The Licensing of Section 1 Firearms and Ammunition

AuthorLaura Saunsbury/Nick Doherty

Chapter 3

The Licensing of Section 1 Firearms and Ammunition


3.01 The term ‘section 1 firearm’ is commonly applied to those guns which are caught by the definition in section 1 of the FA 1968 and which, in general, require a firearm certificate for lawful possession or use. In practice, most section 1 firearms held on certificate now are rifles, muzzle-loading pistols, long-barrelled pistols or large capacity shotguns.

3.02 These firearms are mainly defined by exception,1but include one type of gun which can be positively identified. Rules made by the Home Office have declared certain kinds of air weapons to be specially dangerous. These are:

(a) An air rifle or air gun capable of discharging a missile so that the missile has, on discharge from the muzzle, kinetic energy exceeding 12 foot pounds, except a weapon as described below.

(b) An air pistol discharging a missile as above but with a kinetic energy exceeding 6 foot pounds, except a weapon as described below.

The exceptions from items (a) and (b) above are weapons designed for use only under water.

(c) Any air rifle, air gun or air pistol which is disguised as another object.2

Air weapons include weapons powered by compressed carbon dioxide.3

1FA 1968, s 1(3).

2Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969 (SI 1969/47). Item (c) was added to the list on

1 July 1993 by amending rules. Note that air weapons within item (c) are declared to be specially dangerous irrespective of their kinetic energy performance.

3F(A)A 1997, s 48.

40 The Firearms Law Handbook

3.03 In total, section 1 firearms consist of:

(a) Air weapons declared to be specially dangerous as above.
(b) All other kinds of firearms4except:

(i) air weapons not declared to be specially dangerous as above; and
(ii) smooth-bore guns5(not being air guns) which:

(1) have barrels not less than 24 inches long6and do not have any barrel with a bore exceeding 2 inches; and

(2) either have no magazine or have a non-detachable magazine incapable of holding more than two cartridges; and

(3) are not revolver guns.7

3.04 The effect of paragraph (b) (ii) above is that a shotgun with a magazine capable of holding more than two cartridges will be classified as a section 1 firearm rather than as a section 2 shotgun. The exemption in paragraph (2) above for limited capacity magazines does not apply unless the magazine:

(a) bears an approved8mark denoting that it so limited; and
(b) that mark has been made, and the adaptation certified in writing as having been carried out in an approved9manner, by the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers of London, by the Birmingham Proof House or by another approved10person.11

In other words, a two-shot capacity magazine shotgun does not qualify as a section 2 shotgun unless the magazine has the appropriate stamp from the Proof House. If not, it will be classified as a section 1 firearm (for which you need a firearm certificate), even if the magazine is in fact two-shot only.

4For the full scope of meaning of the term ‘firearm’, see Chapter 1.

5For shotguns generally see Chapter 4.

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

7FA 1968, s 1(1)(a), (3)(a); F(A)A 1988, s 2(1), (2). ‘Revolver gun’ 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)).

8‘Approved’ means approved by the Secretary of State for the Home Department. The approved marks and the approved manner of adaptation may be found in ‘Firearms Law: Specifications for the Adaptation of Shotgun Magazines and the De-activation of Firearms’, available on the government website

9As above.

10As above. Only the two Proof Houses have been approved.

11FA 1968, ss 1(3A), 58(1); F(A)A 1988, s 2(3).

3.05 In addition, a weapon which:

(a) has at any time since 1 July 198912been a weapon of a kind described at items (a) and (b) in paragraph 3.03 above, or

(b) would at any time before that date have been treated as a section 1 firearm if the present legislation had then been in force,

shall, if it has or at any time has had, a rifled barrel less than 24 inches long,13be

treated as a section 1 firearm notwithstanding anything done to convert it into a shotgun or an air weapon.14But, for the foregoing purposes, the shortening of a barrel by an RFD15solely to replace part of it so as to produce a barrel not less than 24 inches long shall be disregarded.16

