Airgun law in the UK

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.

Air Pistols

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.

Summary

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…

Umarex Walther CP 88

881

The CP 88 was the first Umarex replica to use a rotary pellet holder hidden within a cast body designed to look like the slide and frame of a semi-automatic pistol.  The same basic design was used subsequently for Umarex replicas of the Walther P 99, Colt 1911, Beretta 92, H&K P30 and others.  This design provides a reasonably accurate, reliable and powerful multi-shot air pistol which is a very good visual replica of the original, but it doesn’t replicate any of the functionality of a real semi-auto pistol.

I have owned two CP 88s – an early 6″ Competition in gloss black and a later 4″ model in semi-matt finish.

Real steel background

The P 88C is a recoil operated, locked breech semi-automatic pistol which uses conventional Browning style locking.  The pistol is of steel construction and has non-adjustable sights and a high capacity, double stack magazine.

The Walther P 88 was introduced in 1988 (as for many Walther pistols, the model name is taken from the year of introduction) by Carl Walther Waffenfabrik as a military and law enforcement sidearm.  It wasn’t particularly successful, receiving criticism for being heavy and bulky as well as for being too expensive (over $1000) for the budgets of many potential military and police users.  It was however very accurate and became popular with target shooters.  In 1996 this model was discontinued in favour of the P 88C (Compact) version which was slightly less bulky (barrel length was reduced from 4″ to 3.7″) and a little cheaper.

882P 88 Competition

Walther also provided a sporting version, the P 88 Competition (sold as the P 88 Champion in some markets), which was available with adjustable sights and other minor changes and was also offered with a lengthened 6″ barrel.  Some target shooters regard the P 88 Competition as the finest sporting handgun ever made.

The Umarex CP-88

UMAREX Sportwaffen GmbH & Co. KG was founded in 1972 and manufactures sport and competition firearms, ammunition, airguns, airsoft guns and signal pistols.  In 1993 Umarex bought Carl Walther GmbH Sportwaffen, though guns continued to be manufactured using the Walther name and trademarks.  No surprise then that when Umarex decided to launch a new line of multi-shot replica air pistols, they started with a replica of the then current Walther P 88C.  This replica, the CP 88, was launched in 1996 and was an immediate success.  Early models were lauded for quality construction and a hard-wearing glossy black finish which closely resembled blued steel.  Later models featured a semi-matt finish and some folk feel that the high quality of the original model has been reduced in these “second generation” CP 88s.  The CP 88 was followed by replicas of other classic pistols which used the same basic mechanical design.

The CP 88 is powered by CO2, has a 3.75″ rifled barrel and weighs a hefty 2.25 pounds.  Also available is the CP 88 Competition with a 6″ barrel.  The standard version came with sights which were adjustable for windage only, but some 6″ versions were supplied with fully adjustable competition sights.

Packaging and presentation  4.5/5

Like all the Umarex pistols which share the basic design of the CP 88, this  comes in a very nice, well-padded hard case.  The pistol is supplied with one rotary pellet holder, an allen key for sight adjustment  and a short user manual.

883Early gloss CP 88 in blue hard case

Early (gloss finish) models were supplied in a blue hard case which featured foam with cut-outs for the pistol, CO2, pellet holder(s), allen key and a tin of pellets.   Later (matt finish) models came in a generic black hard case with eggshell foam.  Some people feel that the later black cases are not as high quality as the original blue cases, but overall the packaging of the CP 88 is far better than the cardboard box supplied with most replica pistols.

883aLater semi-matt CP 88 in black case

Visual accuracy  8/10

comparisonLate model CP 88 (left) and P 88C (right)

Visually, this is a very accurate replica of the P 88C.  Authentic Walther markings are included.  The only prominent difference is that the replica features additional vertical banding at the nose of the slide and a thicker plastic pad where the base of the magazine would be on the original.

comparison rightLate model CP 88 (left) and P 88C (right)

Other minor visible differences are the lack of an extractor pin and extractor cut-out on the right of the slide, a barely visible join between the rear and front parts of the slide and the lack of a lanyard loop on the replica.  However, these are minor differences, and given that this replica weighs almost precisely the same as the original, this looks and handles very much like the real weapon.

Functional accuracy  3/15

OK, let’s be honest here: this is a revolver dressed up to look like a semi-automatic pistol.  Unsurprising then that there is almost nothing on the CP-88 which functions in the same way as the real weapon.

The CP 88 was the first Umarex pistol to use a rotating pellet holder within what looks like the body of a semi auto pistol.  Operating what would be the takedown lever on the original allows the front part of the slide to move forward, giving access to the removable rotary pellet holder.  Up to eight pellets are loaded into the holder, which is then placed within the slide and the front part of the slide is pushed backwards to lock closed.  The rear part of the slide is fixed and the slide release is moulded in place and has no operational function.

