NFA National Firearms Act of 1934
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With the nomination of David Chipman and some proposed new regulations by the ATF, there’s been more talk lately about the National Firearms act. If Chipman gets the top job at ATF and gets his way, he’d regulate all “assault weapons” (which he can’t seem to define) under the NFA, just like machine guns.

And a proposed ATF rule would instantly convert lots of brace-equipped AR pistols into short barrel rifles in the eyes of federal gun law enforcers. That means they’d be regulated under the NFA, too.

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

We here at TTAG are in the first camp, but that’s a discussion for another time. Additionally, we aren’t lawyers. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice, but rather just a discussion about the law and its history. But a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the NFA and what it means are now asking questions about it.

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
Courtesy Brownells

Why did they do it? Basically to make it difficult for people to buy them. After all, letting “Jimmy Two Times” and “Johnny Roastbeef” 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 the payment of 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, but back in 1934, though, that was the equivalent of about $3,700 in current 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 take out 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.

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 (hang in there).

So, what are the NFA firearms?


First are 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 technically an NFA firearm.

CMMG Banshee short-barrel rifle
Short-barrel rifle (Jeremy S. for TTAG)

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.

suppressor silencer
Silencers, AKA suppressors (Jeremy S for TTAG)

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 cheaply.

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

tax stamp detail
An NFA tax stamp (Woody for TTAG)

Beyond buying the tax stamp, you also have to have for permission to buy an NFA firearm. Contrary to some popular belief, you don’t actually need a Class III Federal Firearms License (FFL) to buy a machine gun. You’d only need a Class III license to manufacture or deal in NFA firearms, not to own one.

The only real requirements for buying NFA items are . . .

— Be at least 21 years of age
— Reside in one of the states that currently allows civilian ownership of the NFA item you want to purchase
— Be a resident of the United States
— Be legally eligible to purchase a firearm and pass an FBI NICS background check
— Pass a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) background check
— Pay a one-time $200 transfer tax per item

The process for acquiring an NFA item is the same as it is for buying a suppressor. First you pay for the item. You also fill out the required paperwork and provide the documents, send the ATF a check for the excise and transfer tax, and undergo a background check. The good news is, most good retailers have this process down to a science and will walk you through it. There’s no reason to be intimidated. Thousands of people buy suppressors every day.

A copy of your application is sent to the CLEO (chief law enforcement officer) in your city or county. You no longer need their permission, as you once did, but they are required to be notified. The ATF will (eventually) approve (or deny) your application. You’ll be notified and then you can take possession of the NFA item.

Be aware that if you want to take your NFA item across state lines, you’ll have to notify the ATF by filing a form before you do so. The good news is that suppressors are exempt from this requirement.

Also, be aware that the ATF requires that you be able to provide proof of registration for NFA items on demand. If you’re at the range or on a hunting trip and are asked for your paperwork by a police officer, game warden, or ATF agent, you’ll need to produce it. Some ranges even ask for this before allowing customers to shoot NFA items at their facilities. In short, always carry copies of your paperwork including your tax stamp.

Subsequent laws passed in 1968 and 1986 changed some of the definitions involved and and eventually banned the transfer and possession of post-1986 manufactured machine guns, but all of that came later and wasn’t part of the original NFA.

To sum up, the NFA — and its subsequent add-ons — defines certain classes of firearms and other items and imposes an excise tax when you buy them. It requires you to get the federal government’s permission to own these special items, and registers your ownership of them…something that’s illegal on the federal level for standard, non-NFA firearms.


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      • Stripping a basic right from humans=tyranny.

        But you’re the guy that thinks the Gestapo loved their country.

        • most internet rightists don’t see themselves as part of a country at all. for them “human rights” means “I do what I want, leave me alone”. they’re like the guy who said about early tennessee – “if you could see the smoke of your neighbor’s campfire, he was too close.”

        • That your expert opinion? We don’t all want to think alike and march alike. You really ought to try thinking for yourself once in a while.

          You might enjoy it.

        • “That your expert opinion?”

          if 20 years of observation is “expert opinion”. but don’t take my word for it, just listen to them. there’s a range of course, but the extreme end is quite substantial and carelessly vocal, borderline sociopathic.

          “You really ought to try thinking for yourself once in a while”

          everyone should. just be ready, when you disturb people’s comfortable but questionable memes, to face unnervingly fierce and well-trained anger.

          “You might enjoy it”

          yep, occasionally.

        • Defends the Gestapo. Thinks Nazi tyranny and murder was SO much better than Soviet tyranny and murder. Calls people who just want to be left alone “borderline sociopathic.”

          Yeah, it’s pretty clear that Ant7 ain’t from around here.

