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Guns of the Chaco War

The Chaco War of 1932–1935 between Bolivia and Paraguay was fought on the interior of the continent. Writer Vincent D. DeNiro examines the history of the conflict, and the firearms the two armies used.

Guns of the Chaco War

A Bolivian monument to its heroes of the Chaco War. Note the Browning 1917 machine gun, which was used on both sides of the war. (Oliver Foerstner / Shutterstock.com)

Into the 20th century, much of South America had not yet been well explored and surveyed, especially the interior of the continent, and particularly the Amazon River Basin. Borders were also often contested between multiple nations with claims heavily overlapping. This issue had led to many extremely bloody conflicts between some of the world’s poorest nations. One of these conflicts was the Chaco War of 1932–­1935, a war fought between Bolivia and Paraguay, some of the poorest countries in South America at the time. It was fought on the interior of the continent, in the Gran Chaco, nicknamed “The Green Hell,” a predominantly flat, arid, and extremely under-­developed region also featuring swamps and jungles.

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Three Paraguayan stamps illustrating the overlapping claims of the two nations. (neftali / Shutterstock.com)

These two nations had both suffered catastrophic losses in their history and weren’t ready to back down for a disputed territory or make any more concessions, especially with the prospect of a very valuable natural resource within what they viewed as “their” borders. Bolivia had lost her coast and thus, access to the sea after The War of the Pacific, that is, being translated, La Guerra del Pacífico in Spanish, making her a landlocked country by the end of 1883. The loss of the coast ruined chances of better trade and a better economy, so the Bolivian view was now that it could certainly not afford to lose more territory, especially if that territory held oil. Paraguay had also lost about half of her claimed territory after the Paraguayan War, or War of the Triple Alliance, after 1876. That war also claimed up to an estimated 90% of Paraguay’s male population and resulted in the use of child soldiers, some as young as nine, to replace casualties at the front.

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A map of the Chaco and surrounding region.

Conflicts between Paraguay and Bolivia in the contested region date back to the late 1800s, when, in 1888, the government of Paraguay dispatched the river gunboat Pirapó to forcibly remove Bolivian settlers along the Paraguay River, which Bolivia had recognized as belonging to Paraguay, unbeknownst to the settlers. Later, in 1905, Bolivia had founded two new outposts along the Pilcomayo River, within territory Paraguay had recognized as her own; this time the Bolivian government ignored the half-­hearted official protest from the government of Paraguay. Both nations’ governments showed little interest in their border claims in the sparsely populated Chaco until the discovery of oil in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, just within the western Chaco. Speculations developed as to if there was also oil in the Chaco. Royal Dutch Shell, better known as just “Shell,” supported Paraguay, and Standard Oil supported Bolivia, as both companies jockeyed for drilling rights in the region.

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A typical scene in the Chaco at the time.

Bolivia’s penetration into the contested region went unopposed by the Paraguayan government until 1927, when the first dispute ending in bloodshed in the Chaco took place. In February, a Paraguayan army patrol and its native guides were taken prisoner near the Pilcomayo River and held prisoner in the Bolivian Fortín Sorpresa (Fort Surprise), where the commanding officer of the patrol, Lieutenant Adolfo Rojas Silva, was shot while in Bolivian captivity with mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. (Fortín is a Spanish term meaning “little fort.” These were small, cheap, strongholds usually consisting of pillboxes and a small system of entrenchments. Barracks usually consisted of small wooden or mud huts in which the garrison was housed. They were used by both Paraguay and Bolivia throughout the duration of the war with most fighting taking place around these fortifications.)


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A political cartoon illustrating the conflict in the region; note that the Bolivian character has a dollar sign in its hat, and the Paraguayan has a pound sign. The cartoon implies that the two nations are pawns of the two oil companies, with the dollar sign representing Standard Oil, an American company, and the pound sign representing Royal Dutch Shell, a British company.

Although the Bolivian government officially condemned the death of Lt. Silva, Paraguayan public opinion condemned it as murder, adding to tensions between the nations. A diplomatic remedy to the dispute was attempted in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Talks met with little success, and a breakdown of discussions occurred in January of the following year. By the end of 1929, in December, Paraguayan cavalry had attacked the Bolivian fortin Vanguardia, a fortin northwest of Bahía Negra, which was recognized by both nations as belonging to Paraguay. The attack resulted in the capture of 21 Bolivian soldiers and the barracks being razed. Bolivia retaliated by utilizing its superior air force and launched an airstrike on Bahía Negra, although with little effect. Bolivian troops then pressed the attack and captured Fortin Boquerón, resulting in the death of 15 Paraguayans and unknown casualties for Bolivia. On September 12, 1929, a bilateral agreement was reached to restore conditions to antebellum in Washington D.C., but by then an arms race had developed and both nations were on an irreversible war path. War had been averted earlier as neither of the two countries had the wherewithal for a full-­scale war, only small-­scale border clashes.


