Tracing Firearms and Ammunition


Sep 9, 2016

Bullets and firearm on a retail store counter

Photo by Filipovic018/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Defence Management Review on August 31, 2016.

The marking of firearms and ammunition share the same objectives. They both serve as a system of classification for record-keeping purposes that account for their use, safe transportation, safe storage, quality control and can be used for tracing transfers from one user group to another. This makes marking hugely important for all aspects of arms control worldwide.

Marking firearms

The markings applied to firearms can be divided into two main categories based on when the marking takes place: 1) At the time of manufacture (usually applied by the producer as part of the manufacturing process) or 2) post-manufacture (usually applied by other actors throughout the lifecycle of the firearms).

Currently there are no mandatory, globally accepted standards that regulate firearms marking. This means that practices vary widely among different producers and national users groups.[1]

The United Nations (UN) is leading the promotion of global arms control measures, which aim to combat illicit arms trafficking through more rigorous marking, record-keeping and tracing practices. For example, the UN International Tracing Instrument (UNGA, 2005) includes general indications on the physical characteristics of the markings. These should be placed on an exposed surface, conspicuous without the need for technical aids or tools to see them, easily recognisable and readable and durable (UNGA, 2005, para. 7). These markings should also include the name of the manufacturer, the country of manufacture and the serial number or other unique marking (UNGA, 2005, para. 8a). The weapon type, model and calibre are encouraged, but have not been deemed a necessary requirement.

Marking ammunition

Ammunition control has been excluded from all global instruments and agreements dealing with small arms and light weapons. Consequently, there is no global regulation or system of standardisation covering the specific aspect of ammunition marking, which, similar to the marking of firearms, means there are significant national and regional variations. In addition, the ammunition for military and law enforcement forces follows completely different systems of regulation compared to civilian ammunition.

However, it is possible to identify some basic, “universal” characteristics of cartridge-based ammunition. The vast majority of ammunition is marked at the time of manufacture for internal (proper safety, quality control and record-keeping) and external requirements (clients' demands based on regional or national requirements). Most of these markings are applied with a head-stamp, but due to space limitations on the cartridge case and limitations of the stamping technology, the information can be minimal. Therefore, the marking will often appear on the boxes and packaging used to transfer ammunition.

Despite not being adopted globally, NATO ammunition standards currently represent the most complete standardisation for ammunition control. These standards have been formalised by NATO member states in several standardisation agreements, each of which focuses on a specific calibre and includes a list of requirements linked to the physical characteristics and technical performances of the ammunition.

For military ammunition, NATO also represents the most reliable reference point in terms of what information should be marked on ammunition packaging. This includes a NATO stock number (a 13-digit numerical code), the quantity and calibre of the ammunition, symbols representing the type of ammunition, the lot number (serial number, manufacturer initials, last two digits of the year of production) and, if applicable, the NATO symbol of interchangeability and design mark.

Marking methods

The spectrum of marking methods for firearms is wide, but most take one of two approaches: deformation or removal of material. “Deforming” marking methods, such as stamping and dot peen, apply the mark by deforming the surface either through impact or by compression. “Material removal methods,” also referred to as “engraving methods,” carve the material, either mechanically or with laser engraving. As shown in Table 1, both categories have distinctive strengths and limitations.

Table 1

Marking Method and Price Strengths Limitations
Stamping: Price range for entry-level models: USD 5,500–6,800 (~€4,850–€6,000)
  • Recoverability of the mark (highest probability among marking methods)
  • Low price
  • Possible issues in marking completely assembled firearms; not recommended for post-manufacture marking
  • Does not work on plastics
Dot peen or micro-percussion: Price range for entry-level models: $6,800–9,000
  • High speed
  • Low price
  • Low stress on components
  • Low definition of the mark
  • Very noisy process
  • Not optimal on plastics
  • Need to lock the object to mark
Mechanical engraving/scribing: Price range for entry-level models: $16,000–19,000
  • High quality of the mark
  • Quiet process
  • Relatively low speed
  • Need to lock the object to mark
  • Frequent maintenance of the cutter to ensure the quality of the mark
  • Not optimal on plastics
  • Marks are not recoverable if altered
Laser engraving: Price range for entry-level models: $41,000–48,000
  • High speed
  • High quality of the mark
  • Marks both metals and plastics
  • Does not require locking systems
  • High price
  • Marks are not recoverable if altered
  • Special safety requirements: if using the safety cabinet, its dimensions limit the size of the object that can be marked; if not using the cabinet, additional safety measures should be taken to protect the operator and isolate the room