Air weapons

3.06 Air rifles which are only ‘capable’ of producing muzzle velocities below 12 foot pounds and air pistols below 6 foot pounds17do not require a certificate and can be freely held,18although there are now age limits as to possession and purchase, see Chapter 14. Be aware, however, that the owner and user of an air weapon obviously cannot tell the power of the weapon from firing it. This can only be determined with a chronograph which measures the muzzle velocity. Almost all firearms dealers own such a device and will check your air weapon and give you a certificate with the results for a modest fee. We thoroughly recommend that this is done when an air weapon is acquired and perhaps at 3-yearly intervals thereafter. We may sound paranoid, but most police forces now have air weapons checked if they come to their notice and there are a large number of prosecutions every year of persons whose air weapon (unbeknownst to them) developed, for example, 14 foot pounds. They are then in possession of a section 1 firearm without a certificate, an offence which attracts up to 5 years’ imprisonment as a maximum, and there are guidelines suggesting the penalty should usually be a custodial sentence! Being able to produce a certificate to show you had the air weapon’s power tested might avoid a prosecution, and, in any

12The date on which F(A)A 1988, s 2 came into force (Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988
(Commencement No 2) Order 1989, Article 3(a) and Sch, Part I).

13Measurement is from the muzzle to the point at which the charge is exploded, FA 1968, s 57(6)(a).

14F(A)A 1988, s 7(2). ‘Air weapons’ are defined as air rifles, air guns and air pistols (FA 1968, ss 1(3)(b), 57(4)).

15As to the registration of firearms dealers, see Chapter 16.

16F(A)A 1988, s 7(3).

17Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969, r 2(b).

18Readers in Scotland will be aware that a certificate is required for an air weapon in that country: Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015. See para 3.10 et seq, ‘Scotland – Air Weapon Certificate’.

42 The Firearms Law Handbook

event, even if the certificate proves to be inaccurate, it might reduce the penalty to a conditional discharge. Possession of a firearm is an offence of ‘strict liability’, in other words what the owner thought about the weapon is irrelevant. You have been warned.

3.07 Some air rifles which are usually below the limit can exceed the limits prescribed in the 1969 Rules, either by having oil placed in the barrel (‘dieselling’) or by making adjustments to the gun, sometimes by the use of an external screw. In the last decade or so ‘pre-charged pneumatic’ (PCP) air weapons have become widely available. These use a small cylinder of compressed air to provide the force to propel the pellet. A number of such air rifles are quite easily adjustable, some by use of an external knob. The manufacturers add this feature to enable these rifles to be adjusted to keep them within the limit. However, in our experience, some of this type can equally be adjusted to exceed the permitted limits. The test in the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969 is whether the gun is ‘capable’ of exceeding the limit. Does that apply as found, or after adjustment by a forensic scientist instructed by the police? Almost all firearms are ‘capable’ of being placed into a higher category within the Act. As one example, the removal of a stock from a rifle might reduce it to under 60cm overall length, and so raise it to section 5 classification. That operation will often only require the turn of one screw, just as is the case on a PCP air rifle to adjust the power.

3.08 Does the law say such items are ‘capable’ of being in the higher category, or is the proper test to look at the condition and capability of the item as found in the owner’s possession? The difficulty is that the law has not been updated since PCP air rifles were introduced. As a general rule, most ordinary air weapons are only capable of adjustment to increase the power output by changing the spring or by altering some other physical aspect of the gun. However, given that the manufacturers of PCP air rifles incorporate an adjustment feature, this indicates an acknowledgement on their part that these rifles require adjustment from time to time in order to keep them within the legal limit, and thus that as designed and sold they are also potentially ‘capable’ of exceeding the limit. This begs the question whether it is appropriate to prosecute an individual who is found with an air weapon of this type which in his possession was set within the legal limit. In the absence of any evidence of a deliberate attempt to circumvent the rules, we take the view that if they are below the limit in your possession then you are not breaking the law, although there has so far not been a decided case on this issue.

3.09 As stated above, ‘air weapons’ include those powered by compressed carbon dioxide.19Guns used for paintballing games are not normally considered

19F(A)A 1997, s 48.

to be controlled under the Firearms Acts. Air weapons disguised as another object are deemed to be ‘specially dangerous’20and a certificate would be required.

Scotland – Air Weapon Certificate

3.10 In Scotland, the Air...

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