Firearms Law

Are you aware of what’s allowed, what’s not and what licences you need?

In Britain we have a complicated set of laws defining who can own and use what sort of guns. It gets even more complicated when you get into where you can shoot and what you can shoot at, especially if you’re shooting live quarry, which has a whole set of laws of its own.

For instance, you might shoot a goose perfectly legally, with a legally held gun and ammunition, at the right time of year, with non-lead shot – and still fall foul of the law because you gave the goose to a friend in return for some vegetables from his garden. The point is that as shooters we need to be aware of all the many laws that govern what we do. This article is about the laws on owning and using guns, but it’s a general guide rather than a definitive statement and it cannot cover every set of circumstances.

Remember, too, that different laws apply depending on where you are in the UK. Northern Ireland has its own set of firearms laws, while Scotland is currently [April 2013] debating its own separate airgun legislation. Wildlife law in particular varies between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so what is legal in one place may be a criminal offence in another. If you are planning to do any sort of shooting beyond an organised target event or game shoot, you are strongly advised to check how the law affects you.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) has plenty of useful advice available to members and non-members alike on its website at Members can get specific advice from BASC’s experienced firearms team – just one reason why it’s a good idea to join the association.

There is also a very useful guide produced by the Home Office, entitled Firearms Law: Guidance to the Police. This was produced in 2002 and is currently being reviewed and updated, but is still very helpful in understanding how the police apply the laws surrounding firearms. You can download a copy of this and other useful publications at

How the law works

The law defines different types of guns, and then says what you can and can’t do with each of them. The three main types relevant to sporting shooting are airguns, shotguns and ‘Section 1 firearms’, mainly rifles. Each of these is defined in legal terms, so what looks and works like a shotgun may in fact fall into ‘Section 1’ because it has an unusually short barrel or a large capacity magazine, for instance. Outside of sporting shooting, there is a separate legal category, ‘Section 5’, for weapons such as handguns and submachine guns which are banned from private ownership.

There are special rules for young people, setting out minimum ages for owning and shooting an airgun or shotgun, for instance. And then there’s a whole group of objects that look like guns but aren’t – blank-firing replicas, museum pieces in obsolete calibres, airsoft guns, toy cap guns and the like. Broadly speaking the firearms laws don’t apply to the ownership of such things, but they tend to be treated as ‘firearms’ as soon as you step outside your front door.

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What we call an airgun in everyday language is known in law as a ‘low powered air weapon’. That basically means an air rifle of less than 12ft lbs, or an air pistol of less than 6ft lbs. An airgun may be powered by a spring and piston, a reservoir of compressed air or compressed CO2.

You can buy, own and use an airgun without needing a certificate. That situation may soon change in Scotland, however, so as with any firearms law, make sure you are up-to-date.

If you have ever been sentenced to more than three months’ imprisonment, you are automatically banned from owning an airgun for five years; a sentence over three years  means a lifetime ban.

There are age restrictions on who can buy and use an airgun. Between 14 and 17 years old, you can borrow an airgun and use one on private land where you have permission – but you cannot buy or hire one, or receive it as a gift. Your airgun and pellets must be bought and looked after for you by someone over 18.

Below the age of 14, you can only use an airgun under the supervision of someone over 21.

The law requires you to take ‘reasonable precautions’ to keep your airgun out of the hands of anyone under 18. If there are under-18s living in the house, or if children come to visit, you will need to make sure your airgun is locked away.

You can only shoot an airgun (or any other gun) on private land, and when you have permission (from the landowner, farmer etc) to do so. If you have an airgun in a public place you must have a ‘reasonable excuse’, such as travelling to or from a shoot, and it should be in a gun cover, unloaded and uncocked.


The law defines a shotgun as a smooth-bored gun with barrel(s) not shorter than 24”. Any normal sporting shotgun will fall into this category and come under ‘Section 2’ of the firearms acts. This includes pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns, as well as side-by-sides and over-and-unders.

There are different rules for a gun with a magazine that takes three or more cartridges,  or has a very short barrel or short overall  length, for instance if it has a folding buttstock. Those guns will fall under Section 1 and will require a Firearms Certificate.

In order to own and use a shotgun legally, you will need to apply for a Shotgun Certificate from your local police. You can collect the form from a police station or download one online. Fill in the form, truthfully answering all the questions, and send it together with the required fee and photos, countersigned by a suitable person.

The notes on the form explain who is, and is not, suitable to countersign your application. It needs to be someone of ‘good standing’ who has known you for at least two years but is not an immediate family member, typically a lawyer, doctor, accountant or similar.

