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Buying a Machine Gun Isn't 'Automatic'

Navigating the NFA of 1934
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 In 37 of the 50 United States, it is legal to own a fully automatic machine gun. That doesn’t mean purchasing one is going to be fast or easy, though. With laws on the books dating back to 1934, a would-be rapid firer will have to successfully navigate many pages of forms and receive proper paperwork before pressing the trigger and feeding the receiver. Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In 37 of the 50 United States, it is legal to own a fully automatic machine gun. That doesn’t mean purchasing one is going to be fast or easy, though. With laws on the books dating back to 1934, a would-be rapid firer will have to successfully navigate many pages of forms and receive proper paperwork before pressing the trigger and feeding the receiver. Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Thanks to movies and video games, nothing says “World War II” quite like a machine gun — despite the fact that most combat soldiers carried rifles. For military firearms collectors, the machine gun is the “ultimate toy for grown up boys.” What reader of this magazine wouldn’t want to add a fully live and functional machine gun to their collection? Be honest!

The truth is that a machine gun isn’t something for everyone. Legally obtaining one is a complex process that is largely misunderstood and permeated by numerous misconceptions. Few people who haven’t gone through the process really can even explain it correctly. One of the widest misconceptions is that you need to be a Class III dealer to own a live machine gun — that is wrong. Simply put, you are not required to obtain a special license — at least to own a World War II machine gun.

This isn’t to say, however, that you can go down to the next gun big show and just throw down the money and walk away with a BAR or an MG-34. There are some rather complex federal laws and even more complex state laws to navigate before you can make the purchase.


First, you do need to live in the right state(for the purpose of this article we’re only discussing the legality of machine guns in the United States). Currently there are actually 37 states where it is legal to buy/own a machine gun. Of the 13 states where it is illegal, California, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are on top of the list where you simply can’t own one under almost any circumstances as a private citizen. (This is where the special Class III license comes up – there are those with such licenses in the aforementioned states, but it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss what is involved apart from saying that it requires a lot of money for the license, which are really intended for firearm importers/dealers not collectors).

As for the state issue specifically, add to the list Delaware, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin where it virtually impossible to buy or own a machine gun in most cases (see the above license issue). Even Nevada and Texas, which are seen as gun-friendly states, have certain restrictions that make buying such a firearm somewhat difficult but not impossible.

If your state wasn’t mentioned above, then you’re actually in luck. The remaining states do allow ownership of a machine gun, but again, it isn’t as simple as going out and picking one up at Joe’s Machine Gun Emporium or even at the Ohio Valley Military Society’s Show of Shows.

Instead, residents of these states need to purchase one via a licensed Class III dealer, including an auction house. If the firearm is on the ATF’s Curio & Relic’s (C&R) list, they can be purchased from an individual who legally owns one, provided both parties also have a C&R license. These firearms are called “papered” referring to the fact that the gun has the appropriate paperwork. To better understand this we need to take a step back. But first,— and this isn’t legal advice nor should it be taken as such — Buying a machine gun that isn’t papered is a felony! Don’t do it. That is probably all that needs to be said on that issue.

The Responsibility of Owning a Machine Gun

Hotchkiss machine gun

Hotchkiss machine gun

It isn’t just super heroes who have to live by the concept of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Owning a machine gun could fall into the same category. Machine guns are tightly controlled because of the potential harm these weapons can cause. Whether you agree with the laws or not, you need to follow them.

While most gun owners would agree that all firearms should be controlled by the owner, when dealing with a machine gun this situation is magnified. First, it is against the law to let the weapon be out of your control — this means you can’t just leave it for the weekend at a buddy’s house. That is against the law. The weapon’s owner also needs to have the transfer stamp (see feature) with the gun at all times. Now it doesn’t need to be literally taped to the side of the gun, but when you go to the range, the stamp must go with it.

Speaking of ranges, machine guns generally can’t be used at most commercial ranges — so you need to go to approved ranges that allow fully automatic weapons. In addition, even when firing on your own property you should notify law enforcement accordingly.

Because an NFA weapon requires a transfer stamp, it will be equally difficult to sell. You will either need to sell it to a Class III dealer or transfer to another individual. In either case, this will be another waiting game. These are serious investments that won’t be readily inherited by a spouse or children. Even your wife would need to apply to have the firearm transferred via a trust.

These are some of the small details to consider before you “invest” in a machine gun.

The National Firearms Act of 1934

So why is it required that a machine gun be registered or papered with the government? Well, you can blame the gangland violence of the 1920s — but you can also blame some rather ambitious marketing attempts too!

As any gangster movie made in the past 50 years has shown, there was a lot of violence in the 1920s and criminals everywhere were shooting up banks. You couldn’t walk down the streets of Chicago without seeing a dozen gangsters wielding Tommy Guns!

