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Collecting historic firearms in the 21st century

27 April 2017

Over the past two centuries, museums and private individuals in the UK have amassed significant collections of historic firearms – and continue to add to them today. Earlier this year, the passage of the Policing and Crime Act raised questions about how such collections are monitored. Where is the line between an antique firearm that can be treated as a historic artefact, and a weapon requiring a licence? Mark Murray-Flutter of the Royal Armouries in Leeds explains how the definitions are changing.

Over the last 30 years the collecting of firearms, whether as objets d’art or as historical artefacts has become a more complicated and difficult pastime. The heyday of firearms collecting was in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when such pieces were not only legally available (there was no comprehensive firearms control until after the 1920 Firearms Act) but were also reasonable in price. All this helped the creation of a number of notable collections, which included some of the most beautiful and interesting firearms ever made. Examples include the Beriah Botfield collection at Norton Hall, Northamptonshire, built up in the 19th century; the 20th century saw the creation of W. R. Hearst’s collection at St Donat’s castle, the Astor collection at Hever castle and the W. Keith Neal collection (probably the finest private collection of firearms ever assembled in the UK), from which examples occasionally appear on the market. Fine firearms from all these collections have been acquired over time by the Royal Armouries, the National Collection of Arms and Armour, to illustrate artistic and technical gun-making skills through the ages both in Europe and Britain.

Flintlock sporting gun Flintlock sporting gun (dated 1646) with a stock decorated by Jean Conrad Tornier. From the W.R. Hearst collection. © Royal Armouries

Flintlock sporting gun (dated 1646) with a stock decorated by Jean Conrad Tornier. From the W.R. Hearst collection. © Royal Armouries

The basic issue now faced by both collectors and museums is how to know whether a firearm is legally classed as an antique or not. The simple tests applied since 1920 of whether a gun was muzzle loaded, or employed an obsolete mechanism – such as pin-fire or needle-fire – are no longer adequate, as since 1992 collectors and museums have also been able to hold centrefire cartridge weapons as antiques, provided they chamber an obsolete cartridge. All this in addition to the requirement that the firearm date from before 1939.

These changes have come about as some cartridge firearms are now of such an age that they can be considered an antique in the traditional sense of the word. The complication is that some may chamber readily available cartridges (which require a licence), others obsolete cartridges (which can be held as antiques). Therefore, understanding the revised classification system is vital. To give a simple example; common sense would suggest that a decorated wheellock or flintlock gun is clearly an antique, but the law now requires us to prove it. Until the passage of the Policing and Crime Act in February this year, this proof was based on guidance issued to the police by the Home Office. In order for our hypothetical wheellock or flintlock sporting gun to benefit from an exemption from the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968 (the principal act) under Section 58(2), it would have to have been made prior to 1939 (the outbreak of the Second World War), be muzzle-loading and be kept as a ‘curio or ornament’. There used to be no statutory definition of antique in the Firearms Acts, and it was left to the courts to determine each individual case on its merits; but now there will be.

Wheellock rifle (c. 1590), decorated with engraved bone panels. From the Beriah Botfield collection, Norton Hall. © Royal Armouries

Wheellock rifle (c. 1590), decorated with engraved bone panels. From the Beriah Botfield collection, Norton Hall. © Royal Armouries

For self-contained cartridge weapons, which became mainstream from around 1875 and which have now become collectable both by virtue of their technical innovation and historical associations, the classification process that collectors or museums have to navigate has now become quite complex – and to get it wrong can have unfortunate consequences. Prior to this year, the Home Office guidance document offered a list of centrefire calibres that are considered ‘antique’, and it is this list that we consult before purchase or sale of a cartridge firearm, especially a revolver. The new act will for the first time enshrine an agreed list in law through the medium of a statutory instrument. Before the drawing up and publishing of this instrument there will be a consultation period during which interested parties can offer their views to the Home Office.

The upshot of these changes is that for the first time there will be some very useful certainty, in firearms terms, as to what constitutes an antique. For example there should be no concerns over the collecting of wheellock, flintlock, percussion, needle-fire or pin-fire firearms, as long as they were made prior to 1939 (unless the Home Office changes the date). Private enthusiasts and museum curators can take pleasure in collecting such items, knowing that they are legally antique and therefore exempt from the provisions of the Firearms Act. The provision of a statutory definition of ‘antique’ should ensure that this is the case for many years to come. In the case of antique cartridge firearms, a more controversial area of collecting, those in the market will have to keep a sharp eye on the development and management of the yet-to-be-confirmed obsolete calibres list. This list will clarify which centrefire cartridge firearms can be considered antique. The Home Office should inform everyone of any changes in the future.

Mark Murray Flutter is senior curator at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds.