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What is a small arm?

Small arms, often referred to as firearms or guns, are man-portable lethal weapons for individual use that can expel or launch a shot, bullet, or projectile by action of explosive. They include both handguns (revolvers and self-loading pistols), and long guns, namely rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, and light machine guns, as well as their parts, components, and ammunition. Antiques and replicas are generally excluded.

Initially the term small arms did not refer solely to firearms. The 1997 report of the Panel of Experts on Small Arms states that ‘small arms and light weapons range from clubs, knives and machetes to those weapons just below those covered by the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms’.

However, the report proceeds to limit its scope to ‘small arms and light weapons manufactured to military specifications for use as lethal instruments of war’, and provides a list of small arms that has since become an acceptable definition of this category of weapons.

This definition is largely reproduced in the 2005 International Tracing Instrument (ITI), which states that: ‘“Small arms” are, broadly speaking, weapons designed for individual use. They include, inter alia, revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles and light machine guns.’

Both the 1997 Panel of Experts report and the ITI also include related ammunition in their scope, as well as small arms parts and components.

Craft firearms (also referred to as artisanal, hand-made, or home-made weapons) were included in the scope of the 1997 Panel of Experts report, and are implicitly included in the ITI definition of small arms. However, antique weapons are subjected to relaxed rules. What constitutes an antique firearm is defined in national law, but cannot include weapons manufactured after 1899.

It is not clear why the 1997 Panel of Experts preferred the term ‘small arms’ to that of ‘firearms’; the drafters only state that they decided to focus on military weapons, to distinguish their work from the parallel efforts of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice that would lead to the 2001 Firearms Protocol. The list of weapons they present does not explicitly include firearms such as single-shot or derringer pistols and shotguns.

There remain some variations in the everyday use of the expression. Sometimes the term ‘small arms’ is used to refer to both small arms and light weapons. Others distinguish weapons by the calibre of the barrel, considering for example ‘small arms’ to include cannons of up to 30mm, or even 12.7mm.

For clarity, this study has classified categories entitled “guns thr0ugh 30mm” as referring to small arms. This therefore includes heavier machine guns such as the M2 Browning.

This report is part of AOAV’s investigation into the US DoD spend on small arms, guns and ammunition from Sept 11, 2001 to Sept 10, 2015. Our research found many discrepancies between the contracts published on the DoD’s website and those found on the Federal Procurement Database System- research that can be read here. To understand more about US DoD contracts visit here. The investigation also included an examination of US expenditure for small arms for Iraq, which can be read here, and Afghanistan, sehere.

For the data on 14 years of DoD contracts for small arms, ammunition and attachments, please go here.