Is there any such thing as “government only” guns or ammo?
December 28, 2018 6:41 PM   Subscribe

A trope I run into periodically in movies or TV is the concept of “government only” or “military issue” guns or ammo. It always strikes me as odd because as far as I’m aware there is no such thing. Even super weird or unusual ammo is purchasable in the US. I’m just curious, is there any such thing as military issue or government only arms or ammunition?
posted by ArthurBarnhouse to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This law restricts "armor piercing" ammunition. A relevant recent news story.
posted by kickingtheground at 6:48 PM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a layperson I've always understood "government issue" and "military issue" to mean the equipment that the government/military orders and trains with, as opposed to that the equipment is exclusively manufactured and sold to the government/military only and is not available to the general public.
posted by vignettist at 6:58 PM on December 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Probably not what you are thinking but there are large swaths of firearms in Canada (and I'd guess most of the developed nations) that are only legal for military and or police to own.

Also there are weapons that are only sold to police or armed forces though those owners do tend to leak the weapons out to collectors.

See for example the select fire version of the FN-P90 which is " restricted to military, law enforcement or holders of a Federal Firearms License (FFL)"

And of course once you get heavier than assault rifles there are all sorts of things that the armed forces have that are essentially unobtainable for anyone lacking a black market arms dealer connection. EG: the MK19 automatic grenade launcher.
posted by Mitheral at 7:09 PM on December 28, 2018

Assuming you mean small arms, the closest you'll get to gov't-only guns are full-auto guns made after [date; I don't care], which are only legal for the government, people who sell guns to the government, and undoubtedly some small smattering of other exceptions like film armorers.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:26 PM on December 28, 2018

I feel like depleted uranium, white phosphorus, and dum-dums all deserve a mention, but WP doesn't appear to come in small-arms sizes, dum-dums have been banned since the 19th century, and DU has been brought up to be banned as well. So I guess DU is the only relevant one of the three.
posted by rhizome at 7:31 PM on December 28, 2018

A selector switch for a three round burst?
posted by corb at 7:56 PM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Vignettist is right. Military-issue really just means "the kinds of weapons the military ordinarily provides to its members." You can find military-issue goods of many kinds kicking around, not just weapons.
posted by praemunire at 8:37 PM on December 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Federal law only regulates armor piercing rounds but some manufactures will only sell some of the exotic rounds like subsonic or tracer to military or LEO.

Some firearms are also restricted as far as purchasing like the Mk 20 SSR. They might not be technically illegal to own if you have the proper licensing but you're not supposed to be able to find one to buy.
posted by Candleman at 8:56 PM on December 28, 2018

In the US: for small-arms, no. For a surprising range of heavier weapons, also no (I have personally witnessed a civilian operating their private M134 at a heavy-weapons shoot). It's just a matter of paperwork, filing fees, and date-of-manufacture.

...for most other civilized nations, yes, there can be quite a range of restrictions (magazine capacity, fire rate, bullet size, etc. etc. etc.)

I rather expect that, for most of the occasions you've encountered this concept, it was basically a scriptwriter shorthand for "holy shit these are serious weapons/serious dudes/crazy situation!!1!".
posted by aramaic at 9:03 PM on December 28, 2018

A few years back, I read that fulminate of mercury as a cartridge primer had been phased out in ammo meant for civilians in favor of lead styphnate, but was still in use by the military.
posted by jamjam at 9:15 PM on December 28, 2018

There's a bullet manufactured specifically for room clearing, I forget the name but essentially it disintegrates if it hits anything harder than a human, avoiding ricochets, aircraft fuselage damage etc. No use for recreation as a serious respiratory hazard.

Also I would hope that even in the us there are controls on full-auto shotguns.

Mind you laws are all fine, and law-abiding folk abide. Doesn't seem to stop anyone else owning pretty much anything, even here in little NZ.
posted by unearthed at 9:38 PM on December 28, 2018

Well, there's no short answer to this question. Firearms and related laws in the US are complex, and that's just at the Federal level; when you add in state-level stuff it becomes, well, 50 times more complex. But broadly, there are a few categories of arms that are particularly highly regulated ("Title II items") or basically unavailable to civilians. They are more narrowly defined than I think many people think they are, though. (FWIW, I am ignoring stuff that is obviously regulated under other laws, like nuclear weapons, as out of scope of the question.)

There are no civilian-legal machine guns manufactured after 1986; this is when Reagan signed the GOPA and the machine gun registry was closed. Anything made after 1986 that fires from an open bolt (the US ATF basically doesn't allow open-bolt firing designs, believing them too easy to convert to full auto) or is designed as full auto or multiple-round burst, is illegal for civilian ownership. Conversion kits or parts ("auto sears") that turn a civilian-legal gun into a FA or select-fire one are treated the same as a machine gun, as far as the ATF is concerned, and they're especially illegal because they typically lack serial numbers, so there's no way they can be plausibly on the registry. (There are serialized and registered auto sears, though. $20k if you want one; I've never seen one in person. Hen's teeth.)

Machine guns made and registered prior to 1986 can still be legally transferred from one eligible individual to another, subject to a $200 transfer tax, but they trade at an astonishing premium and are basically collectors' pieces.

Firearms with a barrel less than 16in, or an overall length under 26in, are considered "short barreled rifles" (SBRs) and require registration and a $200 transfer tax. This is largely to prevent sawed-off shotguns and stuff like the Obrez (cut-down Mosin Nagant rifle). The registration process isn't actually all that hard, if you're into filling out paperwork recreationally, but it does cost two hundred bucks and take about six months. However, you can have pistols chambered in rifle cartridges, which leads to uniquely American inventions like AR-15 pistols. Note that if you put a shoulder stock on an AR-15 pistol that hasn't been registered as an SBR, congratulations, you've committed a felony.

