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Issue BriefNumber 10February 2015From Replica to RealAn Introduction to Firearms ConversionsIntroductionWhile national firearms regulationsoften restrict the types of firearms civilians may legally own, such regulations do not necessarily eliminatedemand. Prohibitions on handgunsin particular have led some parties todevise new means to acquire these orcomparable firearms. One commonmethod involves mechanically alteringan accessible replica firearm to function in a similar way as a restrictedfirearm. This process is generallyknown as a firearms conversion, andhas been observed worldwide.This Issue Brief offers an overviewof illicit firearms conversion. Firearmsconversion poses a challenge to current efforts to control small arms as itenables individuals to manufacture afunctioning firearm, unfettered bygovernment regulations. Firearmsconversion is also a product of thesame control efforts in that the moredifficult it is to obtain real weapons,the greater the appeal of a convertedfirearm. To combat the proliferationof converted firearms therefore callsfor an understanding of why andhow such weapons are produced.Significant findings in this IssueBrief include the following:Blank-firing handguns are themost commonly converted replicasworldwide, but many other typesof replica firearms are also highlyconvertible.Although conversion is possiblefor most replica firearms, certainmodels are more appealing becauseof their design, the materials usedin their construction, and the easewith which it is possible to circumvent the barriers that manufacturersput in place to prevent conversion.Demand for converted firearms isinfluenced by: the ease of accessto conventional firearms; legal restrictions; the high cost of pistols;and the fact that replicas are untraceable, which appeals to criminalelements.Globally, law-enforcement agenciesfrequently confiscate large numbers of replica firearms and oftenexpress concern about their possible conversion.Firearms conversion is a globalpractice. While European nationsreport the problem most frequent ly,converted weapons appear in manycountries, including most recentlyin several African countries.The Issue Brief begins with a briefdis cussion on terminology. Since ‘conversion’ is used in several contexts inrelation to firearms, there is a need toclarify the term. The Brief then discusses several types of replica firearmsused in conversions and explains theirunique features.The Issue Brief presents data on theglobal proliferation of converted firearms, but in view of the challenges incompiling such data, it presents information on actual conversions and seizures of replicas, in which concernsabout their potential conversion wereA man attempting to assassinate Bulgarian politician Ahmed Dogan, using a gas pistol, which failed to fire, Sofia,Bulgaria, January 2013. BTVnews/AP Photohttp://www.smallarmssurvey.org1

mentioned. National records, opensource searches, and interviews withlaw-enforcement agencies providedthe data presented in this section.Finally, the Issue Brief examines themotivations for conversion as well asthe impact of current small arms control efforts on shaping that demand.2.The concept of conversionThere is no common definition of theterm ‘converted firearm’. Policymakers, law-enforcement officers, andfirearm enthusiasts may use the termto describe different types of firearmalterations—some legal, others not.A firearms enthusiast, for instance,might use the term ‘conversion’ to describe the process of replacing keycomponents of a firearm with newparts (such as the barrel or buttstock)or new accessories, potentially altering the performance of the originalfirearm. Depending on the country,many such alterations are legal.Firearms experts with a lawenforce ment role, on the other hand,focus on modifications that produceillicit firearms. In 2014, the Small ArmsSurvey conducted a survey amongfirearms experts from nine countries.1They each recognized at least one—and sometimes two or three—distinct type of mechanical alterationas fitting their definition of (illicit)conversion. Three general categoriesof alterations emerged:1.2The alteration of a replica firearmto fire live ammunition was themost commonly recognized formof conversion. Again, definitionsvary by country, but in general areplica firearm is ‘a device that isnot a real firearm, but that wasdesigned to look exactly or almostexactly like a real firearm’ (RCMP,2013). Replica firearms includeblank-firing firearms, air guns, oreven toy guns. The conversionchanges the nature of the deviceso that it functions as—and meetsthe definition of—a real firearm.Small Arms Survey