What Is The NFA?

NFA National Firearms Act of 1934

courtesy keepandbeararms.com

What is the NFA? The National Firearms Act of 1934 – referred to in shorthand as the NFA – is one of the largest pieces of gun-related legislation on the federal books. It’s a gun control act establishing certain limitations on firearm ownership. As a result, some people really don’t like it. Other folks don’t think it goes far enough.

We here at TTAG tend to be in the first camp, but that’s a discussion for another time. Additionally, we aren’t lawyers. Nothing in this article is legal advice, but rather just a discussion about the law and its history.

So, what exactly is the NFA and what did/does it do?

The National Firearms Act was enacted on June 26, 1934, with the goal of regulating certain classes of firearms. Excise taxes were placed on the manufacture and sale of machine guns, short-barrel rifles, short barrel shotguns as well as the curious catch-all of “any other weapon,” which are guns that fall in between the legal definitions of classes of guns. The NFA also covers certain devices such as suppressors.

Brownells Chicago Typewriter Tommy Gun Package

Why did they do it? Basically to make it difficult for people to buy them. After all, letting “Vinnie Mangoes” and “Carmine The Wrench” buy a Tommy gun by mail order isn’t necessarily the best idea…at least that was the thinking at the time. The NFA mandated a $200 excise tax on each of these regulated items as well as registration using a dedicated ATF form. The registration meant that gangsters wouldn’t buy them and the $200 tax meant hardly anyone else could afford them.

You see, $200 doesn’t buy a whole lot today. In 1934, though, that was the equivalent of about $3,700 in today’s dollars. Bear that in mind next time you cringe about paying for an ATF tax stamp. It’s a relative bargain these days. Your grandpa would have had to get a second mortgage (the average cost of a home was just under $6,000), walking uphill both ways in the snow to the bank to get it, and have to pay the mill owner for permission to come to work.

Anyhow, some people are already thinking, “Oh, he means Title II!” Not so fast, buckaroos. “Title II” firearms are defined by the Gun Control Act of 1968, which amended the NFA (expanding the definition of machine guns and including “destructive devices”).

Instead, the NFA defines classes of firearms, which are called NFA firearms, and puts a tax on their manufacture and sale. Subsequent laws have regulated them further, which we’ll get into at another time.

So, what are the NFA firearms?

First is machine guns, which are defined as “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.” Any semi-automatic firearm that can be converted (“readily convertible”) into select-fire or fully automatic capability by easy mechanical means is also an NFA firearm.

Short-barreled rifles are also covered by the NFA. These are defined as any firearm with a folding, collapsing or fixed stock and a rifled barrel that is 16 inches in length or shorter, and/or has as an overall length of 26 inches or less. If the stock is removed after purchase, it still counts.

In short, your AR-15, M1 carbine or what have you falls under SBR regulation if the barrel is 16 inches or shorter, or if the firearm is 26 inches or shorter in overall length with the stock (if applicable) fully extended.

For a short barrel shotgun, the same idea applies. Any smoothbore weapon falls under NFA guidelines with a barrel of 18 inches or less or overall length of 26 inches or less.

Suppressors are regulated as the NFA also covers any portable device intended to muffle or disguise the report of any firearm.

The NFA also created the class of firearms known as “Any Other Weapon” or AOWs. This includes cane guns, zip guns and other improvised or “alternative” firearms that don’t technically fall under the conventional definitions of other classes of guns.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives occasionally updates what qualifies as an AOW. The good news here is the excise tax is only $5, so you can get that cane gun pretty cheap.

Now, besides defining guns and imposing a tax on them, what else does the NFA do?

Beyond the tax stamp, you also have to apply for permission to buy an NFA firearm. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually need a Class III Federal Firearms License (FFL) to buy a machine gun. Why you’d need a Class III FFL is to manufacture or deal in NFA firearms, not for mere ownership.

The process is the same as it is for suppressors. You fill out an application to purchase the item, send them a check for the excise and transfer tax, and undergo a background check. A copy of that application is sent to the CLEO (chief law enforcement officer) in your city or county. The ATF approves (or denies) your application, and then you can purchase an NFA firearm. This may or may not include permission to move the item across state lines. If approved, you can purchase the NFA firearm, but it must be registered with the ATF, so you’ll have to submit the make, model, serial number and so on.

