Criminals and the Guns They Carry

Written by Greg Ellifritz

Topics: Articles

  • SumoMe

  written by: Greg Ellifritz




“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu said this over 2000 years ago in his book The Art of War.  It’s hardly new advice.  Yet it is just as useful now as it was so many centuries ago.



Armed citizens spend countless hours trying to find the perfect weapon system, combining the best size, accuracy, reliability, and stopping power into one easy-to-carry package.  They try friends’ guns.  They read gun magazines.  They study every gun website on the internet.  They are truly taking Sun Tzu’s advice above as they attempt to “know themselves”.



But how much time does the average CCW permit holder spend on the other portion of that quote?  How many of you spend an equal amount of time studying criminal behavior in order to “know your enemy?”  Most of my students don’t study criminal behavior nearly as much as they should.



There are several reasons for this phenomenon.  The primary reason is that most honest citizens don’t come into contact with hardened criminals on a daily basis.  They don’t personally know any criminals and have no direct experience dealing with them.  Without having regular contact with criminals, honest citizens are forced to rely on research done by others.  Most criminological research isn’t all that interesting or relevant for the law-abiding citizen.  The available academic research simply doesn’t answer many of the questions the average person cares about.



Armed citizens want to understand commonly used criminal ruses and attacks.  They want to know how likely they are to be victimized.  They want to know potential characteristics of their attackers and their attackers’ weapons.  They want to know when and where crimes occur.  Unfortunately, most criminological researchers aren’t interested in the same topics.  It’s tough finding useful research.



The lack of available research leads to real preparation problems for the armed citizen.  How does a person choose what type of weapon to carry when he doesn’t have a good idea of the threat he faces?  Wouldn’t knowing the types of weapons criminals carry be important information to have before deciding what type of weapon you should carry?  Remember Sun Tzu’s quote above; we need to know both ourselves AND our enemies.



There hasn’t been a whole lot of published research on the subject of criminal weapons.  There are numerous studies from the FBI and US DOJ about weapons used in crimes, but they don’t go into great detail.  Most only identify if the weapon used by the criminal was a firearms, edged weapon, or impact weapon.  If the reports supply additional information about firearms, they seldom track individual weapon types, calibers, and ammunition.  Most papers only classify the weapons used in crimes as “handguns”, “rifles”, and “shotguns”.  That’s not enough information for the armed citizen.  He or she needs to know more details about the threats they face.



In my full-time job as a police training officer, I have much better access to criminal weapon information than the average citizen has.  In fact, all the guns my department seizes from criminals end up in my office after the cases have been adjudicated.  I get regular packages containing a crime report, a gun, and the ammunition loaded in it crossing my desk.  I then test fire all of these weapons with the exact ammunition they were loaded with during the time of the crime.



Over the past several years, I have been collecting information about these weapons to share with my officers and the students in my classes.  Please keep in mind that this is a very small sample of weapons and depending on your locale, it may not reflect the threats that YOU face.  My police agency is relatively small and patrols a very affluent suburban community in the Midwest.  The crime rate in our city is very low.   It certainly isn’t Miami or Los Angeles, but over time, I’ve amassed quite a database of criminal weapons and ammunition.



A few of the handguns seized from criminals


That data I will report below comes from the details of the last 85 weapons that my agency has seized from criminals.  Each of these weapons was seized from the criminal contemporaneous with the crime he committed.  Some were taken from the criminal’s body, some from the criminal’s house, and some from the criminal’s car.  I did not include guns that were donated to the department or guns used in suicides here.  The majority of the weapons detailed here were taken from armed robbers and other types of criminals who were carrying guns in the commission of their crimes.


The Basics

As I stated above, this study contains the details the most recent 85 firearms taken from criminals by my agency.  Of those 85 guns:


–          67 were handguns

  • 13 revolvers
  • 52 semi –automatic pistols
  • 1 Derringer
  • 1 illegally-converted fully automatic machine pistol


–          11 were rifles

  • 4 Bolt Actions
  • 7 semi –automatic rifles


–          7 were shotguns

  • 4 Pump Actions
  • 3 single shots or double barrels



We had a wide variety of firearms manufacturers included in the database.  Companies that represented the most seized guns were:

–          Ruger-9

–          Smith and Wesson- 6

–          Glock-5

–          Hi Point- 5

–          Beretta- 4

–          Lorcin- 4

–          Remington- 4

–          Raven- 3

–          Jennings- 3

–          IntraTec- 3

–          Norinco- 3


Nine of the 85 weapons were completely broken and unable to function.  17 more of the guns had limited functionality because of frequent (at least 1 in the first 3 rounds I fired) malfunctions, lack of magazines (5 guns), and other problems like incorrect magazines, and internal parts breakage that lead to inconsistent firing ability.


