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Selling Machine Guns at Auction

There are no guns that get the kind of cultural recognition that machine guns get. We see them in television and movies, wielded by John McClane types, as they hold off the bad guys, who usually also sport automatic weapons. These are the sort of weapons used by our military and foreign militaries around the globe, as well as by the hostile insurgent forces they fight. We hear them in the background of news reports from warzones, with a characteristic crack-crack-crack that instantly tells the viewer what is going on. We see them in video games. In a word, machine guns are everywhere. Everyone knows what a machine gun is.

What most people do not know is that many machine guns are federally legal to own, buy, and sell under the National Firearms Act (NFA). While there are federal restrictions on what machine guns someone can legally own, and some states have gun laws stricter than the federal rules, many types of machine guns can be sold completely legally and without problem. This article is intended to serve as a primer on the selling of machine guns at our auction house, NFA Auctions. We specialize in handling these types of firearms, and we would welcome the opportunity to sell yours.

History of Machine Guns
First, of course, what exactly is a machine gun? According to the ATF’s National Firearms Act Handbook, machine guns are “weapons that shoot, are designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot without manual reloading by a single function of the trigger” (p. 9). In layman’s terms, a machine gun is a firearm that shoots fully automatically by holding down a button or trigger. This is unlike a semi-automatic weapon, where you have to pull the trigger for each shot, or any other action type, where you must cock the weapon or engage the bolt and pull the trigger before firing.

Early Machine Guns
The modern machine gun is a marvel of modern ingenuity and design. Beginning with mid 19th century designs, like the Gatling Gun and the Maxim Gun, machine guns originated as field guns. They could be placed on carriages, like cannons, or mounted in positions or “nests”. Machine guns were used in nineteenth century conflicts, including the American Civil War and the Mahdist War. They changed the nature of warfare. They were used for the clearing of enemy soldiers en masse from the battlefield. Before the advent of machine guns, soldiers would line up in lines on the battlefield and fire volleys of bullets at one another until one side had had enough. Machine guns were deathly efficient at clearing hundreds of enemies from the battlefield in a matter of minutes. Strategy changed as a result of weapons like machine guns.

Early Light Machine Guns and Submachine Guns
These types of machine guns, often deemed heavy machine guns, are still produced and used. When most people think of machine guns, however, they think of the light machine gun or the submachine gun. The light machine gun is designed to be easily transportable and operable by a single person, and can be used and shot like any other gun, usually shouldered. A submachine gun is meant to be held in the hands. Many modern light machine guns and submachine guns trace their lineage to the designs of James Moses Browning and Isaac Newton Lewis, like the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) 1918 and its variants (1918A1, 1918A2, etc.). The BAR saw service in the First and Second World Wars, and was a major workhorse of the United States Military.

The most famous and widely used American machine gun of this era, however, is the Thompson Submachine Gun, or Tommy Gun for short. Developed under Brigadier General John T. Thompson, the Thompson arrived a little too late to serve in vast quantities in World War I. It became the gun-of-choice for many militaries afterward, as well as by gangsters and criminals during Prohibition. With a rate of fire of 800 rounds per minute, it is easy to see why. The so-called “Tommy Gun” (or, another favorite nickname, the Chicago Typewriter) was a major driver of the National Firearms Act in 1934, which sought to control (but not restrict) the sale of these guns to civilians. The Thompson was widely used by Allied forces in World War II, from the Americans and British to the Soviets. The Axis powers had their own light and sub-machine guns, most notably the German MP-38, MP-40, and Sturmgewehr-44 (StG-44).

The AK-47 and Beyond
The Thompson has since been mostly phased out of many militaries, but they are still present to some degree. Their wide usage has been more or less supplanted by the Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK-47), which is the most widely produced weapon in human history. The AK was invented by the Soviet / Russian inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov (1919 – 2013). Kalashnikov, after serving in the horrific Eastern Front of the Second World War, found inspiration in the automatic weapons of the Germans, and invented his namesake machine gun in 1947. Since its invention, an estimated 100 million AK-47s (and its variants the AKM, AK-74, AK-103, AK-104, AK-109, AEK-973, the AK pistol, and related designs like the Czech VZ58 and Israeli Galil) have been made, and they are used by a variety of militaries and insurgent groups across the globe. The AK is both beloved and feared for the exact same reasons: it is incredibly reliable, unquestionably deadly, and cheap to manufacture. In many places, it is a necessary tool of life, replacing traditional weaponry and providing needed defense.

