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March 9, 2022

Will this bill KILL the AOW?

By Ryan F. Sullivan

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Recently, a bill was submitted in the House of Representatives by Congressman Chip Roy (R, Texas) to revise and adjust the National Firearms Act, specifically to remove the “Any Other Weapon,” (AOW) category from the NFA. Let me be blunt; after spending Trump’s entire term getting toyed with on the topic of silencers being removed from the NFA with nothing to show for it, I’m not getting pumped about any pro-gun legislation, especially with a split Congress and a Democrat president that could veto any potential success. But here and now, the bill exists, and we should talk about what’s on the table, the implications of the bill and what will be available to American gun owners if it passes.

The first paragraph of the bill raises the prospect that this legislation is essentially the first step in a general overhaul of the National Firearms Act, a first bite into a law that has done nothing but grow stronger since it was originally passed. The most importance sentence of that paragraph reads, “This is especially important should legislation that removes short-barreled rifles and short-barreled shotguns (SBRs, SBSs) from the NFA be enacted.” This would no doubt have fans and enemies; expect clickbait headlines that can’t sort out the fact that the NFA controls more than machine guns in coming months.

Classifications get murky for unique firearms like the Haenel CR 223 BT-15 semi-automatic pistol.

So, if Congressman Roy’s (R, Texas) legislation happens, or a similar bill is passed, what’s the upshot? What do we, the buying public get out of it?

AOW Laws

Right now, the AOW category under the National Firearms Act is something of the poor cousin of the other, sexier, and “scarier” NFA categories. It’s easy for the anti-gun side to get in a twist over a full auto AK-47, a Welrod silenced pistol, or a sawed-off Mossberg, but it’s a lot harder to work up into a frothing rage over a smoothbore .22 snake gun or a two-shot Marble Game Getter. No one’s marching down the streets for a crackdown on wallet guns. That might change once this bill gets started, but right now this stuff doesn’t get a lot of attention or much love in general.

Defining what is or isn’t an AOW can be difficult, and interpreting ATF guidance isn’t always easy, as is the case with the American Derringer Corpt. Model 2 pen pistol.

If this bill passes, there will be no more tax stamp requirement on these AOWs. Monetarily, this is a token payment of $5 and all the hassle that comes with filling out the form. They will no longer be federally regulated, which in turn will remove one of the biggest roadblocks to private ownership of these AOWs. Let’s take a look at some of the most common AOW genres below, their history, and how they came to be included in the AOW category.

Smoothbore Pistols

A somewhat niche genre at the time of the NFA’s passing, smoothbore pistols could be found serving several roles in civilian hands. The most famous would be in the form of close combat weapons like the Auto-Burglar, a purpose made 12 or 20 gauge shotgun pistol intended to be strapped to a steering column, nightstand, or desk for a brutally effective self-defense weapon in case a stalled motorist turns out to be a criminal ambush or a window breaks open in the night.

Ithaca Auto & Burglar Model A double-barrel smoothbore pistol.

Less famous outside of more elite hunting circles would be some models of “stopping pistols,” intended as a last-ditch weapon for dangerous game hunters in case a lethal animal got too close for comfort, they were often made by recycling large bore rifles and shotguns that were too worn out for precision work. Far less famous, but far more common in the states, were snake/varmint guns, compact weapons firing small shot loads intended for terminating small pests at close range with a higher hit probability and reduced chance of a ricochet than a standard bullet. The stamp requirement more or less quashed interest in both items, since the former was too niche to survive with the extra burden and the latter were too cheap for most users to justify the expense of a $5 stamp (yes, this was never inflation-adjusted). A lot of users of varmint guns just quietly kept using them, and they still turn up places occasionally.

Alexander Henry retailed .577 blandpryse double action revolver.

Working around the restrictions of the NFA, new weapons were made that either qualified as a shotgun or a handgun to stay clear of the stamp requirement. Prominent among them are several .410 revolvers revolvers that have come on the scene with an eye to fill the same close-quarters defensive niche as the Auto-Burglar, but applying rifling to the barrel to avoid AOW classification and keeping the bore under .50 caliber to avoid Destructive Device classification.

Harrington & Richardson handy gun .410 smoothbore pistol class.

