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 don’t account for reduction of the gun stock due to wear and tear, loss, destruction or illegal exportation; or increases in 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, of course, illegal importation and exportation of firearms. A prominent Californian legislator, Leland Yee, who pushed for more firearm restrictions was arrested and convicted as the result of an undercover sting operation aimed at the illegal importation of arms.  We know that there are illegal exports of arms. The “Fast and Furious” scandal involving the Obama administration oversaw the illegal exportation of two to three thousand arms (that we know of) 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, probably less than 10,000 per year or .003% of the total private firearm stock per year.

Gun “buy backs”, or more accurately, gun turn ins, are another factor. A few major cities hold these events each year. The numbers of guns surrendered typically vary from a few dozen to a few hundred. The total numbers are almost certainly less than 10,000 a year. Another insignificant number.

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’s 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. Tumbers are, of course, 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 know others who have done so.  It’s not something that’s 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 or about .03 percent. That estimate is likely low, but I am being conservative. 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, too. These firearms aren’t included in the statistics. Millions of guns are sold to the U.S. military, and a great many of them migrate into private hands. The U.S. government has 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 22 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 Program continues 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’s 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 tragic boating accidents. When they are found, they make national news. The numbers appear small, but they exist.  The question is, how many are destroyed/damaged/lost each year?

So where does that leave us?  Adding the percentages of loss and gain, on the loss side we have about .003% to illegal export, .003% to gun turn ins, and .075% to wear, rust, and loss. On the gain side are roughly .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 probably somewhere 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. So the current estimate of 363 million is likely close to reality.

With current production, we are adding about 10-16 million firearms per year. At that rate, the losses – for whatever reason – become almost meaningless.

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

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58 Responses to Question of the Day: How Many Guns Are There in the US?

  1. We absolutely must find some way to increase production.

    I think it’s time for the government to step in and financially save Colt while bankrolling other manufacturers to help them increase production.

    A “chicken in every pot” is no longer enough. We must have a firearm in every room in America and in every vehicle. Vehicles with more than one seat must have a sufficient quantity on board to equip every passenger.

    And no more of this “1911 v. Glock or “.45 v. 9mm”. We must all come together and unite as one firearm bearing nation.

  2. Gee, I’m confused here.

    There are millions more guns now in circulation than 25 years ago.

    And ‘gun violence’ has dropped over 50 percent!!!

    Many more guns, yet less crime…

    So why do they keep claiming ‘gun violence’ is soaring?

    *scratching (un-shaved) chin*

  3. I wonder how many foreign bolt-action rifles have been imported? Mausers of all stripes, Mosins, K31s, Arisakas, etc.

    • We need the CMP to get back all those 1911s and Garands back. Get those distributed for the cost of labor, shipping and a background check.

  4. 363 million? It boggles my mind. I wonder, what it would look like in one pile with the sun gleaming off it. Would this amount fill the Grand Canyon? If, they are placed end to end, how many times would it reach the moon and back? Dang…

    • Assuming an average length of 7″ for handguns, and 40″ for long guns, and assuming just under half the total being handguns, that gets you about 144’000 miles, or .60 the way to the moon. Clearly we need to make/buy/import a lot more guns…we can’t even get TO the moon on our gun ladder, what are we going to do when global warming hits. Buy more guns America, because global warming moon escape ladder…

  5. You forgot to include firearms seized by police as evidence and than destroyed. I would guess that 80% of all firearms that are stolen wind up being destroyed within 10-20 years.

    • Not necessarily. You assume all stolen guns are used in crimes. Many are just resold privately with the new owner having no idea. Regarding guns seized by the police, if they are stolen they are (supposed to be) returned to their owners. About ten years ago cop in my town told me that if a gun was seized from a criminal and it turned out not to be stolen, the officer himself got to keep it. I don’t know how widespread (officially or not) this policy is. If a large metropolitan area did decide do destroy a bunch of guns, however, you can bet the nicer ones would disappear on the way to the shredder.

      As far as guns that are used in actual violent crimes, don’t they stay in evidence storage basically forever? Not sure about that.

  6. The statement about Leland Yee is a bit misleading. Yes, he was charged with a conspiracy to “import” machine guns into the US, but no guns were actually imported, and the guns were not intended for the US market, but rather intended for sale abroad. The “importation” charge was based on the plan to transship the guns from the Philippines to Europe/the Middle East via a New Jersey dock.

