Legal Article: Antique Firearms

25 April 2021

Written by: Danielle Johnson, PNLD Legal Adviser
Not reviewed after the date of publication

The number of antique firearms used in crime has remained at a relatively high level over the last few years, with the absence of a legal definition of ‘antique firearm’ being exploited by criminals. Following a public consultation, a new statutory definition for antique firearms has now been legislated. PNLD Legal Adviser, Danielle Johnson explores the new definition and the changes to the law in more detail.

Section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 makes firearms regarded as antique, exempt from most of the controls under the Act. This includes antique firearms which are sold, transferred, purchased acquired or possessed as a curiosity or ornament, as well as the need for a certificate and / or the requirement to register with the police as a firearms dealer. Previously, the Firearms Act 1968 did not provide a definition of ‘antique firearm’, but section 126 of the Policing and Crime Act 2017, which came into force on 22nd March 2021, amends section 58 to include a new statutory definition by inserting new subsections (2A) to (2H).

New legal definition

New subsection (2A) provides that a firearm is an ‘antique firearm’ if either of the conditions set out in subsections (2B) or (2C) are met, along with any additional conditions specified in regulations made under subsection (2D).  The conditions relate to the chamber, the type of cartridge the chamber was designed to use, the propulsion system and the date of manufacture. The conditions are further specified in the Antique Firearms Regulations 2021 and the paragraphs below explore each condition in more detail.

Chamber

The condition in new subsection (2B) outlines that a firearm will be regarded as antique if:

the chamber or each of its chambers is such that the firearm had when it was manufactured, or is a replacement that is identical in all material respects; and

the chamber or each of its chambers is designed for use with a cartridge specified in regulation 2 of, and the Schedule to, the Antique Firearms Regulations 2021 (whether or not it is also capable of being used with other cartridges).

The Schedule outlines a list of obsolete cartridges, arranged according to the type of firearm for which they are designed for ease of reference, however, please note it is possible that a cartridge was also designed for use with another firearm type.

Propulsion system

The further condition in new subsection (2C) outlines that if the firearm's propulsion system is of a type specified in regulations by the Secretary of State then it can also be regarded as antique.

Regulation 3 of the Antique Firearm Regulations 2021 specifies the following types of propulsion systems:

any propulsion system which involves the use of a loose charge and a separate ball (or other missile) loaded at the muzzle end of the barrel, chamber or cylinder of the firearm and which uses an independent source of ignition;

any propulsion system in a breech-loading cartridge firearm which uses an ignition system other than rim-fire or centre-fire;

any propulsion system which involves the use of rim-fire cartridges (other than .22 (5.58mm), .23 (5.8mm), 6mm or 9mm rim-fire cartridges) in a breech-loading firearm; or

any propulsion system for an air weapon.

Date of manufacture

Additional conditions can be provided under new subsection (2D), which allows the Secretary of State to make regulations to specify that either a number of years must have elapsed since the date of manufacture of the firearm, or a fixed date before which the firearm was manufactured in order for it to be antique.

Regulation 4 of the Antique Firearms Regulations 2021 details that the firearm must have been manufactured before 1st September 1939 for it to be considered an antique.

Provided that the firearm was manufactured before 1st September 1939 and the cartridge or the propulsion system is outlined within the Antique Firearm Regulations, the firearm will be regarded as antique.  Any firearms that are do not meet the statutory criteria above will become subject to the controls in the 1968 Act.

Transitional arrangements

Several cartridges have been added and removed from the obsolete cartridge list that is now outlined within the Antique Firearms Regulations 2021. Home Office Circular 001/2021 outlines a list of the cartridges which now qualify as an antique firearm and also those that have been removed.

Following their use in crime the following seven cartridges that previously appeared in the Home Office obsolete cartridge list have been omitted from the equivalent list in the new Regulations.

.320 British (also known as .320 Revolver CF, short or long)

.41 Colt (short or long)

.44 Smith and Wesson Russian

.442 Revolver (also known as .44 Webley)

4mm Dutch Revolver

6mm German Ordnance Revolver

11mm French Ordnance Revolver M1873 (Army)

These firearms no longer fall within the definition of an antique firearm (a ‘former antique firearm’) and will therefore be subject to the controls in the 1968 Act, however transitional provisions were made in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (Commencement No. 11 and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2021 (the ‘commencement regulations’) for existing owners, in relation to possession and transfer. The transitional period is in place for 6 months and ends on the 21st September 2021.

Possession

Regulation 3 of the commencement regulations makes transitional provisions regarding possession of a former antique firearm. Regulation 3(2) and (3) allow existing owners who have applied, before the end of the transitional period:

for a firearms or shotgun certificate or to vary such a certificate,

for a museums firearms licence or to vary such a licence, or

to be a registered firearms dealer,

to possess a former antique firearm, pending the outcome of the application and any applicable appeal. To evidence this, it is recommended that police forces issue acknowledgements of applications, and that applicants keep a copy of their application.

Furthermore, regulation 3(4) authorises a firearms dealer who has applied for a section 5 authority under the 1968 Act, before the end of the transitional period, to possess the former antique firearm pending the outcome of the application.

If an owner of a former antique firearm does not licence it, they will need to otherwise dispose of it before the end of the transition period. Disposal could include selling, exporting or deactivating the firearm, donating it to a museum or surrendering it to the police. 

Sale and transfer

Regulation 4 of the commencement regulations makes further transitional provisions in relation to the sale or transfer of former antique firearms during the transitional period.

Regulation 4(2) provides that where an owner, other than a firearms dealer, sells or transfers a former antique firearm to another person (the transferee) during the transitional period, the transferee will then benefit from the transitional provisions as though they were the original owner.

Regulation 4(3) and (4) confirms that an owner may lawfully possess, transfer or sell a former antique firearm to a transferee without holding a firearms or shotgun certificate, section 5 authority or registration as a firearms dealer (as the case may be) provided the transfer takes place during the transitional period. Regulation 4(5) authorises a person, other than a firearms dealer, to possess, purchase or acquire a former antique firearm during the transitional period without a section 5 authority.

Regulation 4(6) and (7) allows a transferee who has applied, before the end of the transitional period, for a firearms or shot gun certificate or a museum’s licence or to vary such a certificate or licence (as the case may be), to lawfully possess, purchase or acquire a former antique firearm, without a firearm or shotgun certificate, pending the outcome of the application and any applicable appeal. Regulation 4(8) provides that an application for a certificate made by the transferee during the transitional period may not be refused on the ground that the person does not have good reason to possess the former antique firearm.

Offences

Although Antique Firearms are not subject to most of the controls under the 1968 Act, the following offences do still apply, with sections 19 and 20 applying from 22nd March 2021, following the amendments from the commencement regulations:

Section 19 – Carrying a firearm in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse.

Section 20 – Trespassing with a firearm.

Section 21 – Possession of firearms by persons previously convicted of crime.

Any other provision of the 1968 Act, so far as it applies to an offence under sections 19, 20 and 21.

The Home Office will assemble a review group, to review the latest developments in the criminal use of antique firearms on an annual basis, and to review the regulations every three years.

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