Except for firearm enthusiasts, many gun owners don’t know much about their weapons. But it’s always a good idea to know the make and model, as you’ll need these when you want to get a holster or other accessories.
It is possible to identify a gun model based on the manufacturer’s markings engraved on the slide or barrel. These markings are mandatory for firearms, as they reveal certain pertinent information about the gun, such as the manufacturer’s name, caliber or gauge, serial number, and model designation.
Besides markings, there are additional ways of identifying a firearm, and this article explains each of them in great detail. I’ll also cover ways to tell the age of a gun and if it has been stolen.
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How To Identify a Gun
There are three ways you can go about identifying the model of your gun:
- Look at the manufacturer’s markings.
- Do a serial number search.
- Take the gun to a gunsmith or a gun store.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these methods.
Look at the Manufacturer’s Markings
The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) requires that all firearms bear specific identification markings. These markings make it easier for the authorities to identify or trace guns that have been stolen or used illegally.
The marks can be on the left or right side of the gun, but the exact location depends on the type of firearm — on long guns like rifles and shotguns, the markings are usually engraved on the barrel, at the point where it (the barrel) meets the rest of the gun.
Revolvers also have identification marks on the barrel, even though they’re not classified as long guns.
Note: Pistols tend to have the markings stamped on the slide. Some gun makers even include safety information on their guns.
The required identification markings stamped on firearms include the following:
- Country of Origin
- Serial Number
1. Country of Origin (Country Name or Abbreviation)
As the name suggests, this marking refers to the country where the gun was manufactured. The country’s name is usually spelled out in full on the gun, but it’s also common to see abbreviations like AU (for Australia).
There are about 193 recognized countries and as many abbreviations. You can do a quick online search if you don’t recognize the country abbreviation on your firearm.
2. Manufacturer (Actual Name Must be Shown)
The manufacturer mark shows the name of the organization that created the firearm. Different countries have their requirements for firearm manufacturers, but all manufacturers must have a type 07 manufacturing FFL (federal firearm license) in the US.
It is common to see different names or logos printed boldly on the body of a gun. These are simply branding and shouldn’t be confused with the manufacturer’s name. Large firearm manufacturers can have multiple brands, a lot like how a single automaker produces two or more different brands of cars (e.g., Nissan and Infiniti)
But unlike cars, the actual manufacturer’s name must be marked on the gun and other official records. So while a gun may have “Infinity” written on it, it will also have “Strayer-Voight” printed somewhere on the gun and in the official records.
3. Importer (Shows the Importer’s City and State)
The importer marking shows the name of the licensed organization that brought the firearm into the country. Of course, if the gun was made in the United States, there will be no need for this mark.
If a firearm is imported, the name of the city and state of the importer must also be engraved on the gun. This may mislead some folks into believing that the weapon was made in the country.
But that’s not the case. If a country name or abbreviation appears anywhere on a gun, it means the weapon was imported.
4. Serial Number (Unique to the Firearm)
Serial number marks are applied by the manufacturer or the importer of the firearm. In either case, the number must be unique and should not have been used on any other gun made by the manufacturer.
The same applies to importers; the serial number must be different from those printed on any firearm previously imported.
There’s no standard for serial numbers, so manufacturers differ between the length and number of characters. And while it’s called a serial number, it is common to see some alphabets mixed in too.
5. Model (Different Firearm Within the Same Make)
This refers to the make and design of a particular firearm as designated by the manufacturer or importer.
For example, a gun company may have several gun models known by numbers like ‘17’ or “19.” The ‘19,’ for example, is one of Glock’s most popular firearms.
6. Caliber or Gauge (Millimeters or English Units)
This mark indicates the caliber or gauge of the firearm.
- Caliber refers to the diameter of the bullet for a rifle or handgun gun, given in millimeters (mm) or English units.
- Gauge is used for shotguns and indicates the inside diameter of a shotgun barrel.
Do a Serial Number Search
Although it rarely happens, sometimes the identification information may not be printed clearly on the gun or rubbed off after a long time. In this case, you can look up the weapon using its serial number.
Even if other information may have rubbed off or isn’t clear anymore, the serial number would likely still be legible. The National Firearms Act, 26 USC 5842 mandates that the serial number should be conspicuous and “not susceptible to being readily obliterated, altered or removed.”
In other words, unless someone filed it down, the serial number should be there, and you can use it to look up the model and other details about the gun.
How To Look Up a Gun’s Serial Number
You can look up gun serial numbers in publications like the Blue Book of Gun Values and the NRA (National Rifle Association) website. Moreover, some gun manufacturers have their own databases, and you can search your gun’s serial number.
You should know that a serial number check isn’t very accurate and may not yield the desired results. Many manufacturers use only numbers, making the search term too broad and producing multiple results from different manufacturers and years.
What’s more, certain vintage firearms can share the same serial number across different models. As such, a serial number check usually brings up a long list of possible matches.