After an initial false start with the beefy Thunder Five revolver, the concept blew up on the commercial market when Taurus introduced their Judge revolver and created a whole new niche in handguns. Nowadays Taurus has expanded on the concept with everything from their polymer-framed Public Defender to the carbine length Circuit Judge, and Smith & Wesson got in on the act with their own Governor revolver. If the AOW category were removed, either maker could issue their revolvers in a smoothbore format.

Clandestine Weapons

Defined as “any weapon or device capable of being concealed on the person from which a shot can be discharged through the energy of an explosive,” this one covers a broad spectrum of gimmicky weapons, ranging in order of sophistication from the classy Remington cane guns, to the more workaday pen and flashlight guns of the 20th century, to extremely crude criminal-made weapons designed to pass as a non-weapon under scrutiny by the law.

A flashlight pistol and a pen gun.

The precedent on this one can get a little bit finicky, but the baseline question is “does it look like a gun when it goes off”? A weapon that stores in a benign form but is flipped around Transformer-style before the moment of truth gets a pass, as seen in the Stinger line of folding pistols or the more contemporary line of “credit card pistols” from LifeCard, both of which need to be unfolded into a gun-like shape before making a ruckus.

Modern iterations of the Remington cane gun which fire a projectile through the use of an internal explosion can be considered an AOW.

This principle extends to how the weapon is carried as well; a pistol in a well-made and properly positioned concealed carry holster is hidden but not “clandestine” from a legal perspective. However, a High Standard derringer loaded into a fake wallet that conceals the barrels and has a hole for the user to pull the trigger is a problem, since anyone who gets shot with one dies thinking that they were killed by a very loud wallet.

Pen guns traditionally have been a firearm disguised as a pen and utilizing a straight body, thus qualifying them as an AOW ("Any other weapon") in the eyes of the BAFTE.

Again, the hunger for novelty will probably drive at least a few sales in this area. Pen guns are a classic in the category for a weapon that can be on the person, hidden in plain sight, and no doubt someone will drive into that niche. Other novelties would emerge as well, if only to fulfill the impulses of gun owners who watched one James Bond film too many in their formative years. Full disclosure, I don’t know if I’d spend money to buy a watch that shoots bullets, but I might try building my own if someone made an 80% kit.

Le Petit Protector style "Le Femme Fatale" ring gun.

The Game Getter

Next on the list is a somewhat picky category, “weapons with combination shotgun and rifle barrels 12 inches or more, less than 18 inches in length, from which only a single discharge can be made from either barrel without manual reloading”. Kind of a mouthful, and a very niche category, the most famous example being Marble’s Game Getter. A compact weapon outfitted with a rifled .22 caliber upper barrel and a smoothbore lower (.410 and .44 were both options), the Game Getter was pitched to the public as a weapon for all seasons, which could fold up nice and small to be strapped to a pack without excess burden, rapidly deployed with the shoulder stock for recreational plinking or taking small game, and in a pinch put into service with the stock hanging loose to act as a defense in case of an animal attack.

Marble Arms Game Getter Class III/NFA AOW C&R combination gun.

While having this little whittled-out niche saved the Game Getter from the burden of a $200 tax stamp that would be applied if it were treated as a short-barreled rifle or shotgun, the need for registration more or less killed the short-barreled Game Getter. Marble kept on trucking with the base design, but bumped the length out to a full 18 inches on the barrels to avoid the troublesome stamp.

Here is where things get tricky. The exact phrasing of Congressman Roy’s bill removes the phrasing “any other weapon as defined in subsection (e)” from subsection (a) of the relevant law, but does not strip out subsection (e) itself. If subsection (e) were stripped, there would be a hazard that weapons like the Game Getter (which is under minimum length for both a rifle and a shotgun) could go from being an AOW to being a Short Barreled Rifle or Shotgun, depending on how the ATF chose to play it.

An Ithaca U.S.A.F. property marked M6 rifle/shotgun, another combination gun that falls within the window of the NFA’s definition.

Since these weapons are clearly defined as something other than a rifle or shotgun on paper they get the same sort of pass that modern “Shockwave” pattern shotguns get, being a “firearm” per the Gun Control Act, but not a “firearm” per the National Firearms Act, because they don’t fall into a restricted category. Unless someone goes back and passes another bill to edit the relevant codes to excise the wording from the NFA that defines the Game Getter as an AOW, it would become just a normal gun.