To sum up, the NFA merely defines certain classes of firearms and places an excise tax on buying them. It also requires permission from the federal government to own them, and requires registration thereof after the NFA firearm has been transferred to you.

There are additional regulations covering short-barreled guns, machine guns and so on, but those were passed later. We’ll cover those in a future post.


  1. avatar jwm says:

    The NFA is bullshit. Next question.

    1. avatar Rad Man says:

      Yes indeed, but did you catch Sam’s subtle homage to Monty Python ‘s Four Yorkshire men?

      1. avatar jwm says:

        If you’re referring to paying the mill owner……..

        1. avatar Rad Man says:

          Well done.

    2. avatar luigi says:

      Shut down the comment section, there’s nothing else that needs to be said.

    3. avatar frank speak says:

      the NFA is a reality…and likely to remain so….next?

  2. avatar Leighton Cavendish says:

    In other words…an infringement…

    1. avatar Wood says:

      There is absolutely no other way to see it.

      1. avatar CZ Rider says:

        An unconstitutional abuse of the commerce clause, aided and abetted by ignorance and apathy at every level from the citizenry to the Supreme Court. Is there any other tax that requires a background check and CLEO sign-off before you can pay it? How is that not arbitrary and capricious?

        1. avatar LarryinTX says:

          AFAIK, the only portion of NFA ’34 which has ever been presented to the SC is the SBS, which I think is also a $5 tax, and which had no defense presented to the SC. Blaming SCOTUS for machine gun bullshit is patently unfair, we need to get a case to them, first.

        2. avatar frank speak says:

          heard that CLEO sign-off has gone away….

        3. avatar frank speak says:

          don’t think the SCOTUS really wants to hear it….you’d have better luck with the semi’s

    2. avatar L says:

      I came here to post exactly this.

  3. avatar Stateisevil says:

    I remember, a long time ago, maybe as far as 2016, when suppressors were going to be taken out of the NFA and national reciprocity would be law of the land. Instead all I got was a lousy bump stock fatwah and “take the guns now, due process later.” I knew it would happen, but everyone told me I was for Hillary.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:


      There is no question that the overwhelming majority of politicians and bureaucrats fail (spectacularly) to support the Second Amendment. That means we are almost always stuck choosing the least of the evils.

      And in practice, that meant voting for Trump over Hillary. Whatever Trump’s failings on the Second Amendment, his failings pale in comparison to what would have happened had Hillary won the election.

      1. avatar Geoff "Mess with the bull, get the horns" PR says:

        SCOTUS would be *hard* Leftist today had the HildaBeast been President, with *zero* chance at getting anything 2A declared constitutional.

        Keep that in mind…

        1. avatar jwm says:

          I believe State understands that. And I don’t believe he’s near as anti statist as his handle would imply.

        2. avatar Stateisevil says:

          Oh, I voted for Cheetoh. I usually don’t vote but he upset the establishment enough that I had to. I never regret not voting because it’s always the “lesser of 2 evils”. I was entertained for days watching the news, which I almost never do. It was just very annoying when I heard people saying we were going to get all these goodies, and they’re still saying it. We’re losing ground and will continue to lose ground, state by state and the SCOTUS will not save you. Given the demographics of the nation, we can fight or be slaves. I for one am not going to fight while I have things to live for. I suspect most Amerikans are the same way.

      2. avatar DaveW says:

        Any politician who does not support the 2nd Amendment as the authors, James Madison and George Mason, themselves say was their intent and meaning. Those men were called upon to testify before the several state legislatures during the ratification process. Upon their words, the 2nd, along with the rest of the Constitution was ratified. The states then incorporated the words of the 2nd Amendment and the Constitution into their own state constitutions.

        Politicians take an oath, just as the military and law enforcement do, ‘to protect and defend/preserve the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of (state) against all enemies foreign and domestic’.

        Failure to do so is a breach of trust and a violation of civic duty. This makes the politician unfit to continue in the position to which elected or appointed.

        Dating back to the Magna Charta, the people have had the right to present grievances to the government and to seek redress (compensation) of same. Should the government ignore the presentation of grievances and redress, the people have grounds to replace that government.

        I submit that we have reached that point where sitting politicians ignore the grievances brought by the people. This is obvious by the public remarks by certain politicians who openly say that they do not care what the people think, and label the people with whom they disagree in slanderous terms, which is quite different from attacking an opposing politician in the same way.