For a more accurate result, you need to take all the possible matches you got from your search, put each one into Google, comparing the image results to your gun. When you find the right match, make a note of the make and model for future references when you want to purchase an accessory for the gun.
Take the Gun to a Gunsmith or a Gun Store
The third and final way to identify a gun model is by taking the gun to a gunsmith or gun store.
This option is the way to go in the very unlikely event that neither of the first two methods explained above work for you. Or if you’d rather not bother with looking up a serial number.
But like with serial number checks, this option may not yield the desired results, as even gun enthusiasts don’t know it all. Still, it’s worth exploring, as even if a gun store can’t supply you the answers, they’ll most likely be able to point you in the right direction.
How To Identify Antique and Vintage Gun Models
Antique and vintage guns are not as easy to identify as the more recent firearms. This is because many of them don’t have identification marks or serial numbers since there was no requirement for markings when they were made.
There are two ways you can go about getting the make and model of antique and vintage firearms:
- Get on the manufacturer’s website and go through the catalog carefully to find a gun that looks like yours.
- Take it to a gunsmith or gun store where, for a fee, they will research the gun and its history and supply the make and model.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can You Look Up a Gun by Serial Number?
You can look up a gun by its serial number using certain resources like the NRA website and the Blue Book of Gun Values. Additionally, many firearms manufacturer websites have databases of their guns, and you can look up the serial numbers of firearms they manufacture.
What Does a Gun Serial Number Tell You?
On its own, a gun serial number tells you nothing. It is just a string of numbers (and letters sometimes). But if you look up the number in a database and cross-reference the results, you can obtain the make, model, manufacturer, year of manufacture, and even the history of the gun.
Is There a Federal Firearms Database?
Generally speaking, there is no federal or state firearms database, as the Firearms Owners Protection Act (FOPA) of 1986 prohibits creating such a database.
However, all FFL (Federal Firearm Licensed) dealers must keep a Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS), a registry of all guns that come into the dealer’s possession, including the owner’s and the purchaser’s information.
The ATF can at any point request to see the DROS, and when the dealer goes out of business, they must submit the DROS to ATF. This effectively constitutes a database even though it’s not computerized.
How Can I Tell How Old Is My Gun?
There are a number of ways you can tell the age of a gun. You can ask the gun manufacturer, look up the serial number, check on the serial number via the manufacturer’s website, or have an experienced gunsmith check the gun for you.
- Ask the gun manufacturer. You will need to supply the serial number and other details to fast-track the process.
- Look up the serial number. You can refer to publications like the Blue Book of Gun Values.
- Do a serial number check on the manufacturer’s website. The results will frequently have the model and the date of manufacture.
- Take the gun to an experienced gunsmith: You may need to pay a small fee for this, but it will be well worth it in the end.
How Can I Check if a Gun Is Stolen?
It’s always best to buy a gun from a licensed gun dealer to avoid purchasing a stolen gun. By doing so, you also avoid the risk of purchasing a weapon that has been used to commit a crime.
If for some reason, you choose to buy from a private individual, there are ways you can research the gun’s history to ensure that you are not getting a stolen weapon.
- Check the gun for the serial number. Check for the serial number on the gun’s body. All guns should have a serial number boldly printed somewhere on the body unless it’s an antique. If the weapon isn’t vintage, and you can’t find the serial number on it, don’t buy it. A missing or scratched-off serial number is an indication that the gun was either stolen, used to commit a crime, or both.
- Ask the police to run a trace. The police have access to the ATF eTrace database and the FBI’s NCIC (National Crime Information Center). Both of these contain serial numbers of stolen guns and firearms that have been reported as missing. These databases are very comprehensive and are the best way to determine if a weapon has been stolen or used illegally.
- Look up the serial number on stolen firearms websites. Certain websites like HotGunz have databases of guns that individuals have reported stolen or missing. These databases are a fast (and usually free) way to check if a gun is stolen. However, these websites are privately owned, and the information is crowd-sourced and nowhere near as comprehensive as the ATF and FBI data.
Although not a requirement, it’s wise to get a bill of sale for every gun you buy. The bill should be notarized and have the weapon’s serial number, and the date of purchase should be shown clearly. The bill can come in helpful if the gun is later found to have been stolen.
The simplest way to identify a gun model is by the markings engraved on it. These marks show essential information like the serial number, model, manufacturer, and country of origin.
If there’s no identification marking on the weapon, a serial number search may also reveal the model of the gun. You can look up serial numbers on the websites of the gunmaker, the NRA website, and publications like the Blue Book of Values.
Finally, if all things fail, you can take the gun to a renowned gunsmith.
For more, don’t miss How To Choose the Best Gun To Buy (Based on Your Needs).
Hey, I’m Jim, and I’m the author of this website. I have been teaching people a wide variety of survivalism topics for over five years and have a lifetime of experience fishing, camping, general survivalism, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!