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18.4.2021 : 4:34 : +0200

Global Development and Production of Self-loading Service Rifles: 1896 to the Present


Self-loading rifles were first issued in military service in 1896 and remain the primary infantry weapon for all modern military forces. They are durable weapons, with examples produced in the 1930s and 1940s still documented in modern conflict zones. Recent research suggests that some 175 million self-loading service rifles have been produced to date. This figure does not include civilian-owned rifles and is very likely an underestimate. 

A new Working Paper by N.R. Jenzen-Jones, released today by the Small Arms Survey, traces the history and development of the modern self-loading service rifle. It describes their development from early and unreliable designs to the first iterations of modern self-loading rifles in Second World War, and later rifle types with a prominence that endures to this day. The Paper follows the development of current self-loading rifles and discusses so-called ‘modular’ designs which have affected what a self-loading service rifle is and is meant to do.

Using a variety of data sources, the Working Paper attempts to estimate the numbers of self-loading service rifles that have been produced to date, including the types of weapons and countries of production. The Paper notes that, despite the continuous development and widespread adoption of self-loading service rifles, just four ‘families’ of rifles represent nearly 60 per cent of all weapons produced: FAL types (about 5.5 million), G3 types (about 8 million), AR-10 and AR-15 types (about 13 million), and AK-type rifles (about 76 million; some 40 per cent of all self-loading service rifles produced to date).

As the Working Paper notes, it is hard to reliably estimate how many of these weapons are in circulation. The trend towards modular design, the modernization of existing rifles, as well as the increasing popularity of these rifle types in the civilian market all contribute to this difficulty. Understanding how best to classify and count these weapons, including self-loading rifles, is critical in countering the illicit proliferation of self-loading rifles.

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