The three types of legal machine guns in the United States.

As the title suggests, this article is a brief overview of the 3 types of legal machine guns in the United States.

The term ”machine gun” is defined under the 1934 National firearms act (US Public law 73-474) as ”any weapon that shoots or is designed to shoot, automatically or semiautomatically, more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.”

An autoloading weapon, a semiautomatic firearm, that is only capable of firing one shot per function of the trigger is not a machine gun. Manually loaded firearms (such as pump action shotguns) are not capable of fitting into the definition of a machine gun either (including the Winchester models 1897 and 1912, which can fire as fast as the pumping bolt handle is activated when the trigger is held completely down).

Despite the fact that more than one shot can be fired with the trigger fully depressed, the Winchester model 1897 ”trench gun” is not a machine gun. Loading from the tubular magazine to the chamber is manually preformed by pumping the bolt mechanism.

In order from highest to lowest market value: transferable machine guns manufactured before 1986, no-law-letter guns, and law-letter guns.

Transferable Machine guns

The Firearms owners’ protection act of 1986 (US Public law No. 99-308) included an amendment to make it unlawful for any person to transfer or possess a machinegun except in the case of a machinegun that was lawfully possessed before the date of enactment. In practice, anyone refers to the unlicensed general public. Any machine guns lawfully possessed by the US general public since prior to the enactment of Fire arms owners’ protection act are lawfully transferable. Since any non prohibited US permanent resident may one one of these “pre 86” machine guns, they have the highest market value. These firearms are commonly referred to as “transferable”.

A British made STEN MKII. These were ordinally produced for about 130 USD (in 2022 USD). Transferable STEN MKIIs in the US sell for about 10,000 USD today, roughly 77 times its original price of manufacture.
Photograph by Grzegorz Pietrzak, Licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

No-law-letter machineguns

The second category are no-law-letter guns. These are guns which require no law letter to transfer between Federal Firearms Licensees specifically recognized to maintain such weapons stockpiles. A no-law-letter machinegun may enter circulation for any recognized manufacturer or dealer to purchase when a manufacturer or dealer allows for their license to expire (typically willingly). This allows the manufacturer or dealer to recoup their investment when permanently closing their books rather than deactivate or destroy the firearms. Such machine guns could not be purchased even by licensed machinegun manufacturers otherwise. They are more valuable than “law letter” machineguns.

Some Belgian made FN M240 Bravos circulate as “No-Law-Letter” machineguns among Federally Licensed Dealers and Manufactures. Despite not transferable to a private individual, their is a premium price for being transferable to a Licensed entity.

Law-letter machine guns

Machine guns manufactured or imported by US Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) can typically only be transferred to a customer with a “Law letter”, permission from the chief law enforcement officer for a jurisdiction. These machine guns are to be transferred solely to a government entity in the United States: any department, independent establishment, or agency thereof. In the case of Federal subdivisions such as the Department of Defense, no law letter would be required to transfer this type of machine gun. These machine guns are the least valuable since they cannot be readily transferred. Their price is a fraction of a “no-law-letter” machinegun and a smaller fraction of a “transferable” machine gun.

US Marines and US Drug Enforcement Agency performing a joint operation. The machine guns they carry here fit into the third category, they were only able to be transferred from the dealer to the purchasing government subdivisions.