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What is Bullet Microstamping?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bullet microstamping, more correctly called cartridge case microstamping, is a technology which embeds information about a gun on each bullet it fires. The idea is that investigators at crime scenes could use the stamped bullet casings to track the owner of the gun, potentially reducing the amount of time needed to track down a suspect. Microstamping laws have been proposed in several states, usually specifically for hand guns, and they have met with considerable opposition from the gun rights community, for a variety of reasons.

In order for bullet microstamping to work, a weapon must be fitted with a special firing pin which has been etched with a unique serial number. When the gun is fired, the firing pin strikes the casing of the bullet, marking it with the serial number. While the microstamp is generally too small to read with the naked eye, it can be identified on a microscope, allowing investigators to cross-reference the serial number with a database of registered weapons.

There are several problems with bullet microstamping. In the first place, if a criminal picks up his or her shell casings, the microstamp will not be recoverable. For this reason, some people argue that microstamping would be more effective if it marked the actual bullet, not the casing. Microstamping also does not address the issue of stolen and unregistered weapons, and a large number of gun crimes are committed with such weapons. Gun owners could also potentially replace the firing pin or file the microstamp off to avoid microstamping when the gun is fired.

Firing pins wear over time, so microstamps will also change as wear occurs. Additionally, the wide range of hardness between primers, and between cartridge cases means microstamps will differ based on the brand of ammunition used, whether the cases are made of brass, nickel-plated brass or lacquered steel. And, the pressure of a given load will result in variances in microstamps. A .38 Special cartridge with a max pressure of 17,000 PSI will produce a different stamp than a .357 magnum cartridge at 35,000 PSI when fired from the same .357 magnum.

Advocates of bullet microstamping believe that even with all the arguments against it, it could still be of great help to forensic investigators. Every little bit helps when looking into a serious crime, so microstamping could generate a breakthrough in some cases. Opponents suggest that it could add substantially to the cost of new weapons, while also creating a tracking system for law-abiding gun owners who register their weapons, potentially abridging their right to privacy.

Even in regions where bullet microstamping laws have passed, no attempt has been made to make the laws retroactive, so numerous weapons would lack the microstamping technology. Making microstamping laws retroactive would be extremely expensive, time-consuming, and potentially impossible, so it is not surprising that no attempt has been made to expand the scope of these laws, but some people question the value of bullet microstamping legislation when used weapons which do not microstamp will be so readily available to those who want them.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By anon994132 — On Jan 17, 2016

By the time this technology is actually able to allow law enforcement to catch criminals faster, 3D printable firearm plans will be available on the deep web, so everyone can print them out in their own houses.

By anon946297 — On Apr 18, 2014

One hacked gun registry later and any criminal can sell any firing pin with faked microstamps on them. Imagine a crime wave where every murder and fired shot looks like it came from a LAPD service weapon.

By anon252200 — On Mar 04, 2012

Microstamping will not stop criminals. Period.

By anon75897 — On Apr 08, 2010

Microstamping is an easily defeated waste of everyone's time and money. I do not mean to insult anyone but if you believe that microstamping will work, then you don't understand firearms. Learn more and you will see why your efforts to require microstamping are wasting your time.

Most anti gun attitudes are born out of fear. Ask a trusted gun owner to take you target shooting, and learn more about the issue so that you may discuss it intelligently. Microstamping is a high dollar waste of everyone's time.

By vinconco — On May 19, 2009

Maryland experimented with a form of microstamping which required every handgun sold in the state to include a fired casing that was forwarded to the State Police where they scanned it and put the results into a database. Fired casings found on crimescenes would be scanned and run through the database to attempt matching the unique markings left on the casing from firing through the gun. In the end the results did not live up to expectations and the state police lobbied to have the program discontinued and the funds allocated to more useful pursuits.

By anon28951 — On Mar 24, 2009

Complete bull. Designed to price bullets out of this world, thereby rendering the 2nd amendment ineffective. There is no way this would be effective in stopping crime. It is a myth that government is trying to sell to the sheeple. Oppose with all your might!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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