Source: Persi Paoli, 2013 p.3

For ammunition marking, the most commonly applied marking method remains stamping, with laser engraving only being applied by a niche part of the market. Marking practices on packaging are more varied, with military and civilian ammunition having different marks based on the packaging — outer (normal packaging used for transit and storage), intermediate (between the inner and outer packaging) and inner (directly contains the ammunition). See Table 2.

Table 2

Type of Ammunition Type of Marking
Military ammunition

Outer packaging: wooden crates featuring ink-stamped/painted/stamped/sprayed marks and stickers.

Intermediate packaging: metal tins featuring ink-stamped/ painted/stamped/sprayed or metal-stamped marks and stickers.

Inner packaging: cardboard boxes featuring ink stamping and sometimes stickers.

Civilian ammunition

Outer packaging: cardboard boxes featuring printed and/or ink-stamped marks and stickers.

Inner packaging: cardboard boxes featuring printed and/or ink-stamped marks.

Source: adapted from Persi Paoli, 2011

Modern technologies could offer new opportunities for “digital marking,” record- keeping and tracing. For example, despite being used for several years in the commercial sector, RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, which involves transferring data from a passive tag or chip to a reader for the purpose of identification and tracking, is still relatively new in arms control. RFID technology would allow real-time access to all the information recorded for a weapon, with each one carrying its own “digital history” that delivers accurate information and reduces the risk of human error. RFID technology would also facilitate the monitoring of both weapons and ammunition transfers by the use of tags of chip strips attached to the crates/boxes.


The ability to effectively monitor arms transfers and trace firearms and ammunition remains a key security challenge for the 21st Century. The marking of firearms and ammunition supports effective tracing by enabling identification and efficient record keeping. The UN regulations provide a coherent framework of requirements for firearms marking, but the lack of globally accepted standards for the implementation of such requirements challenges the effectiveness of international co-operation in tracing. The use of “smart” technologies may support overcoming some of these challenges, but only if they are supported by a dedicated regulatory framework.


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). 2008. Allied Ordnance Publication (AOP) — 2(c): The Identification of Ammunition.

Persi Paoli, Giacomo. 2010. The Method behind the Mark: A Review of Firearm Marking Technologies. Issue Brief No. 1. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. (PDF)

Persi Paoli, Giacomo 2011. Ammunition Marking: Current Practices and Future Possibilities. Issue Brief No. 3. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. (PDF)

Persi Paoli, Giacomo 2013. Marking of Firearms and Ammunition. Research Note No. 36, November 2013. Geneva: Small Arms Survey

UNGA (United Nations General Assembly). 2001. Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (“Firearms Protocol”). Resolution A/RES/55/255 of 8 June.

UNGA (United Nations General Assembly). 2005. International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (“International Tracing Instrument”). Adopted 8 December. A/60/88 of 27 June.

UNCASA (UnitedNationsCoordinatingActiononSmallArms).2012. “InternationalSmall Arms Control Standards — Module 05.30 — Marking and recordkeeping.” Version 1.0 — 27 August. Reference Number: ISACS 05.30:2012(E)V1.0.


  • [1] The International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS — ref: UN CASA, 2012) include a module on marking and record-keeping, but, while ISACS growing popularity is reflected in their diffuse implementation, the adherence to such standards remain voluntary.

Giacomo Persi Paoli is a research leader at RAND Europe. He has been engaged in firearms and ammunition research since 2008 and has authored several publications on different aspects of arms control.

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