Prohibited Weapons and Ammunition

AuthorLaura Saunsbury/Nick Doherty

Chapter 2

Prohibited Weapons and Ammunition


2.01 Let us begin by saying we would be the first to concede this is the most difficult chapter in the book to digest. (Heaven knows it was certainly the most difficult to write!) The terms ‘prohibited weapon’ and ‘prohibited ammunition’ are fundamental in the Firearms Acts. They cover a very wide range of different things and whether or not a particular firearm, other weapon or ammunition is deemed prohibited can have serious implications.

2.02 In very broad terms, ‘prohibited weapons’ are handguns and automatic weapons, while ‘prohibited ammunition’ is ammunition which is designed to explode, expand or ignite on or immediately before impact. However, it should be said this is a considerable over-simplification of a very complex area of law which even the most experienced lawyers or police officers can struggle to get to grips with. As will be seen shortly at paras 2.05 et seq and 2.12 et seq, in a vain attempt to reduce violent gun crime, there have been a number of Acts of Parliament which have each in succession extended the scope of the terms ‘prohibited weapon’ and ‘prohibited ammunition’ to include further categories of item within their definitions. We are now left with a long and unwieldy list of categories of item, each of which requires defining.

2.03 As is also discussed later at paras 2.05 et seq and 2.12 et seq, possession of prohibited weapons or prohibited ammunition without proper lawful authority is a serious criminal offence for which there can be very grave consequences. We have represented enough people who have inadvertently fallen foul of this area of law to know that you cannot be too careful about checking whether an item in your possession might potentially be classified as a prohibited firearm or ammunition. Therefore, while this does not make for easy reading, we considered it our duty to fully explore in this work the finer details of what is included in the terms ‘prohibited weapons’ and ‘prohibited ammunition’.

24 The Firearms Law Handbook


2.04 ‘Prohibited weapons’ are those considered by the legislature to be so dangerous that the special authority of the Home Office is needed before their possession or use becomes lawful. In the FA 1968 as originally enacted, which remains the basis of modern firearms legislation, prohibited weapons included only automatic weapons and those discharging noxious liquids and other things. The violent incidents at Hungerford in 1987 and at Dunblane in 1996 have caused Parliament to add several other types of weapon to the list. In addition, European legislation1has required Parliament to make further amendments.

2.05 The following is the current list of prohibited weapons using the section numbers in the FA 1968 for ease of reference:

section 5(1)(a) Any firearm which is so designed or adapted that two or more missiles can be successively discharged without repeated pressure on the trigger.2

section 5(1)(ab) Any self-loading3or pump-action4rifled5gun, other than one which is chambered for .22 rim-fire cartridges.

section 5(1)(aba) Any firearm which either has a barrel less than 30cm (about
11.8 inches) long or is less than 60cm (about 23.6 inches) in length overall, other than an air weapon, a muzzle-loading gun or a firearm designed as signalling apparatus.6

section 5(1)(ac) Any self-loading or pump-action smooth-bore gun which is not an air weapon or chambered for .22 rim-fire cartridges and either has a barrel less than 24 inches long7or is less than 40 inches in length overall.8

1European Council Directive No 91/477/EEC (European Weapons Directive) which was introduced into English law by the Firearms Acts (Amendment) Regulations 1992, and others, which attempt to ‘harmonise’ firearms legislation across the Union. Directive 2008/51/EC and Regulation 2015/2403 have amended the earlier Directive and have also been incorporated in to UK domestic law and relate to firearms. Note, the 1992 Regulations have included prohibited weapons which are not firearms, so include a disguised stun gun or CS canister, as well as disguised firearms. This is not what the Council Directive says, and so English law has gone further than was required in this respect.

2This includes burst-fire weapons.

3This means a weapon designed or adapted so that it is automatically re-loaded (FA 1968, s 57(2A); F(A)A 1988, s 25(2)).

4This means a weapon so designed or adapted that it is re-loaded by the manual operation of the fore-end or forestock of the weapon (FA 1968, s 57(2A)).

