How many Firearms have been lost or Destroyed in the United States?

Gun Watch – by Dean Weingarten

How many firearms are lost or destroyed in the United States?  Is the number of guns in the U.S. increasing or decreasing?

The current estimate of the private stock of firearms in the United States is about 363 million (16 million were added in 2013).

That number was calculated by the cumulative addition of domestic manufacture plus imports minus exports.  This does not count guns shipped to the U.S. military.   The figures are rounded to the nearest million.  

Firearms manufactured before 1899 are not included.  The starting figure in 1945 is 47 million.

The numbers do not account for reduction of the gun stock due to wear and tear, loss, destruction or illegal exportation; or increases of the stock from illegal importation, individual or illegal manufacture, or acquisition from military sources.

The primary uncertainty is whether the unknown factors mentioned above result in a net loss or gain of firearms in addition to net known manufacture and importation, minus exports.

There is illegal importation and exportation of firearms.  A prominent Californian legislator who pushed for more firearm restrictions was arrested as the result of an undercover sting operation aimed at the illegal importation of arms.  We know that there is illegal export of arms.  The “Fast and Furious” scandal involving the Obama administration oversaw the illegal exportation of two to three thousand arms to Mexican drug cartels.  That number was spread over at least two years.

It seems likely that the incentives for illegal exportation are higher than for illegal importation, but the numbers overall appear small, less than 10,000 per year or .003% of the private firearm stock per year.

Gun “buy backs”, or more accurately, gun turn ins, are another factor.  A few major cities hold gun turn in events each year.  The numbers turned in typically vary from less than a hundred to a few hundred.  The total numbers are almost certainly less than 10,000 a year.  It would be another .003% loss.

Individual manufacture or illegal manufacture is likely a much larger number.  There are numerous videos and instructions on how to make guns on the Internet.  There is a long tradition of individual hobbyists making their own guns in this country.  There is significant evidence that criminals engage in the manufacture of illegal guns.  The numbers are difficult to quantify.  At one point, the D.C. police department stated that one fifth of the guns that they confiscated were homemade.

I have personally made legal guns, and personally know others that have done so.  It is not something that is casually mentioned to strangers.  I suspect that the numbers are in excess of 100,000 per year.  That would be one out of a thousand gun owners making one gun per year.  The estimate is likely low, but I am being conservative.  That would be about .03 percent increase per year.  With ubiquitous and cheap power tools, inexpensive materials, and emerging technologies such as 3D printing, those numbers will only increase.

Military guns that are transferred to private ownership, legally or illegally, need to be added.  Guns that were originally sent to the U.S. military are not included in the estimate of the U.S. private gun stock.

Millions of guns were sent to the U.S. military, and a great many of them migrated into private hands.   The U.S. government sold millions of surplus rifles and pistols over the years.

I recall seeing barrels of 1903A3 rifles being sold in hardware stores for $29.95 in the 1960s.  I still have one of them.  At one point, in the middle 1960s, the NRA was offering M1 Carbines to its members for $18 each, as part of a government promotion to get the rifles into private hands.

A mail order ad from 1963.  The 1903 Springfield is listed at $36.38.  The M1 Garand at $89.95, the M1 Carbine at $78.88, the Colt 1917 military .45 revolver at $29.95.

Any person who has been involved in the gun culture for more than a couple of decades can attest to the ubiquity of military pistols that GIs returning from war brought back with them.   Here are some numbers of fairly modern firearms produced for the U.S. military that were sold freely through the mail up until 1968.

About half a million Krag rifles were produced from 1894 to 1904.

About 4.65 million 1903 and 1903A3 rifles were produced.  .84 million were produced by the start of WWI.  Production of the 1903A3 started at about serial number 3 million  during WWII.    1.65 million 1903A3s were produced by the end of WWII.

6.22 million M1 carbines were manufactured during WWII.

5.44 million MI Garands were manufactured, prior to 1957.

Many of these rifles were declared surplus and sold on the U.S. market prior to the requirements for record keeping of rifles by dealers before 1968.

Significant numbers were given or sold to other countries as military aid.

Over 2.5 million .45 ACP pistols were produced for the military by the end of WWII.  How many migrated to private hands is unknown.  They are commonly seen in private ownership.