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Bolivian conscripts make their way to the front.

As the border clashes escalated into a full-­scale war by the end of 1932, the results were predictable. Two of the poorest countries in South America going head to head in some of the most unforgivable terrain on the continent could only meet with disastrous results for both sides.

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Paraguayans pose in front of what is left of Fort Muñoz, the former headquarters of General Kundt. He was relieved of his command a few days before this picture was taken.

Although possessing a population three times as small as Bolivia, Paraguay had many advantages that would later prove decisive. These advantages included a largely homogeneous army, with officers and soldiers usually being mestizo, that is, European and Native American. Bolivia, on the other hand, had an army consisting of 90% Native American troops, with an officer corps of mostly ethnic Europeans. These native soldiers, mostly Quechua and Aymara peoples, to be specific, from the Altiplano, a plateau region in northwest Bolivia, had a hard time adjusting to the flat, low elevation and humid conditions of the Chaco. Bolivia also never had more than two-­thirds of its larger army in the Chaco at one time, while Paraguay had adopted a “total war” stance. Paraguay had widened conscription laws to 17-­year-­olds and had five rail lines totaling 266 miles of rail running through the Chaco, while Bolivia had none. The Paraguayan Army was French-­trained, with many important commanders serving as French volunteers during the First World War.

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A bombed-­out Paraguayan supply convoy destroyed by Bolivian tactical bombers.

The Bolivian army had been trained by a German military mission during the 20s, and still featured German military officers in the ranks, including perhaps the most famous character of the war, Hans Kundt. Kundt, a former general in the old Imperial Army of Germany, arrived in Bolivia in 1911, to reform the army after the Prussian model, but returned to Germany during World War I, where he demonstrated his excellent staffing skills. Although a prolific staffer, Kundt was a fairly inept commander, in spite of his experience on the Eastern Front. He had an awful grasp of the Chaco, insisting that the Bolivian government purchase a number of armored vehicles that proved inconsequential in the region, and often misused Bolivia’s other advantages in the war, regularly dismissing reports of an impending encirclement provided to him by aerial reconnaissance as submitted by overzealous and exaggerating pilots.

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Bolivia and Paraguay used vz. 24 rifles as a main long arm throughout the conflict.

vz. 24 Rifle Specs

  • Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia
  • Year Designed: 1924
  • Caliber: 7.65x53 Argentine
  • Action: Bolt-­action
  • Weight: 9.2 lbs. (unloaded)
  • Sights: Tangent V-­Shaped Rear and Front-­Sight Blade with range up to 2,000 meters
  • Barrel Length: 23.23 in.
  • Overall Length: 43.3 in.
  • Feed System: Integral box magazine
  • Capacity: 5 rounds
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A Paraguayan officer phones for artillery support.

In contrast, the French-­trained Paraguayan army used appropriate tactics of fast troop movements used to encircle strongholds held by the enemy, a tactic not unlike the Blitzkrieg of the next World War. These tactics would prove to be an excellent counter to Kundt’s more static approach to the war and one of the best advantages held by the Paraguayans. Paraguay also received an advisory of about 80 White Russian officers, (counter-­revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War) including former members of the famous Pyotr “The Black Baron” Wrangel’s general staff. The Paraguayan army also saw training by an Italian military mission later in the war, and the Bolivians in turn received a military mission from Czechoslovakia, consisting mainly of World War I veterans and former members of the famous Czechoslovak Legion, a volunteer army made up of Czechs and Slovaks known for their participation in the White Army’s war effort during the Russian Civil War. As with Spain during its Civil War, Italy and Czechoslovakia were looking for “proving grounds” for their new military equipment, as well as tactics they would hope to use in the next war; this proving ground would become the Chaco.




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A Paraguayan soldier posing in a very uncomfortable position with the heavy, water-­cooled M1917. Before the arms race leading up to the war, both Bolivia and Paraguay used this Browning machine gun.

Before the arms race leading up to the war, both armies used a mish-­mash of different small arms, mostly from Europe. In use by Paraguay during the antebellum period were the Mauser Model 1904 and the Lee-­Metford. The Madsen, Vickers and Browning M1917 machine guns were in service with both Paraguay and Bolivia. The FN Browning M1903 and S&W M&P were also in use with Paraguayan forces, but were mainly reserved for officers and NCOs. While the M&P was also in service with Bolivian forces, Bolivia had also chosen the Mauser C96, Walther PP, Colt M1911 and Model 1906 Luger for its officers and NCOs. The Mauser Modelo 1895 and Model 1907 were used by Bolivia as some of its main service rifles.

