US Weapons Main Source of Illegal Arms Trade on the Dark Web

For Release

July 19, 2017

  • New report based on first ever study looking at the size and scope of the illegal arms trade on the dark web.
  • European purchases of weapons on the dark web generate estimated revenues five times higher than the US.
  • The dark web's potential to anonymously arm criminals and terrorists, as well as vulnerable and fixated individuals, is “the most dangerous aspect”.

Sixty per cent of weapons on sale on the ‘dark web’ are from the US, according to a new study – Behind the Curtain: the illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web.

The report states that Europe is the source of around 25 per cent of weapons on sale on the dark web. However, transactions of weapons sold to European customers on the dark web generate estimated revenues that are around five times higher than those sold to US customers.

The study from the not-for-profit research organisation RAND Europe and Judith Aldridge, Professor of Criminology at the University of Manchester, is the first piece of research exploring the size and scope of the illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web.

The study involved data collection on the dark web between 19–25 September 2016, which covered 12 cryptomarkets, a type of dark web marketplace that brings together multiple sellers managed by marketplace administrators, and 167,693 listings. From these listings, 811 were identified as relevant for the purpose of the study.

The dark web was found to facilitate the illegal sales of firearms, weapons, explosives and banned digital products that provide guides on “home-made” explosives and weapons. Findings from the study suggest that the dark web is increasing the availability of better performing, more recent firearms for the same, or lower, price, than what would be available on the street or the black market.

Despite being unlikely to fuel large-scale terrorist operations and armed conflicts, the study illustrates how the dark web has the potential to become the platform of choice for individuals (e.g. “lone-wolf” terrorists) or small groups (e.g. gangs) to obtain weapons and ammunition. The lone-wolf terrorist attacker in the 2016 Munich shooting used weapons purchased on the dark web.

Giacomo Persi Paoli, the report's lead author and a research leader at RAND Europe, says, “The dark web is both an enabler for the trade of illegal weapons already on the black market and a potential source of diversion for weapons legally owned. Recent high-profile cases have shown that the threat posed by individuals or small groups obtaining weapons illegally from the dark web is real. The ability to not only arm criminals and terrorists, who can make virtually anonymous purchases, but also vulnerable and fixated individuals is perhaps the most dangerous aspect.”

Judith Aldridge, Professor of Criminology at the University of Manchester and a co-investigator on the research, says, “In very simple terms, anyone can connect to the dark web and within minutes have access to a variety of vendors offering their products, which are most often illegal. The dark web enables illegal trade at a global level, removing some of the geographical barriers between vendors and buyers, while increasing the personal safety of both buyers and sellers through a series of anonymising features that obscure their identities. This veil of anonymity, combined with the relative ease of access, makes the dark web an attractive option for a wide range of sellers.”

Forty-two per cent of the 811 arms-related listings on cryptomarkets were for firearms, followed by arms-related digital products (27 per cent) and others, including ammunition (22 per cent). Pistols were the most commonly listed firearm (84 per cent), followed by rifles (10 per cent) and sub-machine guns (6 per cent).

The trade in arms-related digital products poses complex challenges. These products are often guides that provide tutorials for a wide range of illegal actions, ranging from the conversion of replica/alarm guns into live weapons, to the full manufacture of home-made guns and explosives, and also include models that can be turned into fully-working firearms through 3D printing.

The overall value of the arms trade based on the 12 cryptomarkets analysed in the study is estimated to be in the region of $80,000 USD per month, with firearms generating nearly 90 per cent of all these estimated revenues. Every month there could be up to 136 untraced firearms or associated products in the offline world that have been traded on the dark web. However, estimates of the arms trade on cryptomarkets, in terms of both value and volume, will include a certain percentage of fake listings or transactions.

Persi Paoli says, “The arms trade on the dark web is a drop in the ocean compared to the legal trade of arms worldwide. However, compared to other products traded on the dark web, the numbers are not necessarily the most appropriate indicator of how serious the issue is. A few people using illegally purchased weapons from the dark web can have severe consequences.”

He continues, “We're unable to ascertain the extent of scamming, but know this occurs across all product categories on dark web markets, and perhaps more frequently for vendors of firearms. Despite the uncertainty, we should not dismiss or play down the threat posed by the arms trafficking phenomenon on the dark web.”

The illegal sales of weapons on the dark web present challenges for law enforcement agencies and national governments. These challenges largely derive from the anonymity enabled by the dark web, which makes identifying individuals and linking them to specific activities challenging.

However, Persi Paoli believes that governments and law enforcement agencies can use existing measures to tackle illegal arms trafficking to limit the dark web trade. He says, “The dark web offers a platform to trade firearms, but does not create completely new firearms. If properly implemented, all measures designed to tackle illegal arms trafficking ‘in the real world’ may reduce the availability of illegal weapons to be traded. The only exception is the availability of 3D models for home-made 3D-printed firearms on the dark web. This new element will require further investigation as 3D printing continues to develop and grow.”

Persi Paoli concludes, “The emergence of the dark web as an enabler for arms trafficking certainly requires appropriate responses at all levels. However, this does not mean that existing measures should be considered obsolete.”

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Notes to Editors:

  • To request an embargoed copy of the report or to arrange an interview with one of the researchers on the project please contact Jack Melling on or 01223 353 329 x2560.
  • The full report will be available at the following link:
  • The study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council through the Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research.
  • RAND Europe is a not-for-profit research organisation whose mission is to help improve policy and decision making through research and analysis. Our work lies on the spectrum between that of universities and consultancies, combining academic rigour with a professional, impact-oriented approach.

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