    2. avatar frank speak says:

      yeah,..that quote by the POTUS has done a lot of damage….what was he thinking?

    3. avatar joefoam says:

      Yep, we were staged to get some of our rights back, but lo and behold we have a horrific event that puts gun ownership out in the public view to be scorned by the elites and the MSM, funny how it happens that way. The NFA was enacted in response to the Valentines Day ‘massacre’ where some thugs wiped out some other thugs. What a shame, they were policing themselves in Chicago as they continue to do today.

  4. avatar Kap says:

    NFA was an appeasement too Democrat politicians and revenge for the Democrat Mayor of Chicago who was assassinated in Miami in the Attempt on FDR,
    Dead Mayor a (Democrat) Replaced Republican Big Bill Thompson who fostered a get along go along Mob program, dead mayor protected the Unions which pissed off the Mobs, causing lots of gun battles! leading too NFA by Democrats and Rhinos who paid lip service too Constitution, a lot like Feinstein, Schumer and others!

    1. avatar frank speak says:

      gangsters in the thirties were regarded much as we regard terrorists today…there was much concern about these guys…

  5. avatar GS650G says:

    And 4 states were able to ban NFA items completely.

    1. avatar Chris T in KY says:

      California has made sure the Firearms movie prop businesses are protected by state government regulations. They can by more NFA items. But you can’t as a member of “The Great Unwashed”.

      There are more NFA items in California than any other state.

      1. avatar Geoff "Mess with the bull, get the horns" PR says:

        They way to deal with the states that ban common ownership of NFA ‘toys’ is by lawsuit, claiming discrimination…

      2. avatar frank speak says:

        actually the movie industry has access to more than many third world countries….

  6. avatar bob says:

    Perfect example of infringement that never should have gotten this far.

    To add, this bull crap of them throwing around the term “machine gun” when talking about this house bill HR7115 proposed to ban “assault rifle” and “machine gun” parts, kits, and receivers should also fall under infringement as they are specifically targeting a particular group of arms. Cockblocking ammo, parts, repair, sales, etc…. is no different than an all out ban!

  7. avatar Chris T in KY says:

    The NFA is totally supported by most TTAG subscribers. Ya, that’s right I said it. Now show me the links to pages were you were against the banning of the Bump Stock? The poor mans rapid fire weapon. Yes I know you are disturbed by people who “waist” their own $$$ bought and paid for ammunition.

    And I know that many of you support the ban on the importation of surplus military rifles because they have a bayonet mount on them. That’s part of the 1968 gun control act. I read that one many years ago.

    I read the NFA document years ago too. It was part of my resent paper on teaching the second amendment to school kids.

    “Firearm Education: Teaching the Second Amendment in Kentucky school system grades K through 12”


    1. avatar CommanderCameltoe says:

      In exchange for teaching those school kids about the 2nd amendment, are they going to teach you some 5th grade spelling?

      Or are they supposed to read your paper and use it like a spelling stoppage-drill?

      1. avatar Chris T in KY says:

        Having dyslexia is a bitch. But why do people like you support NFA items for only rich white people?

        1. avatar MajorMooseknuckle says:

          Dyslexia doesn’t make you too dumb to know the difference between “waste” and “waist”, or “buy” and “by”, or “recent” and “resent”. Being dumb does, though.

          And WTF are you talking about only wanting NFA items for rich white people? Can you quote where anyone here as said that, or is that just your dyslexia hanging out again?

        2. avatar frank speak says:

          the guys that show up with them at knob creek are universally white…and generally pretty well-of….

  8. avatar fiundagner says:

    I am not a lawyer but my understanding is that this is basically the foundation for every other gun control law on the books; example the 1968 gun control act, the Hughes Amendment. Repeal this, or did it repudiated in court, and the rest of them collapse.

    1. avatar Eric in Oregon says:

      It’s true, before that the feds understood that the constitution was an absolute prohibition against this infringement. It wasn’t until Emperor – er, President FDR that they started just flat ignoring it and writing any restriction they wanted.

      1. avatar pod says:

        FDR is by far the worst president we ever had. Some will argue “muh World War II” but truth be told you don’t need a specific President to run a war. That’s the job of the military. The generals call the shots and guide the President, whose only job during wartime is to just be the happy face of the nation. FDR forgot that.

