From Firearms to Weapon Systems

Challenges and Implications of Modular Design for Marking, Record-Keeping, and Tracing

Published in: Behind the Curve: New Technologies, New Control Challenges / edited by Benjamin King and Glenn McDonald (Geneva, Switzerland: Small Arms Survey, Feb. 2015), Occasional Paper 32, Chapter 2, p. 23-42

Posted on RAND.org on May 01, 2015

by Giacomo Persi Paoli

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In the early 2000s, a need arose for a more flexible type of military rifle that could be easily reconfigured to meet different operational requirements. This need led to the development of the so-called modular design for infantry rifles. The concept of modularity is simple: each rifle has a core section (the upper or lower receiver) around which the user can switch most other parts to obtain different configurations depending on requirements. Although modularity has progressed since the mid-2000s, the international arms control community has to date paid only limited attention to its potential implications. For example, the architecture of modular weapons is based on a core section and a set of interchangeable parts and components, yet the provisions of the International Tracing Instrument (ITI) and of the UN Firearms Protocol largely focus on small arms and light weapons as a whole. While the lack of measures to specifically address parts and components has limited impact in the case of standard firearms, it is particularly problematic in relation to modular weapons. This paper provides an overview of the key elements related to the development of modular designs for small arms and highlights the challenges that such designs pose to the effective implementation of the ITI and the Firearms Protocol which, to date, represent the only international instruments providing specific indications--either as requirement or as recommendation--on firearm marking, record-keeping, and tracing.

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