The Headstamp Trail, A Report On The Ammunition Used During The Libyan Revolution

TFB friend Nic Jenzen-Jones was commissioned by the Small Arms Survey to document the ammunition used in the Libyan Revolution. The report can be downloaded here.

Nic discovered that ammunition was procured form the usual suspects (China, Russia, Pakistan etc.) but I was surprised to discover that a lot of FN Herstal made rounds in Gadaffi’s arsenal. FN discovered that by throwing in a few FN303 less lethal launchers in among a lot of ammunition, they could get approval to export a lot of ammunition on humanitarian grounds. A risky move in my opinion. If Britain or the USA had committed ground troops to the civil war it would have been a public relations disaster for the company, not to mention putting their lucrative US military contracts in jeopardy.

The identified cartridges were manufactured predominantly in factories located in Belgium, China, and former Eastern Bloc countries.

Among the cartridges assessed for this study, the headstamps suggest regular procurement of ammunition over the past 40 years. However, only two of the identified headstamps indicate a production date from the 1992– 2003 period of the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya.

Cartridges in Eastern Bloc calibres are the most common and widely available; this finding is supported by photographic evidence and their relatively low prices on the local black markets. NATO-calibre rounds are typically scarcer and often associated with those small arms that are considered more prestigious. These factors have resulted in NATO-calibre ammunition being sold at artificially inflated prices.

Handgun ammunition is uniformly more expensive and less available than ammunition for long guns. Handgun ammunition is highly sought after because buyers have begun opting for concealable firearms over the commonly available Kalashnikov variants and Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal (FN Herstal) Fusil Automatique Léger (FAL) rifles of the conflict period.

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What is also interesting is the presence of unmarked ammunition. Nic suspects this unmarked ammunition comes from North Korea, who we know exports arms and ammunition despite UN embargoes.

The diverse mix of ammunition in Libya reminds me the book Charlie Wilson’s War. I read the book a very long time ago but, if my memory serves me correctly, the CIA agent who worked closely with Charlie Wilson claimed that the agency went on a buying rampage, purchasing ammunition from organizations all over the world in an attempt to hide their involvement (or at least maintain plausible deniability). The agent claimed that the CIA even contracted the Chinese government to manufacture ammunition for them, although China has always denied this.

If western countries did in fact covertly supply ammunition to the rebels, you can be sure they would only supply ammunition which did not have a paper trail that lead back to them.

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • flyingburgers

    I don’t buy this “public relations disaster”. We don’t want to blame gun manufacturers when guns are used in a crime. We don’t blame the dealer when they have followed applicable background check procedures. Why should you blame FN when governments explicitly authorize such sales?

    Did the British get angry at the French when Exocets flown on Dassaults were used by Argentina in the Falklands?

    • port stanley

      Yeah they did.

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      There is a big difference between a criminal acquiring a gun, and supplying a gun to a criminal. But that is besides the point, politics is such that if any of FN’s competitors thought they could use it against them to score more military contacts, they would make a big deal out it. Steyr took a knock because they sold Iran some guns, which may have ended up in Iraq (Steyr says the guns found were locally made clones).

      • flyingburgers

        As the article said, there were few headstamps from the embargo period.

        That’s never going to happen. To draw on the civilian analogy, one gun manufacturer is not going to gloat that another’s was used in a crime. The next time it happens, it very well might be their product. You see this in other industries too. For example, car and airplane companies never talk about their competitors are unsafe or crash.

    • Mark

      There is selling ammo to bad guys and then there is selling ammo during a UN arms embargo to bad guys who have sponsored terrorist acts against US civilians. The whole world may be gray but what FN did was so gray as to be mistaken for black.

  • Calimero

    Mhhh as far as I remember, FN even sold F2000s to the Colonel.

    Quite ironic considering the fact they refuse to sell to lowly civilians in Europe and throw a hissy fit everytime one of their guns end up in law-abiding civilian hands in Europe.