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
According to the 1999 report of the United Nations (UN) Group of Experts on ammunition and explosives, ‘Ammunition refers to the complete round/cartridge or its components, including bullets or projectiles, cartridge cases, primers/caps and propellants that are used in any small arm or light weapon’.Report of the Group of Experts on the problem of ammunition and explosives, UN doc. A/54/155, 29 June 1999, §14 and Annex I. Cartridges (rounds) for small arms are the first category of ammunition listed by the 1997 report of the UN Panel of Governmental Experts on small arms.Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, UN doc. A/52/298, 27 August 1997, §26.
Small arms ammunition is primarily cartridge-based. The main function of the cartridge case is to expand and seal the chamber against rearward escape of gases when the cartridge is fired. The shape of cases can be straight (pistols), bottlenecked (rifles), or tapered. Shotshell tubes can be made of brass, plastic, or paper. With caseless ammunition, the bullet is embedded in a block of propellant rather than fitted into a cartridge case. The absence of a case makes them 50% lighter than normal rounds for the same terminal ballistics, but they are not widely in use.
Bullets can be either of lead, or metal jacketed. Bullet jackets are generally made from gilded metal or copper-coated steel. Military ammunition, whether rifle or pistol, is full metal-jacketed. High-velocity rifle ammunition used for hunting, and high-velocity revolver and pistol ammunition cartridges, are partial metal-jacketed: the metal jacket is open at the tip of the bullet to expose the lead core (soft point or hollow point), causing the bullet to mushroom upon impact. Blank cartridges are sealed with paper disks instead of bullets, or have a crimped neck.V. Di Maio, Gunshot wounds: practical aspects of firearms, ballistics, and forensic techniques, CRC Press, Boca Raton, 1985, p. 11.
Tracer rounds contain a composition in the base that burns during the flight and helps identify the fall of shot. Normal, non-tracer rounds are referred to as ‘ball rounds’. Also, dummy cartridges have neither a primer nor propellant.Ibid.
The end of the Cold War contributed to the existence of very large stockpiles of small arms ammunition in various defence inventories.Report of the Group of Experts on the problem of ammunition and explosives, UN doc. A/54/155, 29 June 1999, §60. In the United States, in 1994, the stockpile of conventional ammunition was estimated at a value of US$80 billion, of which US$31 billion was considered surplus.Ibid., n. 8. This trend was strengthened by the change to smaller-calibre assault rifles (from 7.62 mm to 5.56 mm) in several major armed forces in the world.Ibid., §60.
Production also continues apace. The manufacture of ammunition can vary from relatively unsophisticated ‘bench top’ assembly such as reloading or handloading to fully automated production.Ibid., §17. The number of cartridges produced every year runs into the billions.Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2003: Development denied, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 13. For the United States alone, the Lake City Arms Ammunition Plant produces 1.2 billion pieces of small calibre ammunition each year for the US army.S. Pézard and H. Anders (eds.), Targeting Ammunition: A Primer, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2006, p. 3.
The propellant destabilises slowly over time, leading eventually to erratic performance and in extreme circumstances to spontaneous combustion of the propellant. This process of destabilisation is accelerated by high humidity, wide temperature fluctuations and exposure of ammunition out of its packaging. Under good storage conditions however (stable temperate temperatures and low humidity combined with properly sealed packaging), small arms ammunition can last 50 years or more without significant deterioration.Report of the Group of Experts on the problem of ammunition and explosives, 1999, Annex I.
Markings are generally applied to ammunition and their packaging for management and tracing purposes.Report of the Group of Experts on the problem of ammunition and explosives, 1999, §§21 and 73–7. A cartridge headstamp is impressed, stamped or embossed on the base of a cartridge case during the manufacturing process.
Markings differ not at the level of individual rounds, but by lot or batch. A typical lot can contain from 250,000 to 1 million rounds, assembled in practically identical manufacturing conditions using identical components from controlled sources. Identification of a lot can enable to trace it back to a factory, shift or production run, including for its individual components.
It should be noted that marking practices differ, and that some ammunition is only partially marked (for example, identifying the dealer but not the original factory), unmarked, or marked in secret codes when military units want to avoid traceability after covert operations. The practices of component assembly and handloading/reloading also complicate the picture.
In addition to headstamping, ammunition can be colour-coded to denote its role and hazard: for example, armour-piercing, tracer, etc. Role-coding colour is usually painted on the tip of the bullet. Hazard-coding colours are either applied to the entire bullet or shell, or as a strip of colour.
