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Small Arms and Light Weapons (SA/LW)

Guns are generally classified according to use, size, and tradition. This varies among the military services. The basic distinction is between small arms and artillery. Any gun below a 20-millimeter bore size is generally classified as a small arm. An alternative term gaining increasing currency is "light arms," to include individual and light support weapons.

Small arms and light weapons are used by all armed forces, including internal security forces, for, inter alia, self-protection or self-defence, close or short-range combat, direct or indirect fire, and against tanks or aircraft at relatively short distances. Broadly speaking, small arms are those weapons designed for personal use, and light weapons are those designed for use by several persons serving as a crew.

There is no internationally agreed definition of small arms and light weapons. Small arms and light weapons are man-portable weapons made or modified to military specifications for use as lethal instruments of war. Small arms are broadly categorized as those weapons intended for use by individual members of armed or security forces. They include revolvers and selfloading pistols; rifles and carbines; sub-machine guns; assault rifles; and light machine guns. Light weapons are broadly categorized as those weapons intended for use by several members of armed or security forces serving as a crew. They include heavy machine guns; hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers; portable anti-aircraft guns; portable anti-tank guns; recoilless rifles; portable launchers of anti-tank missile and rocket systems; portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems; and mortars of calibres less than 100 mm.

The soldier's individual weapons consist in most countries of an assault rifle in caliber 5.56 or 7.62 mm. Light support weapons consist of machine guns, single shot grenade launchers and automatic grenade launchers. Machine guns are available in caliber 5.45, 5.56, 7.62, 12.7 and 14.5 mm. Single shot grenade launchers have a caliber of 40 mm, and generally fire a HE (high explosive) grenade out to a maximum range of about 400 meters. Automatic grenade launchers have a caliber of 30 or 40 mm, firing ammunition is of a HE (high explosive) or a HEDP (high explosive dual-purpose) type with a maximum range amounts to 2200 meters.

Small arms munitions contain projectiles that are 0.5 inches or less in caliber and no longer than approximately 4 inches. They are fired from various sizes of weapons, such as pistols, carbines, rifles, automatic rifles, shotguns, and machine guns. Generally, the shell casings of small arms munitions are made from brass or steel. Although the hazards associated with these UXO are much less than for other munitions, unexploded small arms munitions may explode if thrown into a fire or struck with a sharp object such as a nail.

Ammunition and explosives form an integral part of the small arms and light weapons used in conflicts. The availability of ammunition is an important independent element, since weapons can be rendered useless without appropriate ammunition. The mass production of modern reliable and effective ammunition requires highly developed and precise industrial tools. It is assumed that all countries producing small arms (more than 70) and light weapons are also capable of manufacturing the relevant ammunition. In addition, in many regions there is a widespread private production of less reliable ammunition by small enterprises and individuals.

The most commonly used projected grenade is the 40 millimeter (40mm) grenade. The 40mm grenade is about the same size and shape as a chicken egg. It contains high explosives and uses a variety of fuzes, including some of the most sensitive internal impact fuzing systems. Because of their relatively small size, 40mm grenades are easily concealed by vegetation. They are extremely dangerous and can explode if moved or handled.

Rifle grenades look like mortars and range from about 9 to 17 inches in length. They may be filled with high explosives, white phosphorus, riot-control agent, illumination flares, or chemicals that produce colored screening smoke. Rifle grenades are fired from standard infantry rifles. They have an opening at the far end of a tube near the fin assembly that allows the rifle grenade to be placed on the barrel of a rifle. Rifle grenades rely on impact fuzing, which is located on the nose or internally behind the warhead.


Small arms definitions are inherently flexible and generally linked to specific operational doctrines or legal definitions. Offered here are some common definitions for a variety of small arms types.

Pistol - A pistol is a hand-operated firearm having a chamber integral with or permanently aligned with the bore.

Revolver - A revolver is a hand-operated firearm with a revolving cylinder containing chambers for individual cartridges.

Rifle - A rifle is a shoulder firearm which can discharge a bullet through a rifled barrel 16 inches or longer. The spiral parallel grooves in the bore impart spin in the projectile, providing stability and extended range.