  7. We haven’t cracked 400 million guns in this country, yet? WTF?

    Alright, somebody is slacking off. Let’s pick up the pace people!

    When every law abiding citizen is fully equipped for 3 gun competition…then we can talk about slowing down.

  8. I’m betting that if someone with a badge were going door-to-door asking about gun ownership, the number lost in boating accidents would be over 400 million.

  9. The article is interesting but there is an even better question to ask. How many gun owners are there in the U. S. I’ve seen estimates from the low 20’s to the mid-40’s percentiles. Though even at the low end, there’s more firearms in the hand of private Americans than in all the armies of all the countries of the world. That is the real reason, I believe, behind the Anti’s fear.

    Perhaps the best question of all is how many homes have guns. That’s probably the best metric of the armed state of the American people. For example, the firearms in our home would technically be considered mine, but both my wife and son have access at need as well as the skill to use them. So while they are owned by me, the reality is that they are the family guns.

    • “Perhaps the best question of all is how many homes have guns.”

      (The phone rings)

      Me – Hello?

      Caller – “Mr. Geoff PR? How many guns do you have in your home currently?”

      Me – None. (click)

      The numbers *have* to be skewed heavily low. No way in HELL is someone rational answering *that* question.

  10. Don’t underestimate the number of guns that have been destroyed over the years through abuse, neglect, and simple wear.

    It’s true that most quality guns will last a long time with ordinary use if properly cared for. However, not all guns are beautiful heirlooms. I think we often forget that some guns were basically junk even when they were new. The cheap “Saturday Night Special” revolvers and pistols come to mind. I don’t know what the production numbers are for guns that fall into this category, but I would write them all off simply because they don’t hold up to any kind of real use.

    Lots will also have been destroyed by simple neglect. Especially the cheap ones. Think of all the single shot 22 “boys rifles” and break action shotguns that were given to kids over the years. Many of would have been subjected to abuse and often they weren’t that great to begin with so it didn’t take much to wreck them. Just look at some of the stuff turned in at buybacks and you’ll see what I mean.

    Furthermore, even quality guns can and do wear out with enough use. It’s not uncommon for high volume reloaders, particularly those who cast their own bullets, to wear out guns simply because they put so many more rounds through them than most shooters could afford. Law enforcement agencies that can afford to practice a lot also wear out guns. Especially if they issue 40 caliber Glocks. Still, while guns are destroyed as a result of wear every year, I suspect the number is minuscule compared to the number destroyed though abuse and neglect.

    (One more fairly common cause of firearm destruction: Amateur Gunsmithing. Don’t let it stop you though. We have to learn somehow.)

    • I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that 75+ % of gun owners don’t fire their guns enough to wear them out. I have no sources to cite other than my lifetime of experience.

      I know a lot of people that only shoot their shotgun or rifle during deer or duck season. My brother bought a brand new Ruger .357 40 years ago. It had enough shells run thru it to verify it was functional and since then it has laid under his bed.

      It came out once when he assisted a local cop in arresting a suspect. I know others that bought new colt or s&w .38’s, loaded them and stuck them in a sock drawer where they’ve been for at least 50 years.

      • My brother and I considered how many guns we were familiar with among extended family and close friends. It came to over two hundred, easily, over 40 years. Less at the beginning more during the last decade. To be very conservative, say an average of 100 per year for the 40 years.

        We came up with three that were destroyed during that period. 1 cheap pistol (Bryco, as I recall) that destroyed itself in a few boxes of ammo; one deer rifle that was burned in a hunting cabin fire; and one ancient 16 gauge single shot whose frame was cracked through decades of use and abuse. That is .075%.

      • Yep. I’d even say the number is more like 98%+ of gun owners will never wear out a quality gun from shooting. They may, however, break a small part on an old Sears shotgun, decide it’s not worth fixing (the stock was cracked and you can’t shoot steel shot anyway), and hang it on the wall. Does that count as destroyed? Legally no, but if a friend asked me how many guns I owned, I wouldn’t count the wall hangers and other junk.

