Inside the FBI Reference Firearms Collection
If every gun tells a story, the FBI's reference firearms collection could fill a very, very large book. The inventory of more than 7,000 firearms—curated over 80 years—contains just about every make and model, from John Dillinger's Prohibition-era revolver to the modern battlefield's M16, and almost everything in between.
My name is John Webb. I’m a firearms examiner in the Firearms/Toolmarks Unit with the FBI Laboratory.
This gun collection or reference firearms collection contains over 7,000 firearms. One of the main reasons we use this collection is for training purposes to train new firearms examiners about firearms, how they function, different operations of the firearms themselves.
One of the reasons that we maintain this collection and continue to grow the collection is for reference for law enforcement worldwide. During the firearms manufacturing process, when the barrels are rifled and the breach faces are formed or milled, it’s going to create individual tool marks to that firearm. Those individual tool marks will be transferred onto the bullets’ cartridge cases and other firearms components and ammunition components during the firing process. It’s those microscopic individual marks that we can compare under the microscope to determine if those bullets and cartridge cases were fired by a particular firearm. All of that information (by classification) is recorded and maintained in a database and the FBI distributes this database to law enforcement agencies worldwide.
These weapons are also used for comparisons with surveillance photographs, bank robbery photographs, often times in a case we will receive images of a subject holding a particular item that looks like a firearm. Investigators will want to know what that item is. We can compare that image with weapons in our reference firearms collection to determine what type of weapon that is, if not even the make and model in some instances.
We try to have one example of every type of firearm—make, model, finish, serial number configuration, you name it. We want to have an example of each kind. So when a firearm comes in for disposition, if anything about that firearm is different from what we already have in the collection, we’ll add it to the collection.
The majority of these firearms are from adjudicated cases. Now occasionally we will purchase firearms if they’re pertinent to a case. And some of these firearms are even donated to the laboratory.
This collection contains many firearms that have historical provenance to the FBI. For instance we have all of the side arms that special agents have carried during their course of duty from the early 1900’s.
Some of our more notable firearms in the collections are from the 1930’s gangster era. That includes Ma and Pa Barker’s firearms, John Dillinger’s revolver, amongst other firearms from that era.
Not only does this collection contain many firearms, we have other items for examination purposes as well. One of the tests we do here in the laboratory is silencer, or suppressor tests—determining if a muzzle device actually reduces the sound that a firearm makes.
This firearms collection started in approximately 1933 and has grown ever since. When this firearms collection, which was originally housed in the Department of Justice was moved to the Hoover building, it actually outgrew the space in the Hoover building and we had firearms stacked where we couldn’t even access them because we were simply out of space.
Once we moved to the new Laboratory, the reference firearms collection was given a larger space and had much more room to grow, but undoubtedly, down the road, this space will be inadequate.
We keep them functional. We keep them clean. But they are certainly not in museum quality because they do see a lot of use.
The collection has been extremely useful in criminal cases not only for an examiner’s experience and education in handling nearly every firearm case that comes into the Laboratory. But it has been directly responsible for assisting to solve certain questions about crimes in particular, such as where did this firearm come from, where did this firearm part come from. So it’s been valuable in that sense.
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