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Microstamping: The Unreliable Attempt to Tie Spent Cartridges to Specific Firearms

Microstamping is yet another effort to reduce and restrict firearm ownership in the name of “public safety.”

Microstamping: The Unreliable Attempt to Tie Spent Cartridges to Specific Firearms

Microstamping can be transferred from a modified firing pin. There are small characters inside a ring of markings called a “Gear Code.”

With the current political climate and the penchant for the left side of the aisle to assert gun control on society, many gun-control schemes will soon be recycled. We should all expect a more overt push for gun control from the left in the coming years. Anticipating this got me thinking about so-called “micro­stamping,” and what it really is. I have a cursory knowledge of it and am aware of some of the arguments for and against it. I decided to research the subject in more depth to be able to discuss it more intelligently. (And I learned a number of interesting things about it.) Recent legislation in California aims to create a market for microstamping by requiring it for guns sold to the state’s 86,000 members of law enforcement, who were exempt when California’s microstamping legislation passed in 2007.

Physically, What Is It?

Microstamping is a laser-engraving process that imparts an identifying number and characters on a primer, case head or body of a bullet when the cartridge is fired. The intent is to associate a spent cartridge case and/or bullet to a specific firearm, and thereby link the owner of that gun to aid law enforcement in its crime-scene investigations. Micro­stamping bullets, while technically possible, has proven totally unreliable and costly. To this point, microstamping has been primarily focused on the handgun category.

It is interesting to note that the laser-engraving technology and equipment is proprietary. It’s patented and owned by a company called TACLABS, which was founded by Todd Lizotte. He is the only source for this technology. Hence, the entire gun industry would have to purchase the microstamping equipment from TACLABS with no option for competitive sourcing. Knowing this, it makes sense to me as to why this technology has been pushed so hard and why there have been wild claims about its effectiveness.

The physical application of microstamping to a firearm is to laser-engrave a number and other identifying characters on the firing pin’s (or striker’s) head. The technology is also used to engrave what appears to be a gear shape around the perimeter of the firing pin’s tip. This “gear code” serves as a type of bar code to identify the firearm. All of these marks need to be transferred to the primer via the firing pin’s indent. You can imagine how small and fragile this marking is.


A small circular plate that has the same numbers and characters etched into it is embedded into the face of the breech on the slide. When a round is fired, recoiling thrust is supposed to power the transfer of the microstamping to the cartridge’s case head.


A third method is to laser-etch a marking — like a UPC or barcode — in the barrel’s bore that is transferred to the bullet. Proposals have also been made to sequentially micro­stamp individual projectiles, too. As I learned, this is an impractical scheme from a production standpoint. It would also be unreliable because of the rifling’s engraving and the in-chamber environment. Plus, someone would have to create an unmanageably large database.

Microstamping: The Unreliable Attempt to Tie Spent Cartridges to Specific Firearms
Look below to see the cartridge cases that show the illegible results of the above microstamp in the primer indent.

More Problems

When discussing the problems with microstamping, remember that the markings intended for transfer to the primer, case or bullet are so small that they require an optical magnifier to read them. For being so small, markings on the firing pin or slide face are shallow and fragile. Anyone who has done much shooting knows that the appearance of the firing-pin strike on a primer does not always look the same. That’s because of the ammunition’s load and primer characteristics. Some firing pins drag on the primer and case during extraction, which damages the primer and case head. With long-term firing, the tip of the firing pin wears and erodes. These facts do not bode well for the long-term survivability of any microstamping marks on a firing pin. A number of large tests have been done by several universities, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF.org). They all have found that the transfer of the micro­stamp markings was unreliable and subject to the firearm and ammunition being used.

Depending on the ammunition, the extraction process can also deface the headstamp of a cartridge case. The microstamping marks placed on the cartridge’s case head are much smaller and shallower than even the headstamp. I would expect that a micro­stamp on a case head would be smeared. In practice, during testing done with micro-stamped modified guns, these problems with the firing-pin stamps and case-head stamps were often encountered.

Microstamped projectiles would be extremely unreliable in maintaining the mark or code after being fired. When the projectile impacts anything the microstamp deforms, which deems it useless as evidence during an investigation. Micro­stamping the body by the rifling also destroys or smears the micro­stamp. At the rear of the bullet, a microstamp is subjected to high pressure and temperature, as well as impact. The base of a projectile is essentially sandblasted by propellant when fired. We all know what happens to a bullet when it impacts an object.




