The Encyclopedia is a project of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights launched on 2 December 2013. The Enyclopedia aims to provide accurate, up-to-date information on weapons, the effects of their use, and their regulation under public international law, in a format that is accessible to non-specialists.+ Find out more
Prior to 1997, the terms 'small arms' and 'light weapons' were often used interchangeably; in French (armes légères) and in Spanish (armas ligeras) both categories are generally conflated into one.
The 1997 Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms clarified terminology. Its report states that small arms and light weapons (SALW) are a broad category, ranging from clubs, knives, and machetes to those weapons just below those covered by the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms; for example, mortars below the calibre of 100mm. Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, A/52/298, 27 August 1997, §24. However, the Panel of Experts chose to limit its report to SALW ‘manufactured to military specifications for use as lethal instruments of war’. Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, A/52/298, 27 August 1997, §24.
It further states that ‘Broadly speaking, small arms are those weapons designed for personal use’, and provides a list including revolvers and self-loading pistols; rifles and carbines; sub-machine guns; assault rifles; and light machine guns. Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, A/52/298, 27 August 1997, §§25 and 26(a).
The 2005 International Tracing Instrument largely reproduces this definition. It defines small arms and light weapons as:
Any man-portable lethal weapons that expels or launches, is designed to expel or launch, or may be readily converted to expel or launch a shot, bullet or projectile by the action of an explosive, excluding antique small arms and light weapons or their replicas.’Art. 4, 2005 International Tracing Instrument.
It is further stipulated that: ‘Small arms are, broadly speaking, weapons designed for individual use. They include … revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles and light machine guns.'Art. 4(a) 2005 International Tracing Instrument.
Both definitions do not explicitly include certain types of firearms, such as single-shot or derringer pistols and shotguns.
The International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS) have a broad definition, providing that small arms include
any man-portable lethal weapon designed for individual use that expels or launches, is designed to expel or launch, or may be readily converted to expel or launch a shot, bullet or projectile by the action of an explosive.International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS) 01.20: 'Glossary of terms, definitions and abbreviations'.
Last updated on: 08 August 2017