Test firing a WWII-era 1911

Caliber and Ammunition

It was quite shocking to me to note that many of the guns we seized were unloaded!  Here’s the breakdown:

–          Unloaded- 24 (28%)

–          Less than fully-loaded- 4 (5%)

–          Loaded with the wrong caliber ammunition- 2 (2%)

–          Loading status unknown- 6 (7%)

–          Fully Loaded- 49 (57%)



The handguns we seized were of the following calibers:

–          .22 Short, Long Rifle, and Magnum- 9

–          .25 ACP- 3

–          .32 ACP, Short or Long- 5

–          .380 ACP- 5

–          .38 SPL or S&W- 4

–          9mm- 26

–          .357 Mag, or Sig- 5

–          .40 S&W- 4

–          .45 ACP- 5

–          .50 AE- 1


All the shotguns except one were 12 gauges.  The rifles were split between .22 Long Rifle, .223, and 7.62x39mm.



When the guns were loaded, they contained a strange mix of ammunition.  Of the loaded handguns:

–          26 were loaded with FMJ or RNL ammunition- (51%)

–          14 contained Jacketed Hollowpoint ammunition- (27%)

–          9 contained some mix of several different ammunition types (18%)

–          2 were loaded with handgun shotshells- (4%)



A couple of other interesting notes on ammunition:

–          All of the .22 weapons had RNL ammo or shotshells.  Not a single hollowpoint round was loaded into any of the .22s.

–          All of the .357 magnum revolvers were loaded with premium hollowpoint ammunition

–          Roughly 75% of the .40S&W and .45ACP pistols were loaded with hollowpoint ammunition

–          More than 80% of the 9mm pistols were loaded with FMJ ammunition




The most likely firearm threat a citizen in my community is likely to face is from a handgun.  Roughly 79% of the weapons we take from criminals are revolvers or pistols.  This echoes the statistics gathered by the US Department of Justice on crime-related firearms injuries.  Their research states that 82% of crime victims that received gunshot wounds were shot by handguns.



Those handguns are not always the cheap and easily concealed “Saturday Night Specials” that criminals stereotypically carry.  Dr. James Wright, in his book Armed and Considered Dangerousfound that the criminals he studied preferred larger, more powerful, and more reliable handguns over smaller, cheaper, and more easily concealed ones.


My data bears this out.  Of the 67 handguns carried by criminals in this study, only 17 of them (25%) were below .35 caliber.  The vast majority were medium to larger caliber weapons.



The guns were not all cheaply made either.  The three most commonly represented handgun manufacturers in this study (Ruger, Smith and Wesson, and Glock) are generally known to make quality, reliable handguns.   Only about 23% of the guns we took from criminals could be considered “Saturday Night Specials”.




Previous research conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics tells us that in all criminal victimizations with firearms; only 11% of the victims were shot or shot at.  When criminal attacks with all weapons (knives, clubs, etc.) are included, less than 1% of armed criminal victimizations resulted in a gunshot wound.  These statistics have always been puzzling to me.  Why aren’t more people getting shot by criminals?



Now I know the answer.  The criminals’ weapons won’t fire!  Let’s break down the numbers again:


Out of 85 weapons seized:

–          24 are not loaded

–          2 are not loaded with the correct ammunition

–          9 are completely broken



Combine those facts and you will see that 41% of the weapons we seize from criminals are completely non-functional!



Now include the four guns that weren’t fully loaded and the 17 with extremely limited function (no magazines, malfunctioned within 1st 3 rounds, etc.) and take a look at the results.  In total, 66% of the guns we took from criminals were unable to be fired or could be fired for fewer than three rounds before being empty or experiencing a malfunction!



I believe that’s a major factor in why victims of firearms crimes are so unlikely to be shot!



In their paper Firearm Injury and Death from Crime, The U.S. Department of Justice states that there are 3.3 nonfatal firearms wounds for every fatal one.  In addition to highlighting the effectiveness of our medical system, that statistic can also show that the criminals who do have functioning weapons aren’t very accurate or aren’t using the most effective bullets available.



My study bears this statistic out as well.  Only 27% of the loaded handguns we seized were loaded with quality Jacketed Hollowpoint ammunition.  The rest were loaded with far less effective FMJ, RNL, or Shotshell ammunition.



