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
A rifle is a long-barrelled firearm capable of firing single shots very accurately out to around 1,000 metres, or even 2,000 metres or more for sniper and anti-materiel rifles. The name is derived from the rifling in the bore.C. J. Marchant Smith and P. R. Haslan, Small Arms & Cannons, Battlefield Weapons Systems and Technology, Vol. 5, Brassey’s, Oxford, 1981, p. 194. The barrel length determines the speed of the bullet and hence the stability necessary for long-range firing (as the bullet picks up speed while travelling through the barrel).C. J. Chivers, The gun, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010, pp. 198–9.
A carbine is a short-barrelled variation of the standard rifle, lighter and easier to handle, but less powerful and accurate. Due to their short barrel, sub-machine guns are sometimes referred to as sub-machine carbines in the United States.
Rifles can be single-shot, lever-action, bolt-action, pump-action, or self-loading.V. Di Maio, Gunshot wounds: practical aspects of firearms, ballistics, and forensic techniques, CRC Press, Boca Raton, 1985, p. 9. A single-shot rifle has one firing chamber integral with the barrel which has to be manually loaded each time the weapon is fired. A lever-fired rifle has a lever beneath the grip which is used to open the rifle action, extract the cartridge case, and, in closing the action, insert a fresh cartridge in the firing chamber and cock the gun. In a bolt-action rifle, a handle projects from the bolt. Pulling back and pushing forward on this projection causes the bolt to extract and eject a cartridge case and then insert a new cartridge while cocking the gun. The slide-action rifle uses the manual movement of a slide under and parallel to the barrel to open the action, extract and eject a cartridge, load a fresh cartridge, and cock the weapon. In self-loading or semi-automatic rifles, the weapon fires, extracts, ejects, reloads and cocks with each pull of the trigger, using the force of gas pressure or recoil to operate the action.
Shotguns can also be included in this category. Shotguns are weapons that are intended to be fired from the shoulder.Ibid. Unlike rifles they have a smooth bore and are designed to fire multiple pellets from the barrel. They can be single-shot, over-and-under, double-barrel, bolt-action, lever-action, pump-action, or self-loading. The over-and-under shotgun has two barrels one above the other, and the double-barrel version has its barrels side by side.
See small arms entry for information on traceability and durability.
Rifles have been replaced by assault rifles as the standard infantry weapon. Military stockpiles nevertheless often include surprisingly large amounts of single-shot (bolt-action) rifles. An estimated 15 million SKS rifles have been produced in the Soviet Union.Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2006: Unfinished Business, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 55.
Rifles and carbines are covered by multilateral instruments regulating small arms. Carbines are treated in the entry on sub-machine guns. Assault rifles have a dedicated entry.
Last updated on: 08 February 2014
The first small arm was a rudimentary lead cannon fastened to a stick, and fired by a match held in the hand. Called a ‘handgonne’, the muzzle-loading weapon existed in China since the thirteenth century and is attested in Europe since the fourteenth century. These early hand-held firearms were less powerful than crossbows.
The arquebus was invented in the late fourteenth century. A spring let loose by a trigger threw the match, which was fastened to it, forward into the pan containing the priming. It was from this spring that the gun took its name. But the weapon could still not be aimed: its butt was straight, placed against the breast when the gun was fired, which also made the force of recoil problematic. The Germans first conceived of the idea to bend the butt downward, so that the elevated barrel could be brought in range of the eye. The new type of arquebus quickly spread. Constructors experimented with various types of ignition (serpentine lock, snapping matchlock, sear lock matchlock) which all involved contact between a slow-burning match and the powder. For horsemen, a smaller size of arquebus was also made available: called the petronel, it was the ancestor of the carbine.K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 61; W. Y. Carman, A history of firearms from earliest times to 1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, pp. 125–6.
