Note d'Analyse
Groupe de recherche et d'information sur la paix et la sécurité
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Date d'insertion : 15/06/2004

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by Ilhan BERKOL, GRIP researcher


I. Small arms and light weapons marking systems

1. Adequate markings

An adequate marking must contain at least a unique serial number with the year of production, as well as the country of origin and the name of the producer. It is also preferable to include the name of the first buyer, if known at the time of manufacture, because it is particularly important to render the buyer accountable.(1)

Example of a proposed standard code: 1234567 / CH / SIG / 090 / SAU / caliber
Serial number / Country / Producer / Model / Importer

As far as the technical aspects are concerned, an adequate marking meets the following criteria :

i. It does not damage the technical quality of the weapon;
ii. It is practically indelible, durable and difficult to falsify;
iii. The cost per unit produced is low;
iv. The technique used is simple;
v. It can be applied to several parts of the weapon and is obligatorily applied to the essential component, as defined by the producer.

The replacement of this essential component should be prohibited unless there is a standard exchange of the old part with a new one duly marked and noted in the registry.

With the help of an electronic registry to centralize information concerning transfers and ownership of small arms and light weapons (SALW), a serial number would permit the identification of the last owner of a weapon. It should therefore be placed on at least one part of the weapon which would hinder its proper functioning if altered in any way (such as the obliteration of the number). This is currently not the case for the majority of serial numbers found on firearms.(2)

The serial number is normally present on the barrel and/or the frame. In the case of revolvers, for example, an inventory of sites used for the placement of serial numbers reveals over thirty.
This depends on the producer, the model as well as the material and marking methods used (3). Furthermore, each producer has its own numbering system. For example, the Swiss semi-automatic pistol model P220 produced by SigSauer contains serial numbers on three different sites: the barrel, the slide channel and the frame. It comprises an alphanumeric system that allows the weapon model to be identified by means of a combination of letters. In the same vein, weapons produced by Browning contain the sequence, year and product in a different order depending on whether it was produced in Japan, Europe or the United-States (12345PT211: sequence, year and product, or 211PT12345: product, year and sequence).

On the other hand, some producers already use hidden markings, for example under a layer of polymer (e.g. the semi-automatic Hi-Point pistol, model C 9mm), while others place markings inside the cylinder-head, the site of which is known only by specialists (e.g. Czech semi-automatic pistol VZ 24).

Others, such as the firm Glock, mark all replacement parts in a specific manner (an ‘l’ followed by a number for the barrel, ‘s’ for the slide channel and ‘g’ for the frame). On Mauser weapons, the replacement barrel contains the letter ‘E’ while the frames of the old FN pistols do not have numbers since they were replacement parts.

The numerous different types of serial numbers therefore make them difficult to read or comprehend on a global scale. If we add to this the absence of centralized registries, SALW tracing becomes a very difficult task to undertake.

2. Marking methods

The different procedures currently in use for marking serial numbers are (4):


This is the most commonly used technique. It involves marking the metal part by applying pressure on a mould or matrix bearing the number to be engraved (indenting). This procedure requires a flat surface, however. If the surface is uneven or irregular in any way, a micro-percussion method is used (sometimes computer-guided). The obliteration of these markings is possible by grinding or filing down, hammering, piercing, welding, perforating or supernumerary stamping. Erased numbers can be recuperated in about 1/3 of cases. (5) However, in the case of welding by recasting the surface and stamping a new number, for example, no trace remains of the original number.


In some cases it is necessary to repeat information (logo, caliber, model, other information). This information is added directly to the casts of the different weapon parts. As such, duplication presents a real danger. Casting is also used for plastic materials and composites (injection moulds) for which stamping is impossible. This method remains limited, however, especially as regards the surface area available on different parts.

Mechanical engraving

This technique is fairly widespread. Marking is undertaken by removing metal through direct contact with the material. However, it too is limited insofar as the surface area and materials requiring marking are concerned. This method is also difficult as far as accessibility and resistance of the parts to be marked are concerned, especially if markings are required once the weapon has already been assembled.

Laser engraving

Laser allows for the marking of all kinds of surfaces through burning by oxidization, and has the advantage of requiring no physical contact with the surface to be marked. It also enables the marking of areas inaccessible to other marking procedures, as well as fragile parts. It is used for certain composite materials or plastics as well as hardened metals that can not be marked by classical methods. Laser can mark miniscule surfaces with precision, for example those inferior to 1mm2 and can contain several pieces of information either in matrix (data matrix) (6) or bar code format. Laser is already used to mark logos or phrases extracted from legislation (e.g. on the US market) by most American and European arms producers.(7)

One of the most important small arms producers, Heckler & Koch, widely uses laser to mark weapons, notably during assembly and post-production (8) because mechanical engraving or casting will no longer be able to be used. Three markings per minute can be carried out on a weapon with laser. Furthermore, markings can be easily carried out by laser engraving upon import by the distributor in the recipient country.

Electro-chemical methods

An applicator moistened with an electrolyte solution is placed on a stencil placed on the surface to be marked. This method is used when altering in depth the metal to be marked should be avoided (e.g. for certain ammunition, in aeronautics).