      • What, constitutionally speaking, is the difference between an automatic firearm, a semi-automatic firearm, and a single-shot firearm?

        Until the supreme court answers this question all laws restricting the ownership and use of firearms are unconstitutional.

        Violating the constitution is the very definition of tyranny.

  1. Curious…

    In regards to the recent Circuit Court decision declaring the threshold of 21 years of age for purchasing firearms as unconstitutional, would that ruling be applicable to the NFA as well, wherein the Act states that purchases or transferees of Class III items must be 21?

    Really, the labyrinthine code of gun laws has become so convoluted so as to not even be in full agreement with each other from one District, State, or locale to another, it’s all just a big mess. Do away with the entire thing. There’s no need for it in any form (pun intended).

    Just do away with all gun laws. We already have laws declaring murder, robbery, mayhem, brandishing, assault, et al, illegal. The actual weapon of choice used in any such crimes makes no difference.

    • I hate to say it, but I don’t think so. The only reason the NFA wasn’t thrown out as unconstitutional was the SC in Miller thought a SBS wasn’t suitable for militia service. Therefore, even though under-21 year old people were historically members of the militia, there’s the argument still that they don’t have a right to NFA firearms because the NFA only restricts them from owning arms that are “unrelated” to militia service in the first place. Hence why my home state outlaws all NFA items for your average person and that doesn’t get overturned federally. Basically, no 2A right to NFA firearms for people under 21 because no 2A right to NFA firearms at all. How, exactly, NFA items are unsuitable for militia service given they’re almost all modern militaries use is anyone’s guess.

      • Not quite true, RandomNYer. The main reason that the NFA wasn’t thrown out in “Miller v. United States” is that MILLER DIDN’T SHOW UP FOR COURT! Nor did anybody else to defend the 2nd Amendment, not was anyone there to tell the court that shotguns were widely used in the military in WW1, sawed off and used in trench warfare, thereby making them useful to the militia. The ruling in “Miller” came strictly from the US Attorney’s pen. It is the worst, dumbest, most ridiculous ruling in the history of SCOTUS for those reasons.

  2. Something to recall . . . FDR’s original version of the NFA called for the outright banning of civilian possession of machine guns, short barreled shotguns, AND handguns. After the DoJ advised that such a ban would likely violate the Second Amendment (as well as the commerce clause — remember, this was over a decade before Wickard v. Filburn), they rewrote the law to put an absurdly high tax on them.

    The original version of the NFA also included a ban on short barreled rifles (SBR’s) , which was thought to be necessary to keep people from circumventing the handgun ban by just chopping down a rifle.

    After complaints about the inclusion of handguns in the NFA threatened its passage, Congress stripped handguns out of the NFA . . . but in what looks to have been a drafting error, SBR’s remained in the bill.

    Notwithstanding its checkered history, NFA items used to be pretty easy to get, as long as you were willing to do the tax stamp shuffle and lived somewhere where the local constabulary wouldn’t get in your way. I remember going to gun shows in the later 1970’s and early 1980’s, and drop-in auto sears, Sten guns, and MAC 10’s and 11’s were ubiquitious and cheap. (Uzi’s, M16’s, and AK’s, as well as Tommy guns and BAR’s were more expensive, but were available at only a tiny fraction of what they are today.) And every fifteen years or so, there’d usually be an amnesty declared, where you could register Granddad’s war trophy MG that had been hidden in the barn for decades, and thereafter be able to shoot it legally.

    But all that changed with the Hughes Amendment in 1986 — no more MG’s to civilians, and no more amnesties. Why Ronaldus Maximus signed that is still beyond me.

    • To be clear on the Hughes Amendment, I meant no *additional* MG’s to civilians; i.e., MG’s manufactured after the effective or not already in the registry were verboten to civilians (except for LE, and manufacturers with the proper permission slips).

      Stuff already on the registry is still OK, but that inherently limited supply + increasing demand is why an M16 that your local po-po can buy for $1200 (new manufacture) will run you at least $30,000 for a pre-’86, NFA-registered one.

    • “After complaints about the inclusion of handguns in the NFA threatened its passage, Congress stripped handguns out of the NFA . . . but in what looks to have been a drafting error, SBR’s remained in the bill.”

      Are there any challenges to that in the lawsuit ‘pipeline’?

      • “Are there any challenges to that in the lawsuit ‘pipeline’?”

        you could launch one.

      • None that I have seen. If SCOTUS holds that strict scrutiny applies to 2A challenges, then the historical accident that led to SBR’s remaining in the NFA might be a basis for a challenge.
        But my guess is that like challenges to the inclusion of SMG’s in the NFA, it is very unlikely that even with strict scrutiny, you are not going to see a successful challenge to that portion of the NFA.
        I think a much stronger case could be made challenging the Hughes Amendment, given that the number of crimes committed with registered MG’s at the time of the Hughes Amendment was either one or zero, and thus the Hughes Amendment was a solution in search of a problem. But let’s be honest . . . such a challenge would be an incredibly long shot.

