JERUSALEM – Israel's military is phasing out the legendary Uzi submachine gun, calling it antiquated and replacing it with more sophisticated, electronics-outfitted weaponry, an army spokesman said Wednesday.
But the Uzi (search), a national icon and the country's most famous contribution to the arms industry, will still be produced and exported, to the presumable delight of drug dealers, gang members, Secret Service agents and Hollywood action stars alike.
Israel's military took the simply constructed, half-century-old weapon out of front line units two decades ago, but continued to issue it to some elite units and soldiers carrying heavy gear who needed a light weapon for self-defense.
Now the army says it will dump it altogether.
As of this week, "we're no longer training soldiers on the Uzi," said army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal. "Basically, it's antiquated," he said of the 9-mm weapon.
State-owned Israel Military Industries (search) has made over 1.5 million Uzis and will continue manufacturing the weapon, which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from sales the world over, including in the United States, Latin America and Africa.
Illegal arms sales have also put the weapon into the hands of Colombian drug lords.
In Israel, the weapon's smaller models are still popular with security guards who favor portability over accuracy. Many private security companies use the original, larger model because it's cheap.
It's also still a mainstay with some of the world's police forces and security services guarding VIPs, said Yiftah Shapir of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (search) at Tel Aviv University.
The Uzi, while still used by the U.S. Secret Service, is also beloved of gangs in the United States because of its reputation as "a macho weapon," said gun expert Tim Brown of Globalsecurity.org. But he added the Uzi "is not a very good gun — it's very inefficient, inaccurate. ... It's mostly used in bad Hollywood action movies."
In 1984's "The Terminator," for example, a gun shop owner commends Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg for ordering the "Uzi nine-millimeter" before his murderous rampage.
Whatever its qualities as a weapon, the Uzi arouses nostalgia and pride in Israel, where it was developed around the same time as the country's war-rattled birth in 1948.
"It was the first Israeli weapon after 2,000 years of diaspora," Shapir said. Recalling his own days in the military in the late 1960s, he added, "I can still disassemble an Uzi with my eyes closed, hands tied behind my back, even if you wake me in the middle of the night."
Elite Israeli fighting units found it useful because of its resistance to mud and water, giving the weapon a further mystique — and marketing cachet.
The Uzi again made headlines when the weapon's creator, Uzi Gal, 79, died in September 2002.
At 15, Gal developed a bow that could automatically fire arrows, and later he secretly made weapons in a metal workshop for the Jewish underground. When the first Arab-Israeli war erupted in 1948, he was asked to develop a submachine gun for Israel's army, which faced weapons embargoes and had little cash.
The Uzi first found its way into soldiers' hands in 1954, and it swiftly proved its deadly effectiveness two years later in the Sinai campaign against Egypt.
Among various models are Uzi Carbine, with a long barrel, the Micro-Uzi, which is smaller, and the Uzi Pistol, a semiautomatic weapon slightly larger than a regular handgun and weighing less than 4 pounds.
The Uzi — whose modified single-shot pistol version can be bought for some $500 in the United States — is one of the most copied weapons in the world, with knockoffs produced in China and several eastern European countries, according to Israeli media reports.
Through its long years of service in the Israeli military, soldiers revered it for its hardiness and ease of operation — but at the same time lamented its limited range and disturbing tendency to fire itself when dropped or struck. Its short barrel gave it an accurate range of just 50 yards.
The weapon was taken out of use by front line units in Israel in the early 1980s. It was replaced with standard and short versions of the American-made M-16, which can accurately hit a target at 1,000 yards.
This year, Israel announced the development of the Tavor, a new, compact assault rifle to be issued to soldiers starting in January. The rifle comes in three designs: a basic assault rifle, a sharp-shooting model and a shorter version for commandos and paratroopers that is useful in urban warfare.
The Tavor, like the Uzi, is small enough to be useful in street combat, but it can also be outfitted with high-tech electronics, such as sights that can provide real-time data on targets a soldier might not be able to see with his own eyes.
The simple Uzi, by comparison, is greatly outdated, Shapir said.
"Just a few pieces of metal, one spring, and that's it."