A police Firearms Enquiry Officer will want to visit you at home to check the details. He (or she) will inspect the security arrangements you have made for storing your shotgun(s) – so before the visit you need to buy a suitable steel cabinet and fix it to a solid wall in the approved manner. They will also quiz you about why you want a gun. In theory you don’t have to provide a ‘good reason’ for wanting a shotgun, but in practice if you refuse to discuss your reasons it could raise doubts.

Provided all goes well and you receive your Shotgun Certificate, you can now go out and buy whatever shotguns you fancy – there is no restriction on what shotguns you own, or how many. The police need to be notified of each gun you buy or sell, and your certificate updated and signed by the seller. Before you get too carried away, remember that all your shotguns must be stored in your secure cabinet, so don’t allow your collection to exceed the cabinet’s capacity.

There are no special requirements for owning or storing regular clay and game shotgun ammunition, but you will need to produce your Shotgun Certificate in order to buy cartridges.

Where and how you use any shotgun you own legally is covered by a raft of other laws,  as noted earlier, but remember that the firearms laws still require you to keep it secure against ‘unauthorised access’ at all times. That means not leaving it unattended at a clay stand or while you go off to the shoot lunch, as well as taking sensible precautions while travelling to a shoot.  If you need to leave your car, at a service station for instance, the gun should be hidden from view and the car locked. Ideally the gun would be secured with a trigger lock or cable, and you could also remove the fore-end and slip it in your pocket.


The other main category of interest to the sporting shooter is ‘Section 1’ firearms, which for our purposes are mainly rifles. This covers the full range of sporting calibres from the humble .22 rimfire up to centrefires for deer and larger game. Also in this category are some of the less common shotguns and shotgun ammunition – such as solid slug ammo for instance.

To own a ‘Section 1’ firearm, you will need a Firearms Certificate.  This is issued by your local police  in much the same way as a Shotgun Certificate, but you use a different form and the questions are more probing. For a Firearms Certificate you need to specify each of the guns you want to acquire, and explain why you want them.

The police use a chart to decide whether the calibres you’ve requested are suitable for the use you plan to put them to. If you ask for a .308 for rabbiting, expect it to be refused. Different forces seem to interpret this differently. Some will allow a .243 for fox shooting, for instance, while others will suggest nothing bigger than a .22 centrefire. It’s as well to discuss all this with your Firearms Enquiry Officer in good time, to avoid wasting time and money pursuing a route the police will not sanction.

With a Firearms Certificate it’s up to you  to provide ‘good reason’ for wanting each gun, and show that you have somewhere suitable where you have permission to shoot. The police will check out the land you specify to ensure you really do have permission to shoot there and if it’s appropriate for the type of gun you are requesting.

With your Firearms Certificate application, you will need to provide details of two people willing to act as ‘referees’. As with a Shotgun Certificate, they must have known you for at least two years and be people of ‘good standing’ in the community. The police have some discretion in how they interpret ‘good standing’, so if you have difficulty finding someone suitable who knows you well, do ask for their advice. The referees will be asked to fill in a fairly detailed form about you, so make sure they are willing to do so before putting their names down. You will also have to provide details of your doctor and authorise the police to ask questions about your medical history.

Like a Shotgun Certificate application, you will receive a visit from the Firearms Enquiry Officer who will check the details of your application and inspect your security arrangements. Remember that unlike shotgun ammo, rifle ammo must be stored securely and separately from the gun, so you will need a separate, lockable box big enough to accommodate the ammo you plan to buy.

It’s rare for a Shotgun Certificate to contain any special conditions about how and where you use your shotguns, but with a Firearms Certificate there will normally be conditions that specify what and where you may shoot for each gun listed on the certificate. These conditions normally follow a prescribed form of words, to  be found in Appendix 3 of the Home Office guidance document referred to previously.

Increasingly, certain police forces are taking it upon themselves to add further conditions which may, for instance, specify that a rifle is only to be used from a high seat, or that you are accompanied by an experienced shooter until you have gained more experience yourself. You may be happy to comply, but to some shooters this seems a step too far. If you have any concerns about conditions applied to your certificate, then BASC’s firearms department should be able to advise you.

As with shotguns, you are responsible for keeping your rifles and ammunition secure at all times, so you need to take sensible precautions when travelling to and from your shoot, as well as during the shooting day. There is a Home Office publication, Firearms security: a brief guide, which you can download from the Home Office website. 

Ages at a glance


Under 15  -  You can borrow a shotgun, but only if you are accompanied by someone over the age of 21.

15-17  -  You can have a shotgun licence and receive a shotgun as a gift or borrow one (subject to correct supervision).

18  -  You can buy a shotgun


14  -  You may be granted a firearms certificate

17  -  You may borrow a firearm (from someone over 18)

18  -   You can buy a firearm

Key Contacts

BASC For shotgun, firearm and airgun issues, call the BASC hotline on 01244 573010. For help and application forms visit Home Office guidance publications are available at