Actually, all of the above is hyperbole and myth more than reality. The truth is that Thompson submachine guns weren’t all that widely used by gangsters or by most bank robbers. In fact, during the 1920s when the average salary was $1,600 a year, a Thompson cost $200. So, while most movie gangsters carried Thompsons, most real gangsters didn’t, simply because they were too expensive

It was, however, offered to the public. Auto-Ordnance, the maker of the Thompson, even tried to market it to rangers and cattlemen to fend off rustlers!

Two events in the late 1920s and early 1930s attracted the attention of lawmakers. The first was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 in which Thompsons played significant role. Then, on February 15, 1933, an assassin attempted to kill President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a handgun. These two events, along with fears of potential gangland wars, were enough to force lawmakers to consider gun legislation.

The result was the National Firearms Act of 1934. It has limited the availability of automatic weapons in civilian hands ever since. The law originally could have regulated pistols and revolvers (thanks to the attempt on FDR), but in the end, it only addressed specific weapons including machine guns, short-barreled rifles (SBRs), short-barreled shotguns (SBSs), and silencers as well as destructive devices including grenades, bombs, poison gas, and other military-grade ordnance. Also in the category of destructive devices (DDs) was any firearm that had a bore over .50-inch except for shotguns that were found to be particularly suitable for sporting purposes.

The National Firearms Act (NFA) was enacted on June 26, 1934 but it didn’t technically “outlaw” machine guns. This is one huge misconception that persists to this day.

What the NFA did was to impose a statutory excise tax on the manufacture and transfer of “certain firearms” and mandated the registration of said items. That excise tax was set at $200, which, in essence, doubled the price of the Thompson at the time. Initially, the IRS handled the registration though the actual weapon was registered with the Secretary of the Treasury.

The other huge misconception in the buying of machine gun — or other NFA weapon including short barreled rifles and silencers — is that one must have a Class III permit to own it. In actuality, the legal possession of an NFA weapon only requires transfer of registration within the NFA registry.

After your paperwork has been approved, this is what makes your machine gun legal to own — the Transfer Stamp.

After your paperwork has been approved, this is what makes your machine gun legal to own — the Transfer Stamp.

Updating the Law

The laws on NFA weapons have been updated twice since 1934. The first time was in 1968 with the passage of the Gun Control Act (GCA). It was at this time that firearms were added to the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco soon to be rebranded the The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and FIREARMS — BATF. The GCA also restricted certain categories of individuals from owning guns including felons, users of controlled substances, or those who were convicted of a misdemeanor crime or domestic violence.

For collectors, the law was seen as a mixed blessing. While it restricted certain weapons, the act made it legal for “new” machine guns to be produced with old parts. As a result of this amnesty, many older guns — including WWII bring-backs — came out of the woodwork.

The second change came in 1986 with the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. This has impacted collectors to this day. The Act banned the creation of any new machine guns, including those made with old parts. As a result of the now 32-year-old law, it is only possible to legally own a machine gun that was produced prior to 1986.

There are certain exceptions to the Act, such as law enforcement or importers that supply weapons to law enforcement for example. (These exceptions involve paying for expensive licenses for the importation of certain firearms.) The Act also means it that any “attic finds” that aren’t papered, cannot be papered. There is absolutely no way to paper such a firearm. Such weapons can only be deactivated per Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.( BATFE) requirements. As noted before, buying an un-papered machine gun is a felony! Don’t do it!

The Purchase

Given the above history, it should be clear that buying a machine gun isn’t easy. Honestly, the system isn’t meant to be easy. The system is in place to control the buying of a highly controlled item that has the potential to take many lives.

To buy a machine gun, you need to fill out some rather detailed paperwork. It will be sent to the NFA Branch of the ATF.

Once you find a gun that is for sale), you become the Transferor on the ATF’s Form 4. This form can be downloaded from the ATF website, but do make sure you have the correct version. As of July 12, 2016, a new form was introduced, and even those who had gone through this process before will note a few changes. All of the old forms are now invalid and won’t be accepted.

This form can be printed out or filled out online and then printed. It needs to be filled out in triplicate with two copies going directly to NFA Branch while the third copy must be sent to your Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO). That is your local police chief or sheriff.

Until 2016, the transferor’s CLEO had to sign off on the ATF forms. Essentially, you had to ask “permission” to buy the machine gun. With the change in 2016, you don’t have to ask, but you do need to notify your CLEO that you’re buying a machine gun.

However, it must be stressed that if you live in a state or city that doesn’t allow machine guns, the ATF will deny the transfer.Don’t waste your time or theirs. Under no circumstance will an application from one of these states “slip through.” Even if it did, you would be violating state law and committing a felony. As has been said previously, don’t do it!

