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How to legally own a handgun in the UK

Handguns were banned in the UK in 1996, in what many shooting enthusiasts regard as a knee-jerk reaction to the appalling Dunblane shooting. Whether this was a reasonable response or not -- and there's no doubt it was welcomed by many -- it's notable that the Government did not try to ban cars in the wake of the 2017 Westminster Bridge attack. Whatever the justification, the ban was a blow to those of us who took part in competitive handgun shooting, as I did as a student, back in the dinosaur days.

Many people -- even people who take part in competitive shooting -- regard the ban as insurmountable, and have resigned themselves to not shooting handguns competitively again. However, there are ways in which it's still possible to own and shoot handguns in the UK. Moreover, interest in this sport seems to be increasing, along with legal opportunities to enjoy it. As with any form of firearm with a rifled barrel, purchases have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by the relevant police authority. Whether your firearms enquiry officer (FEO) will approve your application depends, as it always does, on your previous lawful conduct, and membership of a shooting organization where the gun can be used. It's unlikely -- probably impossible -- that you'll get approval to use a handgun on land other than a Home Office-approved shooting range, even if it's land you own.

This article describes some of the ways you can lawfully own and shoot a handgun, under current UK legislation. None of what follows is an encouragement to indulge in gun crime -- ironically, it's easier to get a handgun on the black market than it is legally. Legal handgun owners are -- they have to be -- the most law-abiding members of society.

Authentic long-barrel handguns

The UK handgun ban applies primarily to the kinds of firearm that can be used to commit crimes. These, or the whole, are firearms that can be concealed. A long-barreled pistol or long-barreled revolver (these are different legal categories) is rarely used to hold up a bank.

To be classified as "long-barrelled", an authentic (that is, not modified to comply with UK law) handgun needs to have a barrel length of 18 inches or more. The only true long-barreled handgun I know to be sold regularly in the UK is the 357/38-calibre Buntline Special made by Uberti, and sold in the UK by Henry Crank (and maybe others).

The Buntline is a monster of a gun: heavy, loud, with a hefty recoil. It's amazingly accurate for a handgun when shot from some sort of rest; not so much when used freehand, because of the barrel weight. This isn't a gun you could conceal. It's more like a gun that would conceal its owner. It's great fun to shoot, though, and runs rings around normal handguns when it comes to scoring. A new one will set you back about £600; second-hand perhaps £300.

UK-adapted long-barrel handguns

In practice, most long-barrelled handguns in the UK have been adapted for the UK market from normal-length counterparts. There are two main categories -- semi-automatic pistols in .22" rim-fire calibre, and revolvers in larger calibres. Both have barrels of perhaps twelve-inch length, and "counterweights" (known colloquially as "coat-hangers") attached to their handles. The "counterweight" may serve some balancing function but, essentially, it's there to bring the overall length up to the 24 inches the law requires.

I own a number of "coathanger" handguns, and I find them fine to shoot, although they look stupid. The semi-automatics look particularly ridiculous, and manufacturers often conceal the over-long barrel inside a fake sound moderator. The moderator -- if it works -- is at least be a real feature of a firearm, and looks less ridiculous than a stalk barrel. I have a Walther PPQ that has a real moderator, which is both functional, and brings the barrel to regulation length. In use, this firearm is not much louder than an air pistol but, because of the long barrel length, achieves a muzzle energy of about the same as a small-bore rifle. The problem is that it's fussy about ammunition -- the moderator works best with sub-sonic rounds, but these often lack the recoil to operate the loading mechanism. Still, with careful ammunition choice and regular cleaning, the gun can be reliable. If you don't care about noise, you can use regular rifle rounds and the mechanism will be completely reliable.

There's no getting away, however, from the presence of the coathanger at the back of these guns.

Like authentic long-barrelled handguns, these firearms are impossible to conceal. Although they are easy to load and shoot, they would be completely impractical for criminal purposes. A sawn-off shotgun is easier to hide than one of these handguns.

The best-known UK-adapted long-barrel revolvers are the .357" Taurus, and the much newer Chiappa Rhino, which is available in .357" and 9mm formats. These look identical and shoot similarly but, of course, you need to specify the exact calibre on your licence. The Rhino is an astonishingly expensive gun -- new prices are currently over £1000.

