The 7.62×39mm round began its life at the Izhevsk Machinebuilding Plant in the Udmurt Republic of the Soviet Union in 1960. Molded and lathed from Kargaly copper and Cherepovets steel with a core of Chelyabinsk lead, it was one of over a million cartridges produced in its batch and intended for transshipment to front-line border troops stationed in East Germany, ready to be fired across the Iron Curtain at NATO forces at a moment’s notice.

However, the powers that be ultimately sent nearly the entire batch to Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East instead, where they were embarked on the Ulyanov, a merchant ship, bound for Haiphong harbor in Vietnam. There, the 7.62×39mm rounds, and the AK-47 rilfes for which they were manufactured, were presented to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a gift from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Transferred on the old French trunk line railroad to marshaling yards near Hanoi, the cartridge was issued to the 622nd Assault Battalion of the Vietnam People’s Army in July of 1967. When the 622nd Assault Battalion was ordered south to support the General Offensive General Uprising in January, the cartridge accompanied the unit’s quartermaster to a rural area near Hue. The quartermaster in turn issued it to a private from Vinh, who loaded it into a spare magazine the day before a scheduled attack.

The attack was a fiasco. The 622nd Assault Battalion was able to rout the ARVN troops occupying a barracks, but their lines were, in turn, infiltrated and destroyed piecemeal by a counterattacking force of ARVN Rangers backed up by American helicopters from Phu Bai Air Base. The private from Vinh was killed defending his commander, who had refused to call for reinforcements in hopes of advancing his career through a great victory. When the fallen soldier’s AK-47 was picked up by an ARVN Ranger as a trophy of war, the cartridge was one of three remaining in its magazine.

The Ranger returned to Hue and later was reassigned to Danang, where he grew disillusioned with the corruption and incompetence he witnessed daily in the ARVN. As a result, he quietly sold his equipment on the black market–the US equipment found its way to North Vietnamese purchasers, while the trophies of war he had accumulated were offered for sale to rear-echelon US personnel hungry for cheap souvenirs to take home. The AK-47, its magazine, and three 7.62×39mm rounds were sold to a cook from Memphis, Tennessee.

When the US troops in Danang were withdrawn beginning in 1973, the cook was able to get his trophies shipped home by paying a small bribe. For the rest of his life, he told stories about how he had “captured” the weapon and ammunition from a VC raiding party, never keeping the details quite consistent enough to feel his friends or family members. Around the time of the federal assault weapons ban in 1994, the ex-cook quietly had the rifle de-militarized and converted into a display piece. The remaining three bullets had their primers and charged removed and were converted into keychains, one for each of the man’s three now-grown sons.

The eldest boy received the 7.62×39mm round that had traveled all the way from Izhevsk. While he never believed his father’s stories of killing its original wielder with a steak knife, he nevertheless regarded it as a lucky charm and half-jokingly credited it with the success of his plumbing supply company in the Memphis exurbs. That luck came to an end in March of 2002, when a Northwest Airlines security checkpoint confiscated the keychain. Despite the owner’s protests, in the post-9/11 airport security hysteria the keychain was never returned.

Instead, it found its way into a storage unit onsite where seized items were kept. As was their wont, the airport baggage handlers often dipped into this stash for items of interest, and the Izhevsk cartridge keychain was picked up by a baggage crew chief in charge of loading and unloading Northwest 757s on the Atlanta route. He was one of the lucky ones who kept his job after Northwest was acquired by Delta in 2010 and the new owners gutted the former Memphis hub.

The round remains there today, dangling from the man’s clipped keychain, with no indication of its long and strange journey.

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