Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A gun by any other name...

A recent post at Unc's sparked discussion on the ATF's definition of which part of a gun constitutes the actual firearm. I inadvertently managed to muddy the waters by using a piece of industry jargon, "the serial-numbered part". This is used frequently to refer to the piece that is designated as the actual firearm, as in:
"XYZ Wholesale is selling complete Blastomatic kits, everything but the serial-numbered part, for $189.99. You want I should order a few?"
"Fish around in the bottom of that box from Acme Tactical. There's a couple of serial-numbered parts in there that I need to put in the logbook."
Used outside that setting, this can cause confusion. Many firearms have the serial number on several parts (you will hear collectors of old guns refer to an example of a Mauser or Luger or Peacemaker as having "all matching numbers".) There is a reason for this, however.

Regardless of your feelings on gun control laws (and I think they're pretty much all unconstitutional), we have them. If the government is going to have laws that control guns, they have to define something as the "The Gun". In other words, if they are going to have a law saying, for instance, that you can't mail a handgun, then they can't let you just take a handgun apart and mail the complete thing as "gun parts"; there has to be an "atom of gun", a piece that, no matter how many other pieces you remove, retains its "gun-ness", and that is the part that is controlled.

In most cases it's fairly obvious: There is a frame or receiver that all the other parts (lockwork, barrel, cylinder, whatever) bolt up to, and that part is the gun. Several common exceptions to that rule or variations on it can be confusing to the casual hobbyist, and I'll try and cover a few here:

With self-loading rifles, it's usually pretty apparent at a glance. With most designs, the controlled part is the piece that the barrel, bolt and magazine all go into. Two big exceptions are the AR-15 and the FAL, which have "upper" and "lower" receivers. With the FAL, the upper contains the bolt, barrel, and magazine well, and it's obviously the controlled part. The AR, however, has the mag well on the lower receiver. Part of what has made the AR such a hit in the aftermarket is that the whole top half of the gun is unserialized and barrel length, caliber, and dozens of other features can be changed simply by swapping uppers out, since only the lower is controlled. It's really something of a fluke in the rifle world, but thank heavens for it, because it has spawned a whole hobby within a hobby.

With self-loading pistols, the frame is almost always the controlled part. Generally this is easy to tell, because even with most of the rest of the parts taken off, the frame still looks like a gun. Major exceptions would be the Ruger .22 semiautos, in which the barrel and its integral receiver are the gun and the grip frame is not; the Luger, in which the "slide" is the receiver; and the Beretta Neos, which can have its grip, barrel, and bolt all removed or changed out, leaving only the receiver as the actual gun.

In revolvers, confusion can also arise. The frame is, again, the gun, but most old single action revolvers and their modern clones have removable grip frames. The controlled part is the part of the frame that the barrel and cylinder mount to, not the separate "grip frame". Charter Arms double action revolvers are similarly constructed, in that the grip frame is separate from the actual frame of the gun. This sometimes causes confusion on eBay when someone freaks out over seeing a "grip frame" being auctioned.

Bolt-action rifles have a rather obvious receiver. For whatever reason, the Russians numbered their Mosin Nagant rifles on the barrel, rather than the action, and everyone else that made Mosins followed suit. Since these rifles are so rarely re-barreled, it's not that big of a deal. If you ever do, make sure to have your gunsmith move the S/N to the receiver. (Some importers these days are marking the receiver to fix this.) Mausers are generally serial numbered on the receiver as well as having the bolt and bottom metal numbered. If the gun has been re-arsenalled at some time in the past, these numbers may well not match. It should be obvious that the number on the receiver is the one that matters.

This is generally all common sense. I'm no rocket scientist, and I managed to pick most of it up by deductive reasoning. If you can figure out a 1040EZ, you can probably figure out which part of the gun is actually the gun.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I thought it was the shoulder thing that goes up?

I kid. Good piece.

-SayUncle

perlhaqr said...

Does that prohibition on mailing handguns include "to yourself", the way you can with rifles?

Tam said...

You cannot send a handgun through the US Mail unless you have an FFL.

You can ship one to yourself via common carrier. Both FedEx and UPS will require you to use overnight service.

Alan said...

Ruling that the upper receiver is the firearm so that altering the lower receiver for the auto sear wouldn't create a new machine gun and thus violate the law made so much sense I couldn't believe it came from the BATFE.

Anonymous said...

Then there is the Sig Sauer P250, where the fire control group is the gun and you can change out frame, slide and barrel to suit your preferences.

-Medicman

Tam said...

"where the fire control group is the gun"

Only a part of the fire control group is the gun. A group of parts cannot be the gun.

SIG took the same route with the P-250 that Beretta took with the Neos in order to allow for maximum modularity.

ajdshootist said...

Then of course you have early N frame S&Ws that have an asembly number on the crane!

Steve Skubinna said...

When I bought my FN FS2000 I had some serious reorientation to do when I realized what the serial numbered part was. They call it the "barrel receiver" and that's pretty much what it is. What I would have called the receiver is the "frame" and it includes the bolt, the fire control, the mag well, the stock and the foregrip.

The "barrel receiver" is just the barrel and chamber plus a metal shroud, with a rail on top.

Anonymous said...

Tam: Clarification--In the UK and some parts of Europe, THE BARREL IS THE FIREARM. Their reasoning is if you have no barrel you have no gun. The first response is to say "Well, Duh", but remember if you fieldstrip a Luger you put a live round in the barrel and fire it without it being mounted on the frame. Hence, their reasoning that the barrel IS the gun and they could care less about the serial numbered part.

This was explained to me in great detail when I used to travel to the UK and Europe and brings misc. gun parts over for my friends. I was cautioned NOT to bring any barrels as that would be unlawful importation of a firearm.

You can bet your bippy I damn sure didn't.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

chris said...

also keep in mind that the receiver or the part that is considered the gun may be subject to state safe storage laws... for example, in some states, leaving a stripped AR lower laying on a coffee table around kids would be considered storing a firearm in reach of a minor... luckily i live in a state that distinguishes and stipulates that the firearm may not be readily fireable

Charles Pergiel said...

Sorry Tam, I think you made a boo-boo. You implied that the law and "common sense" had some relation to each other. If they do, it is surely a coincidence, and if discovered will switftly be fixed (i.e. broken) by them law people.