Attack of the acronyms!
The UK laws governing the ownership on air pistols, airsoft pistols and blank firing pistols are chaotic and rather confusing. People particularly don’t seem to be clear about the plethora of acronyms like VCRA, UKARA and RIF. I know that I was very confused when I first tried to find out about airsoft ownership. Broadly, any BB or pellet shooting replica which produces more than 1 Joule of muzzle energy is classed as an air pistol. Any replica which produces less than 1 Joule of muzzle energy (i.e. most airsoft pistols) is classed as a Realistic Imitation Firearm. The two classifications are subject to very different regulations.
This article is an attempt to provide a brief summary of the main points of the current UK law regarding ownership and use of air pistols and airsofts. Obviously it isn’t comprehensive, and if in doubt you should seek professional advice, particularly regarding Scotland where new airgun laws may be on the way.
The regulations regarding air pistols in the UK are (relatively) simple:
- Air pistols in the UK are subject to the firearms acts, under the Firearms (Dangerous air weapons) rules 1969.
- An air pistol must produce more than 1 Joule, but less than 6 foot pounds (8.13 Joules) of muzzle energy.
- Air pistols which produce more than 6 foot pounds of muzzle energy are prohibited.
- Air pistols which produce less than 1 Joule of muzzle energy are classed as Realistic Imitation Firearms and are subject to separate legislation (see more in next section).
- Air pistols must not be “so designed or adapted that two or more missiles can be successively discharged without repeated pressure on the trigger“. So semi-auto is OK, full auto is not.
- No person under the age of 18 may purchase, hire or be given an air pistol or ammunition (though under 18s can use air pistols with adult supervision in certain circumstances).
- A person aged 18 or over may buy an air pistol and pellets or BBs and use them unsupervised.
- A person may be prohibited by a court or other injunction from owning an air gun of any type.
- It is an offence to have an air pistol in a public place “without good reason”, and proving this is the responsibility of the possessor. Unhelpfully, the regulations don’t specify what constitutes “good reason”.
- It is an offence to discharge an air pistol within fifty feet of the centre of a highway.
- When shooting over private land it is an offence for the pellet or BB to go beyond the boundary of the premises on which the gun is being used unless there is permission for this from the adjoining landowner.
Realistic Imitation Firearms
OK, now it gets complicated. I hope you’re paying attention at the back there?
From 1st October 2007, section 36 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act (VCRA) 2006 made it an offence to manufacture, import or sell realistic imitation firearms (RIF) in the UK. RIF is a broad classification which covers just about anything that could be mistaken for a real firearm, including blank and cap firing guns but it specifically excludes air pistols which produce more than 1 joule of energy. Replicas which are clearly not real firearms (because of colour or other design features) are classed as Imitation Firearms, and are exempt from the requirements of RIFs.
While the UK air pistol laws are primarily about ownership, the VCRA focuses on manufacture, importation and selling. The VCRA places a blanket ban on selling RIFs in the UK, though section 37 provides certain exemptions to this. It is therefore legal to sell an RIF to a person who can prove that it is for:
- use by a museum or gallery;
- use for theatrical performances and rehearsals of such performances;
- use for the production of films and television programmes;
- use in the organisation and holding of historical re-enactments.
These exemptions are generally known as “valid defences against the VCRA“. In 2006 a group of UK airsoft retailers created the UK Airsoft Retailers Association (UKARA) to find a way of selling RIFs to the UK airsoft market. They created a secure database on which airsoft players who are active members of a recognised club can register. Being on the UKARA database has been accepted as a valid defence against the VCRA, and so it is also legal to sell an RIF to a person who can prove UKARA registration.
RIFs must not be sold to any person who is under 18.
What this means for you
The law makes it an offence to sell an RIF to a person who is under 18 or cannot prove a valid defence against the VCRA. The law is primarily focussed on retailers, but does not specifically exempt private sales. You will be committing an offence if you sell an RIF privately to a person who is under 18 or cannot prove a valid defence against the VCRA.