At least 189,000  revolvers were in the hands of the military when the U.S. entered WWII.  Another 350,000 S&W revolvers were produced for the U.S military during the war.    About 48,000 Colt revolvers were produced for the U.S military during WWII.  It is reasonable to state that over half a million revolvers were purchased by the U.S. military prior to the end of WWII.  A great many of these have ended up in private hands.  My family had one of them, made before WWI.   I have not found the number of .22 trainers and target guns sold to the military.

This well worn Colt is over 100 years old, but functions perfectly.  It was produced for the U.S. military.

The total comes to about 20 million guns, of which large percentages were considered obsolete and or surplus before 1968.   Enormous numbers of them were sold through the mail before the 1968 gun control act made such sales legally cumbersome and difficult.

The numbers are hard to quantify, but 10 million firearms transferred from the military to private hands seems reasonable.  That would be a majority of the rifles and some of the pistols.   The Civilian Marksmanship Programcontinues to transfer former military arms to private hands today.

The most difficult number to quantify is the number of guns that are destroyed through wear, rust, abuse, and loss.  Nearly everyone understands that guns are a valuable commodity.  It takes very little maintenance to keep a gun from succumbing to rust.  A gun set in the corner of a closet is almost certain to be fully functional if it is brought out 50 years later.  Most guns are shot little and stored for long periods.  Very few guns are worn out by use.  Some are forgotten in the woods.  Some are lost in boating accidents.   When they are found, they make national news.  The numbers appear small, but they exist.   The question is: what percentage are destroyed/damaged/lost each year?

Reaching into my own family experience, my brother and I had personal knowledge of hundreds of guns among our extended family and friends, over the last 4 decades.  Yet of all of those, we could only recall three that were destroyed or lost.  One was an inexpensive semi-auto pistol that self destructed after a few boxes of ammunition.  Another was a deer rifle that was destroyed when a hunting cabin burned down.  The third was an old 16 gauge single shot shotgun where the frame cracked after decades of use and abuse.  A minimum number for the sample would be 100 guns for 40 years, the number being smaller than 100, 40 years ago, and several hundred in the last decade.  That calculates to .075 percent per year.

So where does that leave us?  Adding the percentages of loss and gain,  on the loss side we have .003% to illegal export, .003% to gun turn ins, and .075% to wear, rust, and loss.  On the gain side are .03% homemade or illegally made firearms.  Added together they come to a net loss of .051% per year.

When  the .051% number is applied to the firearm stock from 1945 onward, the total decrease in the stock would be 5.8 million since 1945.  If we double the number, it is still less than 12 million since 1945, close to the number of military guns added.

For an extreme case, increase the estimate by a full order of magnitude, to .51 percent loss per year, a little more than 1 firearm lost or destroyed of every 200 per year.  At that extreme rate, the loss from 1945 to 2013 would be 58 million firearms.  Add the 10 million military firearms transferred to the stock, and the total in 2013 would be reduced by 48 million.

Those educated guesses indicate that the current 363 million number is between 4 million too low, and 48 million too high, giving us a range of the private stock at the end of 2013 of between 315 million and 367 million.  The current estimate of 363 million is likely close to reality.

We are adding about 10-16 million firearms per year.  In 2013, we added 16 million.  At that rate, the losses become almost meaningless.  We make up all the losses for the last 68 years in somewhere between four months and four years.

©2015 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.  Link to Gun Watch

Update: 55,000 Mossberg 44US .22 rifles were purchased in WWII.

Update: 44,000 High Standard H-D .22 pistols were made for the millitary by 1946.

Update: 61,000 M12 Winchester Shotguns produced for the military in WWII, 20,000 in WWI.

Update: 44,000 M97 Winchester Shotguns produced for the military in WWI and WWII.

Update: 2.19 million M1917 rifles were produced during WWI.

6 thoughts on “How many Firearms have been lost or Destroyed in the United States?

        1. We were out on the river about 35′ from shore out of the fast current just looking to pop a boar. There was no action that day. So I put the 338 down and decided to throw a line in the water. After about 10 mins I felt a hard hit. Then again. Then the damned fish took the bait and started running with it. Pulled us out into the swift water. The wife slid her butt a little too far to the side and at the same time the fish took us perpendicular to the swift water. That damned muskie must’ve been a 4 footer…. The wash made her lose her balance. Over we went. Canoe took off and everything with it. Took 20 mins to get back to shore. Never takin’ the wife huntin’ again….. 🙂

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