5I.e. not smooth bored.

6For the purposes of section 5(1)(aba) and (1)(ac) any detachable, folding, retractable or other moveable butt-stock shall be disregarded in measuring the length of any firearm (FA 1968, s 5(8); F(A)A 1997, s 1(6)). Items in this category are often referred to as ‘small firearms’.

7Measurement is from the muzzle to the point at which the charge is exploded (FA 1968, s 57(6)(a);

F(A)A 1988, s 25(1)).

8See fn 7 with regard to measuring the overall length of the gun.

section 5(1)(ad) Any smooth-bore revolver gun9other than one which is chambered for 9mm rim-fire cartridges or a muzzle-loading10

section 5(1)(ae) Any rocket launcher, or any mortar, for projecting a stabilised missile, other than a launcher or mortar designed for line-throwing11or pyrotechnic12purposes, or as signalling apparatus.
section 5(1)(af) Any air rifle, air gun or air pistol which uses, or is designed or adapted for use with, a self-contained gas cartridge system.13

section 5(1)(b) Any weapon of whatever description designed or adapted for

the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas or other thing.14

section 5(1A)(a) Any firearm which is disguised as another object.15

section 5(1A)(c) Any launcher or other projecting apparatus not falling within 5(1)(ae) above which is designed to be used with any rocket or ammunition falling within 5(1A)(b), or with ammunition which would fall within that subsection, but for it being ammunition falling within subsection 5(1)(c).16

The Home Office may, within limitations, add other firearms, except air weapons, to the foregoing list.17

2.06 As to section 5(1)(b) above, the words ‘weapon of whatever description’ show that the weapon need not be any sort of gun or in any way resemble a gun.18

A dictionary definition of a weapon is ‘a material thing designed or used or usable as an instrument for inflicting bodily harm’.

9‘Revolver’ in relation to a smooth-bore gun means a gun containing a series of chambers which revolve when the gun is fired (FA 1968, s 57(2B); F(A)A 1988, s 25(2)).

10A muzzle-loading gun is a gun which is designed to be loaded at the muzzle end of the barrel or chamber with a loose charge and a separate ball (or other missile) (FA 1968, s 5(9); F(A)A 1997, s 1(6)).

11E.g. for coastguard rescue purposes.

12I.e. for firework displays.

13Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, s 39(3). Although not the only type, these are predominantly known as ‘Brococks’.

14This has wide application, but by far the most common in practice are items which discharge CS gas, freely available in Europe. Electricity is a noxious thing and its discharge by means of an electric stunning device is a discharge within the meaning of that word. Such a device is therefore a prohibited weapon (Flack v Baldry [1988] 1 All ER 673). Cattle prods are not. Likewise, weapons specially designed or adapted to discharge tranquillising darts are prohibited weapons.

15This is to comply with European criteria. Firearms and swords that look like umbrellas or walking sticks are common examples.

16For discussion of items falling under this category and the associated ammunition under FA 1968, s 5(1A)(b) and (1)(c), see para 2.12 et seq, ‘Definition of prohibited ammunition’.

17F(A)A 1988, s 1(4).

18This is demonstrated by a ‘Taser’ being classified as a prohibited weapon.

26 The Firearms Law Handbook

2.07 The word ‘noxious’, meaning ‘harmful or unwholesome’, is thought to apply to the words ‘gas’ and ‘other thing’ as well as to ‘liquid’. The words ‘other thing’ should be interpreted, it is suggested, as meaning ‘any other thing of any kind’, i.e. their meaning is not restricted to a thing which is of the same kind as liquid or gas.19Thus it appears that the last seven words in section 5(1)(b) could be written as ‘any noxious liquid, any noxious gas, or any noxious thing of any kind’.20It is interesting to note that, as already stated, the most common item in practice in this category is CS gas. This is carried by police forces throughout this country for the very reason that it causes no lasting damage to the body. Is it therefore ‘noxious’ within the above meaning? Arguably not, but...

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