Exploring the history behind the ‘gallery rifle exemption’, Peter Glenser explains its legacy in today’s law and the conditions of making use of it
There is a curious legacy from the Boer war that legally allows you to buy or sell any number of rifles and associated ammunition to anyone – without them holding a firearms certificate. There are conditions, of course. The rifle must be of ‘miniature’ calibre and the buyer must ‘conduct or carry on’ a miniature rifle range or shooting gallery. That’s it. No certificate required. No approval. No club. Nothing.
I refer to the gallery rifle exemption (as it’s sometimes called) found at Section 11(4) of the Firearms Act 1968, which states: “A person conducting or carrying on a miniature rifle range (whether for a rifle club or otherwise) or shooting gallery at which no firearms are used other than air weapons or miniature rifles not exceeding .23 calibre may, without holding a certificate, have in his possession, or purchase or acquire, such miniature rifles and ammunition suitable therefor; and any person may, without holding a certificate, use any such rifle and ammunition at such a range or gallery.”
No Home Office club approval is necessary: “A person operating a miniature rifle range or shooting gallery at which either miniature rifles not exceeding 5.84mm (.23”) calibre or air weapons are used may possess, purchase or acquire such miniature rifles and their ammunition without holding a firearm certificate. Anyone may use these rifles and ammunition at a range or gallery of this type without a firearm certificate. No club approval is necessary.” (HO Operational Policing Policy Unit).
Needless to say, this seemingly unfettered access to firearms is, anecdotally at least, somewhat unpopular with the authorities. It all came about because of the Boer war, when the Boers were thought to have outshot the British army. This was the cause of considerable concern in military and political circles.
There was, at that time, a patriotic and pro-military fervour in Britain, and with considerable encouragement the notion of the citizen rifleman took hold. Working Men’s Clubs started shooting sections, and in due course these evolved into the Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs. This eventually became the National Small-bore Rifle Association.
‘Miniature’ has never been legally defined. The Home Office Guidance to Police provides the following: “Miniature rifle ranges. Whilst there is no legal definition of a miniature rifle (other than one which does not exceed .23” in calibre), it is generally accepted that this refers only to rifles firing .22 rimfire cartridges. This is to avoid high performance centrefire rifles such as the .220 Swift being defined as “miniature rifles” not exceeding .23 calibre. Persons using the range are exempt from holding a firearm certificate in respect only of the use of such miniature rifles and ammunition at the range or gallery.”
In fact, I rather think that the Guidance is wrong in that it only refers to .22 rimfire and that the reason is to avoid the Swift being subject to the exemption. The miniature rifle exemption is found in the now repealed 1920 Firearms Act at Section 1(8) (i). The language is almost identical.
Only a few years before the Society Of Miniature Rifle Clubs had given a definition: “(3) Rifles. A miniature rifle may be of any pattern, single-loading or repeating, of any calibre not exceeding .23 of one inch or 6mm; or, a rifle of larger calibre fitted with any device for firing miniature ammunition, as defined in paragraph 4. … (4) Ammunition. A miniature cartridge may be rimfire or central fire, with projectile of any calibre not exceeding .23 of one inch or 6mm, and, in case of bottle-shaped cartridges, the shells may not exceed .297 of one inch. The powder charge may not exceed seven grains of black gunpowder, or its equivalent in any other explosive. The projectile must be of lead, not cased with other metal, and not exceeding 50 grains avoirdupois in weight.”
I have no doubt that the drafters of the 1920 legislation would have been aware of this definition and sought to replicate it in the 1920 act. There were at the time other popular calibres used in miniature rifle competitions, such as .310 Cadet, .230/.297 Morris, .250/.297 (all centrefire), as well as the .22 rimfire, and the popularity of these calibres waxed and waned. Wisely, therefore, the Act did not set in stone the calibres that would be considered miniature in the future.
So much for the history. It is still good law. Going back to the Home Office Guidance to Police, it helpfully includes: “There is, though, no obligation on the operator of the range or gallery to produce any form of documentation, and the police would only be justified in taking action against such an operator where they are not meeting the terms of section 11(4). The Health and Safety Executive have also issued guidance on miniature rifle ranges at fairgrounds.”
It couldn’t be clearer. If you are a bona fide operator of a miniature rifle range or shooting gallery, you may buy firearms and ammunition without a certificate. People using your range do not need a certificate either. The calibre of such guns is not legally defined, but for safety’s sake it might be wiser to stick to .22 rimfire rather than, say, .223 centrefire. If you are selling to such a person and you take reasonable steps to ensure that they are indeed operating a range, then you commit no offence.
Use of the exemption appears to be extremely rare and, again anecdotally, it seems that people seeking to use it have had some difficulty in finding an RFD who is prepared to sell on this basis because they are worried about either being prosecuted or losing their RFD status. Their concerns seem misplaced – for the time being, at least, as it seems unlikely that the gallery Exemption will survive.