Other methods

Other marking methods used in other sectors are currently being studied for potential use in marking SALW.(9) These include radio frequency identification, comprised of an electronic chip capable of storing a certain amount of information, as well as chemical tracers(10), crystallography and colorimetric methods which can be used to mark weapons and ammunition powder.(11)

3. Secondary (or security) markings

With a view to satisfying the dual requirements of simplicity and indelibility, it is preferable to have, on the one hand, classical markings (for example by stamping), containing the basic information (directly readable by a police officer), and on the other hand, a more sophisticated and indelible secondary marking applied to an essential component of the weapon (for example, accessible in case of need and which the falsification of, or even access to, would render the weapon unusable).

This marking could be carried out on several parts that are difficult to manipulate once the weapon has been produced, such as the breech, thanks to such techniques as engraving or computer-assisted laser perforation, which permits inscriptions on an area of only a few square millimeters without coming into direct contact with the material.(12) However, other classical methods such as stamping or casting can be used if the model allows. (13) In the case where serial numbers stamped onto the external surface of the weapon have been obliterated, a security marking could then be envisaged as an ultimate solution to permit tracing.

On the other hand, given the numerous types of weapons and production materials used, as well as the evolution of production techniques, it would seem inappropriate to foresee the same technical modalities for marking all weapons (marking techniques, size and depth of markings, components to be marked), and to provide for a legal definition for these. It is preferable to foresee a committee of independent experts charged with evaluating (after consultation with producers) the marking to be carried out for each type of weapon on the basis of technological developments and legal criteria, with a view to their being officially recognized by the competent authorities.(14)

II. Evaluating the cost of marking

The cost of marking by unit produced varies according to the technique used, the material to be marked, the weapon or ammunition type, the contents of markings (determined mainly by the requirements of the buyer) and the number of units produced.

1. Cost according to the techniques used

Stamping is the most widely used technique for marking weapons and ammunition rounds. Contrary to common belief, stamping is not always the least expensive option. First, it requires increasingly skilled labor depending on how complicated the marking is. Secondly, certain hard materials require more sophisticated marking techniques such as computer-assisted micro-percussion. Stamping can therefore become quite expensive because special parts are required in order to mark these materials. Moreover, stamping can not be applied to composite materials that are increasingly used in the production of new generation weapons. In this case marking can be carried out by injection molding, but this method is limited in terms of the quantity of information that can be applied to a given surface area, and also by the shape of the parts to be marked. Buyers require that more and more information be marked on arms, and national legislation in some countries (such as the United States) are becoming increasingly strict for the user, both with a view to improving the effectiveness of tracing and in response to the security requirements (therefore a maximum amount of information).

Mechanical engraving often replaces stamping when it comes to carrying out several different markings. However, as with stamping, this method becomes problematic for certain types of materials. There are also costs related to the wear and tear of parts used for mechanical engraving.

Laser marking can provide a solution since it allows a maximum amount of information to be marked on just a few square millimeters without requiring contact with the material. This makes it possible to mark parts and materials that are normally impossible to mark using other techniques.

The more complex the marking is, the more cost-effective the laser marking becomes. Using software it is possible to produce an automated marking system. This system can be adapted for several different types of marking, and even production methods if another supply bloc is used (without changing the entire automated system), which would be optimized for a predetermined geometrical pattern. Quality controls are integrated into the system. Laser can also be used for other purposes, such as cutting out, by adjusting the wavelength and the type of selected device.

2. Cost according to marking requirements

These mainly include a unique serial number but also other markings such as the quality seal, phrases extracted from legislation, or logos. Depending on the type of weapon or ammunition, marking can be carried out by stamping, casting or laser engraving. In certain cases the solution may lie in a combination of several of these techniques depending on the type of marking required, and notably for ammunition. The use of other techniques such as the insertion of an electronic chip or adding chemical tracers or crystallography could also be envisaged but are relatively costly.

The extra cost of secondary (or security) and supplementary markings required by clients can only be determined according to the type of weapon manufactured by a producer. (15) It should be noted, however, that producers already mark several components of a single weapon and that security markings would in principle only bring about an extra cost per unit produced. Security (or secondary) markings are independent of the buyer’s requirements. They consist of marking a minimum amount of information on a specific part of the weapon, according to a particular method for each weapon type. A committee of experts, in cooperation with the producer, could determine once and for all the information, site and marking method for any given model of weapon. This should be succinct and security markings should in principle be marked only once. Compared with other longer and more complicated markings required by clients, therefore, security markings would only bring about an initial price rise, which would be rapidly recuperated through mass production, which is the case for the arms industry.

For artisan production, which also requires a high degree of skilled labor, the extra cost of security marking would not be significant.

At this stage it is difficult to provide a precise estimate of the cost of security markings. This should be studied on a case-by-case basis. However, where it would not require new technological methods, the extra cost would be equivalent to including an additional classical marking to another part of the weapon.

