An air weapon differs from a conventional firearm by the fact that it, and the pellets discharged, do not contain any explosive substance.

When the trigger is pulled the pellets are forced from the barrel by gas pressure generated either by the release of a coiled spring acting upon a piston, or the discharge of compressed gas from a cylinder.

Most air weapons are of such limited power that they do not require to be licensed, however there are exceptions to this rule.

The Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969 require that certain air weapons can only be held legally on a firearm certificate. It is possible to measure the velocity of pellets, discharged from an air weapon, by the use of an electronic chronograph. From these measurements the kinetic energy of the pellet at the muzzle can be calculated. Air weapons deemed specially dangerous have a muzzle energy in excess of:

In the case of an air pistol: 6 ft/lbs
In the case of an air weapon other than an air pistol: 12 ft/lbs

Such weapons are classified as Section 1 firearms and are required to be held on a firearm certificate. These weapons are subject to all the controls and regulations pertaining to Section 1 firearms, although the “ammunition” (pellets) are not.

These rules do not apply to an air weapon designed for use only when submerged in water, e.g. harpoon gun.

Under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, air weapons using a self contained gas cartridge (i.e. a cartridge containing both the compressed gas propellant and the projectile, such as is used in the Brocock system) are classified as Section 5 firearms and subject to general prohibition. Anyone owning such a gun when the act came into force on January 20th 2004 had until May 1st that year to either obtain Section 1 firearms certification for the weapon, or to surrender the weapon to the police – failure to have done so is a criminal offence.

General Requirements, Applicable To All

It is illegal to:

  • possess or use an air weapon if you have been sentenced to any form of custody for a term of 3 months or more. The prohibition is for 5 years (from the date of release) if the sentence was between 3 months and 3 years, but if the sentence was for more than 3 years the ban is for life. The details of the offence earning the custodial sentence are irrelevant — it does not have to be weapon related.
  • carry an air weapon (rifle or pistol), whether loaded or not, in a public place, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. Note: Unlike certain firearms, you do not need to have ammunition in your possession to have committed an offence.
  • use an air weapon on private land without the owner’s permission.
  • shoot any bird or animal unless you are an authorised person as defined by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
  • discharge an air weapon in the street or within 50 feet of the centre of a highway if in consequence it should injure, interrupt or endanger any user of the highway

Further Requirements, Applicable To Young People

A Young Person under 17:

  • may not buy, hire or otherwise be given an air gun (but if you owned one on January 20th 2004 when the age limit was raised from 14 to 17 you may keep it).
  • may not have an air gun in a public place unless under the supervision of a person of or over the age of 21 years, but he may have an air gun with him whilst being a member of a Home Office Approved club in connection with target practice; or may use one at a shooting club or gallery at which only air guns are used.
  • may use an air gun unsupervised in a private place with the permission of the occupier but must not shoot any pellet beyond the boundary of the premises on which it is being used.

A Young Person under 14:

  • may only use an air gun in a private place with the owners permission and if they are supervised by a person of or over the age of 21. If a pellet is shot beyond the boundary of the premises on which it is being used then the young person and the adult both commit offences.

Please note that the above is a distillation of those parts of the law that apply to air guns for guidance only, and is not to be regarded as a complete statement of firearms law.

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