What Airguns Are Firearms?

Under Canadian law "firearm" means a barrelled weapon from which any shot, bullet or other projectile can be discharged and that is capable of causing serious bodily injury (i.e., permanent damage to an eye) or death to a person, and includes any frame or receiver of such a barrelled weapon and anything that can be adapted for use as a firearm. Using just this definition virtually every airgun firing a lead pellet is a firearm.

However, since 1978 there has been a partial exception for low powered airguns. Historically, according to the Criminal Code a pellet gun is a firearm for most purposes of the Firearms Act only if it is designed or adapted to discharge: Airgun Lead Pellet

- a pellet at a muzzle velocity of more than 152.4 metres per second (about 500 feet per second); or
- a pellet which itself is designed or adapted to attain a velocity of more than 152.4 metres per second.

The Canadian limits The law enforcement interpretation of this definition has been that low powered airguns do not require registration nor the owner/purchaser to be licenced. In practice the legislation has led to the production of very low power airguns specifically for the Canadian market. Many airguns that are sold elsewhere in the world would be classified as non-restricted or restricted firearms in Canada and would require registration if brought into Canada.

While the legal definitions concerning airguns have been in place for decades, they have never made a lot of sense. Velocity by itself does not determine how much damage a projectile will cause - it is necessary to take into account the weight of the projectile. Because the legal class of an airgun has depended solely on the velocity of a projectile fired from it, every time some manufacturer produces a faster pellet the lowest power airguns could potentially be reclassified as non-restricted firearms. Ironically, many low powered airguns actually produce less energy despite having higher velocities due to the light weight of hyper-velocity pellets.

Until early in 2000, the authorities used manufacturers' specifications for muzzle velocity to determine whether or not individual pellet guns and/or models were firearms requiring Firearms Licences and registration. At that time the existence of "hyper velocity" (mostly plastic) pellets came to the attention of the RCMP and they began testing airguns with the new pellets. As these new pellets are significantly faster than traditional lead pellets the vast majority of airguns that couldn't previously shoot faster than the legal limit now do so.

The consequences of this development is that millions of low power pellet airguns would require registration and their owners will have to have a Firearms Licence. It would be necessary to call in samples of every model for velocity testing. The only certain way to know if an individual airgun is a firearm is to test its velocity.

Bill 10, which was passed in law in mid-2003, returned the legal status of airguns more or less to the prior status quo by taking into account both the velocity and the energy produced by the airgun versus simple velocity. It seems that the Department of Justice did not want people to register airguns whose legal status would be changed by the use of plastic pellets.

Currently, for the purposes of sections 91 to 95, 99 to 101, 103 to 107 and 117.03 of the criminal code, airguns are deemed not to be firearms, where it is proved that the weapon is not designed or adapted to discharge

(i) a shot, bullet or other projectile at a muzzle velocity exceeding 152.4 m per second or at a muzzle energy exceeding 5.7 Joules, or

(ii) a shot, bullet or other projectile that is designed or adapted to attain a velocity exceeding 152.4 m per second or an energy exceeding 5.7 Joules.

In the province of Ontario low power ariguns that do not require registration are classed as "imitation firearms" and can only be sold to those over the age of 18. As well there is legislation in Ontario that classifies airgun pellets as ammunition and requires that retailers record the identification of all ammunition purchasers.

For more information about airguns there is an excellent Canadian Airgun Forum.