Lessons to Learn


To ensure victory against criminals, armed citizens and police officers need to be better equipped and better prepared than the attackers they face.  What does this research suggest as far as preparations?



1)      If the armed citizen is going to face a criminal attacker, the criminal is likely to be armed with a medium to large caliber handgun, most likely a 9mm auto pistol.  That tells me that I may not feel comfortable carrying a little pocket gun.  I really don’t want to be carrying a small .32 automatic when my attacker is likely to be armed with a full sized Ruger, S&W, or Glock pistol!  Carry enough gun!


I love my .38 snub, but it’s not the gun I want if I’m facing a bad guy with a 9mm Glock!

On the other hand, you are quite unlikely to encounter criminals with military-style semi-automatic rifles.  Maybe it’s safe to leave the long guns and plate body armor at home on your next trip to the grocery store.



2)      Criminals often carry unloaded or poorly functioning weapons.  Make sure your weapon is loaded and functional!  Don’t carry with the chamber empty (that’s almost the same as being unloaded), buy a quality handgun and keep it both clean and well-lubricated.



You must also understand the true danger you face when confronting an armed criminal.  Many victims comply with an armed criminal’s demands during the crime because they assume that the criminal’s gun is fully functional and loaded.  This study shows that more likely than not, that’s a false assumption. While I’m not advocating resistance in every instance of criminal violence, that course of action is likely to be more successful than the average person realizes.



3)      Criminals usually carry cheap and less effective FMJ and RNL ammunition in their guns.  The guns may have a mix of several ammunition types (each likely shooting to a different point of aim), or be only partially loaded.



Make sure your weapon is fully loaded with high quality ammunition.  Any of the major brand jacketed hollowpoint bullets is likely to be fine.  Ensure the gun cycles reliably with your chosen ammunition.





Now that you know a little bit more about your enemy, you can better prepare yourself.  Carry a quality weapon.  Keep it clean and lubricated.  Load it with good ammunition. Train until you can’t fail.


If Sun Tzu had guns back in his day, I bet he’d tell you the same thing.





This article originally appeared in Concealed Carry Magazine


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25 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Del says:

    This was surprising information.
    I don’t fully chamber my Sig at anytime. I should be doing this. I noticed no Sigs were used in your criminal report.
    MySig is holstered and worn at every legal venue, even when at church.
    I would like a second carry gun, probably a Glock next time although I love the feel of a Beretta.

  2. Trevor Shepherd says:

    I carry Sig Sauer pistols and I always carry them fully loaded and a round chambered. Can’t understand not doing that. I do not like 1911-style guns and never have liked any gun that relies on a mechanical safety because the trigger is so easy to trip. I like DA/SA pistols, and even if you carry one in a pocket or in your waist band without a holster, it is much less likely to accidentally be fired than a SAO pistol.

    Criminals seem to carry some guns that are broken or unloaded, but the numbers were not overwhelming. Seems like most carried functioning, loaded guns.

  3. Howard says:

    This is a good study. I like the way you have conducted it and the conclusions you have reached. Thanks

  4. Ben Branam says:

    This is an amazing article. Thank you for the great research!

  5. Joel C says:

    Hi Greg, I’m just curios here. Did any of these guns come to you with an empty chamber? I would consider that weapon to be “incompletely loaded” even if the magazine were filled to capacity, but lacking info to the contrary I assume the 4 incomplete loads you list were just magazines or cylinders which could’a had some more?

    And how do you get the 6 “loading status unknown?” Was that just a matter of the first officer to kick off the chain of custody failing to make note of it or something?

    A good and interesting article. I sure enjoyed it.

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      Thanks Joel!

      I didn’t specifically note whether the chamber was loaded or empty on the semi auto pistols. If there was not a round chambered, I classified it as less than fully loaded.

      And you are right, there just wasn’t enough information in the report to be able to tell how the weapon was loaded in the “loading status unknown” group.

