Weapons Law Encyclopedia

Small arms

The history of small arms spans back practically to the invention of black powder in China in the ninth century AD. It was initially valued as an explosive. The first true firearms – cannons – can be traced back to the twelfth century in China. Smaller firearms existed in the thirteenth century, consisting of a barrel, a chamber for the gunpowder, and a trumpet-shaped socket for the handle, for a total length of 35 cm without handle. Gunpowder and firearms were likely brought to Hungary by the Mongols in the campaign of 1241. Primitive cannons and ‘hand gonne’ are first attested in Europe in the fourteenth century. Hand-held firearms will be perfected in the second half of the fifteenth century by gun founders in the Low Countries and in France beyond anything that had existed in China so far. Present in the Middle East since the fourteenth century, they spread to India in the fifteenth century, and back to East Asia in the sixteenth century.K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 32, 58 and 197; W. H. McNeill, The pursuit of power: technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, p. 59.

The development of small arms can best be followed in the following sequence:
- Development of ammunition
- Development of arquebus and musket, evolving into rifles and carbines
- Miniaturisation of arquebuses and perfection of pistols, revolvers, and self-loading pistols
- Development in the late nineteenth century of machine guns, which were progressively miniaturised until the widespread use, during World War I, of light and general-purpose machine guns
- The further miniaturisation of light machine guns after World War I into sub-machine guns
- The apparition at the end of World War II of the first assault rifles, the German ‘Sturmgewehr’, which inspired the design of the AK-47 and led to the widespread proliferation from the 1960s of the assault rifle.

Last updated on: 18 February 2015

As defined by the 1997 report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms and the 2005 International Tracing Instrument, small arms comprise the following types:
- revolvers and self-loading pistols
- rifles and carbines
- sub-machine guns
- assault rifles
- light machine guns

Small arms ammunition must also be considered.

It should be noted that different denominations can overlap. For example, a US carbine can be considered a sub-machine gun in Europe, which itself is sometimes called a machine pistol or assault rifle.

Although the list does not mention certain types of firearms, such as single-shot and derringer pistols and shotguns, they are included in the relevant types.

Last updated on: 18 February 2015

Intended effects differ for different types of small arms. Even weapons designed originally for military use quickly leak into the hands of non-state actors – the proliferation of assault rifles is a case in point. Small arms are said to constitute a significant public health risk.World Health Organisation, Small arms and global health, WHO/NMH/VIP/01.1, WHO, Geneva, 2001. The health impact of penetrating trauma of individual bullets (wound ballistics) is detailed in the small arms ammunition entry. Their humanitarian impact, however, can hardly be broken down by type of small arm, and is therefore described here.

Small arms are considered civilian or military depending on how they are used, not particular technical differences (with the arguable exception of automatic weapons, whose civilian use is difficult to justify). The 1997 Panel of Experts report speaks of hunting firearms and home-made weapons as non-military weapons, yet admits that even those have been used in violent conflicts, terrorism, and the intentional harming of civilians, and also includes them in its scope.Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, UN doc. A/52/298, 27 August 1997, §28.

Depending on national legislation, acceptable civilian uses can include hunting, target practice, sport shooting, profession, performance or art, collection or museum, and self-defence.‘Balancing acts: Regulation of civilian firearm possession’, Executive Summary in: Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2011: States of Security, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

The unclear distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ small arms poses certain challenges given that sometimes legislation will apply differently to civilian or military weapons – typically national export regulations may vary.The same weapon can be a civilian weapon when in the hand of a civilian, and a military weapon when in the hand of a soldier. It is typically easier for a state or a company to claim it is exporting ‘civilian’ weapons.
For information on military and law enforcement uses, see:
- revolvers and self-loading pistols
- rifles and carbines
- sub-machine guns
- assault rifles
- light machine guns

Small arms ammunition is also designed differently depending on the intended effect. See the weapons entry on small arms ammunition for more information.

Most present-day armed conflicts are fought mainly with small arms. They are also the weapons of choice for terrorism, organized crime, and gang warfare. They are also used in crime, intimate partner/family violence, and self-directed violence (suicide).

Their aggregate impact is difficult to isolate in conflict situations, where other weapon systems are also used. It is also exceedingly difficult to disaggregate impact by category of small arms: sometimes data does not even permit differentiation of firearm violence from other types of violence (such as knives or blunt force).Small Arms Survey, ‘A matter of survival: non-lethal firearm violence’. In: Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving Targets, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, for example pp. 96-8.