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A Bolivian soldier equipped with a vz. 24 guards an ammo dump.

The Czechoslovak military mission was in part responsible for Bolivia being equipped with some of the best weapons the 1930s European weapons industry had to offer. From Czechoslovakia they were equipped with the vz. 24, a bolt-­action rifle which saw wide-­spread use most notably in the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-­Japanese War (which later resulted in its use in the Chinese Civil War), and with Romanian forces during the Second World War. The vz. 24 was based off of the famous Mauser Gewher 98, and also featured its cartridge, the 7.92×57mm Mauser. The vz. 24 was produced at the famous Brno Arms Works in Brno, Czechoslovakia, a former Škoda factory (Škoda being one of the oldest car manufacturers in the world that also produced parts for the Niagara Falls power plant). Bolivia was one of the largest buyers of these rifles, purchasing 101,000 of them over a ten-­year period beginning in 1928, and continued to purchase them after the war’s end. These vz. 24s in use with Bolivian forces were chambered in 7.65×53mm Argentine. Bolivian-­purchased vz. 24s were also used extensively by Paraguay during the war, which captured large amounts of them from many surrendering Bolivians.

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A ZB vz. 26 in use with a Bolivian machine-­gun crew; note that the second soldier has a quick-­change barrel at the ready.

Another Czechoslovak weapon used by Bolivia also built at the Brno weapons factory was the ZB vz. 26, an air-­cooled, open-­bolt light machine gun which saw extensive use by many nations without domestic arms industries during the 20th century. Perhaps most famously used by China during the aforementioned Sino-­Japanese War and following Civil War, it featured a 20-­round detachable, top-­mounted magazine. The vz. 26 notably influenced the more famous Bren light machine gun. Although intended as a light machine gun, it was also employed as more of a medium machine gun and as an anti-­aircraft gun as well, with the use of a tripod. It also notably had a quick-­change barrel which facilitates longer periods of fire. Under the barrel, it uses a long-­stroke gas piston powering the action. Interestingly, the ZB vz. 26 is still in use with the Paraguayan army today.


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An entrenched Paraguayan soldier shoulders his ZB vz. 26 machine gun.

Another top-­mounted, magazine-­fed light machine gun employed by both sides was the famous Madsen machine gun. At the beginning of the war, Paraguay had 400 Madsens in use, purchased during the 1920s and 30s, and continued to purchase them throughout the duration of the war. Bolivia also purchased an unknown number of these weapons for use during the war. Both nations used the Madsen in 7.65x53 Argentine. Interestingly, another Madsen user, the officially neutral Argentina, had supplied Paraguay with 7mm Mauser for use in the Madsen gun. First entering service in 1902, the Madsen developed a reputation for reliability. It was eventually chambered in a dozen calibers, including .308. Other than use in Bolivian and Paraguayan service, the gun saw use with groups of Mexican revolutionaries, to stormtroopers, to today’s Brazilian police. The Madsen features a recoil-­operated action and hinged bolt, interestingly based off of the Martini-­Henry breech-­loading rifle. Although reports on the Madsen’s performance in the Chaco are hard to find, an air-­cooled machine gun would be a good choice in flat, open terrain during the so-­called “War of Thirst” (‘La Guerra de la Sed’ in Spanish).

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ZB vz. 26 Machine Gun Specs

  • Country of Origin: Czechoslovakia
  • Year Designed: 1924
  • Caliber: 7.65x53 Argentine
  • Action: Gas-­operated
  • Weight: 21.27 lbs. (unloaded)
  • Sights: Iron, frontal blade with rear leaf offset to the left
  • Barrel Length: 26.5 in.
  • Overall Length: 45.7 in.
  • Feed System: Detachable box magazine
  • Capacity: 20 or 30 rounds
  • Rate of Fire: ~500 rpm
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A Paraguayan soldier, entrenched and armed with a Madsen machine gun.