  6. Mike Lilly says:

    As a retired police officer of 32 years from a large southern police department I am rather agast at the conclusions you have reached from what appears, from the information provided solely in this article, to be an insubstantial data set for such conclusions. Firstly, you provide no timeframe regarding the intake of these firearms. Did these LAST eighty-five firearms come in over a period of a week or five years? Secondly, what crimes were the persons arrested for who had possesion of these guns? Armed robbery, DWI, traffic violations? Yes, it makes a difference. Where were the firearms found? Just saying someone was a “criminal” and they had a firearm on them or in their vicinity does not mean It played any part nor that they had any intention to, or actually did, use the firearm in the commission of a crime. And if there was no use or intention to use said firearm in any “crime” then any assumptions or references made regarding the status’ of those particuliar weapons are invalid on their face and have no place in the dataset. I could go on but I will not (typing long responses on an iPad really sucks.) Suffice it to say that my professional background has put me in a position to always evaluate information provided to me using the Two Prong Approach – which requires me to pay as much attention to both what people say AND what they do NOT say. The imformation NOT provided in this article leads me to the opinion that your conclusions are not well founded due to lacking important and relevant information not available or not considered or not annotated; therefore not allowing for an informed and critical evaluation. CITIZENS: For practical application: ALL GUNS ARE LOADED, ALL AMMUNITION WILL KILL YOU, and YOUR ATTACKER IS CAPABLE OF KILLING YOU AND WILL TRY. Formulate your response with those “facts” in your mind. The condition of your attacker’s weapon or ammunition or capability is not something for you to consider either in your training or, especially, when the “steel leaves the leather” in the fight for your life. All it will do is enlarge your OODA Loop and slow you down!

    • Stephen says:

      Chill out Mike. Greg’s not asking you to sign off on his PhD dissertation, he’s just sharing a snapshot from his reality for the benefit of some of us guys not as experienced or well trained as you. So he didn’t conduct a world-class research project or document his protocol sufficiently for us to verify every step. Guess what, I don’t care. His real-world snapshot is informative and interesting. As a grown man, I will decide what course of action I will take. I will integrate what I learned from Greg’s article into my reality, blend it with what I know to be true, and take responsibility for my own conclusions and actions. It isn’t Greg’s responsibility to warn me that guns are dangerous. I appreciate his efforts to share his experience, and I am better informed as a result of his efforts.

  7. Robert Desrosiers says:


    Like always, very well thought out. Clear and concise. Any thoughts on why 11% of victims were shot at? Or more specifically what was the prompting as opposed to the other 89%? There may not be a more specific brake down via DOJ/FBI, but I was curious as to you take on those specific numbers.


  8. ferndale says:

    i’ve written presentencing reports for a detroit juvenile court for 6 years. i interview kids and families, and review complaints, petitions, and witness statements. hundreds of the thousands of cases i’ve written have been gun related. greg’s findings more rationally explain what i’ve seen time and time again.

    lemme go further: the juveniles i interview overwhelmingly have no firearms training. the juveniles i interview have typically not shot the weapon, and if they did the gun was shot in teh air at a party. the juveniles i interview overwhelmingly carry partially loaded guns, broken guns, or BB guns. the juveniles i interview, even if an accomplice in an armed robbery, often do not know that their counterpart has a gun, as many armed robberies begin as fights.

  9. Selador says:

    “1) If the armed citizen is going to face a criminal attacker, the criminal is likely to be armed with a medium to large caliber handgun, most likely a 9mm auto pistol. That tells me that I may not feel comfortable carrying a little pocket gun. I really don’t want to be carrying a small .32 automatic when my attacker is likely to be armed with a full sized Ruger, S&W, or Glock pistol! Carry enough gun!

    I love my .38 snub, but it’s not the gun I want if I’m facing a bad guy with a 9mm Glock!”

    Why ?

    It’s not like your .38 snub is going to get into a wrestling match with his larger caliber 9mm glock.

    Can your .38 take the perp down? Are you adequately trained? Do you keep your head? Are you a decent shot?

    If so, then what does it matter what the perp is carrying? Take the perp down with your .38 snub. End of story. They’ll find a 9mm glock on his person, along with maybe a lucky rabbit’s foot, and a pen knife. None of which made any difference whatever, when the shtf.

    • Steve S. says:

      5 shots vs possibly 15-17 shots? I’m only a high school graduate, but I can do the math. On a square range where you have time to reload the snubbie under no (or little) time pressure, maybe. When the defecation hits the rotary oscillator, I wouldn’t want to be screwing around trying to reload my snubbie with incoming rounds. Add to that most bad guys travel in packs, and if they’re all armed, well….

  10. mr.Bishop says:

    I can always appreciate additional information; as far as I am concerned all statistics, opinions and experienced anecdotes can be incorporated into the learning curve….that being said, I too have a few concerns about the conclusions….

    Please understand, I am not questioning the data, the expertise, or the rationale–I am however reluctant to jump to the same conclusions…

    1) as admitted initially this is a very small cross section of information and localized to a single department…this leads to a couple very big oversights: a) localized criminals may be inept but nationally those numbers are bound to be way way off, since a good percentage of firearms related crimes are involving repeat offenders and some dishonorably discharged vetrans…these two groups are unlikely to make these mistakes you mention…b)some states have a much larger population of folks who grow up around firearms and gain a broader working knowledge of them earlier in life…again these numbers will vary wildly depending on locations….

