Small arms and light weapons (SALW)

Conflict is endemic in human society. Often, such conflicts become violent, because people feel they are unable to agree. When people resort to violence in this way, arms that can be handled by one person are the preferred choice. And, even though many weapons such as sticks, knives and even spears are still used today, small arms—pistols, rifles and related arms—are almost invariably involved. Small arms often play a role in non-state conflicts and are the weapons preferred by criminals and politically motivated groups. Moreover, while modern armies require many types of sophisticated weapons, even the smallest and weakest military force will be equipped with small arms.

The UN definition for SALW differentiates between small and light weapons. It defines so-called small weapons as revolvers, self-loading pistols, carbines and rifles, assault rifles, machine pistols and light machine guns (all can be operated by one person). As a rule of thumb, small arms have a calibre (internal diameter of the barrel) of less than 12.7 mm. So-called light weapons are heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, portable tank and air defence missiles, recoilless rifles, portable rocket launchers and mortars up to a calibre of 100mm. They can be carried by two people or a team, transported in a small vehicle or on a pack animal and must be operated by a team. With the exception of artillery shells that are a weapon and ammunition in one, all small arms need ammunition. The larger the calibre, the higher the probability that the ammunition is explosive.

SALW in their modern form began appearing in armed forces at the end of the nineteenth century. By the mid-20th century, all armed forces were equipped with them. SALW also diversified: Single-shot rifles gave rise to repeaters, which allowed loading several bullets and firing them off by manipulating a bolt. These were succeeded by automatic weapons which can fire bursts of ammunition. Machine guns fed with ammunition connected by belts allowed rapid firing for lengthy periods at high rates of fire (a modern machine gun can fire up to 1,200 rounds per minute). In the latter half of the twentieth century, automatic weapons became lighter (allowing, for example, children to use them) and cheaper to manufacture.

Light weapons development brought about many weapons that could fire guided or unguided rockets against people, armoured vehicles, aeroplanes, and fortifications. Heavy machine guns have also been developed against light vehicles and low-flying aeroplanes.

In its Small Arms and Light Weapons Guide, the Bundeswehr Verification Centre (VZBw), department for global arms and proliferation control differentiates between 13 different categories of small arms and light weapons.

SALW categories

Self-loading pistols and revolvers

Rifles and carbines

Submachine guns

Assault rifles

Light machine guns

Heavy machine guns

Hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers

Portable anti-aircraft guns

Portable anti-tank guns (ATG)

Recoilless guns/ rifles

Portable launcher of anti-tank missile /rocket systems (ATGM or ATGW)

Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS)

Portable mortars of calibers less than 100mm

According to estimates, there are between 600 and 800 million firearms in the world. No one knows for sure because factories do not always report accurately, and many governments keep the numbers they own, and the numbers they export, a secret. Only few government forces or other armed groups report accurately on the number of firearms lost, stolen or out of commission.

Due to the mass manufacture and lack of legislation in many countries, many military weapons have leaked into civilian and criminal hands and have become a major part of criminal arsenals. Criminals also have their own weapons holdings. In some countries, civilians have acquired military weapons to protect themselves from criminals and from undisciplined soldiers.

Many manufacturers produce civilian arms—for hunting, self-defence and sport—,and these small arms are generally regulated by national legislation. However, there are a large number of countries where regulations are poorly observed.

World legislation and agreements

The beginning of the 21st century is characterized by three major developments in SALW:

  • There is a very high proliferation of SALW throughout the world, notably in conflict prone and fragile states, coupled with rising numbers of victims.

  • More and more states are manufacturing highly sophisticated SALW and often export these to other countries.

  • Against this background, the international community has begun establishing a series of agreements, UN protocols, regional conventions and other instruments to restrict the uses and trade of SALW, regulate marking, and assist states in tracing weapons used in illegal activities.

The United Nations are currently spearheading the publication of a set of standards on 1) the stockpiling and the management of SALW, 2) their collection and destruction as well as their licensing. These will help countries establish their national legal standards.

Most UN member states have signed up to the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in SALW in All its Aspects (UN PoA), which was published in 2001. It requests of each country to report annually on its SALW holdings. In 2006, the UN member states agreed on the International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (International Tracing Instrument).

In 2008, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) pioneered the ECOWAS Convention, which obliges member states to refrain from manufacturing or importing SALW—other regions may soon follow suit.

In summer 2012, UN experts are likely to vote on an Arms Trade Treaty that is to further restrict the trade in arms, including SALW. All of these legal and diplomatic instruments are intended to lower the damage caused by the irresponsible and illegal use of SALW.

Sources and further information:

Buchhandlungen bangen um die Buchpreisbindung

Data tables

For some select map layers, the information portal ‘War and Peace’ provides the user with all used data sets as tables.

More ...
Magnifying Glass in front of a Boston map

Country portraits

In the country reports, data and information are collected by country and put into tables that are used in the modules as a basis for maps and illustrations.

More ...
Compass with Mirror

Navigation and operation

The information and data of each module are primarily made available as selectable map layers and are complemented by texts and graphs. The map layers can be found on the right hand side and are listed according to themes and sub-themes.

More ...