Marble Safety Axe Co. Game Getter over/under combination gun.

As far as if anyone else would try to join the Game Getter in this niche, we can only speculate. The American arms market seems to respond well to novelty, and the niche of a compact do-it-all backpack gun hasn’t been voided completely, so it wouldn’t be too shocking if companies rose to fill the space with compact and flexible weapons… or just applied a token amount of rifling to one barrel so they could make compact break-action shotguns without needing a tax stamp.

Two Handed Pistols

Things get a little bit weird at this point because we hit the realm where the actual, factual word of the law starts to give way to ATF interpretation of that word. By the raw text of the NFA, there is nothing in the definition of AOW to include a firearm with a forward pistol grip in its ranks.

Sig Sauer MPX semi-automatic pistol.

But the ATF has released letters that present the rationale that since a handgun, by NFA definition, is designed to fire with one hand, and a vertical foregrip clearly indicates an intention for two handed operation, a normal pistol that receives a forward grip cannot be a handgun, but instead a rifle or shotgun-like weapon that can be concealed in a similar manner as an SBR or SBS; if the manufacturer does it, it was never a handgun to begin with, but if a private citizen does it, they’ve “made” a “firearm” and have sinned in the eyes of the Alphabet Soup crowd.

If you read our articles on pistol braces, you already know my opinion on AOW classifications, so I’m not going to sit here grinding my gears on the topic. If AOWs are no longer firearms, and the ATF does not reverse course on their previous guidance, this would mean that two handed pistols would fall into the same “shockwave” situation as described above, where it simply becomes neither fish nor fowl in the eyes of the NFA.

Aero Precision Model X-15 semi-automatic pistol.

It’s tough to say what the market response will be, but I’d bet my last dollar that if this happened a significant fraction of the AR-style pistols in this country would be fitted with foregrips that very day, and likely the majority within the week.

Would this nip the whole pistol brace matter in the bud? No, unfortunately, since a two handed weapon with a stock is a candidate for SBR/SBS qualification, and inappropriately configured/installed braces will be stocks under the new guidance. But anyone needing to ditch their pistol brace in favor of free-handed or sling-hanging use would have a strong tool at their disposal for keeping their weapon on target and under control.

An End to the AOW Class?

For most folks, even when their home state doesn’t have a rule against owning a particular AOW (or weird rules, like how Illinois doesn’t want you to have a short-barreled shotgun unless you’re a C&R dealer or a war reenactor who needs it as a reenactment prop), the current tax stamp requirement is enough to make them turn away and find an alternative. If Congressman Roy’s legislation or a future bill in the same vein one day becomes law, weapon genres that more or less died out when the NFA was passed might see a resurgence, gun owners would have one less vaguely defined category to worry about, and the country would have fewer involuntary stamp collectors.

Extremely rare early production Colt/Armalite Model 01 AR-15 machine gun.

Keeping up with the latest gun news and gun laws can be a challenge, so subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos on topics ranging from the convoluted ATF pistol brace point system proposal, the ATF's Pistol Brace Point System, the Constitutionally dubious FOID card identifications certain states require, to the question of what exactly AR stands for in AR-15, and take a look at our 2022 auction schedule for the latest free gun catalogs.

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AvatarDouglas DiToroMarch 12, 2022

I enjoyed this article and especially the article on THE BIG IRON. I think Marty Robbin's The Big Iron was great. Being a cowboy/western buff and collector your articles are very enlightening and very good in depth. Keep up the good work. You also publish a very professional catalogue and it is used as a very good reference for antique weapons. BZ and Kudos to RIA

AvatarGREG BOWERMarch 23, 2022

What about collectable Trapper Carbines under 18" , Winchester, Marlin

AvatarEd SongletonApril 07, 2023

Regarding the "vertical grip", in 1968, handgun was defined as designed to be shot with one hand because Congress was unaware handgun shooting style started changing to two hands 13 years prior. ATF doesn't care, but wants to restrict anything scary so they classify AOW knows 26 USC CH 53 5845(e) states AOW specifically states "Such term shall not include a pistol or a revolver having a rifled bore" and no one has taken them to court while Congress is clueless. ATF approves Magpul Angled Grips.

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