  3. A lie that has been told for so long that it is nearly impossible to undo without doing great harm to the ones who instilled it.

    • “impossible to undo without doing great harm to the ones who instilled it”

      and they know that. so they’ll fight for their lives to keep it, up to and including taking yours.

  4. There is one factual error in your article.
    “ if you are asked for your paperwork by a police officer, game warden, or ATF agent you will have to produce it. “
    The only people authorized to demand to see your tax stamp are ATF agents.
    Your form 1 or form 4 are actually tax documents and police, game wardens and range officers are not authorized to demand you produce them.
    You may wish to voluntarily show it to the range officer so he will let you shoot at his range, but you do not have to by law show them your tax returns or ATF forms.
    Feel free to tell the police and game wardens that you refuse to show them your tax documents.
    They may harass you and even subject you to false arrest, but you will win in court because they are not authorized to see your private tax information.

    • Probably fewer people than Olberman can convince “keep” doesn’t mean you can “own.”

  5. Sans the $200 tax the requirements for a stamp are effectively the same requirements needed to pass any firearms background check. So why the 6-18 month wait for NFA? Shit, I’m paying $200. It should be at least as fast as a NICS check if not faster.

  6. “So why the 6-18 month wait for NFA?”

    probably because there’s not enough affected people to matter politically.

    ‘course, as people politically matter less and less, nics may start taking longer too ….

  7. The police and military both open carry short barrel rifles. And many in the “gun community” are comfortable with that. They are not happy seeing law abiding civilians doing the same thing. The NFA is tyranny. Repeal it. Or state nullification. The states should refuse to enforce this unconstitutional federal law. Texas has started with silencers.

  8. Except this law didn’t stop anything because criminals weren’t going to pay a tax and register their firearm in the first place.

    With the advent of 3d printing we can make fully automatic rifles with suppressors in our basement now.


  10. What’s the NFA? Like New York’s Sullivan Law, which as I recall FDR while Governor of New York vetoed the repeal of, another of his serious mistakes.



  11. You left out the early history which led to how this bill became law. It was originally an anti handgun bill banning the possession of revolvers and pistols by the public. As the bill was presented to various members of Congress and other groups, like the Department of War (the orginal and accurate name for what it does) there was very little support for it. Nobody in politics wanted their name attached to it, and the various agencies and Departments weren’t enamored of it’s purpose. The bill proponents then took a step back and moderated
    it’s purpose. Like a budget bill, they took what they could get, and took aim at the items we see included, adding them in as they were accepted by the powers that be. As long as a Department – like, War – had it’s special cutout protecting their use under a governmental umbrella, they would sign off support for it.

    Basically, our own civil and military servants bargained away our rights – but not theirs while serving our country. This is where some of the very first special exemptions were allowed, and it remains a very dangerous situation. It have eventually led to the discussion of whether police should possess weapons we cannot, and who they answer to.

    As this conglomeration of cutouts, special circumstances and overall betrayal of our rights continued to move forward, very few could oppose it with any effort. Why? It was 1934 – the middle of the Depression, Dustbowl, agricultural disaster, a nation economically on it’s knees. They tried again with the 1968 GCA, which was a belated reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy. That installed FFL’s as pro bono recorder for the goverment – oh wait, they even have to pay for that privilege – and on top of that, it restricted – what? Handgun sales, the original intent of the NFA. You could no longer mail order firearms and have them delivered directly to your home.

    Incrementalism, alive and well, they play for the long run. They later closed the Machine Gun registery on a voice vote that was fraudulent, by a legislator later convicted of crimes, there was another brick in the wall. That has led to increased demand for a dwindling pool of automatic firearms. Last I heard, an M16A2 sells for over $18,000. Our government pays about $850. Thompsons a bit left, the whole idea tho is that you can’t add any more to the list, therefore it’s a dwindling supply with increasing demand. Remind anyone of Muscle Car prices? That is normal, the MG registry is completely artificial and political. Anti gunners at work.

    This is why so many of us flatly refuse to bargain or negotiate at all with our own government, as they continue to take our rights away and work against us. And you need proof? OK, are you masking, again? INDOORS? AFTER you took the jab?

    You cannot comply your way out of tyranny.

  12. It s an semi automatic asault ban / infrigment in 5 (SBR, SBS, AOW, Big Bore Destructive Device and Silencer) from 6 groups and need to repealed yesterday.

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