Machine Guns Are Legal: A Practical Guide to Full Auto

I love machine guns. They don’t call the selectors on automatic firearms “fun switches” for nothing, and I have yet to hand off a machine gun to someone and have it not bring a smile to their face (it brings me joy exposing people to full auto for the first time). For the sake of this article, the word “machine gun” will meet the ATF’s definition: Any weapon which shoots, is 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.

The machine gun was invented by American Hiram Maxim, and interestingly enough, the USA is one of the few countries on the planet where regular folks can in fact own a fully automatic firearm. In fact, machine guns have never been illegal in the USA on a federal level. They are heavily regulated, but not illegal at all.

The timeline of machine gun legislation is as follows:

Prior to 1934, machine guns were not regulated any differently than any other firearm. You could quite literally order a machine gun from a mail order catalog… and people did. Thompsons for example initially did not interest the military too terribly much, but the guns found a niche with individuals seeking personal protection, police agencies, and unfortunately, gangsters. Ads like this were not uncommon:


Prompted by prohibition era gangsters and the rise of organized crime (law enforcement was seriously outgunned by the likes of bad guy like Dillinger), the United States drafted the National Firearms Act which passed in 1934. The National Firearms Act did not ban machine guns, but it made them impossible to afford for most people. To buy a machine gun under the 1934 NFA, an individual needs to submit the following (the procedure remains unchanged even today):

  • Pay a tax of $200, which in 1934 was worth over $3,500
  • Fill out a lengthy application to register your gun with the federal government
  • Submit photographs
  • Submit passport photos
  • Get your chief law enforcement official to sign your application
  • Wait for the results of your background check to come back

A violation of the national firearms act results in a felony punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison, a $100,000 fine, and forfeiture of the individual’s right to own or possess firearms in the future.

The next big piece of legislation pertinent to machine guns occurred in 1968 with the Gun Control Act. The Gun Control Act established that imported firearms that had “no sporting purpose” were not able to be sold to civilians. Machine guns as a whole were determined to have no sporting purpose, and thus any MG imported after ’68 are able to be owned only by dealers, military, and police agencies. One bit of good this act did was allowed for a registration amnesty. It became apparent that there were so many unregistered machine guns in the US that had been brought back by veterans, that they should be able to register them tax free. Luckily many of them did, but the amnesty ended after just one month (the feds owe us another few months, this humble author believes).

The last piece of machine gun legislation is to many the coup de grace. In 1986 the Firearm Owners Protection Act was intended to prevent the federal government from creating a registry of gun owners. At the last minute, William Hughes added an amendment that called for the banning of machine guns. Charlie Rangel said that the “amendment in the nature of a substitute, as amended, was agreed to.” However, after the voice vote on the Hughes Amendment, Rangel ignored a plea to take a recorded vote and moved on to Recorded Vote 74 where the Hughes Amendment failed. The bill passed on a motion to recommit. Despite the controversial amendment, the Senate adopted H.R. 4332 as an amendment to the final bill. The bill was subsequently passed and signed on May 19, 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. Thus, Reagan’s signature banned the registration of new machine guns in the USA.

So what does this mean? This is where it gets complicated:

  • Machine guns are not illegal, but it is illegal to make and register new ones on a form 1 (as you would do for an SBR)
  • There is no way around the May 19th, 1986 date. if the machine gun in question was made after that date, you may not own it (unless you are a dealer)

Also, there are three types of machine guns that determine the gun’s legal status:

  • Transferable: Guns registered prior to May 19th, 1986 that are able to be owned by everyone. There are only 182,619 transferable machine guns according to the ATF.
  • Pre-Samples: Machine guns imported after 1968 but before May 19th, 1986. The 1968 GCA established that machine guns with no sporting purposes could not be sold to civilians. Dealers can however buy them and keep them after they give up their licenses. As a general rule, pre-samples cost about half that of a transferable.
  • Post-Samples: Machine guns made after the May 19th, 1986 cutoff date. These are only for dealers, manufacturers, military, and police. A manufacturer who pays $500 a year is permitted by the federal government to manufacture these. A dealer (who is not a manufacturer) may acquire these if a police agency provides a “demo letter”. A demo letter is simply a letter from a PD asking you to acquire a sample gun for them to test and evaluate for potential purchase. Unfortunately dealers must sell or destroy post samples when they give up their license.

