Israel manufactured the Galil in the first place.

Born From Battle

As is the case with many military service rifles, the Galil was born from the harsh lessons learned on the field of combat. In 1967 tensions between Israel and the neighboring nations of Egypt, Syria and Jordan erupted into a short but bitter conflict now known as the Six-Day War. At that time the standard battle rifle of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was a variant of the FN-designed FAL. Battle experience found that the FAL had several shortcomings when it came to modern desert warfare. The FAL was heavy and its excessive length made it difficult to handle by mechanized troops when exiting armored personnel carriers. This same issue was also a problem for parachutists and soldiers conducting helicopter assaults. There were also some stoppage issues caused by the sands of the Sinai Peninsula.

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Israel Military Industries (IMI) received a request to develop a domestically designed assault rifle with a recommended chambering of 5.56x45mm. The designers for the new rifle included IMI executive Yaacov Lior and chief designer Yisrael Galili. Several available rifles, including the Colt M16, Heckler & Koch HK33, Valmet Rk 62 and the Soviet AKMS, were studied. In the end, the resulting Galil design (named for weapon designer Yisrael Galili) was based largely on the Kalashnikov operating system of the Valmet Rk 62 from Finland and AKMS from the Soviet Union.

In addition to the caliber change to 5.56mm, the Galil featured other refinements when compared to the original Kalashnikov design that inspired it. The AK-type selector switch on the right side of the receiver was retained, but the Galil added a smaller selector switch on the left side of the receiver, located above the pistol grip. Also, the charging handle featured an upturn, allowing the bolt to be operated ambidextrously. Due to the smaller size of 5.56mm round, the standard Galil magazine was made to hold 35 rounds. The flash suppressor was designed to accommodate rifle grenades and a special disposable grenade-launching sight was developed to fit over the front sight of the rifle when grenades are fired.

The Israel Defense Forces approved the Galil design in 1971 and full production began in 1973. Israel Military Industries, followed by successor company Israel Weapon Industries (IWI), have marketed and exported the Galil rifles ever since. Estonia first adopted the Galil in 1994 and multiple variants are now used by its defense force. Variants include the Galil AR (assault rifle), Galil SAR (short assault rifle), and Galil ARM (assault rifle-machinegun). Small numbers of the Galil Sniper variant, chambered in 7.62x51mm, are also in limited use.

Galil AR rifles are considered to be a standard-length rifle with an 18-inch barrel and weighing approximately 8.5 pounds. The Galil SAR is the carbine version with a 13-inch barrel and weighs slightly less. Galil ARM rifles serve in the automatic rifleman role and come equipped with a folding bipod and carrying handle. Fire-control options are the same on all three of the 5.56mm models and include safe, semi-automatic and full-automatic. Another feature common to all three rifles is a side-folding stock that makes it easier to carry the rifles aboard ground vehicles and aircraft. Estonia has also purchased various types of rifle grenades for use with their Galil rifles.

In 2008, the Estonian Ministry of Defense awarded a contract to Swiss company Brügger & Thomet (B&T) for the modification of the Galil rifles used by the defense force. The scope of the contract included the design and installation of new metal handguards for the rifles and other accessory mounts to accommodate optical sights, weapon lights, vertical handgrips, grenade launchers and other accessories. The B&T handguards and mounts are MIL-STD-1913-type rails that meet the NATO Standardization Agreement (STANAG) for small arms accessory mounts. Red-dot or holographic sights could now be used.

Most Estonian Galil rifles are currently fitted with Aimpoint M4 red-dot sights and matching Aimpoint 3XMag magnifying modules. The L-3 EOTech 552 holographic sight is also used. Both the Aimpoint and EOTech sights are compatible with night-vision devices for operations in darkness. B&T also supplied vertical handgrips, tactical lights, tactical slings and new magazines for the Galil rifles. A small number of 40mm grenade launchers and sound suppressors were also obtained from B&T. All of the modifications and upgrades have greatly increased the combat effectiveness of the Galil.

Battle Tested

As a result of world events, Estonian soldiers armed with Galil rifles have seen their share of combat. Estonia is one of the coalition nations that deployed troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan to fight against tyranny and provide humanitarian aid to civilians.

Iraq missions included participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom, from June 2003 to December 2009, as well as the NATO Training Mission in Iraq, from February 2005 to November 2011. Estonia has been part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan since 2003. The first units were explosive ordnance disposal teams and military observation teams around the capital of Kabul. Following this there was an assignment of Estonian troops around Mazar-e-Sharif.

Since 2006, Estonia has contributed an infantry company and national support element located in Helmand Province. During the Afghan elections in 2009, Estonia deployed a second infantry company to Helmand Province, which operated with U.S. Marine Corps units. During that surge period, the Estonian contingent approached a strength of nearly 300 personnel, making Estonia the largest contributor to ISAF per capita of any nation at the time. Now the typical size of the Estonian contingent is around 165 service members. The largest unit is an infantry company known simply as the Estonia Company, or ESTCOY. There is also an Estonian Special Operations Force operating with elements of U.S. Army Special Forces.

Galil AR rifles or Galil SAR carbines are carried by the majority of Estonian troops, no matter what role they serve in. The Galil has performed well in both defensive and offensive situations by delivering accurate and lethal fire. The 35-round magazine of the Galil has proven especially advantageous during firefights. For situations when sustained automatic fire is needed, the Galil ARM is used in the light machine-gun role. Estonian Special Operations Forces typically use the Galil SAR and make extensive use of the Brügger & Thomet sound suppressors.

In the end the Galil has proven to be an excellent refinement of Kalashnikov’s classic rifle design. Like the AK, it has seen service around the world in every type of environment and performed well. Estonia has made extensive use of the Galil in combat and refined it even further with the help of Brügger & Thomet-supplied enhancements. Galil rifles will undoubtedly continue to play an important part in defending Estonia for many years to come.

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