However, there are some additional complications. Replicas of weapons produced before 1870 are not classed as RIFs. Replicas which cannot be mistaken for real firearms because they have a substantial part painted in bright colours (generally green, blue or orange – this is known as “two-toning”) or where the main body of the replica is made of transparent material are classed as Imitation Firearms and are exempt from VCRA restrictions.
It is an offence to paint or otherwise convert a two-tone or transparent pistol to make it look more realistic, i.e. to convert an Imitation Firearm to an RIF.
RIFs are subject to same restrictions on carrying in a public place as air pistols.
The short version: Most air pistols are not covered by VCRA requirements, because they produce more than 1 joule of muzzle energy. The legal requirements for buying an air pistol in the UK are simply that you must be 18 or over and not prohibited from owning such a weapon.
Most airsoft pistols are covered by VCRA requirements, because they produce less than 1 joule of muzzle energy and are therefore classed as RIFs. This means that you must be able to prove a valid defence against the VCRA to buy one.
However, a powerful airsoft pistol which produces more than 1 joule of energy (some CO2 powered 6mm pistols, for example) could theoretically be classed as an air pistol and exempt from VCRA requirements. It is the responsibility of the seller to ensure that the relevant legal requirements are followed and it is the seller who will be prosecuted if they are not. For this reason most sellers err on the side of caution and will not sell any airsoft pistol without proof of a valid defence against the VCRA.
It is surely against all common sense that any 18 year old can buy a powerful replica air pistol from a retailer with virtually no restrictions, but the same person must prove a defence against the VCRA to buy a considerably less powerful and no more realistic airsoft pistol! But that’s the law.
Legally buying an RIF
You can buy two-tone or transparent airsoft pistols without restrictions as these are classed as Imitation Firearms. You must not modify an Imitation Firearm in any way to make it look more realistic.
For a retailer or private seller to legally sell you an airsoft pistol or blank firer which is an RIF (i.e. one which is a replica of a pistol made after 1870 and which looks like a real gun), they must be satisfied that you have a valid defence against the VCRA. This means that you must be able to prove that you need the pistol for a museum or gallery, for a theatre, film or TV production or because you belong to a recognised historical re-enactment group. Or you must be able to show that you are registered on the UKARA database as an active airsofter.
But how can I buy an airsoft pistol if I’m not on the UKARA database?
It is possible to buy an airsoft pistol without UKARA registration, but to do this you need some other valid defence against the VCRA. I like airsoft pistols – they may not be especially powerful or accurate but they are some of the best functional replicas available. However, I’m much too old to splash about in muddy fields shooting teenagers (though the idea is not entirely without appeal…) so I’m not UKARA registered. I also don’t work for a museum or gallery and I don’t make TV programmes or movies. I needed some other valid defence against the VCRA. After some research, I joined a large, UK based re-enactment society. Membership of such a group is a valid defence against the VCRA and allows me to legally buy airsoft pistols in the UK. The group I joined is friendly, knowledgeable, costs little to belong to, and they don’t insist that I attend meetings regularly or expect me to dress up as a roundhead or a Nazi stormtrooper. They even provided a handy wallet sized photocard which provides a registration number and explains that I’m permitted to own and transport RIFs.
If you fancy buying airsoft pistols, and you don’t want to skirmish, joining a reputable re-enactment group is a possible alternative. You must still be 18 or over and you must provide your re-enactment registration number to any seller. Some sellers will also want to see a scan of the Photo ID card if you’re buying on-line. I have bought several airsoft pistols in this way without any problems. If you buy non two-tone airsoft pistols, do remember that you will be committing an offence if you subsequently sell them on to anyone who can’t prove a valid defence against the VCRA. Also, be warned – people will mock you if they find out you’re a member of a re-enactment group! But who knows, you may even find that you enjoy slipping into that Napoleonic Huzzar’s outfit…