So that is that. I have looked and looked to try and find out NFA facts and a window into the registry, but most of it is internet lore and information from manufacturers records. I have seen the following as per estimates of how many of what exist:
a. 7,200 Hk sears

b. 6,000 FNC sears

c. 20,000 M11/9s

d. 500 SWD Lightning Links

e. 500 RIA M60s

f. 3300ish Group Industry (aka Vector) Uzi’s

g. At least 20,000 M16s

h. The NFA records are completely messed up , the ATF says the error rate on pre-68 records is 50%.

i. You have to assume that probably 10 to 20% of the 183K registered guns are easily gone now since 1943 (lost, stolen, damaged beyond repair). You have to remember that prior to 86 there wasnt a whole lot of value in a damaged M16 when the transfer or making tax was 1/3 the cost of the gun itself. Similar to suppressors today, who buys a used or damaged can when 25% of the value is in the transfer tax and you could just buy a new one from a dealer.

As a result of the closed registry, we cannot get new machine guns. We simply trade the ones that have been out there for years. This has resulted in very high prices. For example, one can get an AR15 for $600-700 in the USA, but I have seen converted automatic AR15s sell for $17,000. Factory Colt guns can go for $25,000+. Uzis which were a few hundred dollars back in the day are now bringing $12,000! This has created a small fiat driven marketplace for an extremely low amount of goods with an insanely high demand. For example, this here is a rather unremarkable piece of steel:


The bit of hardened steel is a registered Fleming HK sear. I have seen one sell for $27,000 so at roughly 0.25  ounces, that makes this steel worth $108,000 an ounce which makes it perhaps the most expensive metal on the planet (barring some obscure lanthanide or actinide) and 83 times more expensive than gold!

However, as the value on machine guns very seldom goes down, you could probably get your wife to understand your desire to buy one with the old “it’s an investment honey”. It sure is an investment too. I bought my first MG in January of 2010 for $3,000, and it is now worth $5,500. That is a 54% return on my purchase in just four years! I wish that all of my investments were like that one, and this even encouraged my father to get into the game (he even bought himself a machine gun not too long ago as an investment he can enjoy). That said, I would gladly take the monetary hit on my collection if others and myself could acquire post samples freely like they can suppressors.

A few frequently asked questions:

  • How does this guy on youtube have all these cool post-86 machineguns? He is either a dealer, a friend of a dealer, or a manufacturer. We were able to perform our series on the KRISS Vector because representatives from KRISS were there.
  • What are you and everyone else going to do when they repeal the machine gun ban? I don’t see this happening, but I would rejoice. I would love for sub-gun matches to become more common, rather than meetings of dealers and people who are very well off.
  • What about trusts, is that loophole going away? First of all, the trust method of acquiring NFA items is not a loophole. It is written into the text of the 1934 National Firearms Act that trusts and corporations meet the act’s definition of a person. Even the proposed rule changes will not eliminate trusts, just make each trustee apply for the transfer. This will make buying NFA guns much more of a headache to obtain.
  • I have a machine gun my grandpa left in the attic. What do I do? For the love of God, look for paperwork. If you find it, you are now much richer if you apply for a tax free form 5 (estate transfer). If you cannot find paperwork, torch cut the gun’s receiver and sell the parts, give it to a PD, or put the gun on a form 10 and give it to a museum (write an agreement that you can get the gun back if laws change).

So that is about it for machine guns in the USA. If you have any questions, please either post them below of feel free to email me. I will try my best to answer anything I can!

Alex C.

Alex is a Senior Writer for The Firearm Blog and Director of TFBTV.


  • jordan Hyers

    Straight forward and concise well done write up

  • wojtekimbier

    Great article.

  • Martin Grønsdal

    Did the good old firearmblog resurrect? Very good article.

  • cawpin

    “It is written into the text of the 1934 National Firearms Act that trusts and corporations meet the act’s definition of a person.”

    Except that they just ruled that a trust is NOT a person according to the GCA in the letter that Prince Law submitted. So, the NFA doesn’t matter much. I’ll gladly pay $200 to manufacture my own M16.

    • They will deny you. I promise you that.

      • cawpin

        Oh, I don’t doubt they will try. But, when it comes down to it, they have no legal way to back up the denial. I will be very interested to see what happens with the Prince Law Form 1.

        • HSR47

          The real question, which I intend to ask Josh this Saturday, is what he intends to do when they deny his Form 1. Additionally, if he intends to fight the denial in court, I’m curious whether he is hoping to file a class action suit, and if so what kind of financial arrangement he expects from members of that class.

          When it comes to an NFA making/transfer application, BATFE refunds the tax stamp fee if they deny the application; Thus if you submit a form 1 for an AR DIAS at worst you’re out what you spent on the paper/time/postage, and the government will refund the tax-free loan you gave them.