884CP 88 Competition with slide and piercing pad open.  Rotary pellet holder inset.

What appears to be a magazine release on the left of the frame is actually a release for the right-hand grip.  Removing this gives access to the CO2 chamber.  What appears to be the base of the magazine is a hinged pad which allows CO2 piercing.

The slide mounted, ambidextrous safety looks identical to the safety on the original weapon, but doesn’t incorporate a de-cocking function.

The CP 88 can’t be field stripped.  It is possible to detach the moving front part of the slide by removing the screw below the muzzle, but this won’t give access to much more than the slide return spring.  Any further disassembly involves splitting the two halves of the cast body, which isn’t recommended unless you’re confident you know how to correctly reassemble the various springs, sears, pins, cams and selector plates you’ll find inside.

Shooting  35/40

The 6″ CP-88 Competition which I owned was probably the most accurate multi-shot air pistol I have ever used – it was easily capable of placing all eight shots precisely, consistently and within a one inch group.  However, there is one important caveat – this accuracy is possible only in single action, which means manually cocking the hammer before each shot.  In single action the trigger pull is light, crisp and consistent.  In double action the trigger pull is long and heavy, just as on the original.  For me at least, double action shooting meant groups of 2½ – 3 inches, which rather negates the point of having such an accurate pistol.  On the real pistol only the first shot is generally fired in double action – the moving slide then cocks the hammer allowing single action for all subsequent shots.  The lack of a moving slide on this replica means that you either have to cock the hammer before each shot, or shoot in double action and accept reduced accuracy.

885CP 88, eight shots, 6yds, single action.  Outer ring is 6″ diameter.

Power is very good on the CP-88.  On my 4″ version I typically saw 360 – 380fps dependant on weather conditions and pellet type.  On the 6″ version fps was around 380 – 400, again dependant on weather conditions and pellet type.  On both versions power was slightly lower when shooting in double action.

One issue with my 4″ CP 88 (and with several other Umarex pellet firing replicas I have owned) is that it shoots around 2½” high at 6yds.  The sights are non adjustable for elevation.  I tried several different pellet types, but none cured the problem.  See here for an article on how to modify the rear sights to compensate for this.

Soon after buying my first CP 88 I suffered a number of misfeeds and failures to fire.  I was able to trace this back to poor seating of pellets in the rotary holder.  This seems to be a feature of all the Umarex guns which use this system, and is easily overcome by ensuring that each pellet is firmly pressed down into the holder before it is loaded into the pistol.

Quality and reliability  14/15

In general, Umarex products are way ahead of Taiwanese and most Japanese competitors in terms of build and finish quality.  The CP-88 is no exception, though some would argue that earlier models (particularly those finished in gloss black) were of better overall quality.  There are no major known problems with the CP-88, though these pistols have been known to suffer from indexing issues after firing a very large number of shots.  If you’re looking for a used example, it’s worth remembering that original CP 88s are now more than sixteen years old, so it’s almost inevitable that there will be some wear and degradation of seals and moving parts.

886Early model CP 88 Competition with fully adjustable sights

Reliability is good, and I suffered very few issues with indexing or shooting on my CP 88s.  The moulding seen on the CP 88 is of exceptional quality, with sharp edges and clearly defined details throughout.  Although made from low temperature cast metal, this pistol does a very good job of replicating the appearance of the milled steel original.

Overall Impression  13/15

This has the heft and feel of a real gun.  Early models in particular have an indefinable feeling of quality that is rare in replica pistols.  The CP 88 appears to be made of denser, heavier (and presumably stronger) materials than most air and airsoft pistols.  When you hold a CP 88, it feels like an air pistol that will last for a very long time indeed.

887

Conclusion

I’m conflicted about the CP-88, as I am about several of the Umarex pellet firing replicas.  It looks and feels like a real gun and it’s very well made as well as powerful and accurate.  But it fails to replicate any of the operational features of a real semi-automatic pistol.  I can’t help thinking that if I wanted an accurate target shooter, I could buy a more specialist pistol.  And if I wanted an accurate semi-auto replica, I could buy something with blowback.  The CP-88 doesn’t really excel in either respect, though I suppose you could argue that this makes it a good compromise.  It is also unfortunate that this replica isn’t based on a “classic” or especially popular original pistol.  For many people, the P 88C just doesn’t have the emotive appeal of, for example, the Colt 1911 or even the Beretta 92 series

888

So, if you’re looking for a well-made, accurate and powerful multi-shot air pistol which looks and feels very like the original, the CP 88 is a good choice.  However, if you want something which more accurately reflects the experience of shooting a real semi auto pistol, you may need to look elsewhere.  It all depends what you are looking for.

Total score: 77.5/100

Buy:

You can buy this replica at Pyramid Air here.