Issue BriefNumber 103.The reactivation of a deactivatedfirearm is occasionally referredto as a conversion. A deactivatedfirearm is a genuine firearm whichhas been rendered inoperable (i.e.incapable of expelling a projectile).This form of conversion involvesreversing the deactivation processto enable the item to once againfire a projectile. According to theFirearms Protocol, ‘[a]ll essentialparts of a deactivated firearm areto be rendered permanently inoperable’ (UNGA, 2001, art. 9(a)).In practice, however, states adoptdeactivation requirements ofvary ing rigour, which in manycases knowledgeable individualscan overcome.A semi-automatic firearm modified to have fully automatic (select-fire) firing capacity is thethird alteration occasionally referred to as a conversion.2 Thiscategory differs from the others asit involves alterations to an itemthat, even without the conversion,functions as a firearm. Yet, as withthe two other types of conversion,the item’s function is transformed.While many states permit civilians to own semi-automatic firearms, they almost always prohibitcivilian possession of fully automatic firearms (Parker, 2011, pp.269–73). In this type of conversion,the approved mode of fire of anapproved, legally registered firearm is modified.Each of these types of conversion altersthe capability of the pre-converteditem (i.e. the replica, deactivated, orsemi-automatic firearm), thereby potentially changing the weapon’s legalstatus. Each method also presentschallenges to small arms control efforts. This Issue Brief focuses on theconversion of replica firearms (particularly blank-firing firearms) to fire liveammunition. It is important, however,to recognize that other forms of conversion exist and have implicationsfor national control efforts.February 2015Weapons most suited forconversionWhile skilled artisans can convert avariety of objects to fire live ammunition, replica firearms (and specificallyblank-firing firearms) are attractiveoptions. This section discusses thetypes of replica firearms that are mostfrequently converted.Blank-firing firearmsBlank-firing firearms, also known asalarm guns, starter pistols, or gasguns, are typically noise- and flashproducing replicas of real firearms(Ferguson and Williams, 2014, p. 3).Blank-firing firearms have multiplelegitimate uses, including militarytraining, hunting-dog training, privatecollection, use in sporting events, selfdefence, and as film props. Most mimicthe actions of genuine firearms. Theseactions include the movement of a firing pin so that it strikes the primer ona blank ammunition cartridge, sometimes (in the case of some blank-firingpistols) expelling the spent cartridgecase and reloading a new cartridge inthe chamber. The result is an actionand a sound similar to those producedby a real firearm, but no projectile isexpelled.Blank-firing firearms, as the namesuggests, fire blank ammunitionrounds. These rounds produce noiseand a flash, though some contain irritant agents (Ferguson and Williams,2014, p. 5; EC, 2010, 2.6).3 The cartridgesare generally shorter than bulletedcartridges and come in two designs:a crimped brass case or a flat-nosedcartridge sealed with a coloured plasticcap. Common calibres include 8 mmor 9 mm PAK (Pistole Auto ma ti scheKnall), and .380 or 9 mm RK (RevolverKnall), although calibres not identicalto bulleted ammunition also exist(Ferguson and Williams, 2014, p. 5;Hannam, 2010, p. 757).4Regulations on blank-firing firearms vary, but are generally significantly less stringent than those applied

to standard firearms. There are, however, a few countries that treat blankfiring firearms in the same way asreal firearms. These countries may,for example, require citizens to obtainlicences, undergo criminal backgroundchecks, and register the blank-firingfirearm with the relevant authorities.5More often, countries have few if anyregulations concerning blank-firingfirearms. Some impose minimum-agerequirements on their purchase, butmany require no licensing of the person or registration of the blank-firingfirearm.Manufacturers of blank-firing firearms typically add features to preventtheir product from firing live ammunition (Hales, 2006, p. 7). These varyby manufacturer, but there are severalcommon features. Most manufacturersplace an obstruction in the barrel toprevent a solid object from escaping.They may also incorporate vents atthe top or sides of the barrel. Thesevents disperse the energy that resultsfrom firing a cartridge in directionsother than the front of the barrel. Somenational regulations require that blankfiring firearms vent at a 90 angle tothe bore (Ferguson and Williams, 2014,p. 5). This prevents the discharge of aprojectile, and significantly reducesmuzzle blast.6 The chamber might alsobe smaller in order not to accommodate standard calibres. This preventsthe use of the most common bulletedammunition calibres without alterationof the ammunition. 