Rifles – that is, long guns with the characteristic rifling of the bore – also appeared in the late fifteenth century. The stabilising effect of a slight, regular spin on a projectile's flight was already known to archers. Smoothbore weapons lacked accuracy, but it was found this could be corrected by imparting the bullet a spin through twisted grooves cut into the sides of the bore. But early rifles, in addition to being costly to manufacture, were plagued by a major deficiency: in order to grip the rifling of the barrel, bullets had to fit the bore tightly and hence be forced down the barrel with a mallet, or wrapped in a piece of leather or fabric. As a result, rifles took much longer to load than smoothbore weapons. In addition, this loose fit meant that rifles suffered from fouling in the barrel. The weapon was clearly impractical in battle. It was used for hunting, but except for a few sharpshooters from the sixteenth century, it would be centuries before rifles would earn their place as a military weapon.K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 201; W. H. McNeill, The pursuit of power: technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, p. 231; W. Y. Carman, A history of firearms from earliest times to 1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, pp. 105–6.
Instead, the musket was invented around 1520. More powerful than the arquebus, it was also heavier, which meant it needed to be fired from a Y-shaped rest, and musketeers had an assistant – usually a young boy – to help them carry the weapon. Muskets also relied on a matchlock firing mechanism, were long and hazardous to operate (they had to be reloaded while constantly holding a burning match in one hand), and were still fairly unreliable. But they were easy to produce in large quantities, and technological improvements gradually made them lighter and easier to handle, so that they became indistinguishable from the older arquebus.
Matchlock firing mechanisms were replaced in the mid-seventeenth century with a flintlock ignition system, whereby a piece of flint was attached to the cock (hammer) to produce sparks and ignite the powder. This was another major evolution, since firing a gun no longer required an external source of fire. Easier manipulation enabled to increase the rate of fire. The mechanism also enabled to carry small arms on horseback – something that would have been utterly impractical as long as the musketeer needed to constantly carry a burning match. The carbine, a shorter-barrelled musket easier to carry while riding a horse, was soon equipped with the new mechanism. Before long, muskets became the standard infantry weapon. But standardisation also slowed down innovation: in England, the ‘Brown Bess’ – a musket developed in 1690 – would change little over nearly the next 200 years.W. H. McNeill, The pursuit of power: technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, p. 142; K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 201.
An essentially tactical change followed the invention of the bayonet in the late seventeenth century. From there on, pikemen lost their usefulness in battle and disappeared while musket-carrying infantry doubled its efficiency.K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 62 and 200–01.
The industrial revolution, with the introduction of steam power and metallurgy, induced a new period of major evolution in armaments, particularly in Britain, France, and Germany. The percussion lock appeared in the early nineteenth century, where a percussion cap containing fulminate of mercury was positioned so that it would be hit and ignited by the hammer. This was much more reliable than the flintlock, notably in wet conditions. Then, in 1848, a conical shaped bullet was invented – a revolutionary departure from the usual spherical bullets. What would become the Minié bullet had a hollow base which expanded on firing to fit the rifling grooves and seal the propellant gases behind the bullet. Expansion meant the bullet no longer needed to fit the bore very tightly, and was therefore easier to insert. Rifles suddenly became practical in battle.K. Krause, Arms and the State: Patterns of military production and trade, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 56–7; V. Di Maio, Gunshot wounds: practical aspects of firearms, ballistics, and forensic techniques, CRC Press, Boca Raton, 1985, p. 19.
Rifles were issued for the first time to French and British troops during the Crimean War (1853-1856). The weapons had a range of 1000 metres, five times that of a musket, which gave the French and British expeditionary forces a decisive edge over Russian troops. Immediately after that, rifles became standard issue in France, Prussia, Great Britain, and the United States. The wartime surge in demand also lead Europeans to apply industrial techniques of mass production to the weapons industry, something that had been done in the United States since the war of 1812. Small arms production plants were set up in Europe, with private businesses also selling sporting weapons to private individuals.W. H. McNeill, The pursuit of power: technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, pp. 231 and 331.