Small arms ammunition stocks can be reduced through sale, incineration (controlled burning in specifically designed ovens or furnaces), land dumping (sea dumping has now been banned), conversion, or demilitarisation (whereby ammunition is stripped down to its component parts).Report of the Group of Experts on the problem of ammunition and explosives, 1999, §§87–93.
The regulation of small arms ammunition has often been dissociated from that of firearms. When instruments deal with ammunition, they do so often as corollary to small arms and light weapons. As a result, their regulation remains largely marginalised, or even ignored, at the international level.
The 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets prohibits the use in armed conflict of soft-nosed or semi-jacketed bullets.
The 1997 Organization of American States (OAS) Convention was the first binding regional agreement to address explicitly ammunition for small arms and light weapons. States parties agreed to harmonise their national legislation and to promote and facilitate cooperation and exchanges of information and experiences.
The 2000 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreement on small arms and light weapons only addresses ammunition in the context of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes (DDR).
The 2001 Firearms Protocol specifically addresses ammunition for firearms, even though it only extends to illicit manufacturing and trafficking (not state-to-state transfers), and does not address the marking of ammunition.
The 2001 Programme of Action did not heed the recommendations from the 1999 Report on ammunition and explosives. This was an important focus of disputes in the second Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms.Pézard and Anders, Targeting Ammunition: A Primer, p. 7. It was not so much ammunition as explosives that proved controversial, with states such as Colombia and Mexico advocating strongly to include them, while China, Russia, the United States, and several European Union member states were opposed. References to ammunition suffered from this disagreement: although participants understood it to be an integral part of the problem, it was not specifically addressed in the Programme of Action.
The 2005 International Tracing Instrument does refer to ammunition and explosives, but it does not mention them in the sections of its report dealing with marking, record-keeping or cooperation in tracing. In practical terms, this amounts to excluding ammunition from its report, while formally keeping the issue on the table.P. Batchelor and G. McDonald, ‘Too close for comfort: an analysis of the UN tracing negotiations’, Disarmament Forum, Vol. 4, 2005, p. 40.
National legislation on ammunition is diverse. In those countries where legislation is more comprehensive, it includes provisions on classification and definition of arms and ammunition and explosives, import and export licensing requirements, rules on purchase, possession and domestic transfers, national registers, identification and marking, domestic application of international and regional regulations, and penalties in case of failure to observe the rules.Report of the Group of Experts on the problem of ammunition and explosives, 1999, §62. National arms control laws do not systematically cover ammunition.
In some cases bilateral agreements have been signed to fight against the illegal trafficking of ammunition and explosive, including:
- The Mexico-United States Coordination Group established in May 1996
- The Brazil-Paraguay Agreement, signed in October 1996, by which both countries must exchange monthly records on arms, ammunition and explosives purchases by all their legal residents
- Bilateral agreements between South Africa and Mozambique, and South Africa and Swaziland, covering cooperation between police services and including provisions for specific cooperation on ammunition and explosives.Report of the Group of Experts on the problem of ammunition and explosives, 1999, §63.
Last updated on: 10 February 2014
Gunpowder (also known in its early forms as black powder), is a mixture of charcoal, sulphur, and potassium nitrate (generally known as saltpetre). It was invented in China in the ninth century, and brought to Europe around the fourteenth century for use in cannons. Its power was increased in the fifteenth century when gunpowder started to be formed in small grains or ‘corns’, allowing for more rapid ignition.J. Bevan and S. Pézard, ‘Basic characteristics of ammunition: from handguns to MANPADS’, in: Pézard and Anders (eds.), Targeting Ammunition: A Primer, p. 18; W. H. McNeill, The pursuit of power: technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, p. 88.
Up to the sixteenth century, firing a gun required bringing a source of fire into contact with the powder, usually a slow match.J. Ellis, The social history of the machine gun, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1975, p. 11. After that, the process was somewhat simplified by striking together a flint and roughened steel to produce a spark, and then with the invention of the percussion cap in 1807.
Early bullets were made of stone, then iron, then denser metals such as lead. These were initially spherical and loaded through the muzzle of unrifled smoothbore weapons. In the first half of the seventeenth century, kits combining both powder and a bullet in a tube of thick paper were made available. The shooter tore the paper apart, poured the powder into the muzzle of the weapon, and then inserted the bullet. The system allowed for quicker loading, and regulated the amount of powder used for every shot. The calibres of weapons were gradually reduced while engagement ranges increased.C. J. Marchant Smith and P. R. Haslan, Small Arms & Cannons, Battlefield Weapons Systems and Technology, Vol. 5, Brassey’s, Oxford, 1981, p. 33.