          • cawpin

            I agree that it doesn’t cost you anything (if you don’t count your time) but that doesn’t justify an illegal act.

          • BryanS

            I will get behind, and hell, run that crowdfunding campaign.

    • HSR47

      If you were to file a Form 1 for an MG under that, it’d probably be better to submit forms for drop-in autosears and/or lightning links, rather than to register receivers.

      First, if you register a receiver you really should have it engraved with your markings *before* you send in the Form 1 (so that an engraving error only costs you a receiver, and not receiver + $200). Second, tastes change: In the 1980’s, a lot of registered receivers were built on some of the lowest quality AR receivers every made. AR receivers have come a LONG way in the last 25-40 years, and it’s likely that this trend will continue. Personally, I think a sear that I can move to a new host is therefore more versatile than a registered host.

      • Lee

        This makes me wonder, is there a legal way to destroy and remanufacture a replacement for a worn out receiver? And if so, does it have to be exact to the dimensions as the original? If you have a poor quality lower from the early 80’s that has out of spec holes, along with micro cracks, what do you do?

  • /k/ommando

    i like how this article comes a day after your disgusting troll attempt regarding the above issue on another gun board.

    • /k/unt

      rules 1&2

    • What are you talking about?

  • John

    I think the price of machine guns will come down as the bump fire devices get better and better. $250 Slidefire or $23,000 M16. It’s not a sure thing they will keep going up. And the FNC sear estimate is wrong. It’s more like 6,000 FNCs in a world with 3,500 sears.

    • BryanS

      Bumpfire devices do not make another product less rare.

      • mstrmstr

        Good call.. The feds can outlaw bumpfires at any time which would make any owned worthless and there will be NO grandfathering.

      • Andrew

        It wouldn’t make a transferable machine gun less rare, but it might make them less desirable and therefore less expensive. While the Slidefire stock is not as good as a real machine gun it also only costs 1 percent as much as a real machine gun so many people would say the slidefire is close enough. I think this phenomenon is occurring right now with the SIG brace. Many people who would have purchased a short barrel rifle are just getting an AR pistol and the brace instead.

    • mstrmstr

      In the immortal words of a ol friend Kent Lomont. ” machine guns are the funnest investment ever. You can shoot them, break then and rebuild them almost indefinitely and they will always be valued at least 200.00 more than the last purchase. It is a upward spiral and you better jump on” I did take his advise and pleaded with others too. The ones that did and still do are sitting pretty. I always looked at it as a comparable value. Everything tangible continues to rise in price over time
      ( Even if market reductions occur the price will rise)

  • Mack

    is there any petition websites or anything of that nature to repeal at least the NFA?

  • thedonn007

    So, what is the best “value” machine gun available now? M11/9?

    • Cymond

      That would be my guess, especially if you look at the Lage slowfire uppers. There was a report a few years ago on TFB of a 223 conversion for the M11/9, but I don’t know if was ever manufactured. You could also look at the original M11 in .380 Auto. They are (were?) cheaper than the M11/9 and Lage makes a conversion for it that fires 9mm out of Suomi magazines.

      M-11 parts here:

  • The Hun

    This kind of article reminds me we are nothing but a bunch of slaves(that happen to pay taxes) to the US govt.

    • noguncontrol

      yep. taxation is slavery.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    The modern machine gun…bump fire, baby! I’m saving up to get one…because I know that once they get a little more “mainstream” they WILL be banned by some democrat with a stick up his ass.

  • Steven T.

    Thus, the ever expanding sales figures for the slidefire.

  • sianmink

    IF the registry ever gets re-opened, a whole lot of investors are going to flip their shit.

    • gunslinger

      small price to pay.

      and has been said, your matching original (rare MG) will still be valuable to collectors. the guy who bought a Mac10 for 6k that is now worth…500? well, better than some people lost on the bubble (and you still have a fun switch)

      but the 100k super rare item is still super original rare item.

    • mstrmstr

      It’s worth cash either way. as Upfront or tax deduction and the government is not about to give you that deduction by repealing. Word.
      The BATFE views MG’s as personal property and not a collectible although they do know we collect also as a investment and allow portfolios to use MG’s as a cash entry. Confusing to some I must say. They have a system that works and are not about to change it.

    • C.J. Shull

      The Hughes amendment will never be repealed. Ever. MAYBE pre samples since written into the law they still owe dealers another month of amnesty registration.

