Background Debate remains regarding the optimum role of laparoscopy in the setting of trauma although it can offer advantages over traditional exploratory laparotomy. Laparoscopy can be a screening, diagnostic or therapeutic tool in trauma. The purpose of this review is to evaluate the role of laparoscopy in penetrating abdominal trauma Methods The PUBMED database was searched with the keywords “Laparoscopy AND Trauma”. Additional citation searching and searching of the grey literature was conducted. Relevant studies were chosen on the basis of the defined inclusion and exclusion criteria and quality was assessed where appropriate using the Downs and Black checklist Results In total, 51 studies were included in the analysis of which only 13 were prospective. In most studies, laparoscopy was used as a screening, diagnostic or therapeutic tool. In total, 2569 patients underwent diagnostic laparoscopy (DL) for penetrating abdominal trauma (PAT), 1129 (43.95 %) were positive for injury. 13.8 % of those with injury had a therapeutic laparoscopy. In total 33.8 % were converted to laparotomy, 16 % of which were non-therapeutic and 11.5 % of them were negative. 1497 patients were spared a non-therapeutic laparotomy. Overall, 72 patients suffered complications, there were 3 mortalities and 83 missed injuries. Sensitivity ranged from 66.7–100 %, specificity from 33.3–100 % and accuracy from 50–100 %. 23 of the 50 studies reported sensitivity, specificity and accuracy of 100 %, including the four most recent studies. In general the quality of the reported studies was poor. When used for cohort studies, the mean Downs and Black checklist score was 13.25 out of a possible total of 28. Conclusions In summary, laparoscopy in PAT may have an important role in a selected subgroup of patients, with surgeon expertise also an important factor. Laparoscopy has screening, diagnostic and therapeutic roles, particularly where diaphragm injury is suspected. It is extremely sensitive in determining need for laparotomy but detects hollow visceral injuries less reliably. It has potential as a therapeutic tool in centres with appropriate expertise. The development of specific guidelines or protocols may increase the value of laparoscopy in trauma but this would require more evidence of a higher quality.