Modifiers: A Snapshot of Convertible Firearms in Europe

By: Emilia Dungel, Nicolas Florquin, and Benjamin King

About half an hour before their shift was due to end, on 18 November 2005, Police Constable Sharon Beshenivsky and her colleague Police Constable Teresa Millburn responded to reports of an activated panic alarm at a travel agency in Bradford, West Yorkshire. As the two walked into the store, PC Beshenivsky was shot and killed at point-blank range.

The weapon used to kill PC Beshenivsky, and injure PC Millburn had been converted by Grant Wilkinson in a garden shed-cum-workshop behind an abandoned building in the quaint village of Three Mile Cross near Reading. Wilkinson is a self-taught gunsmith who legally bought imitation submachine guns under the guise of working in the movie industry, and then converted these into live-firing weapons. Police believe 90 guns were produced in his shed — used in over a fifth of shootings in London over a two-year period. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008.

Converted AEW seized by Guardia Civil. Markings indicate the new ammunition requirements and proof of transformation of the vz.61 to a blank-firing AEW. Source: Benjamin King/Small Arms Survey

On 25 April 2013 in Istres, France, just northwest of Marseille, Karl Rose’s father asked him to do the dishes and a mild argument followed. Rose had an acute schizophrenic episode, took the AIM Romanian AK-pattern rifle that he had purchased in its deactivated form and reactivated by himself at home, walked into town and shot at random — killing three people and injuring one.

He had tried to convert deactivated Romanian assault rifles twice before, the first attempt of which had gotten him arrested. On his third and final go, he managed to dismantle the weapon, remove the pins and barrel, and reactivated it using common tools in addition to a hydraulic press and a chamber reamer. As 2012 drew to a close, Rose took advantage of New Year’s Eve celebrations and tested his new live-firing rifle in a forest while the cacophony of fireworks drowned out the sound of gunshots and bullets whizzing through the trees.[1]

The trial for Rose pointed to his dishevelled mental state, his complete lack of friends, and his long-term ‘hatred of adults’.

In 2015, Swedish police discovered a conversion workshop with scattered firearm parts and components and a red lathe resting on top of a cot. They soon arrested a 30-year old man and seized 50 Zoraki gas pistols that he had purchased from Bulgaria via mail order. He shared that he had been paid to convert them by another person in Malmö but refused to reveal that person’s identity. In 2016, one in every ten firearms seized in Sweden was converted.

Converted Zoraki M906, Turkish-made alarm pistol seized by Policia Nacional in Madrid. Photographed 18 April, 2017. Source: Benjamin King/Small Arms Survey

The specifics

Converting imitation firearms, deactivated weapons, and gas pistols so that they can fire live ammunition was a long-neglected issue that has received more attention after recent attacks in Europe.

The actors involved range from interested firearm aficionados to organized crime groups, with different groups favouring certain models, modes of transportation, and means of conversion — with several overlaps and cross-cutting issues.[2]

For example, both petty and serious crime actors utilize converted alarm weapons, which fall under the imitation firearm category. Our upcoming report finds that petty criminals tend to be the primary users of converted alarm weapons, but there is a growing concern that organized crime and terrorist actors (who have used both reactivated firearms and converted acoustic expansion weapons in the past) might resort to using converted alarm weapons as well.

In their original form, alarm weapons imitate real firearms both in design and firing mechanism, making them popular for use in film and theatre, as well as serve as collector items. Despite the firing mechanisms often functioning in the same way as a live-firing weapon, the barrels are built in such a way as to obstruct solid objects passing through them; thus only allowing the firing of blank, non-bulleted cartridges and irritant or signalling rounds. Additionally, the materials used for alarm guns — especially the pressure-bearing parts — are often weaker than real firearms.

One of the ways in which criminals convert alarm pistols is to insert a metal sleeve into the barrel to reinforce it and then shrinking the diameter so that it can fire smaller ammunition — releasing less pressure which means the alarm guns can sustain it.

But alarm weapons are just an example. Convertible firearms can include any imitation firearms incapable of expelling a projectile; deactivated firearms; and (according to some) semi-automatic weapons turned fully automatic — each with their own intricacies that criminals can exploit to increase their lethality.

Screenshot of a conversion tutorial on YouTube.

Facts matter

We have to study the intricacies of these and other illicit weapons to combat their proliferation; to inform policy-makers of the types, scale, use, mechanics, and spread involved.

Sustainable Development Goal Target 16.4, calls for states to: ‘by 2030, significantly reduce illicit […] arms flows.’ In order to measure the progress made towards this goal, the UN Statistical Commission agreed on an indicator (Indicator 16.4.2) focusing on seized weapons: ‘Proportion of seized, found or surrendered arms whose illicit origin or context has been traced or established by a competent authority in line with international instruments.’

The forensic community in particular can play a vital role in collecting detailed data to systematically analyse, and therefore prevent, convertible and converted firearms. Data which will help us measure reductions in illicit arms flows and move us forward on Agenda 2030.

One of the Small Arms Survey’s roles is to monitor new developments, and therefore constantly update and rethink our methodologies and foci. To this end, we have published studies on technological trends in weapons manufacturing, weapons sales through social media, and converted firearms, with a new report around the corner on the latter.

We strive to provide those in power with the information they need to develop evidence-based responses to, in turn, save lives.

Our new report on converted firearms in Europe is available here: analysing the typologies of converted firearms, the nature and scope of the conversion threat, the mechanics of trafficking in converted firearms, and the European response to this issue.

Read the Project SAFTE report — for which we contributed the chapter on France — on terrorist access to illicit firearms markets in Europe.

[1] Details about this case were kindly provided by André Desmarais, the Small Arms Survey’s ballistics specialist. Access to the criminal file was granted by Mr. Pierre Cortes, Avocat Général.

[2] Note that all information in this blog post (unless otherwise indicated) is from: Florquin, Nicolas and Benjamin King. 2018. From Legal to Lethal: Converted Firearms in Europe. Report. Geneva: Small Arms Survey.