Machine guns continue to be among the most common weapons on the battlefield. From the American M16 (M4) and the Israeli Galil to the ubiquitous AK-47, machine guns have continued to be a major force in the military sphere. Their widespread usage in the 20th and 21st century has made them, perhaps, the symbol par excellence of the last century. This is probably why, culturally, we have such a wide recognition of them; they have become indispensable parts of our world today.

Machine Guns and the NFA

NFA Definitions of a “Machine Gun”
Unlike most definitions of NFA firearms, machine guns have an incredibly broad definition in regard to the National Firearms Act. Besides being any physical machine gun, a machine gun for the purposes of the NFA also refers to among other things:

  • The receiver of a machine gun.
  • A conversion sear to make a semi-automatic weapon a machine gun.
  • Conversion kits.
  • Selective fire trigger assemblies / paks.
  • Parts kits with a receiver.

Simply put, if it is a machine gun or can readily be made into a machine gun, it is considered a machine gun under the NFA.

NFA Restrictions on Machine Guns
A machine gun eligible for sale (or, legally speaking, transfer) under the NFA, however, must meet certain qualifications. Most notably, a machine gun (whether the entire physical gun or the any variation of the above definitions of a machine gun) must have been “lawfully possessed before May 19, 1986”, meaning registered within the United States in the National Firearm Registration and Transfer Record (NFRTR) before a ban on machine guns was put into place with the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. All machine guns made after that date are illegal to purchase, unless it is bought by a government or law enforcement entity. However, a pre-ban conversion auto sear added to a gun made after the May 19, 1986 cutoff is considered an NFA firearm, and is legal to own under the NFA. In short, a machine gun is legal as long as it was made and properly registered in the United States before May 19, 1986. If it was made or registered after that date, a civilian cannot own it.

State Restrictions on Selling Machine Guns
While a machine gun may be legal under the National Firearms Act, this does not mean that machine guns are legal in your state. For instance, at the time this article was written, a pre-1986 machine gun capable only of fully automatic fire is legal within the State of Connecticut, as long as it is registered with the NFRTR and the Connecticut State Police Special Licensing and Firearms Unit (SLFU), with the SLFU registration re-completed yearly. If a machine gun has selectable fire rate (can shoot semi-automatic as well as fully automatic), it is classified as an assault rifle and is more strictly regulated in Connecticut; only law enforcement or military personnel or those with a Certificate of Possession may own one. In the state of Rhode Island, machine guns (and all NFA items) are completely banned and no one is legally allowed to own or possess one in its entirety. You are encouraged and urged to check your state’s gun laws to verify your eligibility for selling a machine gun.

Selling a Machine Gun
As long as it is legally transferable under the National Firearms Act, you can legally sell a machine gun. To sell a machine gun (or any other NFA firearm), either the seller or the buyer must pay the NFA Transfer Tax. For machine guns, this is a one-time tax of $200 per transfer.

The transfer and sale of machine guns takes place under the supervision of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) of the Department of Justice. To be specific, machine gun sales and transfers are supervised by the National Firearms Act Division of the ATF. According to the National Firearms Act Handbook, “the lawful transfer of an NFA firearm generally requires the filing of an appropriate transfer form with the ATF, payment of any transfer tax imposed, approval of the form by the ATF, and registration of the firearm to the transferee in the NFRTR. Approval must be obtained before a transfer may be made” (p. 58). The various ATF Forms for NFA transfers are available on the ATF’s website, and deal with a variety of stakeholders. For most machine guns, this will be ATF Form 4: Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration of Firearm. The ATF’s NFA Division ultimately has control over the transfer, and transfers must be okayed by the ATF before they can be completed and your machine gun sold.

This can be a rather time consuming process, but it is inherently navigable when you have a proper guide such as a trusted Federally Licensed Firearms business such as NFA Auctions. At NFA Auctions, we will work with you to make this process go as smoothly as possible. Our team is practiced and professional, and we have experience in working with the NFA Division at the ATF to facilitate the legal transfer of machine guns.