According to the Geneva Declaration Secretariat:Geneva Declaration Secretariat, Global burden of armed violence 2011: Lethal Encounters, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

  • More than 526,000 people are killed each year as a result of lethal violence. One in ten of all reported violent deaths around the world occurs in so-called conflict settings or during terrorist activities, while 396,000 intentional homicides occur every year.
  • Fifty-eight countries exhibit violent death rates greater than 10 per 100,000 people. These countries account for almost two-thirds of all violent deaths. El Salvador was the country most affected by lethal violence in 2004–09, followed by Iraq and Jamaica.
  • The proportion of homicides related to gangs or organised crime is significantly higher in Central and South America than in Asia or Europe. Homicide rates related to robbery or theft tend to be higher in countries with greater income inequality.
  • The proportion of homicides related to intimate partners or the family is significant in certain countries in Europe and Asia.
  • Roughly 66,000 women are violently killed around the world each year, accounting for approximately 17% of total intentional homicides.
  • Lethal violence is strongly associated with negative development outcomes in various ways and is accompanied by low levels of overall achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Armed violence – in crime and during armed conflict – claims an estimated 740,000 lives each year.Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2010: Gangs, Groups and Guns, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 85. The vast majority of these deaths (540,000) result from direct experience of violence. An estimated 42–60% of lethal violence around the world is committed with firearms.Small Arms Survey, 'Non-lethal firearm violence', Research Note No. 32, July 2013, p. 2. And for each person killed with a firearm, depending on the circumstances up to eight more may survive gunshot injuries.Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving targets, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 92-4. Given this staggering human cost, clearly there is a striking discrepancy between the intended use of small arms and their actual (mis)use.

Small arms do not only kill in war: approximately 490,000 deaths occur in non-conflict situations. And many victims are women: data for 111 countries and territories show that around 66,000 women are killed violently each year, representing some 17% of all intentional homicides.Ibid. About one in three of these 'femicides' is committed with a firearm. Gender differences in gun ownership and violence appear starkly in non-conflict settings: between 40% and 70% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, while male victims of gun violence are predominantly killed outside the home by people who are not their intimate partners.

In addition, an estimated 815,000 people commit suicide every year, of which at least 50,000 (6%) are committed with small arms, mainly in Western Europe and North America.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. 18.

For survivors, immediate impacts from gunshots include soft tissue injuries, bone fractures, and vital organ damage.Ibid., p. 65. 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. Brain and spinal cord injuries are more difficult to treat, leaving irreversible damage such as impairments, 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.

Firearms can harm even when no shot is fired: they are used to threaten and intimidate far more frequently that they are used to kill. In many situations, they are used to coerce, including to commit sexual violence at gunpoint. Such violence also leaves lasting psychological scars.

The economic and social costs of small arms violence are difficult to gauge. According to the Small Arms Survey:

A comprehensive assessment of the costs of firearm violence should go beyond the direct costs, especially medical, and include, for example, the costs of law enforcement and criminal justice, legal services, foster care, and private security. Furthermore, there are tangible indirect costs, such as loss of productivity, lost investments in social capital, and higher insurance costs, while a broad range of intangible indirect costs may also be taken into account, e.g. health-related loss of quality of life (pain and suffering, both physical and psychological), reduced job opportunities, reduced access to schools and public services, and reduced participation in community life.Small Arms Survey, 'Non-lethal firearm violence', Research Note No. 32, July 2013, p. 3.

The annual burden of war-related violence ranges from 2% to 20% of a nation’s GDP.Geneva Declaration Secretariat, Global burden of armed violence 2008, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 90. Non-conflict armed violence produces direct and indirect economic effects that can exceed the costs of armed conflict. In the United States, the estimated cost of gun-related violence (including psychological costs and reduced quality of life) has been calculated at US$100 billion per year.C. Buchanan (ed.), Gun violence, disability, and recovery, Surviving Gun Violence Project, 2013. Brazil spends an estimated 0.5% of its annual gross domestic product – US$10 billion – responding to armed violence; Colombia about 1%, some US$4 billion.Geneva Declaration Secretariat, More Violence, Less Development: Examining the relationship between armed violence and MDG achievement, Geneva, 2010. But these calculations may not adequately factor in the costs of lengthy recovery processes, given that so little is known about the long-term health and social impacts.

Many survivors are left with permanent disabilities. Among the hidden costs of small arms violence, the burden of caregiving often falls on the shoulder of women. Another pernicious impact of small arms violence is its impact on people’s freedom of movement, for example when the perception of insecurity deters residents from venturing into public spaces at certain times, or pushes them to abandon particular neighbourhoods or areas when they have the means to do so. Internal displacement or refugee flows are visible phenomena in situations of armed conflict, but can also affect non-conflict situations.

Finally, according to the 1997 Panel of Experts, ‘in some States and subregions there is a culture of weapons whereby the possession of military-style weapons is a status symbol, ... a sign of manliness and, in some cases, a symbol of ethnic and cultural identity.’Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, UN doc. A/52/298, 27 August 1997, §44.

Last updated on: 18 February 2015

Applicable international, regional & national law

2001 Firearms Protocol

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.

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2013 Arms Trade Treaty

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.

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