Why do we need to keep an eye on technological advancements in weapons manufacturing?

By Alain Lapon, Chief Technical Adviser, SEESAC

Why do we need to keep an eye on technological advancements in weapons manufacturing?

To ensure that regulatory frameworks, marking, tracing, record keeping, and investigations are able to address the new challenges

By Alain Lapon, Chief Technical Adviser, SEESAC

Technological advancements in weapons production are posing new challenges in small arms and light weapons control.

After almost hundred years of traditional design, the industry has brought to the markets smart guns, modular weapons, and 3D printed weapons. Weapons are also no longer produced only in metal, but in other materials, such as techno polymers, for example.

This is posing a new challenge in marking, record keeping, detection and tracing of such firearms.  

Small arms used to be made from steel, with non-essential parts in wood or bakelite. Nowadays these metal parts are increasingly replaced by polymers in order to make the weapon lighter and as such easier to carry. The research in the field of techno-polymers is further ongoing to see how they can be made even lighter, more durable, more resistant to high temperature and capable of limiting recoil.

When weapons are produced by polymers, success in detecting them by traditional methods and equipment could be limited. Polymer frames are creating also a challenge for marking. The traditional way of marking by stamping the mark in the weapon is no longer possible as polymers would be damaged by stamping. Producers have been using different techniques to still mark their produced weapons with the mandatory details as described in the United Nations Firearms Protocol such as putting small metal inserts in the polymer frames where data can be marked. These small inserts could be too small to put beside the manufacture marks also the post manufacturing marks such as proof marks and import marks.

Instead of stamping of marks on metal, laser marking is a good alternative for polymers but when criminals try to alter or erase the markings a new challenge arises. Laser marking on polymers does not leave a trace beneath the surface as stamping does on metal weapons, which can facilitate the recovery of serial numbers. On the other hand, microstamping can be used and has the advantage of not being easily detectable for the criminals that aim at altering markings and could be used as an alternative option for tracing.

Another concept of firearms manufacturing new on the market are the 3D printed weapons. A US based company created a simple firearm with the help of 3D printing.  The common type of 3D printing is called Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) and this technology is the primary method used to make working 3D printed firearms. The process works by slicing a digital file called a 3D model into dozens, sometimes hundreds of thin, on average 0.1 mm thick layers.  The 3D printer will then with robotic precision, replicate each of these individual slices using melted thermoplastics, one layer on top of the other. The result is a physical copy of the digital file. The 3D metal printing is another technology used but is a very expensive practise that is still not economically viable. Finally, 3D printing has also been used to develop hybrid gun designs that incorporate 3D printed components with real, metal gun parts.

Seen the fact that plastic 3D printed firearms are more difficult to detect because of the plastic solution which they are made of and the fact that a digital file is required to print, legislation  to control 3D printed guns aimed predominantly at containing the posting the blueprint on the internet or sanctioning the possession of a blueprint of a weapon if the possessor is not licensed as a manufacturer.

Last but not least, the issue of modular weapons is another issue that be addressed. What exactly is a modular weapon? In the past, each weapon was mostly designed to have one calibre. It was difficult if not almost impossible to change its initial design and configuration besides adding scopes or other accessories not changing the initial technical configuration. But now modular firearms have removable core components that can be reconfigured/interchanged to give the weapon different capabilities to adapt to various applications.

Initially designed for the military, its application aimed at providing the ability to transform a firearm to tactical needs, it also requires significant less logistic support. Lately this technology has already been transferred to the civilian firearms market. Modular weapons have very often a core component which could be a receiver where different barrels and chambers can be mounted upon and provide a firearm with different calibers. The barrel on such weapons can be exchanged in less than 60 seconds.

Due to double barrels and adaptable components of modular weapons, the forensic experts will need new skills and amend the traditional methods of examinations.

To be able to address these new challenges in small arms and light weapons control, we will be supporting the Western Balkans authorities to look at their regulatory frameworks and practices in marking, tracing and recordkeeping as well as investigations to understand the gaps and further support development of capacities for combatting illegal possession, misuse and trafficking, for a #SaferRegion.