View Full Version : History of the NFA and NFA firearms

December 6, 2010, 10:28 AM
Hi newbie here with a question for the more historically minded. I've been researching the National Firearms recently and its passage in 1934. While I have no doubt it unfortunately passed congress I was curious as to what the popularity of NFA items were prior to the passage of the act in 1934. I have heard estimates for machine guns alone as being anywhere between 1-2 million privately owned in the early 1930s plus millions of suppressors which at the time would sell for as little as $3-10. Also if I have heard correctly a large number of soldiers returned from the first World War with weapons collected from enemies as war trophies without the need to deactivate them since in 1918 they were perfectly legal.

The reason I was asking is one of the constitutional tests the Supreme Court has placed on the protection of firearms rights in Federal and Supreme Court decisions post DC v Heller is whether the weapon is "in common use at the time" and whether it is "dangerous [or] unusual." If it could be proven that suppressors, short barreled rifles or shotguns, or machineguns WOULD HAVE been more commonly owned sans the passage of major Federal gun legislation since the 1930s or the post-1986 registration ban would the courts have a harder time upholding the constitutionality of such measures? Probably not given the cultural anathema to the word "machinegun" or "silencer" but for our own sake I thought it would be helpful to know.

I apologize if this belongs in another section of the forum but I figured people in this section would probably know the most.

December 6, 2010, 12:01 PM
While it entirely possible that between one and two million fully automatic weapons were in private hands in the United States at the time of the passage of the 1934 act, that would have required that practically the entire production of German automatic weapons to have been transported home as souvenirs. Yet the German army did not go out of business and continued to use WWI production into the middle of WWII. For example, as near as I can estimate, German production of the Maxim did not exceed one-quarter million units, all heavy machine guns (which now would be called medium machine guns). They did get some submachine guns into production as well but I didn't check any of those numbers.

But perhaps I am rash in assuming that soldiers only brought home captured enemy weapons.

On the subject of these weapons, I do remember being startled when I noticed one such machine gun on inconspicious display in an office many years ago when I was in their on business. I didn't inquire if it was in working order but at least that one managed to cross the ocean. It was an air cooled version.

Nickel Plated
December 6, 2010, 01:02 PM
There's also that catch-22. Machine guns are banned because they are not in common use, and they are not in common use because they are banned.

Although if the registry were open, and the price of MGs returned to their normal market value, then yes, I believe they would be much more common. I mean why buy a semi-auto-only rifle if you can have a select fire version for like $50-$100 more. Even if you won't use full-auto often because of ammo costs. Might as well have the option available to you. If the registry were gotten rid of altogether then I doubt manufacturers would even bother making semi-auto only versions. It would be the death of the AR-15 :p

December 6, 2010, 01:59 PM
I have a copy of a Sears, Roebuck catalog of military goods from 1917 and believe it or not, they include a Colt machine gun. I don't have it with me (I must start carrying it with me for times like this) but the price of the gun and tripod was in the thousands of dollars and that was in 1917. In comparison, a Colt pocket auto or a Colt Police Positive revolver was something like $20 or $30. No Government Model listed. Why anyone thinks the price would go down if they were legal now is hard to believe.

I also tend to look hard at things were "millions" are mentioned. I realize a million isn't what it used to be but For there to be millions of automatic weapons in circulation from war trophies, everyone who served in France would have had to have brought one back. And I also wonder about "millions" of supressors.

December 6, 2010, 03:01 PM
Why anyone thinks the price would go down if they were legal now is hard to believe.

The price of WW1 era machine guns might not go down - they were complicated and very expensive to make.

But there is no question the cost of automatic weapons in general would plummet if they were unrestricted; an AR-15 lightning link that probably costs a dollar to make currently multiplies the value of the rifle by a factor of about 10, all because it's registered and transferable.

December 6, 2010, 03:09 PM
Perhaps they would. But while cost is a factor, it doesn't seem to be the main factor in the selling price of anything. Chances are, were they suddenly legal, just supposing, it would be quite a while before the price went down and they might even go up first.

On the other hand, maybe I'm having trouble thinking of an M-16 as a machine gun.

December 6, 2010, 09:47 PM
I don't believe there were anything like "millions" of machine guns after WW I. But in terms of per capita, it may have been more than we might think. After all, there weren't a lot of people in this country at the time. There weren't many suppressors either because they were fairly new inventions. The first Maxim silencers weren't even marketed until I think about 1905.

And keep in mind, the cost of guns and ammo were high in that period of time and the average income was pretty low. People of that period were, for the most part, more interested in feeding their families than shooting just to make noise. It's only been in the past few decades that most people in this country have had the disposable income to be able to enjoy collecting and shooting machine guns.

December 7, 2010, 07:10 AM
Yes, and in the past decade that disposable income has disappeared for me!

But returning to the subject:

Do any attachments to rifles intended as muzzle brakes or compensators do anything in the way of supressing noise? I would doubt it and some might even make it worse. I was thinking of a Boys anti-tank rifle (because I've seen one at the range), which has a muzzle brake (I think!). Compensators aren't unusual and are even on handguns. I understand that the compensator on a Marlin Guide Gun increases the apparent blast, too, by the way.

