The UK is one of the strictest countries in the world on gun law and smallholders considering buying a gun should understand the extent of the responsibility that gun ownership brings.

The main types of lawful shooting in the UK are clay shooting, game shooting, wildfowling, deer stalking, target shooting and pest and predator control. There are four main types of gun and the reason for the purchase best informs the final selection.


A shotgun can be single or double-barrelled. It fires a charge of small pellets and is mainly used for shooting game birds, pest birds, small mammals and clay targets. Shotguns come in a variety of sizes classified by the ‘bore’ or ‘gauge’, an historical measurement of the diameter of the barrel. Shotguns fire shot (small pellets) contained in a cartridge. A shotgun certificate (or a firearm certificate in Northern Ireland) is required.


Rifles fire bullet which vary in size according to the type of rifle and quarry species. Essentially used for target shooting competitions and for shooting mammals up to the size of deer in the UK, they require a police-authorised firearm certificate. The word rifle refers to the ‘rifling’ in the barrel, a spiral groove cut into the metal which spins the bullet before it leaves the muzzle, stabilising its flight. The size of a rifle is indicated by its calibre - the diameter of the bullet it fires. The calibre of a rifle refers to the size of the bullet that it shoots.

Air rifle

It shoots a small pellet, propelled by compressed air or gas. Airguns are used for target shooting and for shooting small pest species. It is not necessary to hold a certificate for an air rifle which can produce a kinetic energy of less than 12ft/lbs, except in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The law makes no distinction between firearms offences committed with an airgun or with more powerful cartridge firing guns.


A small number of pistols are owned by firearm certificate holders to humanely dispatch severely injured animals. These people tend to be deer managers or pest controllers and their pistols are reduced in capacity to make them unattractive to criminals. Imitation pistols which only fire blank cartridges are also used to train gundogs. The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 limits their manufacture to those which cannot be readily altered to fire live ammunition and which are brightly coloured to discourage their use in crime.


The UK has some of the toughest gun laws in the world. People who apply for a shotgun or firearm certificate go through a series of stringent checks that can include home visits by the police, background and medical checks. Overall responsibility for granting the application rests with the Chief Constable of the local police force area. The Chief Constable must refuse a certificate or withdraw one from anyone he or she thinks is unfit to possess a firearm or someone they think may be a danger to public safety or the peace. Shotgun and firearm certificates must be renewed every five years.

The Law

No-one under the age of 18 may purchase a firearm or ammunition of any kind, including airguns.

The possession of an airgun, shotgun or firearm or any ammunition is prohibited for life for anyone who has been in prison (including youth custody and corrective training) for more than three years. A five-year ban on possession applies to anyone who has served a prison sentence (including youth custody or corrective training) or been sentenced to a suspended prison sentence for more than three months but less than three years. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) does not apply to applications for certificates. All convictions in the UK and abroad, including motoring offences, must be declared and certificate holders who are sentenced to imprisonment have their certificates revoked.

Secure storage

The BASC and National Crime Agency have collaborated to provide the following advice for storing firearms securely. Holders of a firearm or shotgun certificate are required to comply with the conditions on the certificate relating to security and in terms of storage these are:

Condition 4 (a)

“The firearms and ammunition [or shotguns] to which the certificate relates must at all times (except in the circumstances set out in paragraph (b) below) be stored securely so as to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, access to the firearms or ammunition by an unauthorised person.”

Condition 4 (b)

“Where a firearm or ammunition [or shotgun] to which the certificate relates is in use or the holder of the certificate has the firearm with him for the purpose of cleaning, repairing or testing it or for some other purpose connected with its use, transfer or sale, or the firearm or ammunition is in transit to or from a place in connection with its use or any such purpose, reasonable precautions must be taken for the safe custody of the firearm or the ammunition.”

The security requirement relates to all firearms, sound moderators and ammunition held on a firearm certificate. On a shotgun certificate it only relates to the shotguns, not cartridges. However, it makes sense to keep cartridges hidden and away from the shotgun storage.

When not in use guns must be locked away from anyone who hasn’t got a certificate, including family members. The best option is a purpose-built gun cabinet which should be secured firmly so that it can’t easily be removed. It is usually bolted to a wall, floor or joists and when secured in a corner it is difficult for an intruder to attack it.

Keys to the cabinet should be carefully hidden. Letting people who do not have a certificate (including family members) know where the keys are is not taking reasonable precautions to ensure that they don’t have access to the guns. Some owners keep the keys in a small combination safe or have a combination lock on the cabinet.

After shooting it’s best to clean guns immediately then lock them away as soon as possible as leaving them out “to dry” can compromise security. Also ensure that there is no forgotten ammunition in the car or in jacket pockets.

When leaving a car with guns or ammunition in it, be sure that nothing indicates that they are there. If possible, park where the car can be seen and reverse up to a wall to make access to the boot difficult. Security cables and vehicle-mounted gun safes are useful and it can also be wise to remove parts such as a rifle bolt or fore-end.

The Home Office handbook has detailed advice on firearm security:

-----------This article was originally published in Smallholder magazine, available in newsagents or by subscription.