  11. Pretty good article. Seems to me there are sufficient number of guns. Now ammo….how many rounds per gun are there in private hands…that’s the real question.

    • There is a fair amount of .22 ammo, it is just that with this administration, everyone and his brother wants 5 bricks when they used to be happy with 28 rounds left in a 50 round box. There are likely close to a hundred million .22 rifles and pistols out there! (based entirely on a S.W.A.G. (Scientific, Wild AZZ Guess)

      • I’ve never been happy with only 5 bricks. It’s all my fault.

        People who never plan ahead and assume they can always go to the store and buy more got a dose of reality. Going back to that stupidity isn’t going to happen fast, or at all if, they stay smart.

        Not living paycheck to paycheck is catching on. Not living hand to mouth is catching on. Those who continue to do so are mad. Those who do not are living a better life and have no need to whine about it. Live within your means and prepare and account for reality, it’s not a sin, it only sucks if you’re failing to do it.

        I bought an air gun. Hits as hard as a .22lr, can be modified for even more. Requires no supply chain. Prepared. Don’t need .22lr.

        And it has a built in silencer that doesn’t require any NFA BS.

  12. I mention that I make firearms for personal use in casual conversation… If you act like it’s not a big deal then the other person usually does the same. People have been taught to fear bringing guns up and at the same time people have been taught not to move against the flow. Establish the flow and most people will go with the discussion.

  13. “…we are adding about 10-16 million firearms per year.”

    This is nowhere near enough. This needs to be triple digits.

    Lets do it, guys; 100,000,000 new guns every year!

    I just bought 8 more last week!

  14. Now, can some organization (NSSF?) please issue a press release with these new numbers? (Then someone update the wikipedia page for per capita gun ownership by country.) It drives me crazy whenever a news org uses that 89 guns for every 100 people figure the Small Arms Survey came up with in 2007. Even if they were spot on then, it’s obvious we are way past that now. And yet, I just heard that number in a report regarding the Roanoke shooting.

    BTW: Great topic, Dean.

  15. “With current production, we are adding about 10-16 million firearms per year. At that rate, the losses – for whatever reason – become almost meaningless.”

    Then why did you just spend a thousand words talking about it? 🙂

  16. How about “illegal” automatic weapons that haven’t been registered under NFA dictatorship? I’ve met more than a few people who put together fully-autoUzis, Mini-Uzis, MAC-10 & 11 submachine guns back in the 1980s – with silencers – that were never registered. Every one of them were gunsmiths working for different manufacturer/distributers. I often wonder whether they (or their heirs) would ever be willing to come out of the woodwork to register their SMGs if the NFA registry were ever opened back up, either temporarily or permanently as a result of a lawsuit or legislative miracle. I think we’d all get a big surprise over the numbers that would show up from such sources. How many gun shops were cranking out parts kits back then and making their personal SMGs in the back room shop after hours? Or for their LEO friends & relatives? “Our little secret” turns into a generational issue sooner or later when the original owner passes on. Then it gets interesting!

    That was a long time ago, of course, when I was much younger and in a different part of the country. I can’t even remember faces or names from back then, so the CIA couldn’t even waterboard the details out of me.

  17. You can add stolen military guns, still listed in inventory.

    Also, several years ago some military armorers were breaking every gun part in two, turn one busted part in, wait a long time and turn the other on, voila, two firearms, then sell one. I doubt the military reports these.

    A guy couldn’t accoint for tracers so he used nail polish for the red tip. . . . . Go figure.

    When the military replaces the Beretta with. . . . .many will be “destroyed”. Go figure again.

  18. “Firearms manufactured before 1899 are not included.”

    AGEISM!! This is soooo discriminatory! My ’96 Broomhandle Mauser is just as good as any modern 9mm! Plus a lot cooler.

  19. Considering the :
    1.) 80% “completion packages” I ship
    2.) the local shooters I’ve sold 80% receivers to and built uppers for
    3.) the line AROUND THE BUILDING that Ares Armor had all day every Sunday for better than a year (average number of receivers per person: 2)
    4.) the number of Polymer 80%s that EP Arms, Tennessee Arms, and James Madison Tactical have done, 5.) the two decades that KT Ord in Montana sold 80% 1911s and AR’s…….

    That “Homemade Guns” number is REEEAAAALLY low….

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