Related pages:

Modifying the rear sight on an Umarex CP 88

Umarex Colt Government 1911 A1 review 

Umarex Walther CP99 review

Umarex HK P30 review

Umarex Smith and Wesson 586/686 review

Lubricating air pistols

Links

Umarex web site

How to hit what you’re aiming at

There is very little more satisfying than a pistol that hits what it’s aimed at.  Most won’t do this out of the box and the purpose of this article is to explain how to zero the sights of an air or airsoft pistol.  There are two things to consider here: the point of aim is the place on the target where you aim the sights.  The point of impact is the place on the target where BBs or pellets actually strike.  The sights are zeroed when the two coincide.

z1

Umarex Tokyo Soldier – fixed front and rear sights, no adjustment possible

Before you even start thinking about adjusting the sights on your pistol, the first thing you need to do is shoot.  Lots.  Only when you have shot at least 100 rounds with a new pistol can you start to consider what needs to be done.

Remember that it’s not possible to zero-in the sights of a pistol so that it will hit what it’s aiming at for every person.  Everyone holds a pistol slightly differently and people have different stances and varying eyesight.  A pistol which is perfectly zeroed for one person, may be entirely useless for another.  If my wife shoots a pistol which I have zeroed for myself, she hits about six inches from the point of aim.  We have many consequent discussions about who has the worst eyesight.  Which I generally lose.  Because I’m a man.

z2

Umarex CP 88 – rear sight adjustable for windage only.

Right, so, you have had lots of fun shooting your new pistol, and you are aware that the point of impact is substantially different from the point of aim.  What can you do?  The simplest approach is to employ good old fashioned Kentucky windage – in other words, simply allow for the difference.  If your pistol hits high and left when you aim at the centre of the target, aim low and right and your shots should end up in the centre.  If the sights on your pistol aren’t adjustable, I’m afraid this is the only option to adjust for a windage error.

However, many pistols allow a more precise approach through adjustment of the sights.  Many pistols allow windage (side-to-side) adjustment of the rear sight.  You simply need to move the rear sight in the direction in which you want the point of impact to move.  So, if the point of impact is off to the left, move the rear sight to the right, and vice versa. Sadly, very few pistols allow elevation (up and down) adjustment of the rear sight, but if you’re lucky enough to have one of these, adjustment is the same as for windage – move the sight in the direction that you want the point of impact to  move.  So, if the point of impact is high, move the rear sight down and vice versa.  Very little movement in the rear sight is needed to achieve a large change in the point of impact so any adjustments should be done incrementally, with lots of testing after each.

z3

WE Browning Hi-Power, fully adjustable rear sight.

On some pistols, the front sight can be adjusted for windage, often by drifting the sight in the slide.  This is simple, but adjustment is the opposite to the rear sight – you want to move the sight in the opposite direction to that in which you want the point of impact to move.  So, if the point of impact is to the left, the front sight should be moved to the left and vice versa.

But what can you do if you are hitting high or low but your pistol doesn’t allow elevation adjustment of the rear sight?  On some Airsoft pistols, you may be able to adjust the hop-up to alter the trajectory of shots.  Another option is to modify the rear sight – if the pistol is hitting high, file material off the underside of the sight.  If it’s hitting low, fit packers under the rear sight (there is an article on doing this to an Umarex CP 88 here).

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Umarex TRR8 – Fully adjustable rear sight with fibre-optic inserts.

If you don’t want to modify the sight, consider changing your ammo.  As a general rule, the heavier the projectile, the lower it will hit.  If you’re using pellets, experiment with heavier or lighter pellets to vary the elevation of the point of impact.  If you are using plastic 6 or 8mm BBs, use different weights to adjust elevation.  If you are using steel BBs, the options are more limited.  Although there are slight weight differences between steel BBs from different manufacturers, these are very small indeed.  It may be worth trying lead BBs, but be cautious because these don’t feed accurately in all BB guns.

Once you have the adjustment roughly right you can fine tune.  I generally shoot at a range of 6yds, and I like to have the sights on my pistols set up so the point of impact is around ¼” to ½” above the point of aim at that range.  If I then aim at the base of the centre circle of a target with this set up, I should be able to plant most shots within the centre circle.  If I and the pistol are capable of that, obviously.

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Umarex TRR8, six shots, 6yds.  Aim point is the base of the black circle which is 1″ diameter.  Allowing for my wobbly hands and failing eyesight, this is about as good as it gets with open sights on a replica air pistol.

If all else fails, consider fitting a red-dot or laser sight if possible.  These can be adjusted for both elevation and windage independently of the fixed sights on a pistol, though I confess that both feel a bit like cheating to me.

z6

Umarex Beretta PX-4 fitted with an aftermarket laser sight.  The Umarex PX-4 has non-adjustable sights, and is notorious for shooting high and left.  In this case, fitting an accessory sight was the only way to make the pistol hit where it was aimed.  Still feels like cheating though.

Related pages:

Modifying the sights on an Umarex Walther CP 88