Explosive weapons may be subdivided by their method of manufacture into explosive ordnance and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Certain types of explosive ordnance and many improvised explosive devices are sometimes referred to under the generic term bomb.
When explosive weapons fail to function as designed they are often left as unexploded ordnance (UXO).
In the common practice of states, explosive weapons are generally the preserve of the military, for use in situations of armed conflict, and are rarely used for purposes of domestic policing. Certain types of explosive weapons may be categorised as light weapons (e.g. hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable launchers of anti-tank missile and rocket systems; portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems (MANPADS); and mortars of calibres of less than 100 mm). Many explosive weapons, such as aircraft bombs, rockets systems, artillery and larger mortars, are categorised as heavy weapons.
Taken in combination, Amended Protocol II and Protocol V to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons establish a responsibility on the users of explosive weapons to record and retain information on their use of such weapons (including the location of use and the type and quantity of weapons used), to provide such information to parties in control of territory that may be affected by UXO, and to assist with the removal of this threat.
Certain types of explosive weapon have been subject to prohibition in international treaties. The Saint Petersburg Declaration of 1868 prohibits the use of certain explosive rifle projectiles. This prohibition has evolved into a ban on 'exploding bullets' under customary international humanitarian law binding on all States. The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions also prohibit types of explosive weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, for states parties to these treaties.
In armed conflict, the general rules of international humanitarian law governing the conduct of hostilities apply to the use of all types of explosive weapons as means or methods of warfare.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations has expressed increasing concern at "the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons, in particular when used in densely populated areas." The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger has noted that "ICRC’s key operations in 2009 – in the Gaza Strip and in Sri Lanka – provided stark illustrations of the potentially devastating humanitarian consequences of military operations conducted in densely populated areas, especially when heavy or highly explosive weapons are used."
According to the British NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), when explosive weapons are used in populated areas (towns, villages, residential neighbourhoods) the overwhelming majority (91% in 2012) of direct casualties are civilians.
Action on Armed Violence has also charted a dramatic rise in the use of suicide bombing and improvised explosive devices globally. Their data showed the number of civilians killed or injured by car and suicide bombs and other improvised explosive devices rising by 70 percent in the three years to 2013.
The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a partnership of NGOs, is calling for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
- "1997 Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms". Retrieved 6 August 2012.
- Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, United Nations Security Council, 29 May 2009, S/2009/277, para 36.
- The 2009 Annual Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Message from the President, p.8.
- An Explosive Situation: Monitoring Explosive Violence in 2012 (PDF). AOAV. 2013. p. 3.
- "Data shows 70 percent rise in civilian casualties from car bombs, suicide attacks – campaigners". Thomson Reuters Foundation. 2014.
- The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW)
- Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) Explosive Violence Monitoring project
- United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) project on explosive weapons
- Explosive Violence, The Problem of Explosive Weapons , report by Richard Moyes (Landmine Action, 2009) on the humanitarian problems caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas
- Article 36 - civil society initiative on the humanitarian impact of weapons