In 1848, what would become the Minié bullet was invented. This conical shape bullet – a revolutionary departure from the usual spherical bullets – had a hollow base into which an iron wedge was inserted. On firing, this wedge was driven into the base of the bullet, expanding the base. This property had a major advantage: bullets would then grip the rifling grooves of the bore, and seal the propellant gases behind, while being slightly smaller than the diameter of the bore for easy loading. Rifles had long existed but were very impractical for military use given the difficulty of muzzle-loading tightly fitting bullets. With the invention of the Minié bullet, for the first time, they became practical military weapons. Subsequent research found that the wedge could be eliminated with the same effect.Di Maio, Gunshot Wounds, p. 19.
The self-contained cartridge was invented in the mid-nineteenth century. It consisted of a single case holding a primer, propellant, and bullet. The cartridge was designed to be inserted whole into the breech of a weapon. Made of brass, it allowed a tighter seal within the weapon's barrel, which better contained the propellant gases and improved the weapons' range.
However, black (gun) powder still produced so much smoke that the infantry had to use volley fire.Marchant Smith and Haslan, Small Arms & Cannons, p. 33. It was also volatile, susceptible to moisture, and produced a lot of residue. In the late nineteenth century, the first smokeless propellant was invented. Smokeless powder was more powerful, easier to store, and less damaging to the weapons. In 1933, ball powder was invented by Winchester. Neither leaves significant residue in the bore.
The last quarter of the nineteenth century also saw the development of steel- or copper-jacketed bullets with a lead core. These were harder and more resistant to the heat in the barrel.
Last updated on: 10 February 2014
Classifying ammunition is difficult. One option is by calibre and cartridge case length. Small arms ammunition falls generally below 12.7mm calibre, even though sometimes the limit is placed at 14.5mm or even 20mm.Bevan and Pézard, ‘Basic characteristics of ammunition: from handguns to MANPADS’, , in: Pézard and Anders (eds.), Targeting Ammunition: A Primer, p. 23. Longer cases give more space for propellant and so are generally more powerful.
Airburst ammunition is also being developed for small arms.
|Type of weapons||NATO standards||Warsaw Pact standards|
|Assault rifles, light support weapons||5.56 x 45mm||7.62 x 39mm|
|Assault rifles, self-loading rifles, sniper rifles, light machine guns||7.62 x 51mm||7.62 x 54mm|
|Pistols||9 x 19mm Parabellum||7.62 x 25mm; 9 x 17mm|
|Heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, anti-materiel rifles||12.7 x 99mm||12.7 x 107mm; 12.7 x 114mm|
Table sourceReproduced from: Bevan and Pézard, ‘Basic characteristics of ammunition: from handguns to MANPADS’, in: Pézard and Anders, Targeting ammunition: a primer, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2006, p. 27.
Non-military ammunition is more varied in calibre: small cartridges for concealed-carry pistols; specialist large-calibre pistol ammunition for hunting; match-grade rifle ammunition for target shooting; ammunition for marksmen in security forces; soft-nosed, low-velocity ammunition for law enforcement; armour-piercing and other larger calibres for big game hunting; or rubber or plastic rounds for riot or crowd control.Bevan and Pézard, ‘Basic characteristics of ammunition: from handguns to MANPADS’, p. 27.
The .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) is a common law enforcement pistol calibre.
Last updated on: 10 February 2014
It is difficult to speak of the impact of small arms without talking about ammunition: ‘It is the ammunition which does the damage and is the raison d'être of the small arm.’Marchant Smith and Haslan, Small Arms & Cannons, p. 1. The section on intended effects looks at the objective of ammunition design for military, law enforcement, and civilian uses. The section on humanitarian impact takes a closer look at wound ballistics. The aggregate effect of small arms use is discussed in the weapons entry on small arms.
The normal target for small arms ammunition in military use is the human body, and the desired effect is that of a lethal or incapacitating wound. Any wound causing loss of consciousness, blindness or paralysis is considered incapacitating; however, other wounds can also qualify depending on the location of the wound, and the task and motivation of the wounded combatant (a wound in the foot is more likely to incapacitate an assaulting infantryman than a static defender, for example). Wounds also vary according to the time taken for them to become incapacitating.Marchant Smith and Haslan, Small Arms & Cannons, p. 20.
