As the nation debates gun control, many are wondering whether muzzle loaders are considered firearms. It's a common question on our FindLaw Answers criminal law message boards.
While this distinction may not matter to some people, the difference is actually quite important for those wishing to purchase the weapon.
That's because gun control laws typically apply to firearms. And if a muzzle loader is not counted as a firearm, then the laws may not apply. That means convicted felons, those with substance abuse problems, and pretty much anybody else could potentially be able to legally purchase a muzzle loader.
So is a muzzle loader considered a firearm?
Unfortunately, the lawyerly answer of "it depends" applies.
In general, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) exempts certain "antique firearms" from federal gun control laws. These antique firearms typically include any firearm manufactured on or before 1898, or a replica of such a firearm. In addition, muzzle loading rifles, muzzle loading shotguns, and muzzle loading pistols are also considered antique firearms provided that they use black powder, or a black powder substitute, as opposed to fixed ammunition.
However, federal law specifically excludes certain muzzle loaders from being considered antique firearms. This includes weapons which can be converted into a muzzle loading weapon, or a muzzle loading weapon which can be readily converted to fire fixed ammunition.
So what does that mean for those wishing to purchase a muzzle loader? Basically, as long as the weapon is like one produced before 1898, or it is truly a muzzle loader, then it likely is not considered a "firearm" under federal law. Keep in mind, though, that states may have specific laws covering muzzle loaders which provide even greater restrictions, such as limitations regarding flintlocks, barrel lengths, projectile diameters, and even who may own them.
To learn more about the specific requirements in your state, you may want to contact the appropriate state agency. Gun dealers in your locale may also provide some useful information. As a final resort, you may want to contact an attorney, to learn about your specific rights and the laws where you live.