December 8, 2010, 03:33 PM
The only real reasons the NFA has held up at all is because the two major Supreme Court cases preceding it concerning guns lost, the test case for it was tailor picked to lose (scumbag defendant who died before trial, public defender who quit the case and didn't even write a brief) and the Supreme Court didn't dare defy FDR, and all the way until 2008 there wasn't a single Supreme Court decision to reverse a losing course that had been in place since 1875.

December 8, 2010, 03:56 PM
"While it entirely possible that between one and two million fully automatic weapons were in private hands in the United States at the time of the passage of the 1934 act, that would have required that practically the entire production of German automatic weapons to have been transported home as souvenirs"

I'm sure most of that number were domestically produced weapons. Yes in 1918 fully automatic weapons were probably still very much a novelty but by the 1920s and early 30s you could buy a Thompson or similar weapon over the counter for less than $100. Wikipedia claims for example the Browning Automatic Rifle was a popular civilian weapon

I also read that within the first few years after of the act's passage only a few thousand weapons were registered meaning most gun owners did not comply with the act and is was difficult to enforce.

December 8, 2010, 06:20 PM
My father was born in 1913. He use to tell me about "the days before NFA" True, you could buy a Thompson through Sears or "Monkey Ward" (Montgomery Ward) and there were a few Suppressors available. A thompson was ~$100.00 dollars. Upper Middle Class income ( not the as large a sector as now) was $18.00 - $25.00/week. So, the Thompson wasn't the "steal" that many might believe. The cost of ammo was just as prohibitive then as it is now. Reloading was not common. There was a good market for Thompsons out west. They were used to eradicate Jack Rabbits, Coyote, and Range Horses (PETA gasps!). Suppressors were not as prevalent as now. He used one on his single shot 22lr to hunt rabbits. When he saw my Gemtech in 2004, he passed away in 2005, he was amazed at the small size and light weight. His was made of Steel and he guessed it weighed 1-2lbs!!! Modifying NFA has always been a hard sell for John Q. NFA weapons are viewed as unnecessary, or connected to the criminal element by John Q.. The major drawback to getting them "accepted" is also connected with the cost of "pulling the trigger". Take the Ingram M-10 in 45acp, cyclic rate 1000rds/min. Never mind an M-60. Back prior to 1986 a M-60A1 could be had for ~$3000.00. But, at the same time an oil cahnge was $16.00:rolleyes:

James K
December 8, 2010, 08:26 PM
In 1928, the standard M1921 TSMG sold for $175, $25 extra for the Cutts Compensator. One 20 round stick magazine was included. The M1928 sold for $200, $225 with the Cutts and one XX stick.

(FWIW, the TSMG magazine letters are the capacity in Roman numbers - XX, XXX, L, and C.)

Millions of machineguns prior to 1934? Not hardly. By 1938, only 10,300 Thompson SMGs had been sold, and only 4700 in the US. That counted guns "in the wrong hands." By December 1934, the end of the registration period, only 15,791 machineguns and sawed off rifles/shotguns had been registered. (At that time, law enforcement agencies did not have to register their NFA guns.)

There was almost no collector interest in machineguns; most WWI "bringbacks" were in the hands of veterans organizations as war trophies, not as collectibles.


44 AMP
December 11, 2010, 01:03 PM
There were probably over a million of NFA items in the country, when it was passed, considering it covered not only machineguns, and silencers, but also all short barrel rifles & shotguns (below the listed length) and stocked (or capable of taking a stock) pistols as well.

Did you know that an original draft of the NFA did not contain regulations on silencers? It had the NFA regs for HANDGUNS! That was dropped, and silencers substituted, because (some) cooler heads knew including handguns was going too far (even for them), and would result in the bill being killed in Congress.

The 1930s were an interesting decade, so many advances in so many good things, balanced with the "advances" in human misery. The rise of dictatorships (or near dictatatorships) in many countries, and the laws that resulted, some of which still remain with us.

December 11, 2010, 02:28 PM
Both the NFA and the infamous Sullivan Law were passed in part because of ethnic, religious and racial bigotry.

December 13, 2010, 11:40 AM
The Sullivan law? It's OK, officer; we're married.

December 13, 2010, 12:22 PM
The Sullivan Law is New York's gun control law, dating to 1911.:rolleyes:

December 13, 2010, 09:09 PM
The Sullivan law? It's OK, officer; we're married.

ROFL! Great quote from Nora Charles in "The Thin Man"!

December 14, 2010, 08:51 AM
My appreciation of this forum just went up a couple of notches.

December 15, 2010, 12:19 PM
Did you know that an original draft of the NFA did not contain regulations on silencers? It had the NFA regs for HANDGUNS!

Yup. That's why the regs for short-barreled shotguns and rifles seem so bizarre and arbitrary. Originally, the NFA was going to apply to anything shorter than 26"; ie. small enough to be concealed under an overcoat.

With pistols removed from the purview of the NFA, the SBR/SBS regs serve no more function than the appendix. (And yet, like the appendix, they remain there.)