Happily, .38" ammunition is cheap, and it's even cheaper if you hand load it. I think mine works out at about 6p per round. Cost is a factor, if you want to get enough practice to be competitive.

Muzzle-loading pistols

The first handguns were single-shot muzzle-loaders, as were the first rifles, and there's a thriving community of historical pistol enthusiasts. There's little to beat shooting a large-calibre pistol loaded with black powder and ball. The noise, the smoke, the shoulder-breaking recoil, the, um... clean-up...

To use real black power guns in the UK, in addition to permission to keep the firearm, you'll need a licence to handle and store black powder. Traditional black power represents a significant safety hazard, and it's not something I'd keep in or around my house. In my experience, most UK historical shooting enthusiasts use modern black powder substitutes, like Hodgson Triple-7. This behaves much the same as black powder, but is less combustible, and doesn't make as much mess.

True historical re-enactors prefer to use highly authentic reproductions of period firearms. These typically use traditional percussion caps, and may even have a spark pan that has to be charged. All this is too much of a bother for me. The muzzle-loaders I use take shotgun primers as an ignition source, and have a modern firing pin and spark channel. These are still true muzzle-loaders -- they have to be rammed with powder, wad, and ball. Some people even cast their own balls (oo-er missus).

The best UK source for these guns is, again, Henry Krank, although they turn up second hand in most gun shops from time to time. New prices range from about £300 to, well, as much as you want to pay.

Muzzle-loading revolvers

It's worth thinking about how far the definition of "muzzle loading" can be stretched. If you have to ram a ball using a brass rod, I guess nobody would argue that you're muzzle-loading. But what if you just push a lead projectile into each firing chamber of a revolver?

Such a scheme would not be "breach loading" and it certainly wouldn't be "self-loading". So, almost by default, it counts as "muzzle loading" for purposes of UK law. However, you get true revolver action, and the gun might even have double-action firing; that is, you might not need to cock it manually between shots.

There are two main classes of muzzle-loading revolvers in the UK -- replicas of 19th century revolvers adapted to use modern powder and ignition, and modern firearms minimally adapted to comply with the law. The latter is a particularly interesting category. So far as I know, there's only one UK manufacturer of these firearms -- Alan Westlake Engineering. Alan takes part-finished revolvers from mainstream manufacturers outside the UK, and fits them with custom cylinders that have to be loaded from the muzzle end. He usually supplies a loading press with the gun -- you can't ram these with a rod because the projectile fit is too tight.

Alan Westlake's guns are only (at present) available in .38" calibre, and have to be loaded with pre-lubed lead wadcutters and one of a small range of modern powders. I load mine -- a Filipino clone of the Colt Detective Special -- with 2.2 grains of Alliant Unique, which gives a muzzle energy of about 80 foot-pounds. That's more than enough for target shooting at 20 metres or so. it's enough to spoil your day if you have the bad luck to find yourself on the wrong side of the barrel.

To be frank, it surprises me that handguns like this remain legal in the UK. As a target shooter I'm happy that they do, but I wouldn't be surprised if that changed. My Westlake revolver has a 4" barrel and, while it takes a couple of minutes to load, once loaded it's like the original Detective Special in all important particulars. If I found one pointed at me, I'd hand my wallet over in short order. You could keep one in a shoulder holster or even in a coat pocket, if the lack of a safety catch didn't scare you (and it should).

My discussion with the police firearms folks lead me to believe that they don't see muzzle-loading revolvers being used in crime. To be fair, there a sufficient black market for normal revolvers that there would be no interest. Nevertheless, muzzle-loading revolvers surely violate the spirit of the handgun ban, if not the letter.

Closing remarks

I took up handgun shooting again a couple of years ago, after an interval of about 25 years. I'd forgotten how much fun it is. Because I either load my own cartridges, or don't need cartridges (for muzzle loading) it's as cheap a way to enjoy target shooting as any I can think of.

Of course, it's not an easy sport to get into, because of the legal restrictions. You need to be an established member of the shooting community, with a squeaky-clean record. You need to be on good terms with your FEO and, in practice, there are some regions of the country where it's probably impossible to get approval at all, because gun crime is too extensive.

[ Last updated Tue 22 Feb 19:28:25 GMT 2022 ]