General Definitions

AuthorLaura Saunsbury/Nick Doherty

Chapter 1

General Definitions


1.01 Firearms law in Great Britain is neither simple nor straightforward. The aim of this book is not to produce a highly technical legal textbook but rather to unravel the complexities with which this field of law is so frequently peppered and to make it as approachable to the average layman as possible. That said, there are times where it is difficult to avoid being legalistic. To understand the fundamental principles that are the foundations of firearms law in Britain, we must begin with definitions of the key terms, some of which are inevitably rather technical in their nature. These definitions are, perhaps for obvious reasons, dealt with at the beginning of the book, although the reader who has an enquiry regarding a particular type of weapon or topic may find it helpful to consult the Table of Contents and the Index, and then revert back to this chapter where necessary.

1.02 The main body of the law regulating the use of firearms and ammunition is contained in the Firearms Acts (FA) of 1968 (the principal Act) and 1982, as amended by the Firearms (Amendment) Acts (F(A)A) of 1988, 1992 and 1994, plus two amending Acts of 1997, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment) (No 2) Act 1997. In addition, the Firearms Acts (Amendment) Regulations 19921were made to implement European legislation. There are further relevant provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 (VCRA 2006), the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 and the Crime and Security Act 2010. Important changes were made to the definition of a number of the key terms in earlier legislation by sections 125 to 133 of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (P&CA 2017). Most, although not all, of these changes came into force in May 2017.

1.03 The major parts of this book that deal with the words ‘firearm’ and ‘ammunition’ are Chapters 2 to 9, 14, 15 and 16. While the meanings of these words are very wide and will cover all ordinary cases, it is appropriate, at the

1SI 1992/2823.

2 The Firearms Law Handbook

outset, to examine their precise meanings. For certain purposes particular kinds of weapons are defined in the law. This is the case with prohibited weapons, section 1 firearms, shotguns and slaughtering instruments. These definitions are dealt with later in the relevant chapters.

1.04 As with all laws, there are exceptions, and the general rules which are set out in this chapter do not apply for the purposes of firearms being proved, nor do they apply to ‘antiques’, which are dealt with in this chapter. It must be appreciated that the law relating to firearms is a mixture of law and fact and that while the definitions given here have general application, there will always be items which for various reasons cannot easily be classified.


1.05 The word ‘firearm’ is lengthily defined in the Firearms Act 1968 (FA 1968), and the ingredients of this definition must be examined with the help of a number of court decisions. The definition falls into two parts: the core of the definition, and the particular additions to it.

The core of the definition

1.06 The expression ‘firearm’ is defined in the amended section 57(1)2of the FA 1968 (the definition section) as follows:

(1) In this Act, the expression ‘firearm’ means—

(a) a lethal barrelled weapon (see subsection (1B)); ...

(1B) In subsection (1)(a), ‘lethal barrelled weapon’ means a barrelled weapon of any description from which a shot, bullet or other missile, with kinetic energy of more than one joule at the muzzle of the weapon, can be discharged.

(1C) Subsection (1) is subject to section 57A (exception for airsoft guns).

The words in this part of the definition mean as follows.


1.07 Even before the FA 1968 was passed the term ‘lethal’ has been associated with the definition of a firearm. Curiously, however, until as recently as 2017 there was no statutory definition of that term and it was left to case law to come

2P&CA 2017, s 125, amending FA 1968, s 57.

up with a test of lethality. Now any firearm, except an airsoft gun, which produces a kinetic energy at the muzzle of more than 1 joule is defined as ‘lethal’. The intentions of the designer or manufacturer of the weapon are immaterial;3the sole test is does the weapon produce energy in excess of 1 joule? It is important to keep in mind that air weapons which are not ‘specially dangerous’ are exempt from this definition in accordance with the wording of section 1 of the FA 1968, despite the fact that the least powerful type of air gun, which normally would cause only trivial injury, is nevertheless ‘lethal’ as they exceed the energy limit. In one case an air weapon producing 3.7 foot pounds caused death.4The energy limit for air rifles is 12 foot pounds.5


1.08 The relevant dictionary definition of ‘barrel’ is: ‘cylindrical body or trunk of an object; metal tube of gun’. Thus, a barrel must at least be cylindrical; it would not be sufficient for the missile to be discharged along a groove or channel which was unenclosed for any part of its circumference. Despite the second part of the definition, it is suggested that the barrel may be made of any substance.