If you are buying a machine gun from a Class III dealer, they will — or at least should – fill out the paperwork. If you are doing a private transfer as a C&R holder from another C&R holder, you may still might want to involve a dealer. While this can cost $100 or more, it is worth it. A dealer will know the ins and outs far better than the first-time buyer.

This is important because mistakes will only slow the process. If any mistakes are found, the paperwork will be returned for corrections ONE TIME and ONE TIME ONLY! The NFA Branch doesn’t grant a lot of do-overs.

After the paperwork is filled out, both you ( the Transferor) and the seller (Transferee) will need to sign all three copies. The forms require that you provide a detailed description of the firearm, the name and address of the maker, and manufacturer and/or importer of the firearm.

The type of firearm will need to be described and in most cases, stating “machine gun” should suffice. The caliber or gauge will be indicated as will the model, plus length of both the overall weapon and the barrel length. Your Social Security number, plus address, phone number, and other relevant information is required for Form 4.

Here, again, is where a dealer can be helpful. If you are filling out the forms yourself, be sure to copy EXACTLY what was on the seller’s form from when he / she was the buyer of the weapon. The NFA Branch wants to see the details match up. So, if the previous seller stated 8mm, the NFA Branch doesn’t want to see 8 x 54mmR. Even something as seemingly minor as this will result in the forms being returned for corrections.

The rest of the paperwork is akin to a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for a firearm. Some of these questions can disqualify a person from acquiring or possessing any firearm. This includes such points as whether you’ve been indicted or convicted of a crime, are a fugitive from justice, or user of unlawful drugs. If you can’t answer honestly on these forms, don’t waste your time. The background checks conducted by the NFA branch will reveal any convictions, etc.

One key question you will have to answer is why you “have a reasonable necessity to possess the machine gun, short-barreled rifle, short-barreled shotgun, or destructive device described on this application for the following reason(s).” In the case of collectors, it has been suggested that stating, “for the purpose of historical research and for all other legal reasons” is sufficient. It is what most dealers have recommended as a qualifying answer. What the NFA Branch doesn’t want to see are any “smartass” answers like “in case of the Zombie apocalypse.” This is no joke — don’t treat it as such.

After filling out the form and having the seller (the “Transferee” ) sign the document, you will need to attach two (2) current passport style photos, as well as two (2) FBI Forms FD-258 (Fingerprint Card with blue lines). The fingerprints must be clear for accurate classification and must be taken by someone properly equipped to do so. Most police stations or sheriff departments can accommodate this requirement.

They, you mail the two copies to the ATF, along with a payment of $200 by either credit card or personal check (that is for the transfer stamp). The third form goes to the CLEO. Unlike with most firearm purchases, this is not a cash and carry situation. Anyone who thinks California’s 10-day waiting period for firearm purchases is extreme should know that with an NFA transfer it can take up to a year and rarely less than 240 days. In other words,you need to be patient. It has been reported that dealers who handle “E-filing” or electronic filings typically get resolution sooner, so that is another reason to go with a dealer.

However you do it, once the paperwork comes back to you with the transfer stamp, you can finally take home your machine gun.

Understanding the Costs

There are a few Class III dealers throughout the country that offer machine guns for sale, and weapons do come up at auction. However, it is really a matter of networking, so you need to find someone looking to sell. The good news is that machine guns —like everything else — aren’t something you can’t take with you, so there are always some for sale.

The cost of a machine gun can vary greatly, but one point to note is that none of them will be cheap. The reason comes back to the fact that every legal to own machine gun is papered, and there is a limited supply with reasonable demand. As noted, no legal machine gun will have been made or imported after 1986.

As a result, there are many automatic weapons from the 1970s and 1980s time frame that include Mac 10s, M-16s, Uzis, and similar weapons that were favored by militaries around the world that often come up for sale. These types of firearms will generally set you back anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.

WWII collectors have it much worse. Generally the rarer the firearm, the higher the cost, but even rather “common” machines such as a Browning .30 caliber M1917 can today cost around $30,000 as can a live Browning Automatic Rifle. World War I firearms such as a Lewis Gun or a German MG08/15 are often seen for around $25,000. However, some firearms can cost far more! A rare WWII German-made FG-42, an automatic weapon used by Nazi Germany’s paratroopers, sold at auction in 2016 for a record $330,000, plus fees.

It will require deep pockets — not to mention to some serious patience — but anyone who has bought a machine gun will tell there are few thrills like it. Having your fully auto machine gun is truly owning a unique piece of firearm history!

You may also enjoy:

*Health of Firearms Collecting: 10 Questions with James D. Julia

*Tips for preserving your firearms collection

*Buying a Sherman tank

*Book Review: Machine Gun Accessories

*As an Amazon Associate, Military Trader / Military Vehicles earns from qualifying purchases.

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