Where including a security marking would require new technology, computer-assisted laser engraving would at present provide the optimal solution given the flexibility and other advantages it offers to the producer. Moreover, it is quite possible that in the near future all producers will adopt laser, as is already the case for the majority in the United States and in Europe.

Laser properties and costs

- According to our research findings, (16) the cost of a laser device for marking SALW is around US $48,000, with an additional cost of approximately US $10,000 to integrate it in the production circuit (automating, etc). This brings the total approximate cost to US $60,000.(17) This amount is more or less the same as for a mechanical engraving device that allows several precise markings to be engraved.
- Type of device: Lamp pumped (optical pump) Nd:YAG (Neodymium:Yttrium Aluminium Garnet) Laser (90/100W et 1064nm), based on the amplification of light emitted, in this case by crystal stimulation. There also exist gas or semi-conductor (diode) laser, according to their use.
- Two parameters are important according to use: the wavelength (expressed in nanometers: 10-9m=nm) and output power (expressed in Watts).
- Other parameters :
- the area to be marked (e.g. 6"x 6" or 12"x12"), from a distance of 19-34cm;
- the speed of marking (e.g. 300" per second);
- the depth (e.g. 50 microns is already considered deep).

The wavelength changes depending on the material. For example, leather is quite hard, and therefore UV light (355nm) or the Green Laser (532nm), with low wavelengths, are used. For stainless steel, only Black Marking is used because of the presence of Ni-Cr. It is also possible to cut diamond. All materials can be marked, from ceramics to plastics.

Investment in a new device could therefore be rapidly recuperated through mass production, and the profitability (taking into account the precision, flexibility and vast potential) would in any case be better with laser marking compared to classical stamping methods. Furthermore, 10 to 20% of a company’s investment in a laser device could be written off annually and could be income tax-deductible. This would bring the cost down to less than US $1.00 per unit produced in a relatively short period of time.

It should also be noted that in general, arms producers invest between 5 and 10% of their turnover in research and development of new techniques to improve the performance of their products and the security of their clients. The above-mentioned investment would therefore represent an amount considerably lower than that currently invested in research and development, and would moreover be a one-off cost. Furthermore, the requirements for improved marking falls within the framework of users security.

The Swiss firm SIG has produced a revolver prototype featuring 4 markings on different parts of the revolver. Based on this experience, the company has evaluated the cost of mass production as follows:

Number of units to be marked
Laser marking cost per unit (in Euros)
Electronic chip marking cost per unit (in Euros)

Data provided by F. Schütz

Given that the production of small arms and light weapons largely exceeds a thousand units, this can hardly be considered too high a price.


(1) This requirement is foreseen in the Firearms Protocol (UN Document, A/RES/255/55, 8 June 2001).

(2) Frédéric Schütz « Les numéros de série, leur rôle en criminalistique et dans le processus de traçage des armes à feu », Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal, Vol. 33 No 4 (2001) pp. 117-134.

(3) At FN Herstal, for example, machine guns are marked only on the frame, whereas pistols are marked on the barrel, frame and slide channel. Similarly, on rifles such as the FAL, only the frame is marked, but this is assembled on the barrel as a single piece. On the P-90, only the barrel support (made of aluminum) is marked by stamping, since the rest is made of composite materials.

(4) This list is not exhaustive since technologies are evolving at a rapid pace.

(5) According to our interview with the Belgian Institut National de Criminalistique et de Criminologie.

(6) See Berkol, Ilhan, “Traceability of Small Arms and Light Weapons.” GRIP Note d’analyse, Special Issue, July 2001. (

(7) According to our interview with a technical representative of FN Herstal, on the basis of cost-effectiveness, they would also use lasers for this type of marking.

(8) If the serial number can no longer be assigned at the time of production.

(9) See Berkol, Ilhan, “Marking and Tracing Small Arms and Light Weapons”, GRIP report, Special Issue, March 2002 (

(10) Chemical tracers are already used to mark strategic weapons.

(11) See “Traceability of Small Arms and Light Weapons”, op. cit.

(12) See Berkol, Ilhan, “Marking and Tracing Small Arms and Light Weapons”, op. cit.

(13) For example, in the case of certain machine-gun models like the MAG 7.62 and M2 or M3, the security marking could be carried out on the interior of the frame. Dismantling the part in order to access the marking would require factory reassembly to render the weapon usable. For new generation weapons, however, assembly requires no special technology. Other techniques, such as computer-assisted laser engraving, should be used to mark parts that are inaccessible without distorting the weapon’s usability.

(14) See Berkol, Ilhan, “Draft Convention on the marking, registration and tracing of small arms and light weapons”, GRIP report n° 2004/4, June 2004.

(15) See Frédéric Schütz « Les numéros de série, leur rôle en criminalistique et dans le processus de traçage des armes à feu », Can. Soc. Forens. Sci. J. Vol. 33 No 4 (2001) pp. 117-134.

(16) Based on our interview with the firm TLC (Troukens Laser & Consulting bvba), representative of Control Laser Corporation of Florida (CLC) in Belgium, as well as with the German small arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch.

(17) This amount represents the normal price of a laboratory device used, for example, in Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry.


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