1.09 The length of the barrel is immaterial in this context, although as we will see for other reasons the length may affect the classification of a firearm under the legislation.6


1.10 The dictionary defines a ‘weapon’ as a material thing designed or used (or usable) as an instrument for inflicting bodily harm on humans or animals.7There will be cases where a genuine issue arises as to whether the item in question is a ‘weapon’. Signalling and line-throwing equipment for example, while no doubt potentially lethal, is intended to save lives, not take them, and cannot properly be so described.

1.11 It must be remembered that while a firearm is described as a ‘weapon’, the Firearms Acts also refer to ‘prohibited weapons’, a term which includes not only firearms but also certain other types of devices such as stun guns and CS gas

3Read v Donovan [1947] 1 All ER 37.

4Moore v Gooderham [1960] 3 All ER 575 and R v Thorpe [1987] 2 All ER 108. 3.7 foot pounds has been known to cause death when an air weapon was fired into the side of a small child.

51 foot pound = 1.355 joules, so a legal air weapon can be up to 16.26 joules.

6E.g. for the definition of a shotgun, see para 4.01 et seq, and as to a ‘small firearm’, see paras 2.10 and 2.20.

7An electric stunning device is a prohibited weapon (Flack v Baldry [1988] 1 All ER 673), as is an item which discharges CS or other noxious liquids or gasses: FA 1968, s 5(1)(b).

4 The Firearms Law Handbook

canisters which do not fall within the definition of a ‘firearm’, as (in those cases) they do not have a barrel. See further Chapter 2.

A shot, bullet or other missile

1.12 Following the general rule for construing Acts of Parliament, the meaning of the words ‘or other missile’ must be confined to things of the same kind as shot and bullet. This leads to the probable conclusion that the missile must be a solid object; thus a dart from an air gun would be included, but not liquid or gas.8

Can be discharged

1.13 Here, also, the normal meaning of these words has been expanded by decisions of the courts and by legislation.

1.14 It should be noted, for completeness, that there is no limitation on the means of propulsion of the missile. The explosive charge is most common, and compressed air and liquid carbon dioxide are used for air weapons, but the use of other forces, for example, springs, elastic or tension as used in a bow, is acceptable.9

Airsoft guns

1.15 By virtue of section 57A of the FA 1968 an airsoft gun is not to be considered a firearm for the purposes of the Act. An airsoft gun is one which is designed to discharge only small spherical plastic missiles, not exceeding 8 mm in diameter; and does not exceed a muzzle energy of 1.3 joules if it is capable of firing two or more missiles without repeated pressure on the trigger (‘full auto’), or in any other case does not exceed 2.5 joules.10

Particular additions to the definition

1.16 After the core of the definition, ‘lethal barrelled weapon’, as set out above, section 57(1) of the FA 1968 goes on to indicate that the expression ‘firearm’ also includes:

8For guns and ammunition discharging a noxious liquid, gas or other thing, see prohibited weapons in Chapter 2.

9Although query to what extent a barrel is necessary for some of these methods?

10FA 1968, s 57A as inserted by P&CA 2017, s 125(5).

(b) a prohibited weapon;
(c) a relevant component part in relation to a lethal barrelled weapon or a prohibited weapon (see subsection (1D));

(d) an accessory to a lethal barrelled weapon or a prohibited weapon where the accessory is designed or adapted to diminish the noise or flash caused by firing the weapon;

and so much of section 1 of this Act as excludes any description of firearm from the category of firearms to which that section applies shall be construed as also excluding component parts of, and accessories to, firearms of that description.

1.17 This exclusion means that component parts of, and accessories to, shotguns and air weapons do not fall to be classified within the definition of ‘firearm’.

1.18 We now consider each of these additions to the definition of what constitutes a ‘firearm’ in turn.

1.19 The meaning of ‘prohibited weapon’ is discussed fully in Chapter 2.

Component parts of firearms

1.20 Section 57(1) of the FA 1968 sets out the definition as:

(c) a relevant component part in relation to a lethal barrelled weapon or a prohibited weapon (see subsection (1D));

(1D) For the purposes of...

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