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Small arms and light weapons ammunition includes a wide variety of products wich makes detailed categorization difficult. One useful way of classifying small arms ammunition is by cartridge case length. Larger calibre ordnance is usually recognizable by generic type, and normally marked with the calibre and other inscriptions that usually allow basic identification.

Small arms ammunition is primarily cartridge-based. Described in military terms as a 'round' of ammunition, it comprises of a cartridge case, bullet, propellant and primer. Small arms ammunition varies in size or caliber, and contemporary military ammunition largely follows standards originally set by NATO or the former Warsaw Pact.

NATO calibres include:

  • 5.56 x 45 mm
  • 7.62 x 51 mm
  • 9 x 19 mm
  • 12.7 x 99 mm or .50 BMG (Browning machine gun)

Warsaw Pact calibres include:

  • 5.45 x 39 mm
  • 7.62 x 39 mm
  • 7.62 x 54 mm (Rimmed)
  • 9 x 18 mm Makarov
  • 7.62 x 25 mm
  • 12.7 x 107 mm or 12.7 x 108 mm
  • 14.5 x 114 mm

Non-cartridge ammunition are typically developed for various light weapons. Though exceptions exist, they loosely fall into 4 sub-categories: rocket propelled, non-rocket propelled, guided or unguided. Non-rocket propelled projectiles are fired from recoilless rifles, mortars and rifle grenades. Unguided rocket- propelled projectiles, known commonly as rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), are fired from launchers and boosted to the required flight velocity by an internal rocket motor towards the selected target. (The term 'RPG' which stands for a specific Soviet-designed hand-held unguided anti-tank weapon system called the Ruchnoy Protivotankovy Granatomyot has entered into common use for this class of weapon.) The most sophisticated type, guided projectiles or guided missiles such as those used in MANPADS and modern anti-tank guided weapons (ATGWs), have self-sustaining power sources and are able to change their trajectory during flight.

Small Arms Survey Publications

  • Trade Update 2020: An Eye on Ammunition Transfers to Africa, by Nicolas Florquin, Elodie Hainard, and Benjamin Jongleux. Report, December 2020.

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  • Beyond State Control: Improvised and Craft-produced Small Arms and Light Weapons, by G. Hays and N.R. Jenzen-Jones. Small Arms Survey Report, November 2018.

    Download (4 MB)
  • An Introductory Guide to the Identification of Small Arms, Light Weapons, and Associated Ammunition, edited by N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Matt Schroeder. Small Arms Survey Handbook, November 2018.

    More information
  • A Practical Guide to Life-cycle Management of Ammunition, by Jovana Carapic, Eric J. Deschambault, Paul Holtom, and Benjamin King, April 2018. Handbook No. 5 (also available in French). 

    Download (2.26 MB)
  • Life-cycle Management of Ammunition (LCMA): Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina, by Jovana Carapic and Paul Holtom. Briefing Paper, April 2018 (also available in Arabic and BCMS)

    Download (462.79 KB)
  • Chambering the Next Round: Emergent Small-calibre Cartridge Technologies, by N. R. Jenzen-Jones, February 2016. Working Paper No. 23.

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  • Feeding the Fire: Illicit Small Arms Ammunition in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, July 2014. Issue Brief No. 8.

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  • Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites (UEMS): Excess Stockpiles as Liabilities rather than Assets, edited by Eric G. Berman and Pilar Reina, June 2014. Handbook No. 3

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  • Identifying Sources: Small-calibre Ammunition in Côte d'Ivoire, by Holger Anders, a joint publication of the Small Arms Survey/Security Assessment North Africa project and the Integrated Embargo Monitoring Unit of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire. June 2014. Special Report No. 21. (This report is also available in French.)

    Download (3.12 MB)
  • Following the Headstamp Trail: An Assessment of Small-calibre Ammunition Documented in Syria, by N.R. Jenzen-Jones, April 2014. Working Paper No. 18 (also available in Arabic)

    Download (1.59 MB)
  • Small-calibre Ammunition in Libya: An Update, by N.R. Jenzen-Jones, December 2013. Security Assessment in North Africa Dispatch No. 2 (also available in Arabic).

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  • The Headstamp Trail: An Assessment of Small-calibre Ammunition Found in Libya, by N.R. Jenzen-Jones, May 2013. Working Paper No. 16 (also available in Arabic)

    Download (3.47 MB)
  • Rebel Forces in Northern Mali: Documented Weapons, Ammunition and Related Materiel. Co-published with Conflict Armament Research, April 2013.

    Download (1009.91 KB)
  • Dynamic Disposal: An Introduction to Mobile and Transportable Industrial Ammunition Demilitarization Equipment, January 2013. The Regional Approach to Stockpile Reduction (RASR) Initiative, Issue Brief No. 3 (also available in Albanian, BCMS, and Bulgarian).

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  • Buy and Burn: Factoring Demilitarization into Ammunition Procurement, April 2012. A joint publication of the Regional Approach to Stockpile Reduction (RASR), the US Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, and the Small Arms Survey. RASR Issue Brief No. 2 (also available in Albanian, BCMS and Bulgarian).

    Download (1.15 MB)
  • Ammunition Marking: Current Practices and Future Possibilities, December 2011. Issue Brief No. 3.

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  • Scraping the Barrel: The Trade in Surplus Ammunition, April 2011. Issue Brief No. 2.

    Download (1.6 MB)
  • Surveying Europe’s Production and Procurement of Small Arms and Light Weapons Ammunition: The Cases of Italy, France, and the Russian Federation, edited by Benjamin King, July 2010. Working Paper No. 10

    Download (1.04 MB)
  • Ammunition Tracing Kit: Protocols and Procedures for Recording Small-calibre Ammunition, developed by James Bevan, June 2008 (also available in French).

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  • Blowback: Kenya's Illicit Ammunition Problem in Turkana North District, by James Bevan, June 2008. Occasional Paper No. 22 (Executive Summary also available)

    Download (2.34 MB)
  • Conventional Ammunition in Surplus: A Reference Guide, edited by James Bevan, co-published with BICC, FAS, GRIP, and SEESAC with support from the German Federal Foreign Office, January 2008.

    More information
  • Targeting Ammunition: A Primer, edited by Stéphanie Pézard and Holger Anders, co-published with CICS, GRIP, SEESAC, and Viva Rio, June 2006.

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Other Publications

  • Florquin, Nicolas. 2014. Arms Prices and Conflict Onset: Insights from Lebanon and Syria. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. May.

    More information
  • Corney, Neil and Nicholas Marsh. 2013. Aiming for Control: The need to include ammunition in the Arms Trade Treaty. Oslo: Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

  • OXFAM. 2006. Ammunition: the fuel of conflict. OXFAM Briefing Note. 15 June. London: Oxfam.

    More information
  • RAND National Defense Research Institute and RAND Arroyo Center. 2004. Privatizing Military Production. Research Brief. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

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Further Resources

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