7The manufacturers of blank-firingfirearms often also use inferior orweaker materials in the production ofkey pressure-bearing components. Thisis possible because blank cartridgestypically contain significantly lesspropellant than a bulleted-ammunitionround, resulting in less pressure whenfired. Firing higher-power cartridgescan damage or destroy these components (Lee, 2011, p. 19). The person firing the weapon is also at risk of injury. Manufacturers apply barriersof varying intensity to the firing oflive ammunition (in particular, thematerial used for pressure-bearingcomponents and barrel blockages),8making some blank-firing firearmsmuch better conversion options thanothers (see Table 1).Box 1 Modifying ammunitionStandard bulleted ammunition does not typically fit blank-firing handguns given theirsmaller chamber. These weapons thereforerequire specific types of ammunition or alterations to industrially manufactured roundsConverting blank-firing firearmsConverting a blank-firing firearm essentially involves removing the barriers to normal firearm functionalityput in place by manufacturers. Whilealmost any blank-firing firearm is potentially convertible, certain modelshave features that make them moreattractive as potential ‘converts’. Whilethere are plainly considerations suchas availability and cost, three designfeatures appear particularly influentialin determining how readily a blankfiring firearm can be converted(Fergu son and Williams, 2014, p. 6).The first consideration is the direction in which the blank-firing firearmexpels the gas pressure created froma fired cartridge. Front-venting blankfiring firearms lend themselves morereadily to conversion. Whereas topand side-venting blank-firing firearmsrequire changes to the barrel to directthe projectile’s (bullet’s) energy forward and permit its exit, front-ventingbarrels automatically direct the pressure to the end of the barrel, just aswith a real firearm.Second, the ammunition that theblank-firing firearm can chamber is animportant factor. Many blank-firingpistols have shorter chambers, asblank cartridges are shorter than cartridges fitted with a projectile.Bulleted cartridges are not perfect fitsin blank-firing firearms, but can oftenbe manipulated to work (see Box 1).Finally, blank-firing firearms constructed with harder metals (such aszinc alloy, steel, or gunmetal), especially at key pressure-bearing points,are sought because they improve safetyand performance (Hales, 2006, p. 39).The converted blank-firing firearmsobserved by law-enforcement officialsbefore they can fire live ammunition. Traumaticcartridges (blank ammunition rounds fittedwith rubber projectiles) can, in some cases,fit without modification (Ferguson, 2014).Another option is to modify bulleted orblank ammunition. Certain blank calibres, suchas the .22 blank and 9 mm PAK, are similar insize to various standard ammunition calibres(.22 mm Long Rifle and 9 mm Luger). The lattercan therefore sometimes fit a blank-firing fire arm’s chamber if the bullet is pushed deeperinto the cartridge.9Blank ammunition can also be fitted witha projectile. The modification can involvecutting into the crimped end of the cartridge,inserting a projectile and resealing the case,or a projectile can be pressed into the plasticcover of certain blank cartridges (Ferguson,2014; Saribey and Tarimci, 2009, p. 624). Theserounds, however, will not have the same forceas standard ammunition, given the blankcartridges’ reduced propellant and the oftenimperfect fit of make-shift projectiles in thebarrels.10 Nevertheless, ballistics tests showthat a .22 calibre blank round can propel aprojectile with more than enough force to killa person (Lee and Meng, 2011, p. 25).Sources: Ferguson (n.d.; 2014); Lee and Meng (2011); Saribey andTarimci (2009)vary significantly in quality (Hannam,2010, p. 757). All are considered to beless reliable than real firearms andpotentially unsafe. In fact, self-injuryto users is common. The more sophisticated conversions (e.g. those that include rifling the inside of the barrel)are performed on blank-firing handguns constructed with harder metals.Those converted with weaker materialsmay survive only a few firings, if that.11Trauma gunsCertain less-lethal firearms are alsoprime candidates for illegal conversion.Trauma guns—sometimes referred toas ‘traumatic firearms’—are kinetic-http://www.smallarmssurvey.org3

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