This module is a resource for lecturers

Typology and classification of firearms

The Firearms Protocol definition refers to firearms technical characteristics and their way of functioning and does not list or classify the actual type of weapons subject to the protocol. At both national and international level, the need of firearms classification is acknowledged, for legislative, regulatory and investigative purposes.

A 'firearm' is usually referred to in a national and domestic context of states, including the legislative framework for the manufacture, transfer, ownership and use of such 'firearms'. This would include private ownership.

Whereas, 'small arm' ' is more commonly used to refer to the weapon an individual may use and carry in a military context' (Parker, Wilson, 2016).

There are many ways for looking at arms and different types of classifications, depending on the criteria applied: the level of the level of lethality; the structure; portability; action; technical features, and also on the purpose of classification: for legal, judicial, or technical purposes.

The general classification of firearms can be based on the following criteria:

  • Level of harm they produce
    • Lethal - designed with the intent to eventually kill the target
    • Non-lethal - designed with the intent to scare or incapacitate the target, without killing or producing major, irreversible injuries.
  • Traditional structure
    • Firearms: A firearm is a weapon that fulfils the characteristic of the definition in the Firearms Protocol, Article 3a. Technically, the firearm is characterized by the action of an explosive gas or powder to expel a projectile through the barrel.
    • Conventional weapons: Conventional weapons are traditionally weapons that are relatively widely used and designed for military purposes, without being classified as weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations Register of Conventional Arms includes the following seven categories of major conventional weapons, plus small arms and light weapons:
      • Battle tanks
      • Armoured combat vehicles
      • Large calibre artillery systems
      • Combat aircraft including manned and unmanned aerial vehicles
      • Attack helicopters
      • Warships
      • Missiles and missile launchers
    • Non-conventional weapons: Refer to weapons of mass destruction, also known as ABC (atomic, biological and chemical) or NRBC (nuclear, radiological, biological, chemical) weapons.
  • Portability: Depending on their portability, weapons can be classified in these three categories:
    • Weapons that can be transported by one person without additional support (small arms)
    • Weapons that can be transported by a small crew of people (light weapons)
    • Other systems that must be transported with the help of technical means
  • Physical characteristics, size and support
    • Short or hand-held firearms (handguns) are portable arms designed to be aimed and fired with the action of one hand, whether or not the weapon has been re-designed or altered to be aimed and fired differently.
    • Long or shoulder fired firearms (long guns) are portable weapons designed to be used and fired from the hip or shoulder with the action of both hands.
  • Action of weapon: "Action" refers to the firing system of a firearm, more specifically the physical mechanism through which cartridges are loaded, locked and extracted as well as the firing frequency when the trigger is actioned. There are five common types of action related to firearms:
    • Single shot - Fires a single round from the barrel(s) for every depression of the trigger; requires manual reloading of the barrel(s) after each shot.
    • Repeating - Fires a single round from the barrel(s) for every depression of the trigger; requires a repetitive action for the reloading of the barrel(s) after each shot.
    • Semi-automatic - Fires a single round for every depression of the trigger, and automatically cycles between rounds (i.e. is self-loading).
    • Burst - Fires a small set of rounds for every depression of the trigger, and automatically cycles between rounds with each trigger pull (i.e. is self-loading).
    • (Fully) Automatic - Fires continually upon a depression of the trigger, until the trigger is released; automatically cycles between rounds (i.e. is self-loading).
  • Type of firearm: For ease of understanding and accessibility, the Module will explain the most commonly accepted categories of firearms [SALW]: revolver, pistol, shotgun, rifle, sub-machine gun and machine gun. In addition, there is a generic "Other firearms" category that includes firearms that either are crafted or assembled outside production facilities, are modified and converted, are using interchangeable parts or take advantage of new technologies, such as replica, converted, modular, 3D printed etc.
Next: Common firearms types
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