Marking of Firearms and Ammunition (Research Note 36)

Giacomo Persi Paoli
Research Note

Marking is a fundamental element of any tracing system. It allows for the unique identification of weapons and the establishment of associated records. Universal requirements for marking are outlined in the UN’s International Tracing Instrument (ITI, or, in full, the ‘International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons’).

Marking of Firearms and Ammunition, a Research Note from the Small Arms Survey, describes the standards that regulate the marking of firearms, and presents the various technologies available for both firearm and ammunition marking, explaining the strengths and limitations of each.

The ITI specifies that the choice of marking method ‘is a national prerogative’, and there are several different approved technologies available for marking weapons. Accepted universal standards for the marking of weapons exist, involving one of several forms of stamping or engraving. The ITI does not, however, set universal standards for the marking of ammunition.

Traditional methods of ammunition marking—such as ‘headstamps’ applied to the rim of the cartridge cases—are made early in the production process, prior to priming (the stage when the charge of explosive powder is added). New laser-marking technologies allow more information to be recorded on each round of ammunition, and can be applied later in the process. This technology allows additional and detailed information, such as the identity of the purchaser, to be recorded on each round.

The Note shows that standards for marking ammunition are much less developed than those that apply to weapons and are not of universal application. Nevertheless, new technologies, especially laser marking, have the ability to increase the traceability of ammunition by enabling more relevant information to be marked on small-calibre cartridges. 

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Keywords: Markings Controls