Silencers or suppressors are actually considered "firearms" under the NFA statutes, and are regulated like guns. They have to have serial numbers and are individually registered to owners, subject to a $200 transfer tax. They are more popular than you might expect, though, primarily because of increased concern over hearing damage and complaints from neighbors over noise issues. Periodically there are efforts to de-NFA suppressors, although I am not sure it's likely.

Firearms with a bore larger than .50 caliber (the statute actually says "one half inch") are regulated as "Destructive Devices" by the US ATF. They are not completely illegal, but there's a bunch of special licensing requirements for them. IIRC this was originally to regulate punt guns, anti-materiel rifles, and cannons.

Interestingly, there's a special carve-out for "sporting" shotguns in the destructive device law, which would otherwise catch anything bigger than about 36 gauge (realistically, anything other than .410, of stuff in common use). This allows the selective de facto banning of shotguns that are not "generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes". The Armsel Striker ("Street Sweeper"), USAS-12, and Stryker-12 shotguns are among those that have been banned nationally in the US by various ATF rulings in the mid-1990s. (But many similar ones haven't; it's entirely at the semi-random discretion of whoever happens to be appointed to run the ATF.) I say de facto ban because you can still get a Street Sweeper, if you really wanted to, but you'd have to go through the whole Destructive Device registration process, and most people don't think that's worthwhile. Also there are import regulations which prevent any non-sporting shotguns and non-sporting rifles from being imported, but the regulations are somewhat less severe on domestically produced stuff.

But basically, if you wanted to own, say, a 155mm howitzer in the US, and you could find somebody with one that was legally in civilian hands willing to sell it to you (within the US; I doubt you'd get that categorized as "sporting purpose"), you could probably do it. Subject to a Destructive Device application and $200 tax stamp, and probably an additional $200 stamp per round of ammunition if it's explosive.

Sidebar: there is exactly one civilian-legal Mk. 19 grenade launcher floating around on the market. Allegedly this is it. One hundred and ninety five thousand smackers (plus $200 tax!) and it could be yours, assuming your state doesn't have further laws against it. No clue where you get ammunition.

Muzzle-loading weapons are basically exempt from most laws around destructive devices (though not state-level laws, esp. hunting laws). The net of this is, if you and your friends would like to LARP with a no-shit Civil War cannon, you can do that. Also, gatling guns are okay, as long as they are cranked and don't have a trigger that results in multiple rounds being fired with one pull (that's a machine gun, do not pass go, go directly to jail).

Depleted uranium ammunition is specifically called out in 27 CFR § 478.11 (Armor Piercing Ammunition) and banned if "designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile". Emphasis mine, because most military DU ammunition isn't designed for handguns, so in theory if you could find some in, say, 5.56mm or 7.62, you could possess it. (God knows what sort of environmental or NRC regulations you'd be breaking if you fired it outdoors though.) But it's pretty hypothetical, because most DU rounds are for larger-caliber weapons systems, not small arms. The ones you hear about most often are 20mm and 30mm cannon shells, the saboted 105mm "silver bullet" rounds fired by the Abrams, etc., so they'd be Destructive Devices and I think there'd be awkward questions about where you obtained it when you sent in your ATF application.

What that law was really designed to ban are rounds like the Russian 7H31 high-velocity penetrator, which is designed to defeat body armor and is chambered for 9mm. It will also blow up or damage most guns if you tried to shoot it. People get in trouble for having this stuff periodically.

FN, more as a commercial decision than a legal requirement, doesn't sell the SS190/SS198LF "Duty", L191 "Tracer", and SB193 "Subsonic" rounds in 5.7x28mm. I guess because FN sells the "Five-seveN" pistol, it'd be awkward to claim they're "not intended for use" in a handgun. They also don't sell the MK 20 "sniper" rifle on the civilian market, although they could; personally I think this is just a marketing gimmick: they're working up its 'forbidden fruit' cachet and will eventually sell a civilian version of it (probably when their military contract orders decline), at some exorbitant price, and people will buy it as fast as they can make 'em. They did this with the M249 SAW, and now you too can own a belt-fed (but semi-automatic, closed-bolt-firing, totally different in all but name) "SAW" for eight thousand bucks.

From 1994 to 2004, the now-defunct "Assault Weapon Ban" (AWB) made a variety of configurations of semi-automatic rifles illegal, as well as magazines having a capacity of more than 10 rounds. Magazines manufactured during this era or shortly thereafter are often stamped "Law Enforcement Use Only" or similar (generally on the magazine floorplate). When the ban expired in 2004, these entered the civilian market in large numbers, so the markings are now largely meaningless.

If you'd like to know more, the ATF has an interesting online publication called the "Firearms Guide - Identification of Firearms Within the Purview of the National Firearms Act" which is a sort of field guide to Title II items; there are a couple of categories I didn't mention ("Any Other Weapons" covers zip guns and some other weird stuff). But in general, things not listed there are probably legal at the federal level.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:41 PM on December 28, 2018 [50 favorites]

There isn't a civilian version of the US Army's M-79.
posted by X4ster at 9:54 PM on December 28, 2018

Countries outside the US sometimes has restrictions on "military calibers" for civilian ownership. So there are for instance .222 Remington, popular in Spain and France in rifles originally chambered for .223 Remington / 5.56mm NATO.
posted by Harald74 at 1:26 AM on December 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

About dumdum bullets. This was a user hack, cutting the bullet so it would expand or fragment on hitting the target. This is not necessary in the US because expanding bullets can be found in most any caliber for self-defense and hunting.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:53 AM on December 29, 2018

I forget the name but essentially it disintegrates if it hits anything harder than a human

Frangible rounds.
posted by porpoise at 1:44 PM on December 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

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