  • claymore

    I think you missed one thing in your application set of instructions. A set of fingerprints.

  • ConcernedFA

    Great article and I’m not trying to detract from the article as a whole. I’m a fan of your articles, but I hope our wives aren’t investment savvy. As far as investments go I wouldn’t go closing out my 401(k). Now $3,000 is 54.54% of $5500 not a 54% return on investment. Your return on investment would be roughly 83.33% which isn’t bad. But choosing MGs as an investment would be like putting all of your money into one highly speculative stock. The stock of a company who’s livelihood is highly regulated by the U.S. government. As a comparison Google’s stock is up 84.15% since Jan. 8th of 2010 (as of today). What about Uzi’s if they had been worth $300 back in the 80’s growing to $12K today would be 3,900% growth on investment. That’s sounds unobtainable elsewhere, but if you had invested in Microsoft in March of ’86 you could have over 39,000% rate of return today. My point here is not to buy Google or Microsoft stock, but to caution people against putting money they can’t afford to loose into any volatile commodity. I have a couple of friend who started buying up ARs and 223/556 ammo (with money couldn’t afford to loose) at inflated prices in the months following Sandy Hook. Now prices have gone back to a normal and they need the money. Keep up the great work, but maybe leave the investment advice to the professionals.

    • C.J. Shull

      loose: not tight.
      lose: not win.

      What you’ve said is completely true. However, since the inception of full auto firearms, they have steadily increased in value since the turn of the century, with 1986 being a key point for increasing in value. My M16 has increased roughly $9,000 in value in 14 months. That’s one hell of a return. If for some reason the government seizes full auto firearms, you’re still legally entitled to the appraised market value as a loss on your taxes. Not many investments can be cashed out even if you lose.

  • ConcernedFA

    Oh and I meant Lose not Loose below.

  • hh

    my understanding is that 750 registered lightning links were made by SWD.
    great read. thanks.

    • mstrmstr

      The SWD LL does not fit all AR’s and is prone to breakage without a aftermarket “protector”. It was not popular nor did it sell well. At the time I bought a few, Sylvia Daniel was charging 34.95 delivered and all SWD macs were 200.00.
      No one really knows how many “surviving” MG’s are left but that number is shrinking.

  • 2bit

    According to some thing I read online(that should be a clue right there for how unreliable this is, yet still I hope) the ATF(or any rep thereof) acting with the authority of the fed behind them, CAN Infact transfer one from the possession of the fed into civilian hands. It gets worse when you learn that they only do this for extremly Antigun politicians who then sell them as a means to get funds.

  • Frank K

    As many of us can agree, with each day that passes our society is becoming more lawless and unconcerned about rules and regulations. When when see how deceiving our own Government is ie N.S.A. etc. one would just have to wait a little longer and there will be no need for a tax stamp.
    About the ruling for machine guns, one pull of the trigger releases more than one projectile is illegal. What does that say about shotguns?

    shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger. –
    See more at:
    shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger. –
    See more at:

  • Steve Eevekiller

    FWIW, while Hiram Stevens Maxim was an American, he was living & working in London at the time he invented the machine gun that bore his name. So machine guns weren’t actually “invented here in America” per your post. OTOH, his nephew Hiram Percy Maxim *did* invent the firearm silencer here in the good ol’ USA! 🙂

  • Jonah

    If the day comes that we can register new full autos would be one awesome day!

  • Leon Peng

    Wait, so if you are a FFL holder you can own Automatic firearms?

    How about buying a full auto kit, let’s say AK, and turn it into full auto?

  • David Lowrey

    Why haven’t there been any serious attempts to repeal any of the mg regulating laws. Namely the 1986 ban. There is certainly enought support amongst the guns owners. And to those who would be mad there expensive mg is worth less once the ban is repealed. For the same amount of money you spent on your mg, you can now buy 10 or 20 of them depending on the gun in question. If you spent 50k on a mg, you certainly have left enough over to live, and buy more guns.

  • Wolfsbane

    I have to wonder how the demographic of who owns the finite number of legal machine guns has changed.

    It seems to me someone like Mike Bloomberg could afford to gain ownership of an awful lot of them and decommission them.

  • Boko Hos

    . ” If you cannot find paperwork, torch cut the gun’s receiver and sell the parts, give it to a PD” That’s probably the dumbest fucking thing I’ve read in a long time.

  • lukey331

    I recently sold my AR for $21,000 to the gun smith down the street. In the four years that I owned it, I only put about 800 rounds through it and I know someone else would appreciate it more than I do.

  • R WOOD