The handgun used to kill federal prosecutor Tom Wales in 2001 was fitted with a replacement gun barrel that has been the focus of an exhaustive search by investigators.

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A key component of the investigation into the 2001 slaying of Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Wales has been the herculean task of tracking down 2,600 replacement gun barrels, one of which agents believe was fitted to the handgun used in the crime.

Over the past 15 years, FBI agents have been able to track all of them to their first buyer, either a gun dealer or purchaser.

Supervisory Special Agent Russ Fox, who is overseeing the Wales investigation, said most of the barrels have been eliminated either through test firings or because they were still in their original packing.

Other barrels were sold, and agents are now tracing those subsequent transfers, Fox said. He declined to provides specifics on the total number of barrels eliminated in the process.

While agents say it is likely the gun was disposed of long ago, the hope now is to trace a barrel to someone who may have sold it to a suspect.

The barrels the FBI is seeking were made by Federal Arms of Minnesota and are unique in appearance, made from shiny stainless steel with a threaded muzzle that, when the barrel is installed, protrudes past the end of the gun’s slide.

The threads are for mounting a suppressor or silencer, although there is no indication one was used when Wales was killed. Neighbors several houses away reported hearing the gunshots.

Agents have said that Wales’ killer stood in the small, darkened backyard of Wales’ Queen Anne home and fired downward through a window at Wales as he sat at a computer. Officials have never said exactly how many shots were fired, but it was at least three.

Charlie Mandigo, the former special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the FBI and the man who oversaw the investigation until his retirement in 2003, has said it would have taken some marksmanship skills to commit the crime.

The gun used, according to the FBI, was a Makarov, a small-frame semiautomatic handgun manufactured beginning in 1951 in Yugoslavia. The pistol, chambered for the Soviet 9×18 millimeter round, became the standard sidearm of the Soviet military and police for the next 40 years.

Hundreds of thousands of the weapons were made, and many were imported to the U.S. after the gun was decommissioned by the Soviets. However, ammunition for the weapon could be hard to find. Moreover, the Soviet ammunition used a corrosive gunpowder that could cause the barrels to wear out.

The solution was the manufacture in the U.S. of Makarov replacement barrels, many chambered in the more common .380-caliber (also called the 9-=mm Short) round.

Unique markings left on the bullets taken from Tom Wales’ body and the shell casings found in the backyard indicated the pistol had been fitted with a replacement barrel manufactured by Federal Arms, which has since gone out of business.