Another major innovation were breech-loading rifles, which had an accurate range three-fold that of muzzle-loading weapons, and could be reloaded while lying down. Experiments with breech-loading muskets had been conducted for some time, even used by a troop of about 100 men in the United States in the late eighteenth century, but did not catch on before the nineteenth century. The Prussians secretly produced the so-called ‘needle guns’ since 1840. But artisanal production methods starkly limited the output of new guns. Only in 1866 was the Prussian army fully equipped with the new steel rifles, which were tested with great success in battle against the Austrians. Before long, one country after the other adopted the innovation, often with improvements of their own.K. Krause, Arms and the State: Patterns of military production and trade, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 56–7; W. H. McNeill, The pursuit of power: technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, pp. 166, 233 and 236; M. J. Dougherty, Small arms: from the civil war to the present day, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2006, p. 12; W. Y. Carman, A history of firearms from earliest times to 1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, pp. 107–08 and 113–8.
As industrial production methods spread, new technological innovations would be much quicker to be adopted. The invention in 1867 of brass cartridges opened up the possibility for repeating rifles. Magazine rifles appeared in the 1880s: earlier trials with tubular magazines in the butt of the rifle had a risk of accidental discharge from the force of recoil, and eventually it was versions of the box magazine, with cartridges stored underneath each other, that stuck. The new rifles, including the British Lee-Enfield line that would be used until World War I, were ‘bolt-action’, that is, they were capable of ejecting the spent cartridge and chambering the next cartridge through manual action. From there, it was not long before self-loading rifles were invented, which used the forces of expanding gases or of recoil to carry out this operation.W. H. McNeill, The pursuit of power: technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, p. 273, n. 18; K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 202; W. Y. Carman, A history of firearms from earliest times to 1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, pp. 120–4.
Rifles lost much of their military importance with the advent of the assault rifle after World War II. They have been confined to specialized roles, principally sharpshooting, and anti-materiel duties.
Anti-materiel rifles were developed after World War I in response to the introduction of the tank on the battlefield.Small Arms Survey, 'Anti-Materiel Rifles', Research Note No. 7, June 2011, p. 1. The early ‘T’ Gewehr fired a 13mm cartridge that could pierce the relatively thin armour of the early tank. With the improved protection of armoured vehicles, the rifle became obsolete until the introduction in 1982 of the Barrett M82 12.7mm self-loading rifle. Other sniper and anti-materiel rifles appeared on the market that use ammunition of 12.7mm to 20mm in calibre – mainly the military .50 BMG cartridge.J. Bevan and S. Pézard,‘Basic characteristics of ammunition: from handguns to MANPADS’, in Pézard and Anders, Targeting Ammunition: a Primer, p. 29.
Last updated on: 08 February 2014
This section details the intended effects of rifles and carbines. Their humanitarian impact is addressed in the entry dealing with small arms ammunition (health impact of penetrating trauma), as well as in the general entry on small arms (aggregate humanitarian impact).
Rifles are a common type of civilian and military small arm, often used for sniper duties. Bolt-action rifles are progressively being replaced by semi-automatic versions in law enforcement and specialist military units.
Carbines have a shorter barrel than standard rifles and are therefore easier to handle in thickets, urban combat, armoured vehicles, or on parachute duty.
Shotguns are generally used to shoot multiple projectiles, such as large balls ('buckshot'), small balls ('birdshot'), flechettes, miniature tear gas grenades, plastic batton rounds, or explosive rounds (for blowing doors off their hinges for example). The conical spread of projectiles increases the chance of a hit as well as the stopping power, while limiting the chance of ricochet and hence injury to bystanders. Their loud sound also has a deterrent effect.
See Intended effects of small arms for a general discussion of civilian uses of firearms. Note that even the use of anti-material rifles has become a recognized sport in the United States and a few other countries.Small Arms Survey, 'Anti-Materiel Rifles', Research Note No. 7, June 2011, p. 1.
See the weapons entries on small arms ammunition for the health impact of penetrating trauma, and on small arms for the aggregate humanitarian impact.
Last updated on: 08 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. It supplements the 2001 UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), also known as the Palermo Convention.+ 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