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Can Revolvers Be Traced? How it Works

Most gun enthusiasts know that federal law does not require a new firearm to be registered upon purchase. Hawaii is the only state in America that requires registration of all firearms, and some states require the registration of specific types and/or models. So, if there isn’t a national gun registry, can popular guns like revolvers be traced?

Local and federal law enforcement can trace revolvers through various methods. The easiest is to use the firearm’s unique serial number to trace it back to the original manufacturer or seller and use their records to find its first retail purchaser; but this is just the first step.

In this article, we are going to explain how police officers and other law enforcement personnel can trace almost any revolver back to its most recent user. In addition to a step-by-step description of how this process works, we will also address common questions relating the traceability of a revolver’s bullets.

How Do Police Trace Revolvers?

The process of tracing a revolving is the same as nearly any other firearm. There are aspects of this particular gun type that complicated this process, but for the most part, this is the process law enforcement uses in all investigations where gun tracing is required. Of course, some are easier than others.

If a firearm is ever associated with a crime and needs to be traced to its most previous owner, the investigation falls to the National Tracing Center (NTC) of The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

This is the only crime gun tracing facility in the United States and is responsible for providing leads to local, state, federal, and even foreign agencies.

Here’s a segment that aired on HBO about tracing bullet casings:

The NTC will follow a series of initial investigation steps to trace a revolver which involves:

  • Finding the original manufacturer/importer
  • Obtaining the revolver’s 44-73 form
  • Following the chain of ownership

If this process does not yield results, then they will try other methods, such as collaborating with a ballistics expert to determine if any bullets found on scene can aid the investigation.

I use either Brownells, Palmetto State Armory, or Optics Planet to buy parts, that way I always know what I’m getting and that it will actually show up.

Finding the Original Manufacturer/Importer

The first step of this process is that the NTC will receive a trace request from the ATF or another law enforcement agency.

They will then use the revolver’s make, model, and serial number to find its original manufacture or importer. This information is typically entered into a tracing system known as eTrace for expedited results.

Obtaining the Revolver’s 44-73 Form

From here, the NTC can contact the federally licensed gun shop or retailer who sold the gun in question and request a 44-73 form. This is a document that all gun sellers are required to complete and store for every purchase that contains the buyer’s name, address, and telephone number.

Gun sellers are legally required to relinquish this information to the NTC upon request and it is typically received within 48 hours. Any gun shop that goes out of business is also required to send all of the 44-73 form to the ATF for use in future investigations.

Following the Chain of Ownership

Now that the NTC knowns who purchased the revolver in question, they will track down that individual and determine if they are a suspect in the crime.

If they decide that this individual is not at fault or find that they no longer have the firearm, they will ask to whom the revolver went to next. Extensive questioning and investigation will hopefully bring them to the individual who last used the firearm to commit the crime.

What if the Revolver Doesn’t Have a Serial Number?

As you can see, the NTC’s tracing process starts with using the revolver’s serial number, so what happens if this information isn’t available.

Although the Gun Control Act (GCA) passed in 1968 (source: legally requires that all firearms manufactured or imported into the United States bear a serial number, filing away or altering these critical digits is a common practice amongst criminals to reduce the weapon’s traceability.

In these instances, the NTC must use forensic expertise and technology to obtain enough information regarding the revolver’s history that allows them to locate either its original manufacturer, one of its owners, or the retail shop where it was sold.

Probably one of the most influential pieces of evidence the NTC can obtain for this process is revolver bullets and casings.

The barrel of every gun contains various grooves and imperfections that are as unique to the gun as a fingerprint is to a person. Once a bullet is fired out of the gun, markings are transferred onto the round as it travels through and out of the barrel.

If the bullets and casings found at the scene are in decent condition, a ballistics expert and other specialized individuals can use these markings, in addition to other evidence, to trace and match them to a specific revolver.

Are Revolver Rounds Harder to Trace?

There is a common opinion floating around that revolvers are the ideal gun for crimes because their rounds are impossible to trace. This simply isn’t true.

Yes, revolver rounds are harder to trace than other gun types because they do not leave shell casings at the scene as frequently. This limits how much evidence the NTC and ballistics specialists have to map out the barrel’s unique patterns.

That being said, it is not “impossible” to trace a revolver’s rounds. Even without casings present, ballistics experts can use and bullets available to preform tests that would result in a match.

Unless all bullets and casings were removed and the gun’s serial number has been removed or altered, there is likely enough information and evidence present for a revolver, or any gun, to be traced.

I use either Brownells, Palmetto State Armory, or Optics Planet to buy parts, that way I always know what I’m getting and that it will actually show up.

Final Thoughts

If you’re concerned that your lost or stolen revolver is now gone forever, you can rest assured that the NTC and law enforcement should be able to trace and return it. Their extensive resources and investigation skills can be used for any gun crime investigation, whether this be theft or something more sinister.