        The Dems were chomping at the bit to enact national gun control. The fact that ordinary people could say “no” pissed them off to no end. So they took a tragedy (a few gangland splatterfests and then some guy taking potshots at FDR in Miami) and ran with it. Much like they have with every other gun control push, they use a tragedy to push it through.

        If they really were promoting gun control for the sake of the citizens rather than their own horrible agenda, they would promote gun control regardless of the situation.

        1. avatar Nanashi says:

          FDR did all of the following
          1: Ordered his military subordinates to engage in homosexual sex, then used that act to throw them out of the navy (Newport Scandal)
          2: Spent the interwar talking about how certain races couldn’t integrate into American society
          3: Twice signed legislation limiting how much food could be produced, burning any excess, in the middle of a famine. (The Agricultural Adjustment Act)
          4: Appointed a member of the KKK (Hugo Black) to the Supreme Court.
          5: Snubbed American athletes purely because they were black
          6: Opened concentration camps on the most inhospitable places on American soil (death valley, swamp) and stuffed them full of American citizens.
          7: Ran on an anti-war platform and simultaneously met with foreign leaders on how to force America into the war

          If a Republican did ANY of these things the Democrats would never shut up about it. Despite this they worship the man who did ALL of them.

        2. avatar Kenneth says:

          FDR also, through his son Elliot, ran a scheme where Elliot would go to CEOs and claim “federal inspectors” were soon to visit and create big headaches, but he could get his dad to call them off… for a fee. That sounds a lot like extortion, doesn’t it? But, then just as now, the criminals are given a pass.
          – The Real Franklin Roosevelt by Philip Foner and Clark Kinnaird, 1945

        3. avatar Chris T in KY says:

          A Democrat president ordering straight soldiers to have gay sex?
          When homosexual government officials order school children to have gay sex in California public schools we’ll know where they got the idea from.

        4. avatar Chris T in KY says:

          I heard stories about this in the 1970s. Every major historian claimed it was false. At least the ones on TV. But it turns out to be true. Many years ago Lyndon LaRouche said the queen of England was the biggest drug dealer in the world. I didn’t learn about the Opium Wars in Asia until years after LaRouche went to prison. So many Historians lie by omission all the time.

          “As FDR biographer Geoffrey C. Ward noted, “In a family fond of retelling and embellishing even the mildest sort of ancestral adventuresno stories seem to have been handed down concerning Warren Delano’s genuinely adventurous career in the opium business.”

          5 Elite Families Who Made Their Fortunes in the Opium Trade


        5. avatar luigi says:

          BuT hE leD Us tHroUGh ThE gReAT DePReSsIOn

      2. avatar frank speak says:

        the only ones who could afford them back then [aside from the gangsters] were companies and corporations who outfitted their private police force “goon squads”…when unionization took hold they were forced to give them up…allowing most of them to find their way into the gun lockers of local police forces where they remained for many years..

  9. avatar Geoff "Mess with the bull, get the horns" PR says:

    Has anyone yet filed a lawsuit challenging the Hughes amendment?

    1. avatar BehindEnemyLines says:

      Yes, the NRA took it all the way to the Supreme Court in the ’90s but SCOTUS declined to hear the case and let the lower court decision upholding Hughes stand.

      1. avatar frank speak says:

        congress doesn’t want widespread ownership of automatic weapons…something that was threatening to become a reality back in the eighties…don’t expect to see that change….

  10. avatar Gman says:

    What Is The NFA?
    The NFA et.al. was invalidated by US v. Miller (1939). Why it has not been challenged since is beyond my understanding.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      If memory serves, through some excuse the case was retried in SCOTUS (don’t ask me how that works, double jeopardy and all) and the defendant was never seen again once released, the country lawyer who got him off couldn’t afford another boondoggle in Washington, so the defense was not even present, which the prosecution took advantage of by repeatedly lying to the court. The court knew it was being lied to, but was obligated to rule only on evidence presented, and there was no defense to point out the lies. So SCOTUS reversed itself. And the whole case was about an SBS, machine guns have *never* been addressed.

      1. avatar frank speak says:

        don’t think you guys realize just how close this country was to revolution back in the thirties…when the communist party was making real inroads…FDR saved us from that… most people didn’t give a rat’s patootie about the NFA at the time…as it held little relevance for them…and a “gangster gun act” sounded like a good idea……

  11. avatar Greg says:

    NFA violates the ADA really wish a midget would sue. They shouldn’t have to do the paperwork and pay at tax. To get a rifle that will fit them.

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