Carbine - A carbine has a barrel under 16 inches in length, and is typically used by cavalry, artillery, engineers or others who require a weapon for self-defense and emergencies. Accuracy and ballistics tend to be inferior to the full version of the rifles they are adapted from.

Assault Rifle - Rifles capable of single shot or automatic fire using a short cartridge providing accurate fire and more controllable recoil force than a standard rifle cartridge. By reducing the cartridge case and propellant, the cartridges weigh less and soldiers can carry more. T hese shorter rifles were developed in response to the recognition that most fire-fights take place at ranges under 400 yards. The small size of the assault rifle and its ability to fire at up to 800 rounds per minute has led to it being adopted by various forces as a replacement for the submachine gun.

Machine Pistol A machine pistol is a firearm originally designed to fire, or capable of being fired, fully automatically by a single pull of the trigger.

Submachine Gun - Lightweight one-man weapons capable of automatic fire, firing a low-powered pistol cartridge with limited range and accuracy.

Machine Gun - A general purpose machine gun functions as either a squad light automatic weapon [light machine gun] when mounted on a bipod and fired from the shoulder, or as a sustained fire long-range weapon [heavy machine gun] when mounted on a tripod or light vehicle and provided with an optical sight.

Small Arms and Warfare

There are over 600 million small arms and light weapons (SALW) in circulation worldwide. Of 49 major conflicts in the 1990s, 47 were waged with small arms as the weapons of choice. Readily available and easy to use, small arms and light weapons have been the primary or sole tools of violence in almost every recent conflict dealt with by the United Nations. In the hands of irregular troops operating with scant respect for international and humanitarian law, these weapons have taken a heavy toll of human lives, with women and children accounting for nearly 80 per cent of the casualties.

Since weapons in this class are capable of being carried, if a small arm, by one person or, if a light arm, by two or more people, a pack animal or a light vehicle, they allow for mobile operations where heavy mechanized and air forces are not available or are restricted in their capabilities owing to difficult mountain, jungle or urban terrain; Under these conditions, mortars or mounted anti-aircraft guns sometimes constitute the main armament of light forces, providing them with high firepower that often causes heavy casualties among the civilian population if used indiscriminately.

Light anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile systems not only provide the capability to sustain operations in favourable terrain against forces supported by tanks and aircraft but can also be used by terrorists against civil air traffic with devastating effects. Since many small arms require a minimum of maintenance and logistics they are suited for protracted operations. Since they can easily be concealed they are suited to covert actions and transfer. Since they are less complex and, therefore, normally of lower cost than major conventional weapons, especially if they are used or surplus, they are affordable by actors other than the State.

While not by themselves causing the conflicts in which they are used, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons affects the intensity and duration of violence and encourages militancy rather than a peaceful resolution of unsettled differences. Perhaps most grievously, we see a vicious circle in which insecurity leads to a higher demand for weapons, which itself breed still greater insecurity, and so on.

The excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfer of small arms and light weapons is closely related to the increased incidence of internal conflicts and high levels of crime and violence. It is, therefore, an issue of legitimate concern for the international community. Groups and individuals operating outside the reach of State and government forces make extensive use of such weapons in internal conflicts. Insurgent forces, irregular troops, criminal gangs and terrorist groups are using all types of small arms and light weapons. The illicit trafficking in such weapons by drug cartels, criminals and traders in contraband goods has also been on the increase.

Less expensive than major conventional weapons, ready to use without extensive prior training, particularly against civilians, and fit for transport on a person, pack animal or light vehicle, small arms and light weapons are often the weapons of choice of irregular forces.

In some States and subregions there is a culture of weapons whereby the possession of military-style weapons is a status symbol, a source of personal security, a means of subsistence, a sign of manliness and, in some cases, a symbol of ethnic and cultural identity. By itself, such a culture does not necessarily lead to a culture of violence in which the possession of these weapons connotes political power and a preference for the resolution of conflict by the use of arms. The transformation of a culture of weapons to a culture of violence, resulting in the increasing demand for weapons, most often occurs when a State cannot guarantee security to its citizens or control the illicit activities in which these weapons are utilized.

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Page last modified: 27-03-2013 13:12:47 ZULU