As corporations are known to finance wars for their benefit today, this was just as true during the 1930s. Standard Oil, founded in Cleveland, Ohio, extended a line of credit to Bolivia to purchase planes, armored vehicles, and small arms from the famous Vickers company. Vickers made much of the equipment used during the war. Used extensively was the famous water-­cooled Vickers .303 heavy machine gun. Both sides used the Vickers gun in multiple roles. Bolivian vehicles purchased from Vickers included a Type A and two Type B Vickers six-­ton light tanks. The Vickers Type A featured two rotating turrets, each armed with a water-­cooled Vickers machine gun. Vickers guns used on tanks were chambered in the more readily-­available 7.65x53 Argentine. The Type B featured one turret with a 47mm low-­velocity cannon and coaxial Vickers machine gun. More than just light tanks, Bolivia also purchased a small number of tankettes, small, lightly armored vehicles usually used as infantry-­support vehicles or mobile-­gun-­platforms. Bolivia purchased from Vickers several Carden-­Loyd tankettes. The Carden-­Loyd also featured the Vickers machine gun chambered in 7.65 Argentine.

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Paraguayan soldiers pose in front of their Madsen.

Although the Carden-­Loyd was designed to easily move a heavy machine gun around the battlefield, the Bolivians used it as more of an assault vehicle with some success. Like most other machine guns used in the Chaco, the Vickers machine gun was prone to jamming in the dusty Chaco terrain. However, it had an effective range of roughly 2,000 meters, which would be good for the flat Chaco. It also featured a standard recoil-­operated action and was belt-­fed. Water cooled machine guns like the Vickers would not perform to their full potential in the “War of Thirst” as the Chaco War was called. Supplying water to soldiers became such an issue that Paraguay had resorted to air-­dropping large blocks of ice to keep their soldiers nourished. Precious gasoline was also spared to fuel trucks carrying water to troops instead of Bolivian armored forces. So, suffice it to say, heavy, water-­cooled machine guns were far from the ideal weapon to use in the War of Thirst.

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A Madsen machine gun in service with Brazilian police in 2013.

Madsen Machine Gun Specs

  • Country of Origin: Denmark
  • Year Designed: 1901
  • Caliber: 7.65x53 Argentine
  • Action: Open-­bolt recoil-­operated
  • Weight: 20 lbs. (unloaded)
  • Sights: Rear V with front post, AA sights
  • Barrel Length: 23 in.
  • Overall Length: 45 in.
  • Feed System: Detachable box magazine
  • Capacity: 30 rounds
  • Rate of Fire: ~450 rpm
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A Bolivian Vickers six-­ton Type A tank with a 7.65 Vickers machine gun in each turret.
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A Bolivian Vickers six-­ton Type B tank, armed with the coaxial 7.65 Vickers machine gun.

A result of Bolivia’s shortcoming with regard to its armored units was the purchase of a small amount of Swiss-­made Oerlikon SSG36’s. Towards the end of the war, Paraguay had captured so much Bolivian armor that the Bolivian government had ordered purchases of anti-­armor rifles for use against their own former armor. One of the rifles ordered was the SSG36. A rather obscure weapon, it only saw action in the Chaco War. The rifle fired a 20mm round at 2,460 fps and was capable of piercing any armor in the Chaco. (NOTE: This was the second cartridge in this series of anti-­tank rifles. The original SSG used a 20mmx72mm and the SSG36 was chambered for the 20mmx110mm.) The rifle used a similar action to the more famous Becker M2 20mm Auto-­cannon (which was also used in the Chaco), used on German aircraft during World War I. In spite of the massive 20mm round being fired, the recoil was quite effectively mitigated by the large bolt and straight, advanced primer ignition blowback action. In an advanced primer ignition, or API, a primer of a round is ignited whilst the bolt is still moving forward and the while the round is yet to be fully chambered. The Oerlikon was a well-­designed weapon very capable of fulfilling its designated purpose in the Chaco.

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A Vickers machine gun, chambered in .303 British. Vickers models used in the Chaco War were chambered in 7.65x53 Argentine.

Vickers Machine Gun Specs

  • Country of Origin: United Kingdom
  • Year Designed: 1912
  • Caliber: 7.65x53 Argentine
  • Action: Recoil-­operated
  • Weight: 33 lbs. (unloaded)
  • Sights: Tangent iron sights, scope
  • Barrel Length: 28 in.
  • Overall Length: 3ft. 8in.
  • Feed System: Canvas belt
  • Capacity: 250 rounds
  • Rate of Fire: ~450–­500 rpm
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A Bolivian machine gun emplacement, equipped with a Vickers machine gun inside a fortín.