Only fully-jacketed bullets are permitted for military use.
Some type of small arms ammunition has also been developed to overcome hard targets. More energy is indeed needed when the target is protected by body armour, concrete slabs, a brick wall or other.Ibid., p. 38. Armour-piercing ammunition is generally of a larger calibre and has a hard steel core.
Contrary to military use, police forces tend to adopt semi-jacketed bullets because they tend to ricochet less, and therefore pose less hazard to innocent bystanders in urban settings.Bevan and Pézard, ‘Basic characteristics of ammunition: from handguns to MANPADS’, p. 38.
Semi-jacketed bullets are used in hunting because they increase the chance of a kill. Because their core is exposed at the top, they usually expand when they hit the target, leading to greater loss of kinetic energy and hence greater internal damage.Ibid.
By virtue of its motion, a projectile possesses kinetic energy, which is determined by the bullet's weight and velocity. When hitting a target, the bullet imparts kinetic energy to the surrounding tissue, flinging it away from the bullet's path in a radial manner. This produces a temporary cavity considerably larger than the diameter of the bullet (up to 30 times the diameter of the original bullet). Its size and shape depends on the amount of kinetic energy lost by the bullet, how rapidly the energy is lost, and the elasticity and cohesiveness of the tissue. When the cavity disappears, after 5 to 10 milliseconds, it leaves a permanent wound track. However, it is the temporary cavity that causes most of the wounding.Di Maio, Gunshot Wounds, p. 41–8.
Tissues rupture because the body cannot readily absorb energy. Energy is transferred to the target when the projectile loses velocity. The more energy is transferred, the more damage there will be.Marchant Smith and Haslan, Small Arms & Cannons, pp. 20–1.
While low velocity bullets (such as full metal-jacketed pistol bullets) rarely lose sufficient kinetic energy to cause injuries far from the bullet track, high velocity bullets are said to cause ‘explosive wounding’ because of the shock wave they create in the body. High velocity is a factor of muzzle velocity and of the loss of speed during the flight (itself influenced by the bullet's physical properties). If such bullets travel through the body without losing much speed, they will not create much damage. More damage is created if the bullet has less penetrating power, such as if it breaks up within the target, if it deforms on impact into a less streamlined shape, or if it becomes unstable when entering a denser medium than air.
Bullets produce damage through laceration and crushing of issue and bones in the direct path of the projectile, and via cavitation. The pressure applied by the temporary cavity on surrounding tissues and organs provokes injuries far from the bullet path and therefore hard to detect, particularly to soft organs. It is also capable of fracturing bones several centimetres from the bullet track.E. Prokosch, The Technology of Killing: A military and political history of antipersonnel weapons, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1995, pp. 18–9; Di Maio, Gunshot Wounds, p. 43. Foreign material and bacteria are also sucked into the wound track from both the entrance and exit.
The extent of injury also depends on the angle of yaw of the bullet. If the path of the bullet through tissue is long enough, instability will increase until the bullet tumbles end-over-end.Di Maio, Gunshot Wounds, p. 47. If the bullet fragments, each fragment will follow a distinct path, thereby multiplying the effect of a single bullet.Prokosch, The Technology of Killing, pp. 191–2.
Immediate impacts from gunshots include soft tissue injuries, bone fractures, and vital organ damage. Injuries to extremities often result in fractures, which if left untreated, may lead to haemorrhages and infections or to permanent disability due to joint or bone deformities.C. Buchanan and M. Widmer (eds.), Missing Pieces: A guide for reducing gun violence through parliamentary action, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Inter-Parliamentary Union, Geneva, 2007, p. 65. Brain and spinal cord injuries are more difficult to treat, leaving irreversible damage such as paralysis, sexual dysfunction, limited movement, seizure disorders, incontinence, and severe facial disfigurations.
Injuries and disabilities sustained through gun violence are also associated with psychological problems and can result in flashbacks, anxiety and fear, self-destructive behaviours, low self-esteem, depression, suicidal behaviour and action, and alienation from friends and family.
Last updated on: 10 February 2014
The UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (2001 Firearms Protocol) was the first global, legally binding instrument on small arms control. It contains important provisions on manufacturing, marking and tracing, record-keeping, and international transfers of firearms.+ More
The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first global, legally binding instrument regulating international transfers of most conventional weapons, as well as some ammunition / munitions, and parts and components.+ More