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):

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:

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

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:

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