Another obvious problem with microstamping is the gun-control scheme. The only people that will obey the rules would be honest gun owners. It would take someone using a Dremel tool or file about 15 seconds to remove the microstamping marks on the firing pin and slide face. A criminal who desires to avoid detection could easy replace the firing pin with an unmarked one. Someone with criminal intent could go to a shooting range and collect cases with different microstamps or marks and then leave them behind at a crime scene to confuse investigators, too.

Production Issues for Gun Manufacturers

As we all know, more processes and steps added to a manufacturing process makes the final product more expensive. With microstamping, the gun manufacturers would be forced to purchase expensive laser-etching equipment and licenses, costs that would be passed on to the consumers. These added steps and increased production time to make micro­stamped parts would increase the cost of a firearm and its ammunition. These issues would have a significant negative impact on both a manufacturer’s costs and categorical price points. Of course, this obstruction to exercising our Second Amendment rights would be applauded by anti-gunners and hailed as a “step in the right direction.”

There have been suggestions to microstamp individual projectiles. This requires an unviable production process. It is one thing to put a symbol at the bottom of a bullet. It’s another to put sequential characters on a bullet and expect them to be clearly marked and accurate. Bullets are made in production at rates of 30 to 120 bullets per minute. How do you introduce a laser-etching process that sequentially marks each bullet without tremendously impacting the production rate? This would cause large increases in production times and costs.

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Microstamping: The Unreliable Attempt to Tie Spent Cartridges to Specific Firearms
Four microstamps produced illegible primer marks in testing. The stamp used is pictured above.

The Elephant in the Room

Now for the real problem, as I see it. Exactly who and how would an absolutely enormous database of all these unique microstamp numbers be administered and tracked? Is the unauthorized tracking the property of law-abiding citizens even legal? In the case of microstamping projectiles, such a database would approach the magnitude of cataloging every star in the galaxy. Literally, you would have a database of tens of billions of new records every year! In the case of firearms alone, a national database would result in tens of millions of entries — per year!

In 2020, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) reported 39,695,315 sales. Recall that the NICS system is supposed to monitor every person buying a firearm and ensure that they are legally allowed to own a firearm. Until the last 2 years, NICS processed an average of 10 million requests (or less) a year. With recent high-profile failures of the NICS system to prevent people that should never have been allowed to purchase a firearm, we can conclude that at a scale of some millions of data entries per year, the NICS system is not as reliable as we were are lead to believe. A background check is just on one person and not for each firearm entry of an ATF Form 4473. One NICS check could be (and is commonly submitted) for multiple firearms. How exactly is the government going to manage a database that is many times bigger than the one that’s already highly suspect and overloaded?

This problem does not even consider the constitutionality or costs incurred by manufacturers to submit and maintain their own growing database, let alone the process of transferring an enormous amount of data back and forth between manufacturers, gun dealers and the government. And don’t forget, these costs would be passed along to the consumer.

California Reveals the Real Agenda

It comes as no surprise that California was the first state to require microstamping on new handgun models sold in the state. On May 17, 2013, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced that microstamping had cleared all technological and patenting hurdles, and would be required on all newly sold semiautomatic pistols purchased in the state — effective immediately. The law required two microstamps on every handgun sold. Prior to this law, California had instituted a law requiring all handguns sold in the state to pass a California Department of Justice-mandated safety test before any handgun could be added to the list of those approved for sale. After the 2013 microstamping law, almost every firearm manufacturer stopped offering new handguns in California. As of May 2013, there were 953 approved handguns on the list. By January 2014, the number of handguns on the approved list dropped to 867. Ignoring all the evidence showing that microstamping is unreliable and easy to defeat, California enacted AB-2847 in September 2020. This law reduced the microstamping requirement from two marks to one to make the “approved” list. Totally tipping their hand to what microstamping is about, the law further states that for every new microstamped gun added to the list, three older models had to be removed from it. As of November 2020, the approved list of guns for sale in California was reduced to 497. This makes it rather obvious what this charade is about: Limit and strangle the availability of handguns for sale in the state of California.

My View

Antis are working to convince people that microstamping is a legitimate and effective means to quickly track firearms and shooters who use them in crimes. The reality is that the variations with firearms and ammunition prevent this, as does the nature of criminals. The technology and the desire to use it also ignores the ease with which it can be defeated.

I attempted to research the topic of this article in an unbiased manner, but at this point I will say that I believe microstamping is another oversold, overmarketed means of limiting the manufacture and affordability of firearms. Gun control is trying to baffle people by the use of technology.

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