Another rare and expensive weapon appearing in the Chaco was the MP34. Based off of the MP18 and produced clandestinely by Waffenfabrik Steyr. The MP34 was designed as a work-­around to the Treaty of Versailles, which would prohibit production of such a weapon in Germany. To get around the treaty, Rheinmetall took controlling interest in Waffenfabrik Steyr, and so the guns were produced in Austria. Extremely well-­built, with even a machined buttplate and magazine well, it earned the nickname “The Rolls-­Royce of Submachine guns.” Chambered in a few cartridges including 9x19 Parabellum and .45 ACP, the ones sold to Bolivia were chambered in the lesser-­known 7.63x25 Mauser. Featuring just a standard, open-­bolt blowback action, it also had a very unique feature: a magazine-­refilling device in the magazine well. While the magazine is loaded into the left side of the gun horizontally, an empty magazine can be put into the magazine well vertically, where there is a hole in the top of the well to facilitate easy reloading of the magazine with eight-­round stripper clips. Capable of shooting effectively up to 650 feet at 1,345 fps on either full-­auto or semi-­auto, a submachine gun wouldn’t be the best choice for Chaco terrain. However, very effective at close range and based off of the MP18 stormtrooper classic, this would probably be the best weapon with which a soldier could be equipped for storming a fortín. With some variants equipped with a tripod, the MP34 could prove useful as a support weapon during the few close-­quarters scenes of combat, such as in the jungle.

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Bolivian anti-­aircraft gun crew with a Becker M2 Auto-­Cannon in 20mm. (Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com)

Oerlikon SSG36 Anti-­Tank Rifle Specs

  • Country of Origin: Switzerland
  • Year Designed: 1932
  • Caliber: 20mm (20x110 RB)
  • Action: Semi-­auto, API blowback
  • Weight: ~85 lbs. (unloaded)
  • Sights: Iron-­sights offset to the left
  • Barrel Length: 33 in.
  • Overall Length: ~68 in.
  • Feed System: Detachable box magazine
  • Capacity: 5 or 10 rounds
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A German-­made MP34 machine gun.

MP34 Submachine Gun Specs

  • Country of Origin: Germany/Austria
  • Year Designed: 1929
  • Caliber: 7.63x25 (also offered in 9x19mm, 9x25mm, and .45 ACP)
  • Action: Open-­bolt blowback
  • Weight: 9.4 lbs. (unloaded)
  • Sights: Hooded front, tangent rear adjustable up to 500m
  • Barrel Length: 7.9 in.
  • Overall Length: 33.5 in.
  • Feed System: Detachable box magazine
  • Capacity: 20 or 32 rounds
  • Rate of Fire: ~600 rpm

Although their use was rare, even for the Chaco War, some handguns were used, most notably the famous Mauser C96, the 1906 model of the famous Luger P08, and Walther PP, all in Bolivian service. Paraguay’s most used handgun was the FN Model 1903. Used extensively (for a handgun, of course) by both sides was the Smith & Wesson Military & Police (or M&P). The most-­produced revolver of all time and one of the most-­produced handguns, the M&P (later known as the Model 10) saw service with over two dozen countries. As rank insignias were often not used during the war, a holstered handgun was often an easy indicator the bearer was at least an NCO. Durable and with six rounds of .38 Special, the M&P would ensure any officer in the Chaco was well-­equipped.

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The MP34’s unique magazine-­reloading function in use.

Smith & Wesson M&P Revolver Specs

  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Year Designed: 1899
  • Caliber: .38 Special
  • Action: Double/single
  • Weight: ~34 oz. (unloaded)
  • Sights: Blade and notch iron sights
  • Barrel Length: 2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5, 6 in.
  • Feed System: Swing-­out cylinder
  • Capacity: 6 rounds
  • Effective Range: 50 yards
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The S&W M&P Model 10 revolver in .38 Special.

Paraguay’s aforementioned advantages later proved decisive; their intuitive and nuanced tactics lead to encirclement after encirclement of Bolivian forces. Bolivia’s advantages would be inconsequential by the end of the war, mostly due to poor leadership and misuse of equipment. By 1935, Paraguay had almost total control of the Chaco region. If it were not for the economies of both nations being in dire straits and on the brink of collapse, it would be possible that Paraguay could have marched into Bolivia itself. In June of 1935, a ceasefire was negotiated, and in 1938, a formal peace treaty was signed by both nations in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which awarded most of the disputed land to Paraguay. The loss of the Chaco left a lasting impact on Bolivian culture, such as the Generación del Chaco, a social movement of people disgruntled with the loss of the territory, similar to the “Generation of ‘98” in Spain. With about 100,000 total dead on both sides, the conflict would appear all for naught, as no significant amounts of oil or petroleum were discovered in the Chaco. However, in 2012, the president of Paraguay, Federico Franco announced the discovery of oil in the Chaco. These oil and gas reserves also extend into the foothills of the Andes Mountains, well within Bolivia’s borders, and give Bolivia the second largest oil and gas reserves on the continent, behind Venezuela.

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