Antique arms collecting and the Law
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- Last updated: 15/12/2016
The UK firearms laws are long and complex and there will be few people who can quote chapter and verse without reference to the appropriate documentation at some point, and this includes many of those who are entrusted to enforce these laws. Shooters and dealers alike have trodden this minefield with care for years, with more than one mistake being made in that time.
With the current licensing system all Registered Firearms Dealers and shooters with a firearms certificate – criminals are of course excused – will have their weapons and ammunition logged both on their own paperwork and the police computers. But there is another class of person with an interest in firearms, namely the collector of antique weapons, whose acquisitions are not usually subject to any form of legal documentation other than a possible receipt for insurance purposes, who also needs to be aware of the legislation and its impact on their hobby.
What Is An Antique?
Firstly it must be said that, as far as firearms are concerned, the term ‘antique’ has no set parameters here in the UK, unlike the USA where all firearms manufactured before January 1st, 1899 are classified as antiques and can, in most states, be bought and sold without restriction. There is a misconception among some UK arms collectors that ‘antique’ means over 100 years old. While this criterion is used by HM Customs to determine the rate of Value Added Tax to be applied to imports of any kind, it can in no way be used to determine the status of a particular firearm. Here in the UK the status of all firearms, old or new, is determined by the Firearms Act of 1968.
For the purpose of unlicensed collecting, all firearms, both handguns and long guns, can broadly be divided into two categories – cartridge weapons and muzzle loaders. In the case of the former,
all cartridge weapons require a Firearms Certificate unless they are original antique weapons of an obsolete calibre. This means that the ammunition is no longer factory made for them – such as pinfire ammunition - and they are therefore on the current Home Office list of obsolete calibres. Of course if you managed to source or make ammunition for an ‘obsolete calibre’ gun, then you would be committing an offence, as obsolete calibre antique guns are only meant to be kept as an ‘ornament or curio’. Likewise, if an obsolete calibre firearm is altered to accept non-obsolete ammunition, then it is no longer an obsolete calibre firearm and will require a Firearms Certificate – in the case of handguns its altered status may lead it to be classed as a prohibited weapon.
For muzzle loaders the rules are less complicated in that all original muzzle loading weapons that were manufactured before the outbreak of the Second World War are classified as antique and can be legally bought, sold and owned without any form of certificate under Section 58(2) of the 1968 Act. You may often see the term “Section 58(2)” mentioned in dealers’ lists and auction house catalogues with reference to such weapons. Prospective purchasers and owners should be aware that the above exemption applies only where the specific weapon is acquired or possessed as a curio or ornament. Should you decide that you wish to acquire one of these guns to shoot then it is subject to the licensing laws and must be entered upon a relative Section 1 or Section 2 certificate.
NOTE: There is no provision under Section 58(2) that allows you to shoot your antique once or twice a year for test purposes or otherwise. For anyone purchasing an unlicensed antique gun that falls into this category, and wishing to shoot it, the Firearms Law, Guidance to the Police (2002) states that “An antique may therefore be brought on to certificate or removed, as the case may be, from time to time… A signed statement of intent should be sufficient to effect the necessary change of status when required. A variation fee would become payable where an “antique” is brought on to certificate to allow it to be fired.” You will often find that dealers sell these Section 58(2) weapons on the proviso that they are sold as “collectables only” and that you shoot them at your own risk. Whereas the vast majority of these guns will be perfectly safe to shoot you must accept that the quality of steel in the latter half of the nineteenth century was not up to today’s standards, so those wishing to shoot these old guns should err on the side of caution when it comes to choosing powder charges.
Modern replicas of muzzle-loaders which are capable of being fired are classed as firearms and will require a FAC (if the barrel is rifled) or a Shotgun Certificate (if smooth bored).
Buying Antique Firearms
It is probably fair to say that the majority, but by no means all, of the antique firearms purchased by collectors in the UK will be bought from UK-based dealers, either from a website, advertisements such as are found in this magazine and dealers’ tables at an arms fair, or from private individuals. Another avenue, increasing in popularity in the last few years, is from the specialist arms and militaria auctions held periodically throughout the country and abroad. If you go down this avenue remember the hefty commission – up to 20% plus VAT – that is added to the hammer price.
By far the best way to buy any antique arms is on a face-to-face basis where you have the opportunity to handle and examine the weapon concerned and make a decision on the spot. If you are buying ‘unseen’ from a list or website, you will be relying on someone else’s description, possibly with the help of one or more photographs. Always try to get a three day inspection period so that you can return the item for a full refund if you are unhappy.
With the escalating use of the internet as a research or buying tool for collectors, a growing number are realising that there is a vast market place out there for their chosen hobby, particularly in the United States. It is in this last sphere that the greatest care must be taken with regard to the firearms laws. Foreign dealers and individuals are bound by their own country’s firearms laws with regard to what they can and cannot sell, nevertheless EXTREME care should be taken when buying from foreign individuals unless you know the person concerned. Many of these people are unaware of, do not understand (they are not alone there!) or in a few cases are not concerned with the UK firearms laws. The onus is on the purchaser, i.e. you, to ascertain that whatever you are buying can be legally imported into this country. There are a great number of nineteenth century cartridge weapons readily and legally available to citizens in the USA which are Section 5 – prohibited – in the United Kingdom, and it is with these items that the unwary UK collector is most likely to fall foul of the law.
Several American manufacturers offered their handguns in more than one calibre with no visible difference between the variations. While any of these models which were produced before 1899 can be easily bought in the USA, the majority are illegal here. I have seen an American dealer ship a Smith & Wesson revolver, advertised as .44 Russian (an obsolete calibre in the UK), which turned out to be .44 WCF when it arrived. The former is legal here, the latter is not, so what was a minor mistake in the USA became a major problem here.
A number of American dealers, because they know the foreign firearms laws or, more likely, are unsure of them, are refusing to ship these items outside of their own country. Those that will ship usually do so on the proviso that the buyer accepts all responsibility for the guns being legal in their own home country. Many will also stipulate that there is no return policy for guns shipped abroad, and even when returns are allowed, you may find it difficult, if not impossible, to insure the item should you need to send it back. So if your intention is to use the American market then it is wise that you know exactly what you can legally import into the UK.
I would strongly recommend a copy of the above mentioned Firearms Law, Guidance to the Police (2002) * - which contains a list of all of the obsolete calibres which can be legally owned in the UK without a licence. Used alongside a copy of Flayderman’s Guide (for American antique firearms), which will show you the variation of calibres on some models, this should arm you with the knowledge that you need to ensure you stay on the right side of the law. Ask the buyer as many questions as you need to and check with someone more knowledgeable than yourself if necessary. There are still some bargains to be had, but mistakes can be very costly, and not only in financial terms.
*Editor’s note: try www.waterstones.com to get a copy as it is all but impossible to locate it on Government, HMSO or TSO websites!