There are thought to be around four million air rifles in the UK. We are not concerned here with the legal use of air rifles, but their illegal use: for example the frequent reports of people using air rifles to illegally shoot wildlife in parks (swans seem to be a favourite target) or in their gardens.
A licence is not required to own an air rifle but it’s important to note that the law makes no distinction between air rifles and more powerful guns for which a licence is needed – they are all classed as firearms. This means that the police will respond to calls where an air rifle is being used illegally, and any offence can carry a very heavy penalty.
Note that in Scotland it is an offence to discharge any gun (including an air rifle) in a culpable or reckless manner. This means that it is a crime to shoot without caring about the safety of others.
Let’s help tackle illegal use of air rifles
At what age is it legal to own and use an Air Rifle?
The Crime and Security Act 2010 makes it an offence for a person in possession of an air gun to fail to take “reasonable precautions” to prevent someone under the age of 18 from gaining unauthorised access to it.
It is also illegal to sell an air rifle or ammunition to a person under 18 years of age.
- can buy an air rifle and ammunition, and use it wherever they have permission to shoot.
- can borrow an air rifle and ammunition
- can use an air rifle, without supervision, on private premises where they have permission
- buy or hire an air rifle, or ammunition, or receive one as a gift
- have an air rifle in a public place unless supervised by somebody aged 21 or over, and has a reasonable excuse to do so (eg on the way to a shooting ground)
- use an air rifle under supervision on private premises with permission from the occupier – normally the owner or tenant.
- Must be supervised by someone who is at least 21 years old
- Parents or guardians who buy an air rifle for use by someone under 14 must exercise control over it at all times, even in the home or garden.
Any air rifle, air gun or air pistol that uses, or is designed or adapted for use with a self-contained gas cartridge system is prohibited. It is an offence to manufacture, sell, purchase, transfer or acquire such a weapon.
Where can someone shoot with an air-rifle?
Anyone using an air-rifle must have permission from the landowner or person with the sporting rights and must know precisely where the boundaries are.
Going on to private land, or water, without permission is trespassing (a civil offence only), but if someone is carrying an air rifle it becomes armed trespass – whether the gun is loaded or not. Note that an air rifle is treated as loaded if there is a pellet in the breech even if the compression necessary to fire the gun is not present. Armed trespass is a serious criminal offence carrying heavy penalties.
Firing pellets beyond a permitted boundary
It is an offence to fire an air rifle pellet beyond the land where a shooter has permission to shoot, unless the occupier of the neighbouring land has also given permission. An air rifle used in a garden or residential area is therefore being used illegally if pellets are fired in to someone else’s garden without the owner’s permission.
Where someone under 14 is shooting, both the young person and the supervising adult can be prosecuted.
Using an air rifle by a highway
It is against the law, in England and Wales, to fire an air rifle within 50 feet/15 metres of the centre of any highway (a road or track used by a vehicle) if this results in someone being injured, interrupted or endangered .
An offence could be committed, for example, when someone is shooting in their garden close to a road and the pellets ricochet onto the highway.
What can be shot with an air rifle?
Nearly all wild birds and wild mammals are protected in law and it is not legal to shoot them. However those species (both birds and mammals) on the General Licence may be shot (including with an air rifle) but only to protect public health and safety or prevent serious damage to crops.
If you see someone shooting at birds, the shooter must be able to prove that the bird is a risk to public health and safety or is damaging a crop and that all other means of solving the problem have been tried before resorting to shooting.
- An air rifle used in a garden or residential area to shoot birds is therefore almost certainly being used illegally no matter what species are being targeted.
Air rifles must always be transported in securely-fastened cases that do not permit it to be fired whilst in the case. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act, 2003, made it an offence for airgunners between 14 and 18 years of age to transport any airgun to the venues at which they shoot: they must be accompanied and supervised by someone of 21 years or above.
- It is illegal to have an air rifle loaded or in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse: this restriction applies even when airguns are being carried in securely-fastened gun cases.
- If you see someone committing a crime with an air rifle – and if it is safe to do so – take as many photographs as you can. Recording the offender’s face is important of course, but their clothing, the bags they’re carrying, the equipment they’re using are all important too. Do NOT try to get too close – air rifles are powerful weapons and taking even a few long-distance images is better than being shot at or being attacked and hurt.
- Note the location as accurately as possible, preferably using a grid reference (free smartphone apps are widely available). If the crime is in an urban area note the address or any other recognisable description of the location.
- If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. Imagine we were trying to find the same site again – what information might we need?
- Photograph any vehicle registration numbers that are or might be related to the incident. Even if we’re not sure whether the vehicle is involved or not it is legal to record a registration number if we suspect that the vehicle has been or may be used in a crime. The number may well be useful to the authorities in the future and help build up a more complete picture.
- If possible collect any used pellets. They won’t identify which individual rifle is being used, but an offender may have packs of the same pellets on them (or in their car/at home) and a collected pellet may be be useful evidence.
It is a serious offence to use an air rifle illegally, and the police will respond to any call.
If the crime is taking place or if there is any threat or danger to yourself or anyone else call 999 immediately.
If you wish to report a historic event then call the police on 101, or call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111
We’ve been assured that our help is welcomed and that if we’re in any doubt that what we’re seeing is the illegal use of an air rifle we should report it anyway. Remember, if what we see ‘feels’ wrong, it probably is!
Page updated August 2014.
Any comments, corrections, additions? Please let us know.