Offensive weapons: import controls
The UK Border Agency (UKBA) works alongside other government departments and agencies to prevent the import of illegal firearms and offensive weapons.
All firearms - except low-powered air weapons - and many offensive weapons are controlled at the time of import into the UK. All imports of firearms need to be licensed. The import of flick and gravity knives is totally prohibited.
The role of the UK Border Agency in stopping illegal imports of offensive weapons
UKBA protects society from illegal firearms and offensive weapons by searching for and seizing them as they are brought into the UK.
Because of the ongoing threat of terrorism, controls are stricter now than they were in the past.
In particular, the UKBA targets:
- groups who attempt to illegally import firearms or explosives
- commercial importers of militaria and survival/camping type goods which may include offensive weapons
- importers of guns, explosives or other illegal weaponry through the post
Guns by post
Certain websites and adverts in specialist magazines enable anyone to place an order for firearms or ammunition - or component parts of firearms - to be sent to their home. UKBA officers monitor international mail and make seizures at UK postal depots.
For help and guidance on imports, exports and customs relief, you can write to:
Customs & International Trade Written Enquiries Team
HM Revenue & Customs
There are two main types of firearms offence for which the UKBA is likely to prosecute:
- importation and possession
What counts as an offensive weapon
Offensive weapons are goods designed to kill or inflict serious injury which have no real legitimate use. Such weapons are restricted and in the case of flick and gravity knives are banned from being imported into the UK and can be seized by UKBA officers. These include:
- knuckledusters, handclaws and push daggers
- footclaws - ie spikes designed to be strapped to the foot
- flick or gravity knives - ie with blades that are spring-loaded or can be opened using gravity or a flick of the wrist
- weapons with a concealed or disguised blade or sharp point - eg swordsticks, stealth knives, butterfly knives and belt buckle blades
- martial arts weapons such as death stars, hollow kubotans and kusaris
- batons and telescopic truncheons
- blowpipes or blowguns, except for use by vets or registered animal handlers
- curved blade swords with a blade over 50 centimetres
What counts as a firearm
Firearms are lethal barrelled weapons but also include other weapons listed below. The import of firearms into the UK is controlled and illegal imports will be seized by UKBA officers. These include:
- automatic and semi-automatic firearms
- CS gas canisters, pepper sprays and other self-defence sprays
- high-voltage electric stun guns
- high-powered air rifles and pistols
All legitimate users of firearms must apply for the relevant import licence or certificate from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), their regional police authority or the Home Office for handguns/pistols/revolvers and automatic/semi-automatic firearms. Find your local police force on the UK police website
Importing component firearms parts is prohibited unless you have a licence for the firearm that the parts are intended for. This is because individual firearms parts can be used for reasons other than legitimate repairs - eg to reactivate firearms that have previously been modified to stop them from firing.
Offensive weapons that can be imported
Not all offensive weapons are controlled when imported. The following are classed as non-prohibited offensive weapons:
- antique weapons - generally over 100 years old
- lock knives - ie with blades which fold into the handle that can be opened manually and locked into place
- crossbows - except for use by unsupervised persons under 17 years old
- swords, bayonets, machetes - except for concealed swords or swordsticks
- axes, hatchets, tomahawks
- throwing knives
- replica medieval weaponry such as spears, lances, pikes, maces, caltrops and halberds
- blowpipes and blowguns for use by vets and registered animal handlers - souvenirs that are incapable of inflicting injury are also exempt
If you are caught with any of the above without a legitimate reason and are suspected of planning to use it violently, the weapon can be seized and the police will be alerted.
Importing firearms and ammunition
You are only permitted to import firearms and ammunition under an import licence from the import licensing branch of BIS. Import licences are only issued to those with domestic authority to possess such goods.
Circumstances where restricted offensive weapons excluding flick and gravity knives can be imported
Some organisations are allowed to hold offensive weapons - but not firearms - for specified purposes.
Groups permitted to import or possess offensive weapons include:
- museums, galleries and universities - to present, display, research or interpret material of historic, artistic or scientific interest - such imports may also qualify for relief from duty and VAT
- HM forces
- visiting forces
- police forces and the prison service - eg direct imports of batons and truncheons
- those making commercial imports solely for onward supply to the police or prison service or trade samples to be evaluated in anticipation for such - evidence must be produced including a contract stating quantities, where applicable
There are also permitted reasons or exceptions to the import restrictions which include:
- theatrical performances - all offensive weapons excluding flick and gravity knives
- rehearsals of theatrical performances - all offensive weapons excluding flick and gravity knives
- the production of films - all offensive weapons excluding flick and gravity knives
- the production of television programmes - all offensive weapons excluding flick and gravity knives
- stealth knives designed for domestic use or for use in the processing, preparation or consumption of food or as a toy
There are exceptions to the import restrictions on swords with a curved blade of 50 centimetres or over provided that the weapon:
- was made before 1954 or made by traditional sword-making methods
- is only available for the purposes of use in religious ceremonies or for martial arts
- is for use in a ‘permitted activity’ for which public liability insurance is held
Permitted activities include historical re-enactments or a sporting activity - eg martial arts demonstration.
For help and guidance on imports, exports and customs relief write to:
Customs & International Trade written enquiries team
HM Revenue & Customs
Penalties for importing firearms and offensive weapons illegally
The Crown Prosecution Service on behalf of the UKBA prosecutes two main types of firearms and offensive weapons offences:
- importation and possession
Some importation cases are tried at the magistrates’ courts - which can lead to a fine, up to six months in prison, or both. More serious cases go to the Crown Courts where the maximum prison sentence can be up to ten years for some firearms.
Dual importation and possession offences can also lead to a fine and/or jail for up to ten years.
Having an offensive weapon in a public place without lawful authority or a reasonable excuse can also lead to a fine and/or up to four years in prison.
Which other organisations are involved in firearms control?
UKBA works closely on firearms control and enforcement with several other government bodies. This is to ensure that only vetted, responsible people can get hold of firearms or their component parts. These agencies include:
- the Home Office - makes and administers UK firearms law (Firearms Act 1968 as amended), authorises firearms and ammunition possession for the most dangerous firearms, and any trade that would otherwise be prohibited
- BIS - administers and issues the licences that allow arms and ammunition and other strategically controlled goods to be moved into and out of the UK. See the guide: introduction to the UK strategic export control lists
- regional police authorities - authorise and control both private firearms possession certificates and, jointly with the UKBA firearms and explosive officers, the commercial firearms trade (Registered Firearms Dealers)