    2)it was mentioned earlier that some information had not been considered (possibly due to NDA issues?) Part of which was the fact that these firearms may not have even been in direct possession of criminals (ie found during Search/Seizure Warrants on homes or vehicles)…this could lead your information to not only be incomplete but very speculative…it is possible these were not their ‘primary’ arms….

    3)assuming you have an edge inspires false confidence; this is a MAJOR issue! Criminals may not be ‘intellectuals’ but assuming they are always inept is a bit arrogant; its always a safer bet to remember they have access to more weapons and ammo options than we do, since they have no regard for legality or morality; One can never dismiss an adversary who has these two luxuries…

    4) I notice the caption below the wheelgun also…and I have to completely disagree with your position; CCW pistols are always a compromise, between concealability vs. Handling vs. Ability to draw from concealment….caliber is an afterthought….
    While Jeff Cooper’s stance that ” any caliber is fine…as long as it starts with a 4 and ends with a 5″is gospel to some, I am inclined to disagree with him ( this one time!)….the caliber doesn’t matter as much as being able to put the shot where its most effective and get quick followup shots…

    A top of the line 45acp won’t do somebody any good if they can’t afford to practice with it and can’t conceal it properly for carrying…its far more important than worrying about ‘bringing enough gun’…

    A proficient marksman who practices judiciously and masters his/her chosen platform has the best chance of ending a fight efficiently with overwhelming force…Carrying a firearm is a lifestyle, not a choice…

    I appreciate the information, but I think some additional data is needed to complete the conclusions….

  11. Alphons II says:

    I wonder, what is the amount of non actual guns in criminal possession? Like bb-guns, replicas, deactivated ones?

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      It’s hard to definitively say. One study I read showed that 30% of armed robbers used some type of fake gun in their crimes.

  12. Jerry says:

    What % of criminal’s guns are our guns that have been stolen? We must remember, some of those guns were once ours.

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      I didn’t track which were stolen. Sometimes it’s tough to say. If the stolen gun isn’t reported or if the serial number isn’t known, it doesn’t get listed in the computer database. But you are right, most of these guns are acquired from theft.

  13. Del says:

    I now carry my guns fully loaded with chambered round and extra mag. I am now uncomfortable when Im somewhere I cannot carry.

  14. 2ndkentucky says:

    Hi all.

    (OHIO) Parked about 1500 hundred feet from the school – walked kid into school unarmed for orientation. That night forgot the weapon was still in the car on the two minute ride home. Eight cars broken into that night. G19 Gen4 plus 16 Corbon DPX …. ouch!

    Filed report with local PD – 1 year later part of it were recovered in Chicago.

  15. CB3 says:

    Thanks for posting this again. Whatever the perceived inadequacies of the data or conclusions, this is valuable information for me as a citizen CCW. As always, thanks for the effort at developing and sharing helpful information.

  16. Old 1811 says:

    My experience (more limited than yours, and a longer time ago) was that a lot of criminals loaded their guns with crappy ammo. Every .38 I ever saw was loaded with RNL, and every 9mm (and .38 Super) with FMJ. I even saw .22s loaded with Shorts.
    I heard of, but didn’t see, a case involving my agency where the bad guy was carrying a 9mm loaded with .380s. (They will chamber and fire; don’t know if they’ll cycle.)

  17. Al T. says:

    Greg, I work at a LGS that gets a fair amount of confiscated firearms traded in from departments across the state. Over the last ten years, the number of junk guns have decreased and “nice” ones has increased, pretty much mirroring your snapshot. No clue about the ammo as we don’t take it from the departments.

  18. Richard says:

    Another conclusion that could be drawn is that the advice to stay in the fight, even if shot, is valid. It would appear that you are most likely to be hit with FMJ or RNL which are poor stoppers allowing you to keep fighting and hopefully avoid a better placed shot or protect loved ones.

  19. Doran says:

    Another good article. My aim ( pun intended) is to protect my family first and others IF possible. I hope , pray , and believe that most of us will never use our fire arms in an actual situation.
    BUT….practice is not only a fun exercise….it is imperative. How much one knows their fire arm will determine the amount of practice time.
    Mine is not easily concealed and I chose it for that reason but it can be hidden under a loose fitting jacket or sport coat..
    This article destroys the myth that criminals only use or even mostly use “Saturday note special” type pistols.

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